Despite all the rumors, Paul George and Jimmy Butler didn’t get traded, while Danny Ainge decided to dive headfirst into the Celtics’ assets like Scrooge McDuck into his pile of gold rather than make a move. With DeMarcus Cousins, Serge Ibaka, and Nerlens Noel all being dealt in the last week and a half, NBA fans can’t complain about an uneventful deadline, although another blockbuster trade right at the buzzer would have been nice. All signs still point to a seemingly inevitable Round 3 of Cavs vs. Warriors in the NBA Finals, with any trades that could have meaningfully affected the balance of power this season shelved until the summer.
However, beneath the surface, a lot of interesting things still happened in the NBA over the past 48 hours. A couple of playoff contenders significantly improved themselves, some talented veterans became available on the buyout market, and a bunch of young players have been given the opportunity to show what they can do in bigger roles. Here are 10 notable figures that emerged from a relatively lackluster deadline.
Watch Out for the Raptors
Toronto receives P.J. Tucker from Phoenix in exchange for Jared Sullinger and two second-round picks.
If there’s a clear winner from the last week, it’s the Raptors, who have quietly assembled a team capable of matching up with the Cavs. The biggest weakness on their roster was at power forward, where they had cobbled together a rotation out of a raw rookie (Pascal Siakam), a converted center (Lucas Nogueira), and a guy coming off a broken foot who might have weighed close to 300 pounds (Jared Sullinger) to split time with Patrick Patterson. Now, with the additions of Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker, they have two of the league’s best defenders at that position, both of whom can shoot 3s and open up the floor for their stars. Ibaka has the size, length, and athleticism to guard Kevin Love, while Tucker has the strength, toughness, and quickness to at least partially prevent LeBron James from bullying him all over the floor.
With these moves, Dwane Casey has the flexibility to play some really interesting lineups, and all it cost the Raptors were a few future picks they could afford to give up and a swingman (Terrence Ross) who was redundant because of their depth on the perimeter. Expect to see Ibaka at the 5 and Tucker at the 4 at some point in the playoffs, with Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, and either DeMarre Carroll or Norman Powell at small forward. They can field an ersatz Lineup of Death with shooters and guys who can switch screens at every position, and then count on Lowry and DeRozan to carry them on offense while playing in more space than either has had in their entire careers. As long as LeBron is healthy, Cleveland will be the team to beat in the East. But Toronto has put itself in a position to get back to the conference finals and give the Cavs a much better run than it gave them last year.
The Thunder Got Better
Oklahoma City receives Taj Gibson, Doug McDermott, and a 2018 second-round pick in exchange for Cameron Payne, Anthony Morrow, and Joffrey Lauvergne.
The two biggest weaknesses on the Thunder roster were their teamwide lack of 3-point shooting and the power forward position, where they were starting rookie Domantas Sabonis. Sabonis has done a good job for a converted college center being thrown into the NBA fire, but he’s shooting only 31.5 percent from the 3-point line, and he doesn’t play close enough to the basket to take advantage of his size. While Taj Gibson isn’t a 3-point shooter either, he’s a good midrange shooter who knows how to play in tight spaces after so many years sharing the floor with Joakim Noah in Chicago. He will form a bruising frontline with Steven Adams and Enes Kanter that can beat up smaller teams on the offensive boards — and he’s a much better defender than Sabonis.
Gibson is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, so the key long-term acquisition for the Thunder from Thursday’s trade with Chicago is Doug McDermott, who provides a badly needed combination of floor spacing and secondary offense. As a player, he’s essentially the photo negative of Andre Roberson. McDermott is shooting 37.3 percent from 3 on 3.4 attempts per game this season, and he should hike that number of attempts in Oklahoma City until his shoulder falls off. He and Roberson will be able to cover up some of each other’s weaknesses as an offense-defense combo of forwards. If you could combine their strengths into one player, they would be one of the best in the NBA.
Buyouts, Buyouts, Buyouts
Andrew Bogut and Deron Williams
Philadelphia receives Bogut and Justin Anderson from Dallas in exchange for Nerlens Noel and a 2017 protected first-round pick. The Sixers are expected to negotiate a buyout for Bogut, and the Mavericks are looking to do the same with Williams.
The two veterans who outlived their usefulness in Dallas still have plenty of juice left in the tank. Bogut, at 32, was one of the best centers in the NBA a few years ago, and he played a crucial role in the emergence of the Warriors before becoming a salary cap casualty in the wake of the Kevin Durant signing. Boston, which has needed a rim protector for years and is sorely lacking in quality rebounders this season, would make the most sense for him. Williams, also 32, no longer has the quickness to be a primary initiator of an offense, but he has the size and shooting ability to be a great off-the-ball weapon. If he’s going to Cleveland, which all reports indicate, he would be a much better version of Matthew Dellavedova, and he would go a long way toward fixing the playmaker-size hole in their roster that LeBron James has been talking about for months.
