NBA trade deadline winners and losers
The 2016 NBA trade deadline was one to forget. The biggest name to move—Tobias Harris—was traded from Orlando to Detroit two days ago. Thursday’s highest-wattage deal saw the Clippers and Grizzlies swap two polarizing players—Lance Stephenson and Jeff Green—in a move that is unlikely to shake up the West’s power structure. Channing Frye and Randy Foye were the two biggest addition to contenders, while a host of bottom-feeders passed on selling their veteran talent.
As the dust settles from a so-so deadline, here’s a rundown of the biggest winners and losers.
Cleveland wins both directly and indirectly.
First, it managed to upgrade on the margins, adding Channing Frye, a dependable veteran with three-point range, in place of Anderson Varejao, an oft-injured glue guy who was barely playing. Given the Cavaliers’ sky-high payroll and short list of tradeable assets, GM David Griffin did well to craft a meaningful upgrade in a pinch.
Second, the Cavaliers won thanks to the general inactivity among the league’s upper-tier teams. That’s particularly true in the case of the Raptors and Celtics, two teams on the cusp of challenging the Cavaliers’ East supremacy who were also featured heavily in rumors this week. Instead of facing stronger competition from behind, the Cavaliers managed to widen their gap over the rest of the East on Thursday. What’s more, West powers Golden State and San Antonio sat on their hands, leaving Cleveland and Oklahoma City (adding Randy Foye) as the only A-list teams to make moves of consequence.
With so many superstars rumored to be tradeable, LeBron James and company couldn’t have asked for a better deadline.
Losers: Raptors and Celtics
Toronto and Boston may look back at this deadline and wonder why they weren’t a bit more aggressive. With a huge hole at the four and a need to fill minutes before DeMarre Carroll’s return, the Raptors watched Tobias Harris, Markieff Morris, Channing Frye, Donatas Motiejunas and Jeff Green change teams this week for modest returns. There really wasn’t a comparable move to be made for Toronto?
The Celtics, meanwhile, were linked to big fish like Al Horford before going home empty-handed. While it’s never particularly surprising when a star player remains with his incumbent team, the time seemed to be right for Celtics president Danny Ainge to invest some of his asset stash in another backcourt playmaker or a defensive-minded big man.
Winners: Warriors and Spurs
Much like the Cavaliers, as noted above, the Warriors and Spurs are winners thanks to the stasis. The West’s top two teams will hit the stretch run without any new, major threats. Sure, the Thunder added Foye and the Clippers theoretically filled a positional hole with Green, but neither challenger pulled off a transformational deal.
Golden State and San Antonio will also breathe a sigh of relief when it comes to Cleveland. Frye is a nice addition, to be sure, but he’s unlikely to solve Cleveland’s frontline matchup problems with Golden State and San Antonio. Much like Kevin Love, Frye will likely be overmatched against Draymond Green (who is too mobile for him) and Tim Duncan (who is too polished).
Losers: Thunder and Jazz
Facing two pressures—Kevin Durant’s impending free agency and a defense that probably isn’t quite stingy enough to compete with Golden State and San Antonio—GM Sam Presti settled for the unspectacular addition of Foye.
There’s nothing wrong with the move: Foye is a trustworthy veteran who doesn’t need to dominate the ball, hits threes at a career 37% clip and gives new coach Billy Donovan an alternative to the often unpredictable Dion Waiters and the all-offense Anthony Morrow. But Foye isn’t a stopper, he’s not particularly physical, and he’s not the type of athlete who makes you think, “Oklahoma City is going to present real problems for the defending champs now.” The feeling that Durant and Russell Westbrook don’t have quite enough help continues to linger.
Similarly, the Jazz—stuck in a race for the final playoff spots after serious injuries—were on the short list of teams that could have used a splash. Point guard was their clear position of weakness, and recent rumors raised expectations that perhaps a major move would come down the pipeline. Instead, GM Dennis Lindsey settled for Shelvin Mack, a competent veteran but one who has played just 179 minutes this season in Atlanta. Utah should still have enough to end its three-year postseason drought, but an early exit seems even more likely now that major help isn’t coming.
Winner: Blazers and Suns
Neil Olshey and Ryan McDonough succeeded in making something out of (virtually) nothing on Thursday. In Portland, Olshey used his significant cap space to take on Varejao’s contract, netting a future first-round pick on the process. In Phoenix, McDonough managed to get a quality return for the disgruntled Markieff Morris, landing a first-round pick for a player who has been fined, suspended and charged with a felony over the last 12 months.
The Blazers and Suns have serious heavy lifting to do before they’re back among the West’s power players, but they both enjoyed productive, logic-driven deadlines.
Podcast: Suns coach Earl Watson discusses his relationship with Morris
Losers: Lakers and Timberwolves
The West’s two most baffling organizations continued to defy conventional wisdom by sitting out the trade deadline rather than cashing out their veteran parts.
The Lakers (11–44) should have been selling hard on Roy Hibbert, Lou Williams, Brandon Bass and Nick Young, willing to take any and all offers (no matter how inconsequential) as they trudge toward a likely top-two pick.
