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Who Improved, Who’s Rebuilding And Who’s Treading Water After The NBA Trade Deadline?

The NBA trade deadline has come and gone, and it was quite a doozy. There’s been a whole lot of moving and shaking over the last week or so — and not just among teams looking to make financially motivated moves. We had some real, live, landscape-altering trades. 

We already covered the league-changing James Harden-Ben Simmons deal last week; now, let’s go through the rest of the league. The moves made ahead of the deadline fall into several different categories: those for teams focused on the future, for teams rolling the dice on certain players, for teams making targeted upgrades before the playoffs, and for teams going all-in on the play-in game.

All-in for the play-in

New Orleans Pelicans, Sacramento Kings

New Orleans sent Josh Hart, Nickeil Alexander-Walker,1 Tomáš Satoranský, Didi Louzada, a protected 2022 first-round pick2 and two future second-round picks to the Portland Trail Blazers (more on them later) for CJ McCollum, Larry Nance Jr. and Tony Snell.

McCollum’s contract is onerous, he’s a small guard on the wrong side of 30, and he’s dealt with injury issues over the past couple seasons. But he is a Professional Scorer who gives Brandon Ingram (and Zion Williamson, if he ever returns to the floor) a better perimeter creator to work with than they’ve had at any time in the recent past. His in-between game should give him a chance to develop strong two-man chemistry with Jonas Valančiūnas, much like he did with Jusuf Nurkić in Portland. He’s also experienced at taking advantage of second-side opportunities like the ones Ingram can create for him, thanks to his extensive history with Damian Lillard. (Lillard, obviously, could create better opportunities than Ingram can.) Nance is a nice fit in the lineup as a replacement for Hart, but he also needs knee surgery and is expected to miss up to six weeks.

The Pellies are 21-23 since their disastrous 1-11 start to the season, and they apparently fancy themselves a playoff squad. Our RAPTOR-based projection system initially bumped New Orleans’s chances of making the playoffs by a few percentage points, but only to 35 percent. It’s one thing to go all-in to make the NBA Finals, but wholly another to do it in an effort to make it through the play-in tournament and thus earn the right to get smoked by the Phoenix Suns or Golden State Warriors in the first round. Was the price the Pelicans paid in this deal worth that much, if they’re still not even a 50-50 bet to play real playoff games? (The play-in is not the playoffs, folks. It might be the postseason, but it’s not the real tournament.)

The Kings made a similar all-in push, though they were 20-35 at the time of their big trade for Domantas Sabonis. When you haven’t made the playoffs in 16 years, even an outside shot at grabbing the No. 10 seed is apparently too enticing to pass up. I feel sort of bad that Sabonis has been slighted in the wake of Sacramento’s trade, which sent Tyrese Haliburton, Buddy Hield and Tristan Thompson to Indiana for Justin Holiday, Jeremy Lamb and a top-55 protected second-round pick, along with the two-time All-Star big man. Sabonis is really good, and one of the few guys in the league who is basically a guaranteed 20-10-5 on a nightly basis. We saw in his first two games with the team just what kind of effect he can have on an offense.

The issue many observers (myself included) have with the deal is the inclusion of Haliburton, who looks like he has the potential to be a foundation-of-the-offense type of guard. He can play on and off the ball, has shot better than 40 percent from deep in each of his first two seasons, is a solid rebounder, can defend multiple positions and still has plenty of room for growth, given his below-average usage rate. Producing like he already has (14.3 points, 3.9 rebounds, 7.4 assists per game prior to the trade) while filling a decidedly complimentary role is impressive. He is simply not the kind of player teams should be trading away while still on his rookie contract.

Sacramento’s follow-up deal in which it acquired Donte DiVincenzo, Trey Lyles and Josh Jackson for Marvin Bagley III was a much stronger move. Salvaging any sort of value for Bagley, who has disappointed since being tabbed as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2018 NBA draft, would have been a win. Acquiring DiVincenzo — who, remember, the Kings wanted to get in the failed Bogdan Bogdanović sign-and-trade in the “summer” of 2020 — is a nice move. He’s been rusty this year since coming back from an ankle injury that knocked him out of last year’s title run, but he makes a ton of sense as a dribble hand-off partner for Sabonis and a second-side threat to play off of De’Aaron Fox. If he can rediscover his shooting touch, he should at least help Lamb and Holiday approximate what the team lost in Hield. Plus, Lyles is having the best season of his career and has become a respectable backup big man, and should fit better on this team than did Thompson.

Targeted upgrades

Cleveland Cavaliers, Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics, Phoenix Suns, Charlotte Hornets, Los Angeles Clippers

This is the group of teams that, in my opinion, did the best work at (or near) the deadline.

The Cavaliers acquired Caris LeVert and a second-round pick for Ricky Rubio (who is out for the season), a lottery-protected first-round pick and two seconds. LeVert has come off the bench in his first few games with the team but quickly rediscovered his chemistry with once and future teammate Jarrett Allen and also played as part of Cleveland’s closing five-man unit. He’s very much a Rorschach test kind of player, good at a bunch of things but not necessarily great at any of them. With the Cavs sapped of their guard depth, though, they desperately needed someone who can create off the bounce. LeVert can definitely do that, alleviating some of the pressure on Darius Garland to do it all on his own. LeVert averages 16.3 drives per game, 10th-most in the NBA. He’s also still 27 years old and under contract for next year, so the Cavs can more comfortably let the currently injured Collin Sexton walk if some other team signs him to an offer sheet in free agency this summer. They paid a high price, but for a player tailor-made to fill their biggest current role hole.