Jones will reportedly be waived by the Pelicans.
Jones has been excellent backing up Anthony Davis this season, with per-36-minute averages of 16.6 points, 8.6 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.1 steals, and 1.5 blocks a game on 47.2 percent shooting. Most notably, he dropped 36 points and 11 rebounds in a win over the Cavs in January when Davis was out. He was released by New Orleans reportedly at the behest of his agent (who also reps DeMarcus Cousins) so that he would have more of an opportunity to rack up statistics before taking another shot at free agency in the offseason. Concerns about some of his off-court issues are part of the reason why he was forced to take a one-year deal with the Pelicans at the league minimum, but there’s no question that he can play at a high level. Jones would help a number of teams in the playoff race, but he would be really interesting in Washington, which has been playing Jason Smith big minutes as its first big man off the bench and doesn’t know what it is getting from Ian Mahinmi as he comes off knee surgery.
Can These Guys Play Basketball?
After a rookie year when he became known mostly for being Russell Westbrook’s pregame dance partner, the 2015 lottery pick broke his foot in training camp and has struggled since returning from injury. At this point in his career, Payne is still a mystery, but there are some encouraging numbers in his per-36-minute averages, most notably his assist-to-turnover ratio (2.5). At 6-foot-3 and 185 pounds with a 6-foot-7 wingspan, Payne has the length and quickness to be a starting NBA point guard, but his slight build means he’ll need to get stronger to survive.
The Bulls’ acquisition of Payne presumably means the end of the Rajon Rondo era in Chicago, and possibly the NBA. Rondo’s ball-dominant style is not a good fit next to Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade (or really anywhere else), and jump-shooting is the biggest thing Payne will need to improve in his new role in Chicago. He’s a career 31.9 percent shooter from 3 on 2.1 attempts per game, and a guy with his limited stature has to be able to punish defenses from beyond the arc. He’ll get an extended audition with the Bulls over the next two months, and a chance to prove that the team shouldn’t look for point guard help in the upcoming draft.
Brooklyn receives McDaniels from Houston in exchange for a future draft pick.
One of NBA Twitter’s favorite players will finally get another chance to show what he can do. Ever since he was traded to Houston at the deadline two years ago, McDaniels has been buried deep in the Rockets bench. But he was able to squeeze a three-year, $10 million deal out of them, so his agent is doing something right. At 6-foot-6 and 205 pounds, McDaniels is an absolutely preposterous athlete who struggles to shoot, and the Nets have nothing to lose by seeing if he could learn. If the NBA doesn’t work out, McDaniels and his new teammate Rondae Hollis-Jefferson would make quite the SlamBall duo.
The Lakers receive Tyler Ennis from the Rockets in exchange for Marcelo Huertas.
This is now four teams in three seasons for Ennis, the former Syracuse point guard who is pushing the record for most teams played for while still on a rookie contract. It’s not a matter of him not getting chances, either. He has been in the rotation in Phoenix, Milwaukee, and now Houston, but he just hasn’t been able to stick. At 6-foot-3 and 194 pounds, Ennis has decent size for a point guard, but he’s a below-average athlete who struggles to defend NBA-caliber players, something that was hidden when he was playing in Jim Boeheim’s 2–3 zone in college. He’ll get the chance to back up D’Angelo Russell with the Lakers, and he could find himself plying his trade in Europe if things don’t work out this time.
The Wizards and the Hawks Improved Their Benches
Atlanta receives Ersan Ilyasova from Philadelphia in exchange for Tiago Splitter and a 2017 second-round pick.
Washington receives Bojan Bogdanovic and Chris McCullough from Brooklyn in exchange for Andrew Nicholson, Marcus Thornton, and a lottery-protected 2017 first-round pick.
The additions of Ersan Ilyasova and Bojan Bogdanovic don’t exactly qualify as an arms race, but both guys could really improve their new teams — the Hawks and the Wizards, respectively — just because of how weak their benches were. Ilyasova and Bogdanovic are professional 3-point shooters who can light up the box score if given enough chances, which is more than you can say for some of the guys they are replacing. The Hawks have been bleeding points whenever Mike Scott, Mike Muscala, or Kris Humphries have been in the game this season, while the Wizards had arguably the worst bench of any playoff team.
The Sad Fall of Roy Hibbert
Denver receives Hibbert from Milwaukee in exchange for a heavily protected second-round pick.
Hibbert, who had been on the Bucks for only a few weeks, was traded to the Nuggets for a “heavily-protected second-round pick,” which is one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen tweeted. It’s worse than being straight-up traded for cash, like Mike Scott, because U.S. currency has far more value than a construct created to balance trading ledgers for the league office. Remember the great verticality debate of 2013? Four years later, an NBA team couldn’t pay someone to take Hibbert off their hands.