/Assessing Top Contenders Post NBA Trade Deadline – Sports Illustrated

Assessing Top Contenders Post NBA Trade Deadline – Sports Illustrated

Thursday brought a busy if not earth-shaking trade deadline, with a number of contenders making win-now moves, but many, including the Bucks and Lakers, noticeably standing pat. Was the shape of this season irrevocably altered? Not really. Many of the major movers, including Minnesota, Golden State, Atlanta, were non-playoff teams. It’s still a good time to take the pulse of the title race, with the buyout market yet to fully take shape.

The Frontrunners

Milwaukee Bucks

It was mildly surprising to see the Bucks do nothing to upgrade their roster, particularly with a tradable first-round pick in hand, but it’s also hard to haggle too much when a team goes into the deadline with a 43–7 record. You can easily argue that everyone else should be chasing Milwaukee, and not vice versa. The Bucks could probably stand to add one more veteran to their bench via the buyout market, but don’t have an open roster spot as it stands. Business will continue as usual here, but anything short of a Finals trip may lead to some eventual tinkering to juice the roster as Giannis Antetokounmpo approaches a contract year. I feel guilty mentioning that every single time the Bucks come up, but it’s coming sooner than you think. But this is a roster capable of taking the East as constituted, and one that has a real chance at winning it all, no matter which Western Conference opponent they might draw.

Los Angeles Clippers

The Clippers went all-in on Marcus Morris, sending out Mo Harkless’s expiring deal, Jerome Robinson, their 2020 first-rounder, a wash of a pick swap and a 2021 second-rounder to land the veteran forward from the Knicks, with the Wizards stepping in to help facilitate and sending Isaiah Thomas to LA as well. Thomas will reportedly be bought out. Morris doesn’t solve all of L.A.’s woes, namely some occasionally leaky interior defense, but he does enable the Clippers to comfortably play bigger lineups that use Kawhi Leonard and Paul George on the wings, with Morris replacing Harkless as a more capable rebounder and all-around player. If you already thought the Clippers were the favorites, this won’t dissuade you. Having Morris will certainly help if they make it to the Finals and have to face Milwaukee, who boast a ton of size. The Clips’ rotation got tangibly better with this move, made more notable by the fact that the Lakers stood pat. Their lack of size on the interior beyond Ivica Zubac remains a potential Achilles’ heel.

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Los Angeles Lakers

The other team that notably did nothing was the Lakers, who were tied to Marcus Morris and Andre Iguodala at various points in time, but ultimately found nothing before the deadline. Expect the Lakers to be a destination for players on the buyout market, and they’re considered to be in good position to add the wayward Darren Collison if he returns to the NBA. They’re also reportedly planning to work out J.R. Smith, which, well, lightning rarely strikes twice. Would I be moderately concerned about the Lakers doing nothing? Maybe. Then again, the tandem of LeBron James and Anthony Davis should theoretically be something close to enough in the first place. They may still get marginally better from here. But after giving up the farm for Davis over the summer, the Lakers’ inability to deal first-round picks came back into play here, and certainly limited their options.

Trying stuff

Miami Heat

Had the Heat been able to land Danilo Gallinari in addition to Andre Iguodala, they would have been the deadline’s splashiest players, and a potentially substantive threat to the Bucks in a seven-game series. Landing only the latter, primarily in exchange for Justise Winslow, was a calculated move with the next two seasons in mind and not a title-winning masterstroke, but nevertheless, the Heat are back in a significant way, and found a productive way to unload Dion Waiters and James Johnson. Provided Iguodala has as much left in the tank as everyone seems to think, he’ll take pressure off of Jimmy Butler defensively in the postseason, as will Jae Crowder, who they were also able to land in the deal. Miami might need another year to jell as their younger guys develop, but they’re certainly not backing away from this season, either.

Houston Rockets

Houston’s creative play for Robert Covington came to fruition at the expense of Clint Capela, who had become a marginal component of their recent success, and a first-round pick they didn’t value heavily. The Rockets will gamble on being able to play super small for the foreseeable future, optimizing their own shooting and spacing at the expense of an interior presence. It’s not really all that different from what they were doing before, only that there’s going to be added pressure on whichever member of their center collective has to deal with the Goberts and Jokics of the world in the postseason. Sneakily, they added Bruno Caboclo, who has actually developed in the G League and might be worth a shot off the bench. Barring another free agent signing to play up front, the Rockets are doubling down on what’s worked: getting out of James Harden’s way as much as possible. Covington gives them the extra wing defender and shooter they sorely needed, but until we see this lineup formula work in a seven-game series, the jury is still out.

Trying smaller stuff

Philadelphia 76ers

The Sixers drew essentially universal acclaim for landing Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson on the cheap from the Warriors. Both players were in midst of good individual years despite Golden State’s overall crappiness, Burks gives the Sixers an extra ballhandler off the bench, and having Robinson means there likely won’t be a playoff emergency where Furkan Korkmaz and Shake Milton have to actually play. Both players are experienced and just versatile enough to give Philly the shooting and complementary play they sorely need. It won’t solve the fit issues with the Sixers’ core pieces, but it should at least stabilize what’s already on the roster. How much it aids the ceiling here is up for debate, but the thinking was sound.

Denver Nuggets

The extremely banged-up Nuggets used the deadline mostly to be proactive, moving on from Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez before they got expensive, recouping a first-round pick, and adding a couple new bodies to the mix, including the surprisingly productive Jordan McRae, for whom they dealt the briefly-acquired Shabazz Napier. Denver is firmly in playoff position, but also has the benefit of being able to take a longer view than the opposition, with Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray still in their mid-20s and a healthy Michael Porter Jr. starting to scratch at his ballyhooed potential. Denver needs everyone back healthy, but with time on their side, it wasn’t imperative that the Nuggets do anything drastic. Part of the inherent advantage of depth is to be able to stand mostly pat during seasons like these.

Not to be forgotten

Toronto Raptors

Other than Masai Ujiri’s 48-hour tenure as the purported savior of the Knicks, this was a boring deadline for the defending champions. They already won the title, they’re still very good, and their chemistry is pretty unrivaled. Running it back in lieu of a splashy change makes as much sense for Toronto as for anyone.

Boston Celtics

Holding on to a ton of first-round picks is nothing new for Danny Ainge, and the deadline came and went with Boston likely to have three of them in the upcoming draft. The Celtics may eventually consolidate them, but the point is that they didn’t make any deals, with the possibility remaining that they add another big off the buyout market. Boston will likely have everyone back next season, and with Milwaukee and the two L.A. teams out in front of the pack this was justifiably not the time to up the ante.

Indiana Pacers

Aaron Holiday’s name came up in trade rumors, but the Pacers didn’t do anything. Victor Oladipo’s return is their addition by proxy. It just felt like they deserved a mention here.

Utah Jazz

Things were also quiet in Utah. They will likely be players in the buyout market.