The Bucks snagged Serge Ibaka (and two future second-round picks) in the aforementioned DiVincenzo deal. It may or may not signal some pessimism on their part regarding Brook Lopez’s return from his back surgery, though the Bucks did recently express hope that they’ll get their starting center back this season. Ibaka is solid insurance just in case they don’t, and he can spare Bobby Portis from the ultra-heavy minute load he’s been carrying during the regular season — provided Ibaka himself can remain healthy. After the Bucks apparently chose Grayson Allen (acquired and then extended this past offseason) over DiVincenzo, they figured out a way to turn the latter into a potentially valuable piece before having to deal with his restricted free agency. Their wing depth is a little thin without DiVincenzo, but they also played without him to begin the season and can scour the buyout market if they get the feeling that George Hill and/or Pat Connaughton won’t make it back in time to be a factor in the playoffs.

The Raptors sent Goran Dragić and a protected first-round pick to the San Antonio Spurs for Thaddeus Young, Drew Eubanks3 and a second-round pick via the Detroit Pistons. They continue stocking up on players who are all basically the same size and have incredibly long arms. With the exception of Fred VanVleet, every player in Toronto’s rotation is between 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-9 and weighs between 200 (Chris Boucher) and 235 pounds (Young). Toronto coach Nick Nurse loves to get as creative as possible with his defenses, and Young is plenty capable of handling whatever gets thrown at him. Toronto’s roster is still a bit frontcourt-heavy, but giving Nurse another player he can trust on D so that he doesn’t have to heap so many minutes onto his starters has a lot of value. Toronto also did this only in exchange for moving back in the draft as opposed to out of it entirely, thanks to acquiring Detroit’s second-rounder this year in the deal.

Breaking with Danny Ainge’s long-standing tradition of almost making deals and then going on WEEI to talk about how close he was to making deals, new Celtics president Brad Stevens made three swaps on Thursday. He sent Josh Richardson, Romeo Langford, a protected first-round pick and a future pick swap to the Spurs for Derrick White; Dennis Schröder, Enes Kanter Freedom and Bruno Fernando to the Houston Rockets for Daniel Theis; and P.J. Dozier, Bol Bol, a future second-round pick and cash to the Orlando Magic for a future second-round pick. The trio of moves got Boston an upgrade to their closing lineup (who also improves a defense that has been the league’s best since the calendar turned to 2022) and a backup big man who Ime Udoka can trust on defense, while also ducking the luxury tax line. Not bad for a day’s work. White has fit in spectacularly well early on, and should help Boston continue its rise up the standings.

The Suns salvaged some value out of Jalen Smith, sending him along with a second-round pick to the Pacers in exchange for Torrey Craig, who played a valuable role in their run to the NBA Finals last season. Smith was a surprise pick when the Suns took him at No. 10 overall in 2020 and then didn’t do much as a rookie, so the team declined his third-year option. When pressed into action due to injuries this year, though, Smith looked pretty good. The Suns probably would not have been able to retain him in free agency due to salary-cap quirks, so thought it better to get a potential playoff rotation player now than lose him for nothing later. Phoenix also sent cash to the Washington Wizards for Aaron Holiday, who gives them an upgrade on Elfrid Payton as the backup point guard while Cameron Payne is out.

The Hornets have badly needed help at center for a while now and got some in the form of Montrezl Harrell, sending Vernon Carey and Ish Smith to the Washington Wizards in exchange. After getting off to a spectacular start to the season, Harrell hasn’t been as effective of late, and the return of Thomas Bryant meant the Wizards had a playing-time crunch at the position. It’s easy to see Harrell splitting the pivot minutes with Mason Plumlee as he did with Daniel Gafford, and to see him feasting on the board and pick-and-roll feeds from LaMelo Ball and Terry Rozier; but he unfortunately will not solve Charlotte’s rim-protection issues. The Hornets have allowed the second-most dunks and 12th-most layups in the NBA this season. Harrell is — to put it as kindly as possible — a subpar rim-protector. 

The Clippers kicked off the series of deadline deals by sending Eric Bledsoe, Justise Winslow, Keon Johnson and a 2025 second-round pick to the Blazers for Norman Powell and Robert Covington. Yes, they turned one rotation player into two and didn’t have to give up much to do it. Powell, unfortunately, is out indefinitely with a foot injury suffered late last week, but they’re building a Raptors-style roster with a bunch of different-sized wings who can play alongside Kawhi Leonard and/or Paul George. Ya know, if those guys ever get healthy.

Rolling the dice

Detroit Pistons, Dallas Mavericks, Washington Wizards, Utah Jazz

The Pistons are getting a free look at Bagley before he’s a restricted free agent this summer. He should get plenty of minutes as he attempts to rehab his value. If it doesn’t work out, well, they didn’t give up much anyway.

