Thursday’s trade deadline may have been the most normal part of the 2021 NBA season. Teams were wheeling and dealing like any other year, and as a result guys like Aaron Gordon, Victor Oladipo, and Nikola Vucevic are all headed to new teams. Some contenders (Clippers, Sixers) added pieces in the margins while others (Lakers, Jazz) remained steady. With only a few buyout options still on the market, the stage is now close to fully set for the sprint to July’s Finals. So let’s run through some winners and losers from a busy deadline.
Winner: Miami Heat Exceptionalism
After a couple lean years post-LeBron, Pat Riley hasn’t quite been able to recreate his past success in free agency, but the Heat have seemingly become quite adept at acquiring capable players out of thin air via trade. Jimmy Butler engineered his way to a Miami squad that didn’t really have cap space in 2019, and all it cost Riley was Josh Richardson (since traded) and Hassan Whiteside (now on a backup on a vet minimum.) On Thursday, Riley brought in sharpshooting forward Nemanja Bjelica from Sacramento and a former All-Star in Oladipo from Houston, and it only cost him one player (Kelly Olynyk) who was a regular part of the Heat’s rotation. The rest of the gang shipped out (Moe Harkless, Avery Bradley, Chris Silva) combined to appear in only 32 games this season. Add the Meyers Leonard for Trevor Ariza swap, and Riley not only managed to dump the team’s dead weight for players who could contribute during a playoff series, he also opened up a couple roster spots to help possibly bring in a guy like LaMarcus Aldridge.
The moves may not position Miami to make a run as deep as it did in the bubble (and questions remain about how effective Oladipo—who hasn’t played in back-to-backs this season—can be.) Still, it’s a nice haul for the Heat, who should have a much more sensible rotation if they can get everyone healthy at the same time. Doing all of this while holding onto young, growing players like Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson means Miami should remain competitive in the short-term while also remaining in the mix the next time a bigger fish may want out.
Aldridge and Andre Drummond had no takers, as both will enter free agency free to sign with whichever team they want. It makes sense why neither guy was traded for after they were basically both put on paid leave by their respective teams. I am curious, though, if contenders will start placing more value on having a post defense specialist on their roster in light of a fully realized Joel Embiid potentially looming in the playoffs. The Sixers are flawed, and it remains unclear how their late-game offense will work in the postseason. And Aldridge and Drummond (the latter, particularly) were certainly not the Embiid stoppers on the market. With all of that said, most contenders’ preferred lineups don’t have a great answer for Embiid, whether those groups are too small (like the Nets going no center) or they put a star player in danger of foul trouble (like Anthony Davis at the five.) Unless Philly flames out really early, this summer could become a fascinating test case for what it really means to have the game’s most dominant post player during the three-point boom.
A Deflating Win: Sixers
Speaking of Philadelphia, even as the team picked up a solid two-way vet like George Hill from the Thunder, I wonder if deep down Daryl Morey isn’t a little bummed about not being able to swing a deal for Kyle Lowry. The Raptors guard was definitely the most impactful player available at the deadline, and yet nobody could pry him loose from Toronto. The Sixers reportedly balked at the Raps’ high asking price. And after years of way too much roster tinkering, Morey’s restraint is certainly welcome on some level.
Lowry, however, was the kind of guy worth chasing. As far as the championship hunt goes, it’s a bummer he didn’t land on a team of more consequence as the Raptors struggle through a slog of a season in Tampa. The Nets aren’t battle tested, the Bucks have had their own playoff issues. Philly may have a legitimate title shot in 2021. A player like Lowry would have given them one more level to get to. While the Sixers didn’t strike out entirely, I wonder if they may come to regret not being more aggressive.
Loser: Drake Fans
Drake wasting his time with a goodbye FaceTime for Lowry instead of finishing up Certified Lover Boy. If that album doesn’t drop in time for a vaccinated summer, remember this moment.
Not Like This: Stephen Silas
Silas was hired to coach a team with James Harden and maybe Russell Westbrook coming off a second-round playoff exit. He’s now left with a post-Achilles tear John Wall and Christian Wood, and a bunch of likely non-lottery draft picks so far into the future he probably won’t even be on the bench by that point. Silas, respected around the NBA, could not have been thrust into a worse gig. And Houston‘s bungling of the Harden trade—acquiring basically no promising prospects, not holding onto Jarret Allen or Caris LeVert—feels like the kind of situation that could set a franchise back for a decade. No team comes out great from trading or losing a superstar. But it’s still hard to think of a team left with less after a trade than the Rockets. Silas has become collateral damage in the process. Hopefully this doesn’t prevent him from getting a more legitimate shot one day.
Need A Hug: Rockets fans
That is painful to read.
Winner: LeBron James & Anthony Davis
Nobody in the West made the kind of move that should worry the Lakers, who I believe remain the favorites to come out of the conference. Adding Drummond would be nice, if only to see how LeBron could help unlock some of his potential. Though this is going to be a lean period for L.A. with James and Davis still recovering from injuries, as long as the two of them are healthy come playoff time, the Lakers will be in the same position they were to start the season.
Loser: Zach LaVine Fake Trades
LaVine was somebody whose name I think people were trying to will into existence as a possible guy on the move. Instead the Bulls doubled down on him by adding Nikola Vucevic as a pick-and-pop partner. I like that Chicago is actively trying to get into the postseason. Sometimes aggressively barrelling toward the middle is perfectly fine, especially if you’ve only made the playoffs once in the last five years.
A For Effort: Nuggets
I’m not sold on the Aaron Gordon move for Denver. The commitment to capitalizing on Nikola Jokic’s MVP-caliber campaign is welcome, this trade just leaves a little to be desired. Gordon has never had time to fully flourish as a power forward, and the same can be said for Michael Porter Jr. The two will now have to form a partnership in the frontcourt, and the fit seems clunky. I see a lot of people envisioning Gordon becoming a 3-and-D guy on the wing, and to me that doesn’t feel like the right role for him. His three-point shooting could be an outlier this year, and despite his athleticism he hasn’t yet proven to be a stopper. The move was worth the risk, considering Gary Harris’s diminishing offensive returns. Maybe things click into place for Gordon and he can grow in a situation where on most nights he’ll be the fourth option behind Jokic, Porter Jr., and Jamal Murray. Ultimately, it’s a good sign Denver is willing to shake things up and make swings for a championship. Time will tell if Gordon ends up being the missing piece.
A quiet deadline for the Knicks with no head-scratching, short-sighted moves as they sit in fifth place in the East is perhaps the strongest sign yet that 2021 is going to be a very different year.