The Cavaliers’ multi-stage roster detonation made for a pulse-pounding NBA trade deadline: LeBron James received a brand-new supporting cast, Dwyane Wade embarked on a reunion tour with the Heat, Derrick Rose was kicked to the curb and Isaiah Thomas joined Lakers guard Lonzo Ball to form one of the league’s oddest couples. While contenders like the Warriors, Spurs, Rockets and Celtics all stood pat Thursday, there were also some noteworthy moves on the margins, including former lottery point guards Emmanuel Mudiay and Elfrid Payton finding new homes.
Now that the dust has settled, let’s run down the NBA trade deadline’s biggest winners and losers.
Winner: LeBron James
The Cavaliers, of late, had looked utterly broken as a Warriors threat and increasingly vulnerable to the Eastern Conference competition they’ve dominated for the past three postseasons. Constructing a quality five-man lineup that could function defensively has been a problem all season, and Kevin Love’s recent injury only ramped up the inconsistency and chaos. Isaiah Thomas was struggling in a recent offensive role and consistently playing pitiful defense. Jae Crowder was an unexpected disappointment. Derrick Rose was an expected disappointment. And Cleveland’s other pieces often looked too old, too slow or too disinterested to provide sufficient help to LeBron James.
Thursday’s rash of activity—adding George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. while trading away Thomas, Wade, Crowder, Rose, Iman Shumpert, Channing Frye and a first-round pick—undoubtedly has a short-term bent. Yes, Cleveland retained its top chip, Brooklyn’s first-round pick, but it dealt away multiple expiring contracts, took on long-term money for both Hill and Clarkson and replaced name recognition and star power with role players who address Cleveland’s need for defensive competence and energy.
There’s a strong debate to be had over the merits of Cleveland’s trades from the organizational perspective. Taking Clarkson opened two max slots for the Lakers, who are now in better position to chase James in free agency. Trading a first-round pick in the Clarkson/Nance deal feels like an overpay. Taking on Hill, a solid but unspectacular point guard with injury issues, nearly $20 million in each of the next two seasons should cause serious heartburn. And acquiring Hood comes with the clear risk that he could prove to be a rental once he hits restricted free agency this summer.
But those are concerns for the Cavaliers, not James—at least not at this moment. James’ biggest concern was being able to win the East again and reasonably compete with Golden State in a potential Finals matchup and these moves should help on both fronts. Hill is a vast upgrade as an on-ball defender over Cleveland’s pre-existing backcourt personnel and he’s most comfortable playing off the ball on offense. Hood is a multi-positional wing who should help in match-ups against interchangeable lineups fielded by the Celtics and Warriors. Clarkson is a capable second-unit shot-creator, representing an immediate upgrade over Rose and the struggling Thomas. Nance, finally, brings some pop, hustle and finishing ability to a frontline that can use it. On paper, lineups comprised of Hill/Hood/James/Love/Tristan Thompson or Hill/Hood/J.R. Smith/James/Love are better equipped for the playoffs than any five-man group that Cleveland could field before the deadline.
James surely understood better than anyone how dim Cleveland’s chances were becoming, and he should be thankful that owner Dan Gilbert and GM Koby Altman compromised their long-term position to chase another title this spring. In return, the pressure is now on James to integrate these pieces more effectively than his last round of new teammates.
Loser: Isaiah Thomas
Scapegoating Thomas for Cleveland’s struggles is clearly misguided given both the severity of his hip injury and his need to scale back his role following a breakout 2016-17 season in Boston. He was in a tricky spot with the Cavaliers and he was given a comically short window to settle in and prove his worth.
That said, Thomas did himself no favors in recent weeks, publicly questioning Cleveland’s coaching staff and his teammates while simultaneously struggling to make a positive impact on either end of the court. It’s been a discombobulating two-year run for Thomas—a dream followed by a nightmare, with personal tragedy and injury mixed in—but his Cleveland tenure already feels like a gigantic missed opportunity. James might dominate the ball and cast a shadow over his teammates, but his presence guarantees a deep playoff run. For a player who languished in two of the NBA’s biggest backwaters—Sacramento and Phoenix—earlier in his career, this was an unprecedented chance to win big while supporting one of the sport’s all-time legends.