The Mavs and Wizards … wow. Dallas sent Kristaps Porziņģis and a second-round pick to Washington for Spencer Dinwiddie and Dāvis Bertāns, then lavished Dorian Finney-Smith with a four-year, $52 million contract extension. KP has been out since late January with the latest flare-up of his recurring knee issues, and it’ll be interesting to see whether there is something more serious going on than the reported soreness that’s been keeping him off the floor. Either way, it’s safe to say that Dallas’s gamble to acquire him from the New York Knicks a few years back did not work out as expected.

Dinwiddie wasn’t particularly good in Washington, and Bertāns has been a disaster since signing a new deal during the 2020 offseason. Neither player is much of a defender, and Dinwiddie isn’t much of a shooting threat, but the Mavs did need some secondary ball-handling help, and if Bertāns can rediscover his stroke, he can help replace Tim Hardaway Jr.’s role off the bench in the wake of the latter’s injury. Dinwiddie also provides insurance in case pending unrestricted free agent Jalen Brunson walks in the offseason. He should have plenty of suitors.

Remember how good the Russell Westbrook trade was looking for the Wizards earlier this year? Well, it still looks pretty good, given what’s going on with Russ. It’s just that the team hasn’t looked that good in a while, so it made sense to go in a different direction. The question here is whether the Wizards were just looking to get off of bad money or they think Porziņģis is a franchise building block for them. (Based on coach Wes Unseld Jr.’s public comments, it might be the latter.) Oh, and whether Porziņģis’s presence is enough to entice Bradley Beal (out for the season after wrist surgery) to re-sign with the team on a deal it’s not clear they should want to give him in the first place. KP hasn’t been that guy in quite a while, but if he can come back from this knee issue, he should have a chance to play more of a leading role in the offense down the stretch of this season. His floor-spacing ability makes him a good theoretical fit with Beal, but tying the team’s future to that duo could be very, very risky given their respective injury histories and contract values.

Joe Ingles’s expiring contract was supposed to be Utah’s big trade piece at the deadline. The torn ACL that knocked him out for the year changed all of that, though, so the Jazz had to settle for a much smaller return than expected. Acquiring Alexander-Walker and Juancho Hernangómez in exchange for Ingles, Elijah Hughes and a future second theoretically lengthens their rotation a bit — but that’s only true if coach Quin Snyder trusts them to keep the line moving offensively and execute on defense. Count me as skeptical on both the former (for Alexander-Walker) and the latter (for Hernangómez). 

Focused on the future

Portland Trail Blazers, San Antonio Spurs, Indiana Pacers

Damian Lillard’s abdominal injury and subsequent surgery finally got Portland to acknowledge that its roster had “plateaued,” as interim general manager Joe Cronin put it on Thursday. The Blazers’ three trades netted Bledsoe, Winslow, Johnson and a 2025 second-round pick from the Clippers; Hart, Louzada, a protected first-round pick and two future second-round picks from the Pelicans; and Ingles, Hughes and a future second-round pick from the Jazz in exchange for Alexander-Walker, whom they’d received as part of the initial McCollum deal. Don’t expect to see Dame for the rest of this season. Instead, it’s a full-on tank job and a lot of money in Anfernee Simons’s future. Probably.

The Spurs are on track to miss the playoffs for the third consecutive season for the first time in franchise history. White, at 27 years old, probably did not fit their timeline, and getting both a first-round pick and a pick swap from the Celtics probably made sense. Meanwhile, perhaps famed shooting coach Chip Engelland can repair Landford’s jumper and turn him into a contributor. Maybe they can even get something for Richardson down the line. Young was not playing all that often for the Spurs, and getting a first-round pick for him was a coup — especially considering he could very well have been a buyout guy had he not been traded. After he came to San Antonio along with a first as part of the DeMar DeRozan sign-and-trade, the Spurs essentially turned a player they weren’t likely to re-sign into two future first-round picks. They now have three firsts in the 2022 draft, which they can either use to take some swings or package together to move up. Their willingness to go in this direction is interesting considering they’ve essentially never undergone a rebuild before. Perhaps Gregg Popovich is willing to stick it out through the rest of this era, until the team is set up to succeed into the future. 

Indiana had to part with Sabonis and a few quality role players but made out quite well. Haliburton, as mentioned, is a potential foundational piece. They can give Jalen Smith a shot on the front line along with 2021 first-rounder Isaiah Jackson, while Myles Turner allows his foot injury to heal. This summer, the Pacers can go even further by seeing what they can get for Turner and/or Malcolm Brogdon, or they can try to remain semi-competitive by keeping those guys and allowing them to support Haliburton’s growth. Either way, it was clear that this version of their team had run its course, and they have attempted a pivot to the future.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.


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Footnotes

  1. Alexander-Walker was later traded again.

  2. Portland receives the pick this year unless it falls between picks 1 and 4 or 15 and 30, in which case it rolls over to the future.

  3. Who was then waived.

Jared Dubin is a New York writer and lawyer. He covers the NFL for CBS and the NBA elsewhere.

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