Some news, notes and insights from the trade deadline as we wait for the buyout market to open up …
· Golden State has earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to roster building … but the D’Angelo Russell–Andrew Wiggins swap was a head scratcher. This isn’t an endorsement of Russell’s long-term fit with the Warriors; it was clear, as Steve Kerr noted after the trade, that Russell wasn’t going to work alongside a healthy Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. But what was the rush? Minnesota has chased Russell for months—it wouldn’t have waited a few more? And what happens if the Ping-Pong balls bounce Golden State’s way on lottery night? What could a Russell–No. 1 pick package get you? Ben Simmons? Bradley Beal? The Warriors believe Wiggins can be a Harrison Barnes–type player. If he does, great. If not, Golden State may regret pulling the trigger on a Russell trade so quickly.
· By the way—I love the trade for Minnesota. The Russell criticism eludes me. He was an All-Star in Brooklyn and is having an All-Star-caliber season this year. He turned his career around after the mess in Los Angeles. He’s got top-10 point guard potential. He’s thick as thieves with Karl-Anthony Towns, who the reeling Timberwolves needed to appease with the season in a free fall. The Wolves now have two cornerstone players under the age of 25 tied to long-term contracts. And they got off Wiggins contract. That’s an A-grade deadline for GM Gersson Rosas.
· Before Bojan Bogdanovic buried a game-winning three-pointer to beat Houston … I was ready to shower Rockets GM Daryl Morey with social media praise. Still might. There’s no question Morey took a huge risk swapping out Clint Capela for Robert Covington before the deadline. But the early returns are promising. Houston is 5-3 playing small ball over the last eight games. They have been getting blown up on the boards (outrebounded by 11.4 per game) but blitzing opponents from three (making 17 per game—four more than opponents). The defense—particularly in the fourth quarter—has been solid.
Can we draw any conclusions? Probably not. The Rockets play 12 of the first 20 after the All-Star break on the road. And it’s likely the Jazz’s strategy of placing a center on Russell Westbrook, forcing him to be a shooter, gets duplicated. Westbrook was terrific on Sunday, banking home midrange jumpers, assaulting the rim. Can he do that consistently? Will he be tempted to take the wide open three-point shots? Stay tuned …
· Is there a more remarkable story this season than Toronto? Who would have thought a few months ago that the Raptors, with a pair of big contracts to deal, and say, "Eh, we’re good." Toronto’s decision to hold on to Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka was a ringing endorsement of this team’s chances to compete in the playoffs. And why wouldn’t they be confident? Monday’s win over Minnesota was the Raps' 15th straight. They have the NBA’s second-ranked defense. Pascal Siakam, who returned from injury last month, posted his second 30-plus point game in as many weeks. Toronto is one of the few teams that can match up physically with Milwaukee. And remember this: If the Raptors and Bucks do meet in the playoffs, all the pressure will be on Milwaukee. That series will be fascinating to watch.
· Boston had to cringe … when the trade deadline came and went without any moves. The Celtics were out there looking for a little of everything: bench help, perimeter shooting (wasn’t everyone) and some size in the frontcourt. They aggressively pursued Washington’s Davis Bertans, willing to go deep into the draft war chest to pry Bertans loose. But the Wizards, who see Bertans as an ideal fit alongside Bradley Beal and a returning John Wall next season, didn’t bite. Now Boston has to hope that its overachieving frontcourt of Daniel Theis, Enes Kanter and Grant Williams can hold up in the playoffs. The trio has been tremendous during the regular season.
· Marcus Morris doesn’t solve the Clippers' second-unit rebounding issues … but the veteran forward is a nice trade deadline pickup. Morris is a sturdy, two-position, two-way player with 28 games of playoff experience over the last two seasons. Just as important—the Clippers kept Morris away from the Lakers, who were hot after Morris as well last week.
· Speaking of the Lakers … Darren Collison’s decision to stay retired is a body blow. Collison was spotted at a Lakers game last week, sitting with Jeanie Buss, fueling speculation that LA could lock in Collison soon. Collison projected as an ideal fit in the Lakers system, a veteran, low-turnover playmaker who has shot better than 40% from three for four consecutive seasons. It wasn’t a stretch to suggest that Collison would be a starter before the end of the season. The Lakers still have enough to win—LeBron James and Anthony Davis will do that for you—but Collison would have been a big help.
