Let's pick up the pieces from a trade deadline day that really needs an oral history written on its final, frantic 10 minutes.
Will the Raptors regret not trading Kyle Lowry?
All day, Toronto was sending out signals that a Lowry deal was coming. They moved Norman Powell, a high-scoring veteran guard, to Portland in exchange for Gary Trent Jr., a young sharpshooter with Powell-like potential. They dumped Terrance Davis and Matt Thomas, clearing two roster spots. All signs pointed to Lowry leaving, with the Lakers and Heat the frontrunners to land him.
And then … nothing. The trade deadline came and went with Lowry still a Raptor. On a conference call with reporters on Thursday, Toronto president Masai Ujiri said there were “a couple of things” that appeared close to happening but the pieces just didn’t come together. “We didn't know which way it was going to go,” says Ujiri. “We came in today looking at both possibilities [Lowry being traded and not].”
Was holding on to Lowry a mistake? With the Raptors facing a rebuild, it seems impossible to believe Lowry will return next season. Why not do a deal with Miami, which reportedly made rising sharpshooter Duncan Robinson available? Or move Lowry to Los Angeles, even if the Lakers weren’t inclined to include Talen Horton-Tucker? Toronto could still get something for Lowry in the form of a trade exception this offseason, but the Raptors' last chance to get any young talent back just blew by.
Will the Clippers get Playoff Rondo?
It was no secret LA was canvassing the league looking for playmaking help, with Lonzo Ball and Ricky Rubio among the players they looked at. The Clippers settled for Rondo, swapping Lou Williams for the ex-Laker. On paper, it doesn’t look like much. Rondo is averaging career lows in basically everything, playing just 15 minutes per game for the Hawks.
But that’s Regular Season Rondo. Playoff Rondo, a nickname Rondo hates but has more than earned, is the player who averaged nine points and seven assists during the Lakers' championship run last summer. That Rondo is still a high-level playmaker, capable of taking pressure off of Leonard and Paul George. That Rondo is whom LeBron James trusted implicitly. Is Playoff Rondo still inside the 35-year-old guard? The Clippers' title hopes could depend on it.
The Nuggets' bold swing
Love the decision by Denver to acquire Aaron Gordon and JaVale McGee. McGee fills the role vacated by Mason Plumlee, giving Mike Malone another big body with championship experience. The Gordon deal is more significant. The Nuggets need consistent options beyond Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. Gordon is a 15-point per game scorer who is banging in threes (37.5%) at a career-high clip. And with the Western Conference a murderers' row of sturdy forwards (Leonard, LeBron, etc.), Gordon gives Denver an above-average defender to throw at them.
Gordon wasn’t cheap, with the Nuggets parting with Gary Harris, R.J. Hampton and a first-round pick. But with the Lakers banged up, the Clippers flawed and the Jazz and Suns untested, Denver sees an opening in the Western Conference. The additions of Gordon and McGee make the Nuggets a more formidable playoff opponent.
Miami arms up
After failing to reach a deal on Lowry, the Heat pivoted quickly and plucked Victor Oladipo from Houston for the bargain basement price of Kelly Olynyk, Avery Bradley and swap rights to a future draft pick. Oladipo isn’t what he was in Indiana. He’s having one of his most inefficient seasons, with shooting and three-point percentages that plummeted in his 20 games in Houston.
In Miami, though, Oladipo will play a supporting role, asked to complement Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro. He’s joining a team he has long wanted to play on, one that will have interest in signing Oladipo long-term next summer. It’s a good save for the Heat, which will have one more body to throw at Brooklyn’s wings in the postseason. And with Miami the frontrunner to sign ex-Spur LaMarcus Aldridge, the Heat can call this trade deadline week a big win.
So the Rockets traded James Harden for … what?
