Five Thoughts from the Trade Deadline
The Arms Race in the East
LeBron has left the East and the Big Four now each thinks it has a chance to make the NBA finals. Three of them were very aggressive at the deadline; let's start with the Philadelphia 76ers. After coming up empty-handed in free agency this past summer, the Sixers determined that their best course of action was to go into free agency owning the best players’ Bird rights. They acquired a very valuable set of rights in Jimmy Butler early in the season, and somewhat surprisingly doubled-down by acquiring Tobias Harris.
The price was high: it notably included promising rookie Landry Shamet and two first round picks. That’s probably a little more than I would have paid, but new GM Elton Brand surveyed the landscape and decided to go all-in. Now they have one of the best starting fives in the league with Tobias Harris, Jimmy Butler, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and J.J. Redick. There isn’t much time to integrate another new player, and it will be fascinating to see how Brett Brown staggers their minutes, let alone deals with the fact that basketball is only played with one ball. But the Sixers are a real contender now. Where they previously looked a step behind their rivals at the top of the East, they now appear to have as good a chance as any to make the finals out of the East. If they can, their odds of keeping Butler and Harris certainly climb.
Milwaukee was already a juggernaut. They’re first in the East, leading the league in net rating, and just destroying people. On Thursday they got even better with the addition of Nikola Mirotic. It continues their move towards ultimate spacing around Giannis, and gives them even more versatility to go small and run Giannis out as a kind of point-center. They’re a league-best 23-4 at home, so if the road to the finals in the East runs through Milwaukee, you have to like their chances. That the cost was a discontented Thon Maker and a slew of seconds makes the move even more impressive.
Toronto joined the arms race by getting Marc Gasol - and he didn’t cost that much either: Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, CJ Miles, and a 2024 second round pick. Gasol is not the player he once was, but he is an upgrade. His passing will help make things easier for the Raptors on offense when things bog down, and his shooting will open up more space for Kawhi to make plays. Defensively he is a massive upgrade over Valanciunas, and will be particularly valuable if the Raptors play the Sixers and Joel Embiid in the playoffs. My guess is he starts next to Pascal Siakam, and they bring Serge Ibaka off the bench, but they may decide their lineup matchup-by-matchup.
Boston stayed quiet, but they are still an elite team that can play with these three other teams. They could consider the deadline a success just because the Pelicans didn’t trade Anthony Davis to the Lakers. Whether that was because New Orleans was upset that the Lakers were tampering and not being punished, or because they think the Celtics’ offer is one worth waiting for, Boston has a legitimate chance to acquire him in the offseason.
The Clippers Are Doing Work!
Jerry West and the Clippers brass have been killing it! When we were talking about the 76ers, we said that they paid a high price for Tobias Harris - it was the Clippers who were on the receiving end of that haul. They likely weren't going to resign Harris in the offseason, so to get this much for him is a huge win. But they weren’t done. They got rid of the worst starter in the league in Avery Bradley, getting two expiring contracts in Garrett Temple and JaMychael Green from Memphis. This will both provide additional guaranteed cap space in the offseason, and an inside track on bringing back two players who aren’t stars, but can provide valuable depth off the bench for a contender.
The final trade saw the Clippers send newly acquired Mike Muscala -- from the Harris trade -- to the Lakers for Ivica Zubac and Michael Beasley. Zubac is good and young; he looks like he will only get better. Add it all up, and the Clippers have a young core of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jerome Robinson, Landry Shamet, Montrezl Harrell, Ivica Zubac, Tyrone Wallace and Sindarius Thornwell, plus enough cap space for two max slots this summer and lots of first round picks on the way. The Clippers are poised to be contenders for years.
What are the Grizzlies and Pistons Doing?
I am astonished the Grizzlies didn’t trade Mike Conley. Since they have no reason not to play him, he’ll make Memphis better, lowering their odds of a high draft pick, and increasing the odds that he’ll get injured and destroy his trade value entirely. Clearly the front office feels there will be a better market for him in the offseason, but that doesn't mean there will be a better deal.
Perhaps when they didn’t get tremendous return for Marc Gasol they got gun-shy. In not even securing a 1st for the face of their franchise, Memphis revealed that got out of Grit’n’Grind a year too late rather than a year too early, and didn’t learn from the lesson to get whatever they could for Conley.
Trading for Avery Bradley is truly perplexing. Not only do they have an additional year of salary owed to Bradley that the expiring Temple and Green did not, they also have Avery Bradley on their team now. That’s TERRIBLE news in 2019. The Avery Bradley who averaged at least 14ppg from 2013-18 is gone. This Avery Bradley is on the short list of worst starters in the league and Memphis didn’t even get a pick. Mind-boggling.
Then there were the Pistons, who were supposed to be buyers at the deadline, but instead sent Reggie Bullock to the Lakers for a young player and a pick. They finally moved on from Stanley Johnson, but got Thon Maker back; wing was Detroit's weakest position, and so...they got rid of two of their wings? Help is apparently on the way as the Pistons are signing Wayne Ellington, bullock trade is perplexing. Now Detroit is stuck with a roster that may not even make the playoffs in a weak East. What a waste of a fantastic season by Blake Griffin.
Orlando Takes a Chance on Fultz
The past five years, the Orlando Magic have been a dumpster fire, but this year they find themselves in the playoff hunt surprisingly late in the season; right now, they are only 3.5 games out of the last playoff spot in the East. Usually I like taking a chance on a young talent like Markelle Fultz, and the price was high, but it was worth it. If you look at the Magic’s wikipedia page, it calls 2012-Present ‘Rebuilding’ -- sometimes you have to take a risk to break the cycle of mediocrity. Orlando gave up a first and a second, and they very well may regret it, but if Fultz ever returns to being the player who was the no-doubt top prospect in an increasingly strong looking draft, he’ll have been worth every penny.
I like that Orlando kept Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Terrence Ross. Ross and Vucevic will be free agents, and both had value on the trade market, but trading away two of their best players isn’t going to jolt the Magic out of mediocrity. Orlando will have some deciding to do on their front line come summer -- who among Mo Bamba, Jonathan Isaac, Vucevic and Gordon represents the 4-5 combo? The answer to that question will shape the immediate future of the Magic as much as anything.
Phoenix Move Under the Radar
Usually I make fun of Phoenix, but this time I am going to give them credit. I like the pick-up of Tyler Johnson; that they were able to part with contractual dead weight Ryan Anderson in the deal is impressive too! Johnson can play on or off the ball, so he and Devin Booker can take turns running the offense. Defensively Johnson can protect Booker from tougher matchups as well.
Now Phoenix has a young core brewing, and the pain of drafting Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss in the same year is almost over. Phoenix now has eight legitimate NBA players, in Booker, Johnson, DeAndre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Kelly Oubre Jr, Ty Warren, Josh Jackson and Richaun Holmes. That is not a bad young core, plus they have two first-round picks in this year's draft. Things are finally looking up in Phoenix, and I am excited about their future.