The Timberwolves (17–37), meanwhile, missed yet another chance to move on from superfluous veterans like Kevin Martin and Nikola Pekovic (granted, he’s probably untradeable due to injury issues) while also holding tight to potential rent-a-players like Tayshaun Prince and Andre Miller.
Both teams needed a jolt of hope that didn’t come.
Detroit’s Stan Van Gundy might be the biggest winner of the deadline: he resolved his point guard logjam by moving on from Brandon Jennings, he acquired Tobias Harris without sacrificing a draft pick, and he added Donatas Motiejunas, another stretchy big man, at a reasonable price. The Pistons’ roster got younger, more athletic, more versatile and more compatible with incumbent pieces like Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson and Stanley Johnson. That’s a pretty good week.
Scott Skiles’s fingerprints are all over Orlando’s deadline, as the Magic acquired Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova (who both played for Skiles in Milwaukee) and parted with Tobias Harris (who played for Skiles in Milwaukee before he was traded away to Orlando amid rumors that coach and player didn’t quite see eye-to-eye). Was that a good thing? Yes, the Magic added two veterans, but both bring health-related baggage and are potentially free agents this summer. Orlando also ditched a veteran big man in Frye and acquired only a second-round pick and some financial savings in return.
There are winners here: Slam Dunk Contest runner-up Aaron Gordon should get more minutes, Skiles gets a proven second point guard, and the team’s ownership group saves some coin. But what is the big picture goal here? Does this team want to be great as it builds around its deep young core, or is it merely striving to be average, like those old Bucks teams?
Winner: Blake Griffin
After making the biggest mistake of his professional career when he broke his hand punching a team employee, Blake Griffin survived the deadline without being traded by the Clippers. This was the right move (or non-move, if you prefer). Trading Griffin as a response to a lapse in judgment, or out of fear that the Clippers’ core isn’t good enough to compete with the Warriors and Spurs, would have been a mistake at this moment. There’s time to ask those questions this summer, once Griffin is back to full health and his image has recovered and once Doc Rivers has a chance to see whether his team can get over the hump and into the Western Conference finals this year.
For Griffin, the quiet trade deadline should represent a second chance to prove to L.A. that he’s capable of being a franchise player in every sense of the word.
Loser: Mike Conley
Mike Conley is listed here as a loser in the short-term sense only: After key teammate Marc Gasol was lost to injury, Conley now must grapple with the midseason departures of Courtney Lee and Jeff Green as he weighs his upcoming free agency decision. The reconfigured Grizzlies will likely struggle to compete with the West’s top four teams, and Conley doesn’t exactly have time to waste on a punted season.
Nevertheless, there is some good news. First, Memphis seems to be preparing itself for making Conley a max offer by moving on from veterans who will need to be paid this summer. Second, Memphis can now pitch Conley on how the five draft picks it received in this week’s trades can help drive a roster overhaul. The Grizzlies must be hoping that Conley will receive their moves with the requisite amount of patience, and that the short-term pain of losing doesn’t cloud his overall view on what has been a stellar nine-year run in Memphis.
Winner: Channing Frye
Frye, 32, hasn’t appeared in a playoff game since 2010 and Orlando was limping along after a pretty nice start. Although it took a few years, Frye can now enjoy the best of both worlds: a big pay day (that four-year, $32 million deal he took with the Magic in 2014) and a chance to play into June for the East’s top club.
Loser: Anderson Varejao
Thursday’s trade marks a bitter end to a sweet career in Cleveland for Varejao, who appeared in 591 games for the Cavaliers dating back to 2004–05. While Varejao struggled with injuries over the last six (!) seasons, he nevertheless kept himself employed through his team-first approach to defense and rebounding. Portland is expected to buy him out, so perhaps he can find a way to land on a contending team as a 15th man. Note: An immediate return to the Cavaliers is prohibited by league rules.
Winner: Markieff Morris
Morris made no secret of his desire to leave Phoenix. Once he got the good news, he was so excited to get out of town that he promptly crashed his hoverboard. No NBA player needed a change of scenery more than Morris, whose game deteriorated badly this season, and he plugs into a Washington roster that can use a forward with his versatility and physicality. The Wizards will be crossing their fingers hoping a late-season push from Morris can boost them into the playoff picture.
Loser: Lance Stephenson
Lance Stephenson’s latest trade—his second over the last 12 months—is one more reminder of how far he has fallen since his lead role in Indiana’s runs to the Eastern Conference finals. Landing in Memphis does offer the promise of a larger role that he enjoyed in L.A., but it will also require him to acclimate to new surroundings for the third time since 2014 in what will likely be a contract-year push. Good luck.
Winner: Pau Gasol
The possibility of a rumored trade to the Kings didn’t materialize.
What more needs to be said?
Loser: Dwight Howard
Following days of intense trade rumors, Rockets center Dwight Howard has to go back to work for an underachieving team that entered the break on a three-game losing streak and seems to be ready for a summer split. That’s not only awkward, it’s a tough pill to swallow given how much excitement his arrival in Houston generated just three years ago. Can Howard put aside the trade talk and help lead the Rockets on a second-half push, or will Houston’s simmering internal issues reach the boiling point?