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Winners and Losers of the NBA Trade Deadline

The Cavaliers started fresh, the Lakers made a play for the future, and the Grizzlies … did what, exactly?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

What a day. The Cavaliers blew it up, defining what was a fascinating NBA trade deadline. Here are my winners, losers, and key takeaways on what did and didn’t happen on Thursday.


Winner: Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cavs’ front office deserves a ton of credit for its creativity and courage in overhauling the roster. As The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks detailed, the three prominent guards they dealt — Isaiah Thomas, Derrick Rose, and Dwyane Wade — were part of the problem defensively, while the additions — Rodney Hood, George Hill, and Jordan Clarkson — should all help on that end. Larry Nance Jr. is an upgrade over Tristan Thompson, and though the Cavs lost Jae Crowder, they already have Jeff Green, who has been better than Crowder. Rookie Cedi Osman is also ready for a more significant role. All of the NBA execs I talked to after the deadline thought this team got better on paper.

The Cavaliers play only three games over the next 13 days, giving coach Tyronn Lue and the staff plenty of time to integrate the new blood and prepare the team to reintegrate Kevin Love once he returns from his broken left hand. There are no guarantees it’ll work. If Hood, Hill, Clarkson, and Nance are supposed to save your season, you’re asking for a bit much. Hood and Hill are also injury prone, but they’re still better than what the Cavs had.

These deals are also wins for future seasons, too. Though the Cavaliers gave up their own first-round pick in the deal with the Lakers for Clarkson and Nance, they retained the coveted 2018 Nets first-round pick. So they still have the ability to add either a high-end prospect in a talented lottery class, or deal the pick if the right opportunity comes their way in June. They also added players who can be part of their core in the years ahead, with or without LeBron James. Clarkson, Nance, and Hood are all 25. Osman, who joined the team over the summer, is 22. If LeBron stays, that’s swell. But if he leaves, Cleveland won’t be left with one of the most hopeless rosters in basketball, as it was the last time LeBron left and was prepared to be again. Instead, the Cavaliers have finally started to build a roster with an eye toward the future.

Winner: Los Angeles Lakers

There were rumblings hours before the deadline that the Lakers were using Nance as a sweetener to dump Clarkson, who is owed nearly $26 million over the next two seasons. But the Cavs stepped up and it all worked out perfectly for the Lakers — they got a first-round pick and the expiring contracts of Isaiah Thomas and Channing Frye. The Lakers now have only $34.6 million in guaranteed salaries this upcoming offseason, when James and Paul George can become unrestricted free agents. There is still more work to be done, including stretching Luol Deng’s albatross contract, but the front-office team of Rob Pelinka and Magic Johnson cleared the way toward cap space for two max free agents.

The Cavaliers also made themselves a more appealing place for LeBron to stay in the process, but that’s OK. The Lakers also increased their savings for the summer after this one, when Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, and Jimmy Butler are expected to hit the market. Los Angeles will always be a prime destination, and now the Lakers have the requisite finances to welcome in the ones who want to help bring back the glory days.

Loser: Rob Pelinka

Pelinka and Johnson were asked whether they had substantive conversations that would’ve allowed them to deal Deng. Magic chuckled, flashed his billion-dollar smile, turned to Pelinka and cracked, “We wish, huh?”

Pelinka was screaming internally.

Winner: Western Conference Favorites

The Rockets and Warriors stayed out of the action, yet came away winners considering Avery Bradley didn’t land on the Spurs or Thunder. Both Western Conference foes had pursued the Clippers guard before the deadline, but the price was too steep, according to multiple league sources. The guess is that the Clippers were seeking a first-round pick for Bradley, a pending unrestricted free agent, which would’ve been tough for the Thunder, whose earliest available first is in 2022.

Bradley is one of the NBA’s prime perimeter defenders, one of the few talents capable of containing Stephen Curry and Chris Paul. One of those teams may see Bradley in the first round, but the Clippers aren’t true threats. The path to the NBA Finals is now a little bit clearer for Golden State or Houston.

Losers: Ex-Lottery Picks (and Their Teams)

Not only was Elfrid Payton, the no. 10 overall pick in 2014, dealt for a second-round pick, but the Nuggets traded Emmanuel Mudiay, drafted seventh in 2015, in a three-way trade for 34-year-old point guard Devin Harris. The Kings also flat-out cut Georgios Papagiannis, the no. 13 pick in 2016. The Magic regime that selected Payton is gone, and the Kings’ front office has been overhauled, but it’s typically never a good sign when a player is being cut loose before the end of his rookie contract.

Winner: Detroit Pistons

The Pistons shocked the basketball world by trading for Blake Griffin on January 29, and then they made some quiet yet quality additions on Thursday. They first acquired veteran point guard Jameer Nelson, who can fortify the bench, and later snatched swingman James Ennis from the Grizzlies for big man Brice Johnson and a second-rounder. Nelson and Ennis aren’t exactly big-time acquisitions, but the Pistons are going all in, and every bit helps.

