- Anthony Davis failed to get moved but the Eastern Conference made sure the NBA trade deadline was an exciting one. Which team did the best business?
As expected, the trade deadline came and went with a flurry of action, with a wide range of teams leaping into action. The Eastern Conference beefed up, Anthony Davis went nowhere and the NBA dominated the news cycle as usual. We’ve already graded all the major moves individually, but let’s take a look at how some of the deadline’s contenders and primary players graded out.
Well, the Lakers did a few things, which 1) did not include trading for Anthony Davis, 2) mostly amounted to nothing and 3) may have alienated their entire roster in the process. There’s no ribbon to tie around this one: the Lakers more or less got gamed by the Pelicans, who were able to coax something close to L.A.’s best offer, then asked for more and walked away, content to wait for the Celtics (and others) to enter the fray after the draft lottery shakes out. While Rich Paul’s gambits do tend to work out in his clients’ favor, the Lakers are now hamstrung by the public nature of their trade offer, the internal frustration in the locker room and the fact that Luke Walton has to go motivate a bunch of unsettled millennials to play out the rest of the season.
As for the moves the Lakers actually made, well, they weren’t great. They gave away a younger player in Svi Mykhailiuk and a future second-rounder to get the semi-useful Reggie Bullock, then traded the somewhat promising Ivica Zubac with Michael Beasley in order to create a roster spot and get a better-shooting big in Mike Muscala. These moves are band-aids for a roster facing an uphill climb to the postseason. The Lakers gave away assets that could actually see their value increase just to grease the wheels, most importantly Zubac, who had shown some flashes. If they needed a roster spot that badly, why didn’t they just waive Beasley or JaVale McGee? Nothing they did directly moves the needle.
Although LeBron James said earlier Thursday that he doesn’t feel he’s chasing anything else of importance in this back leg of his career, the reality is that he came to the Lakers to win games and signed long-term. L.A. owes it to James and its fan base to go all-in to maximize for the remainder of his best years. Striking out on Davis after openly making him its chief target is going to sting. Now, if they’re unable to land him in June—and based on what appears a frosty relationship with Pelicans brass, that is distinctly possible—the Lakers are not just going to be able to sit on their hands, roll out the kids again and try to patch up the locker room until Davis becomes a free agent in 2020. James is not getting any younger, and L.A. has quietly put itself in a desperate position.
Arguably no team accomplished more at the deadline than the Sixers, who were aggressive and calculated, positioned themselves as legitimate contenders for this season, and will have financial bandwidth to try and keep Jimmy Butler and newly-acquired Tobias Harris on the roster long-term. By dealing Markelle Fultz for a likely 2020 first and what should be a consequential 2019 second-rounder, they recouped some of the draft capital they dealt to add Harris. Adding James Ennis for next to nothing and an extra veteran in Jonathon Simmons helps to beef up their rotation, and the Sixers are positioned to add another player through the buyout market. Although there’s a chance Butler and Harris depart in free agency, the Sixers bow out before the conference finals and things backfire, Philly deserves credit for its decision to go for it. There is a brief window here before Ben Simmons gets much more expensive, and doubling down on the win-now gamble the Sixers made with Butler in the fall was the route they had to take. If all their new parts mesh, they might be the favorites in the East.
For a team that was publicly ready to tear things down, dangled its two best players and seemed to pop up in trade rumors every few hours for the last couple days, the Grizzlies came away with remarkably little to improve their future outlook. They moved Marc Gasol to Toronto for a grab bag, sent the expiring deals of JaMychal Green and Garrett Temple out for Avery Bradley (who they’ll owe a small guarantee to waive going into the summer), and were left holding the bag with Mike Conley. None of it was especially shrewd, and nothing of serious consequence for the team’s future came out of it.
You could argue that the Grizzlies would have been better off holding onto Gasol and letting him walk, rather than pay Jonas Valanciunas and C.J. Miles, who are likely to pick up player options for next season worth $25 million in total. Having cap flexibility might be more valuable than two guys who will not make them incrementally better. Maybe Valanciunas figures into the long-term plans, but even then, it’s not a great return. The second-rounder they’re getting is far off in the future. Delon Wright, who is the most promising piece of the trade, would have been an attainable restricted free agent this summer, particularly as the Raptors face the possibility of maxing Kawhi Leonard, getting more expensive on the whole and potentially paying the repeater penalty as a luxury tax team.