Thomas instead was subjected to a trade that should be humbling on many levels: the lack of a star player in the return package, the fact that the Lakers have spent months positioning Lonzo Ball as their point guard of the future, the fact that LA is a lottery team headed nowhere and, finally, that LA value Thomas’s expiring contract more than Thomas the player. All told, this trade looms as a foreboding precursor to what might be awaiting Thomas when he hits free agency this summer. After a brilliant campaign playing himself into the max-contract discussion and “Brinks truck” talk last year, it sure feels like Thomas has plummeted back to earth.
Winner: Dwyane Wade
Cynically, financially and sentimentally, being traded to the Heat is the best thing that could have happened for Dwyane Wade. At 36, it was unreasonable to expect Wade to handle major minutes and responsibilities during a deep postseason run. A potential match-up with the Warriors, in particular, was not going to go well for him. Heading back to South Beach removes any expectation of postseason success. If he pulls off a first-round series win, like he did against Charlotte in 2015, it only adds to his legend. If not, no one will hold it against him. Plus, Dion Waiters’ season-ending ankle surgery fully cleared the runway for Wade’s return: the Heat need not worry about Wade/Waiters minutes-crunching or ego collisions.
Money-wise, Wade really made a killing since Pat Riley played hardball and opted not to re-sign him two summers ago. After earning $23 million last year and cashing in a $16 million buyout from the Bulls last fall, he signed a new one-year, $2.3 million contract with Cleveland. Now, with that $40+ million in his bank account, he returns to a hero’s welcome in Miami. It took some time to play out, but Wade is having his cake and eating it too.
Losers: Orlando Magic
The Elfrid Payton era in Orlando sputtered to its demise, returning only a second-round pick from Phoenix. That’s better than nothing for one of the league’s least effective starting point guards, but it’s a far cry from the ransom Orlando paid to get him in the first place. Remember, the Magic parted with a future first-round pick and a second-round pick to move up a few slots in the 2014 draft order to nab Payton, their supposed point guard of the future. Later, the Magic opted to keep Payton instead of Victor Oladipo, who was traded in a package for Serge Ibaka once it became clear that the Payton/Oladipo pairing wasn’t a productive match. Payton’s career has plateaued while Oladipo has risen to All-Star status in Indiana.
Orlando’s new regime shouldn’t be held responsible for mistakes made by former GM Rob Hennigan. Nevertheless, Thursday represents a painful and fruitless end to an experiment that lasted too long.
Winners: Knicks fans
Losing Kristaps Porzingis to a season-ending ACL injury was as brutal as it gets for a fan base that’s accustomed to nonstop brutality. Will Porzingis, at 7-3, be able to fully recover his athleticism and continue on his glorious track? How much will this lost year stifle the developments he needs to make in filling out his game? Will New York, with so little other talent and no leverage, be forced to max him out regardless of the injury? Is there any point to watching a Knicks game over the next three months?
Those were just some of the difficult questions bouncing about the Big Apple this week. Together, they point to a clear conclusion: The Knicks must tank as hard and as shamelessly as humanly possible this season. Lots of losing was going to be inevitable, but total losing would be ideal.
Great news: Emmanuel Mudiay is an ideal tank commander. The 21-year-old guard ranked 479th out of 482 players by ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, and the Nuggets’ net rating was a whopping 12.7 points worse when Mudiay took the court this season. He’s young, he’s on a cheap rookie contract, he’s theoretically hungry for a change of scenery after losing his starting job multiple times in Denver and he’s capable of occasional highlight-reel plays. Most importantly, though, his teams have consistently performed poorly when he’s on the court. Sometimes hope arrives in unexpected forms, and this is one of those times for draft-minded Knicks fans.