Look—the book isn’t closed on the Harden trade, with Houston armed with a cache of picks and swap rights (four first-rounders, five swap rights, to be specific) deep into this decade. But the players the Rockets got back for the All-NBA guard: Olynyk, Bradley, Dante Exum and Rodions Kurucs. Keep in mind, Houston reportedly could have flipped Harden for Ben Simmons. And even if they wanted the Brooklyn picks—we’re really writing that phrase again—they could have had them and Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen, two players who wound up being rerouted to Indiana and Cleveland, respectively.
Maybe Houston will hit on some of the picks. But the way the Nets are rolling, they may not be especially high. And swap rights are only valuable when you actually want to use them. Right now, the low return for Harden looks like the kind of deal that could set the franchise back for years to come.
Don’t downplay Evan Fournier’s addition in Boston
Celtics president Danny Ainge is taking some heat for letting another deadline pass without pulling the trigger on a big deal. But Fournier—whom Boston picked up for a pair of second-round picks and reserve guard Jeff Teague—is a terrific offensive player, averaging nearly 20 points per game this season. The Celtics' problems are the end result of years of more talent going out than coming in. Al Horford left … for nothing. Gordon Hayward left … for nothing. That left Boston’s bench filled with untested young players.
Fournier is not that. He instantly becomes one of the Celtics' top five players, whose shooting—he’s connecting on 38% of his threes this year—will be a welcome presence in Boston’s lineup. And expect Boston to work to re-sign Fournier this summer, when the 28-year-old guard becomes a free agent.
Does Fournier put Boston in the class of Brooklyn, Miami and Philadelphia? No, but it’s unclear if any available deal would have done that (an aside: I’m of the opinion Denver just wasn’t going to be outbid for Gordon). The Celtics got better, they did it without giving up much and they were able to add a player who could be in the rotation for years to come. That may not be a great trade deadline, but it’s a pretty good one.
The Bulls are in it to win it
“It” in this case is a playoff spot, and Chicago made a strong move toward securing that in acquiring Nikola Vucevic on Thursday. It surprised some that the Bulls were willing to include two first-round picks in a Vucevic deal—Chicago also shipped Otto Porter Jr. and Wendell Carter to Orlando—but the Magic had been clear to teams that they weren’t as eager to move off Vucevic as they were Gordon and Fournier. It would take something substantial, and that’s what the Bulls came with.
Was it a good move? Vucevic, 30, now joins 26-year-old Zach LaVine as Chicago’s cornerstones, with both tied to the team through at least the next two seasons. Arturas Karnisovas has operated aggressively as the Bulls' top basketball executive, even chasing Pelicans guard Lonzo Ball in the aftermath of the trade with the Magic. The message is clear: While draft picks are valuable, Chicago is after proven talent in an effort to restore credibility to the franchise.
It can be argued that taking on a high-salaried player like Vucevic creates something of a ceiling around this Bulls team. But the case can also be made that the Bulls might not have been able to sign a player of Vucevic’s caliber this summer, and taking on the final 2 ½ years of Vucevic’s contract is hardly onerous. Either way, Karnisovas has sent a clear signal that Chicago wants to win now.
Get ready for an ugly two months, Orlando
Poor Steve Clifford. The Magic coach started the season with a team capable of competing for a playoff spot and will end it with one that will struggle to win more than a couple of games the rest of the way.
Orlando is getting some praise for its stockpiling of draft picks on Thursday, but that’s the easy part. And while the Magic are high on Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac, neither is viewed league-wide as a franchise player. Orlando did what they had to do and jettisoned a core that didn’t seem to have much of a future beyond an occasional playoff berth. But the rebuild will be painful—and exceedingly difficult.
More help for Damian Lillard
I like the Blazers adding Norman Powell, an excellent scoring guard. In the playoffs Portland needs more than Lillard and C.J. McCollum carrying the offense, and Powell is a near 20-point per game scorer shooting a career-high 44% from three. Parting with Gary Trent Jr. was difficult, but Powell, with 67 playoff games on his resume, is a far more reliable option.
It will be interesting to see how quickly the Blazers coalesce, with McCollum back in the lineup and Jusuf Nurkic set to return this week. On paper, this a potent offense. Defensively … well that’s another story.