Winner: Phoenix Suns

The Suns entered the trade deadline three years ago with a trio of point guards: Goran Dragic, Isaiah Thomas, and Eric Bledsoe. All three are gone now, and with Brandon Knight still missing in action, Tyler Ulis still short, and Isaiah Canaan sidelined, Phoenix’s point guard cupboard is completely depleted. Now they have Payton.

I know what you’re thinking: “But Payton wasn’t good in Orlando.” That’s true, but he’s played for four coaches over four seasons. Look at former teammate Victor Oladipo, who found his way with the Pacers at age 25. Sometimes all it takes is time and the right situation. Payton probably won’t blossom like Oladipo, who made his first All-Star team this season, but there’s no risk here for the Suns. They gave up only a second-rounder from their endless pile of them, which is a cheap price to pay for a point guard who turns 24 later this month and has shown flashes over his time with the Magic.

The Suns haven’t exactly been a model of stability, either. But for two months, Payton will get an opportunity to show what he can do next to Devin Booker and Josh Jackson. Payton’s solid playmaking and defense can at least be useful off the bench. If the restricted-free-agent-to-be shows he can be the long-term starter, there will be less of a need to draft a point guard like Trae Young or Collin Sexton, meaning the Suns can divert their attention to others in this year’s loaded draft class.

Loser: Memphis Grizzlies

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Wednesday night that the Grizzlies “refuse” to discuss deals for center Marc Gasol. That’s nice. I get it. I really do. Gasol is their franchise center, the cornerstone of their most successful era ever. Maybe I have a machine mind and a machine heart, but Gasol is a 33-year-old who has declined significantly this season, underwent major foot surgery just two years ago, and is owed $49.7 million over the next two seasons.

The team apparently views guard Tyreke Evans as part of the core, too. Evans is currently averaging an efficient 19.5 points per game and will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. According to multiple reports, the Grizzlies’ demands for Evans were too significant. The Grizzlies should’ve come away from the deadline with something, but, outside of moving Ennis to Detroit, they ended up with virtually the same team they started the day with.

Winners: Teams Probing the Buyout Market

Though the Grizzlies turned down decent offers to keep him, Evans is at the top of a long list of players who could now be bought out.

Veteran wings Tony Allen, Joe Johnson, and Marco Belinelli are all likely to hit the market. Minnesota’s Shabazz Muhammad has also been rumored as a buyout candidate. Mavericks center Nerlens Noel could use a change of scenery, and veteran Boris Diaw (who has an opt-out clause in his contract with France’s Paris-Levallois to sign with an NBA team) has reportedly been in contact with multiple playoff teams. The Celtics, Warriors, Raptors, and Rockets are all teams to watch when players hit the market.

Losers: Guards Entering Free Agency

Lou Williams’s new three-year, $24 million contract isn’t bad considering the upcoming market correction. But, man, the precedent it sets is awful for younger guards about to become free agents, including Bradley, Will Barton, and Marcus Smart. If Williams is making $8 million annually, what’s Smart getting? Five million? Is Barton getting … $6 million?

Those numbers are criminally low. But for teams, the deals will become even more valuable on the trade market, especially with so many of the bloated contracts from the summer of 2016 still in place. Williams’s agent, Wallace Prather, got his client a deal that suits the current climate, but in the process, he jump-started a chain of events that should lead to a lot of guys being disappointed in July.

To Be Determined: Ex-Celtics

Jae Crowder has looked more like the Jae Crowder we knew before Brad Stevens blessed him in Boston, and Thomas is clearly not back to the level he was at prior to his major hip injury. Now both former Celtics-turned-Cavaliers will get new chances in new situations. Crowder was sent to Utah, where he’ll play for Jazz coach Quin Snyder, the Stevens of the West. Snyder has a knack for maximizing the talents of his role players, so the hope is that Crowder can return to his 3-and-D ways (though they were overrated to begin with).

Thomas’s situation is far dicier. ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne reported on The Jump that Thomas is likely to come off the bench. Rachel Nichols followed up by saying that Thomas’s agent, Aaron Goodwin, told her, in all capital letters, that “HE IS NOT COMING OFF THE BENCH.” Goodwin later told Cleveland.com’s Joe Vardon that Thomas is a “ball-dominant player,” and it wasn’t working in Cleveland since LeBron holds the ball so much. As a result, he said he had conversations with the Cavs front office about how it wasn’t beneficial for Thomas to remain in Cleveland. It certainly wasn’t, and now he’s gone.

Thomas still isn’t healthy and has only two months to prove his worth before he becomes a free agent. The Lakers should at least give him more time with the ball. But as we learned this trade deadline, change isn’t always good.