Gasol’s trade value had decreased to the point where standing pat should have been a more viable option—particularly if Memphis’ short-term aim is to be just good enough that their first-rounder owed to Boston (which is top-eight protected) conveys this year, in a thin draft, before it inevitably bottom out going forward. Whether that’s important enough to still hang onto Conley and toe that line in the standings is worth questioning. There will be a market for their star guard again in June, but there’s not much indication that the Grizzlies have an actual plan here. Regardless of what offers they had for Gasol and Conley, their decision-making feels like haphazard patchwork.
Milwaukee kept pace with Philly and Toronto by essentially turning Thon Maker and four future second-rounders into Nikola Mirotic. For a team with a real shot at the East, that’s good business, particularly given Mirotic’s perfect fit. Their decision-making was uncomplicated and sensible, and Milwaukee has a real chance to make waves. When you have a 50-win caliber team and Giannis Antetokounmpo moving into his prime years, this is what you should be doing—that they did it without mortgaging a first or a rotation player is commendable. It doesn’t need much more explanation than that.
The Raptors stayed aggressive and were wise to keep pace after the Bucks and Sixers made moves, bringing in Gasol as an upgrade on Valanciunas without gutting their rotation. After also moving Greg Monroe in a separate deal, Toronto is left with 10 guys on the roster and will have to turn to the buyout market and G League to creatively round out the team. Regardless, the Raptors know who their core guys are, and there’s a chance Gasol opts in next season to help them stay competitive regardless of what Kawhi Leonard decides to do in free agency. If he opts out, they’ll have the benefit of cap space that they likely wouldn’t have had keeping Valanciunas and Miles. Whether or not this deal gets the Raptors over the hump, it’s conceptually smart.
For what limited flexibility the Rockets had, they did well to beef up their rotation, free up a roster spot and move beneath the tax line with a series of moves that chiefly brought in Iman Shumpert for guard depth. Houston had to give up this year’s first-rounder to get off of Brandon Knight’s money, but based on the timeline of their competitive window, staying aggressive was the right choice. They accomplished a few different things this week, all positive.
While it would have been at least somewhat interesting to see the Clippers’ current iteration make a run at the playoffs, they have bigger aspirations and did well to facilitate the pending recruitments of Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant. Moving Tobias Harris (who they would have let walk anyway) for a real return of draft picks and future cap space was a coup, and the Clippers nabbed two more expiring contracts in JaMychal Green and Garrett Temple and got off of Avery Bradley’s small guarantee in the process. L.A. has played its cards nicely, also picking up Landry Shamet and Ivica Zubac on the cheap and will be in great shape for the summer. The decks are clear. Of course, now they have to go sign some players.
Boston wins by dint of Anthony Davis remaining in New Orleans, and it can enter the bidding armed with draft picks and a potential ace in the hole in Jayson Tatum. That much is a victory. Still, the Celtics stayed put while the Raptors, Sixers and Bucks got better. Thinking short-term—and considering the possibility they don’t get Davis and that Kyrie Irving departs—it’s still worth nitpicking the decision to sit tight. Granted, this is an expensive roster, and moving Jabari Bird clears a roster spot for the Celtics to add another veteran. But Boston is more or less deferring action until June, and will mount a playoff run as constituted. We’ll see what happens.
Pelicans: To Be Continued
Dealing Nikola Mirotic for Stanley Johnson, Jason Smith’s expiring and four second-rounders was smart business for the Pelicans, who can’t fully pivot to a direction until they know what they’re getting for Anthony Davis. They deserve some credit for finessing the Lakers here—it’s a moral victory for small-market teams everywhere—and it seems they will not be shaken down. It’s not clear yet if this helps Dell Demps and his staff keep their jobs, but they’ve positioned themselves to get the best offer for Davis. They’d better hope the Celtics put everything on the table around draft time.