· I’m confused as to why Phoenix held on to Aron Baynes. Baynes has been terrific for the Suns, but he will be an unrestricted free agent this summer and could command a $10 million–per-year salary. There will be no shortage of contenders who will come after him. Given the market, Phoenix likely could have picked up a first-round pick for him—maybe more. Why didn’t it? Unless the Suns are convinced Baynes wants to return—and that he is the right mentor for Deandre Ayton—the decision to hold on to him was puzzling.
· Miami was a clear trade-deadline winner … winning the Andre Iguodala sweepstakes and adding versatile forward Jae Crowder to the mix, but the disappointment team president Pat Riley expressed in a post-deadline conference call with reporters was a reminder of what could have been. The Heat were hot after OKC’s Danilo Gallinari, but Miami’s desire to maintain maximum cap flexibility in 2021—when Giannis Antetokounmpo could be a free agent—hindered its ability to work out a contract extension with Gallinari. Iguodala and Crowder will certainly help; both will take defensive pressure off of Jimmy Butler and have the kind of toughness Erik Spoelstra values. But Gallinari, in the middle of a terrific offensive season, would have been the kind of weapon that might have put Miami on the Bucks; level in the conference.
· I know it’s not this simple … but nine months ago the Sixers were bounced from the playoffs in the most excruciating way: a baseline buzzer beater from Kawhi Leonard in Game 7 of the conference semifinals, a ball that bounced on the rim four times before dropping through. The fallout from that shot was an overhaul of the Philadelphia roster. Out went Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick. In came Al Horford and Josh Richardson, changing the identity of the team.
I think about this when I watch Philadelphia now. The Sixers are an atrocious road team; they have the same away record as the Hornets and Knicks. They don’t have enough shooters, and the combination of Zhaire Smith and Mike Scott couldn’t land them one. The locker room has issues. Joel Embiid appears to be feuding with Sixers fans. There’s no reason to believe Philly won’t be one-and-done in the playoffs, which could lead to another overhaul this summer.
What would've happened if that Kawhi shot had bounced out? Would Philadelphia have won in overtime? Would it go on to beat Milwaukee? Could it have bounced Golden State? Again—it’s not this simple. Giving Butler a five-year deal would have been risky. Redick—who wanted to come back—got a lucrative two-year deal from New Orleans. But given where the Sixers are now, it’s fair to ask whether the changes they made were needed.
· Teams were once excited about the potential of the buyout market. I’m not getting that sense anymore. Marvin Williams is gone, off to Milwaukee. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is headed to Dallas, per ESPN. Tyler Johnson is out there, with the Lakers and Clippers expected to check in with him. Dion Waiters could upgrade a bench. But there won’t be a flood of bodies on the market. Part of the reason is that so many teams are still in the playoff race. Washington is two games back in the loss column of Orlando. That will likely keep Ian Mahinmi, a big man several teams have been monitoring, off the market. Memphis is trying to hold off Portland, San Antonio and New Orleans for the final spot in the West. It’s still possible Cleveland will part ways with Tristan Thompson—the acquisition of Andre Drummond makes that more likely—and there will be an intense chase for Thompson, a physical inside presence with championship experience. But he may be the last difference-maker out there.
· I don’t know what Cleveland will do with Kevin Love. There was no traction on any deal for Love, who is owed about $90 million over the final three years of his contract. That’s a relationship that needs to end, but it’s unclear how it will.
· Don’t look now … but Mike Conley is starting to figure it out in Utah. Conley is averaging 20 points per game over the last four. He’s making 50% of his threes while averaging five assists against 1.5 turnovers. The Jazz didn’t have many avenues to improve after flipping Dante Exum for Jordan Clarkson in December (Clarkson, by the way, has been really good coming off the bench) but Conley is effectively the team’s trade-deadline pickup. Injuries and inconsistency plagued Conley’s first half of the season. But Conley is too good to struggle forever, and it seems like he has found a rhythm in Quin Snyder’s system. If Conley continues to produce, the Jazz are a threat to win the conference.