Losers: Blazers fans
Rip City spent the trade deadline suffering through yet another reminder of Neil Olshey’s misguided 2016 spending spree.
Rather than adding talent for a potential push into the West’s top four or off-loading one of the cap-clogging contracts on its books (Evan Turner, Meyers Leonard, or Moe Harkless), the Blazers had to settle for a pure salary dump of Noah Vonleh. That move brought Portland below the luxury tax line—a clear financial win—but it did little to relieve the fan base’s feelings of gridlock and stagnation. The 22-year-old Vonleh never found a clear role in Portland after arriving in a trade for Nicolas Batum, but most teams would prefer continuing to develop him rather than moving him for nothing.
The quiet deadline did little to solve Portland’s immediate concerns (improving its playoff positioning) or its long-term issues (a salary cap that’s jammed up through 2020). Instead, the Blazers remain lodged in a respectable but aimless state that gets more maddening the longer it drags.
Winners: Utah Jazz
Entering the season, Jazz optimists hoped that Rodney Hood would fully blossom as a lead scoring option in the wake of Gordon Hayward’s departure. More touches. More shots. Contract year. A return to health after an injury-plagued 2016-17 season. The concept made sense, and Hood’s growth seemed crucial to Utah’s playoff hopes.
Things just didn’t play out that way. Hood shifted into a sixth-man role and missed multiple stretches due to injuries, rookie guard Donovan Mitchell exploded onto the scene, and it became easier to envision Utah moving on from Hood, who is set to hit free agency this summer. Similarly, Joe Johnson, one of Utah’s 2017 postseason stars, had not been the same player this season. At age 36, it’s no great surprise that he was shooting a career-low 27.4% and posting a team-worst -7.7 net rating.
Just as it made less sense for the middling Jazz to pay up next summer for Hood, it made no sense for them to continue paying Johnson’s $10.5 million contract. By moving both players in a three-way deal that landed Hood in Cleveland and Johnson in Sacramento, they made prudent financial decisions and bought low on Jae Crowder. While Crowder was a shell of himself in Cleveland, he should find Utah’s more egalitarian offense to be a better fit and his trademark defense/toughness/hustle perfectly matches the Jazz’s general ethos. He’s owed $7.3 million next season and $7.8 million in 2019-20, but he should be able to deliver capable rotation minutes throughout his deal given that he’s only 27.
Losers: Sacramento Kings
Surprise, surprise: another demoralizing day for Sacramento fans.
First, George Hill was their biggest off-season addition, one who supposedly would aid a push into the playoff bubble and mentor rookie De’Aaron Fox. Poof. He’s gone after 43 uninspiring games with only some monetary savings and a second-round pick to show for it, rendering the whole experiment a waste of time. Better luck next summer! Second, Sacramento outright waived Georgios Papagiannis, the 7-1 Greek center they selected with the 13th pick in the 2016 draft. That was a disastrous pick at the time—given his limited and archaic profile and lack of NBA interest—and it only looks worse now that Sacramento has admitted its calamity by cutting bait. And third, the Kings traded away a marginal NBA talent in Malachi Richardson for a marginal G-League talent in Bruno Caboclo. Why swap a nickel for a Canadian penny?
Vivek Ranadive and Vlade Divac just keep chugging along on the treadmill of sub-mediocrity with no end in sight.
Winners: Golden State Warriors
The defending champs are only a trade deadline footnote because they stood pat. However, they emerge as indirect winners because their top competition in the West—Houston, San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Minnesota—all remained quiet too. While regular bouts of complacency have stunted the Warriors’ record, they escaped the deadline without needing to process any new major threats.
Losers: Memphis Grizzlies
According to reports, Memphis drove such a hard bargain for Tyreke Evans that his numerous interested suitors eventually evaporated one by one. Now, the scoring guard returns for the balance of a lost season without garnering a pick that would have been incredibly helpful for the retooling Grizzlies. What a gigantic waste of time for everyone involved.