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Race to the Top (and Bottom)

How did a fast-and-furious trade deadline shake up the NBA landscape? We recalibrate the four biggest chases up and down the standings heading into the season’s stretch run.

LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Steph Curry, and Dennis Smith Jr. Getty Images/Ringer illustration

As the rest of the NBA scrambled to make a move before last Thursday’s trade deadline, the two-time defending champions lounged above the fray. Instead of parting with future picks for a midseason boost, the Golden State Warriors folded four-time All-Star DeMarcus Cousins into their offense. On deadline eve, they pummeled the Spurs by 39 points at home. A lion doesn’t concern himself with the actions of the sheep.

To be fair, the Warriors may be active in the buyout market, but as of Sunday, their most recent transaction came all the way back on January 17, when they assigned rookie Jacob Evans to the G League. In fact, the Warriors haven’t made an in-season trade since 2014, when they shipped Ringer podcaster Kent Bazemore and MarShon “not Dillon” Brooks to the Lakers for Steve Blake. Blake hasn’t played an NBA game in three years and is now in the Big3 player pool—but the Warriors have reached four consecutive NBA Finals and have not required a single in-season trade along the way. It’s hard to top signing Cousins and Kevin Durant in free agency.

More broadly, most Finals teams don’t have to make in-season deals—no champion since 2005 (the Spurs, with Nazr Mohammed) has traded for a rotation player at the deadline. And the annual trade chaos may prove even more futile this year, with the Warriors reaching frightening levels of dominance of late: Golden State is 15-2 with a 123.3 offensive rating since the calendar flipped to 2019. A new Rodney Hood or Mike Muscala isn’t going to slow down the champs. But there’s still a lot to sort out between now and June. Let’s stroll through the league’s remaining races—title, Finals, playoffs, and draft position—to see which deadline effects might actually stick and how each one sizes up now.

The Title Race

According to FiveThirtyEight’s projection model—which uses both a team’s in-season performance to date and the talent on its roster to make predictions—Golden State swaggered into deadline week with a 63 percent chance of winning the title. Despite not making any moves while nearly all of their top competition out East loaded up for the stretch run, the Warriors’ title odds suffered only slightly, falling to 58 percent as of Sunday.

When the Warriors alone carve up so much of the pie, there are only small pieces for all the other contenders to share. The largest risers were Milwaukee (from 7 to 12 percent), which added floor spacer Nikola Mirotic, and Toronto (from 11 to 16), which added big man Marc Gasol, but the improvements were only marginal. Essentially, the top two Eastern teams (and perhaps Philadelphia, now that they’ve landed Tobias Harris) improved their odds of beating Golden State—but they’ll have to traverse a suddenly trickier Eastern path to reach the Finals at all.

The Finals Push

The cruel irony of the flurry of moves at the top of the East is that none of the deals improved any one team’s standing all that much. All of their top competition also improved, at the same time. Had Milwaukee alone added a player of Mirotic’s caliber, the Bucks would have been huge beneficiaries, but because Toronto and Philadelphia did the same, Mirotic’s impact is relatively reduced.

Still, Mirotic’s fit in Milwaukee made the Bucks the biggest winners of the deadline, at least by odds of reaching the Finals—they raised their chances from 28 to 36 percent. (Loading up on wins leading into the deadline, including one to claim the season series with Toronto, should also help toward gaining home-court advantage and an edge in the East race.) That boost came mostly at the expense of Boston, which stood pat at the deadline and saved its best assets for this summer. The Celtics’ chances of reaching the Finals dropped almost in half, from 19 to 10 percent.

Out West, meanwhile, none of the top teams made notable trades last week; in addition to the Warriors, the Nuggets, Thunder, and Jazz all sat out completely, while the Rockets added only Iman Shumpert. So the Warriors’ chances of making the Finals stayed stable at 75 percent. That won’t shift much even if any of their top competitors land a worthwhile buyout candidate.

FiveThirtyEight also rates each team on a points system, in which the league average is about 1,500 and the current picture ranges from the Knicks at 1,266 to the Warriors at 1,803. A comparison of the five teams with the best ratings in the East and West shows the volatility at the top of the East compared with the West. (Game results had some effect, too; Denver, for instance, dropped not because of roster changes but because of three consecutive road losses to Eastern competition.)

Best Teams’ Changes at the Deadline

Eastern Team Pre-Deadline Rating Post-Deadline Rating Change Western Team Pre-Deadline Rating Post-Deadline Rating Change
Eastern Team Pre-Deadline Rating Post-Deadline Rating Change Western Team Pre-Deadline Rating Post-Deadline Rating Change
Bucks 1666 1714 +48 Warriors 1802 1803 +1
Raptors 1686 1701 +15 Thunder 1695 1694 -1
76ers 1652 1678 +26 Rockets 1678 1681 +3
Celtics 1671 1665 -6 Jazz 1630 1631 +1
Pacers 1572 1579 +7 Nuggets 1633 1623 -10

The Playoff Hunt

Before the start of deadline week, 11 teams held better than 95 percent odds of reaching the playoffs, while seven more held less than a 5 percent chance. That left only a dozen teams in the middle. So, once again, there was little movement among another tier of teams.

The Wizards were by far the biggest fallers (no John Wall pun intended) and slipped from 56 percent playoff odds to 22 in the last week after trading Otto Porter Jr. and Markieff Morris. The Pelicans (a 9-percentage-point drop) and Timberwolves (4) also dropped, but even their declines were relatively minor, and no other team budged much in that negative direction.

Middling teams didn’t do much buying last week, but some benefited from their competitors selling. The Lakers’ odds improved by 10 percentage points mainly because teams like the Pelicans and Wolves helped to declutter the path to the West’s 8-seed; ditto the Magic (19-percentage-point boost) and Pistons (11) in the East, which each inched forward with Washington’s removal as a realistic playoff contender.

As it now stands, six teams in the West are at 95 percent or higher, with the Spurs also sitting comfortably with 83 percent odds of reaching the postseason. The final playoff spot should be an intrastate battle among the Clippers (at 51 percent after selling, thanks to stirring recent wins against Charlotte and Boston), Lakers (36), and Kings (10).

In the East, meanwhile, five teams are already safe, with the Nets (83 percent) almost there. That leaves two spots for any of the Hornets (68), Pistons (58), Heat (33), Magic (36), and Wizards (22). Winners get the rights to be obliterated by Giannis and Kawhi in the first round.

The Tank Wars

The thickest race may be the one to the bottom, where a Zion Williamson–shaped prize awaits. Four teams entered deadline week with a realistic chance at the league’s worst record, and two teams apiece took divergent paths. On one side, Phoenix and Chicago actually improved their rosters: New guard Tyler Johnson rates as one of the Suns’ better rotation players, while Chicago upgraded to Otto Porter Jr. at a wing position while ridding itself of Jabari Parker’s net-negative production in the process. The Knicks and Cavaliers, however, accelerated their tank—New York by waiving Enes Kanter and the recently acquired Wesley Matthews, Cleveland by trading Alec Burks and Rodney Hood. Here is a comparison of the league’s worst teams both before and after the deadline:

Worst Teams’ Changes at the Deadline

Team Team Rating, Pre-Deadline Team Rating, Now Change Projected Wins, Pre-Deadline Projected Wins, Now
Team Team Rating, Pre-Deadline Team Rating, Now Change Projected Wins, Pre-Deadline Projected Wins, Now
Knicks 1299 1266 -33 19 17
Cavaliers 1304 1278 -26 19 18
Suns 1322 1343 21 18 19
Bulls 1309 1349 40 19 20

As a reminder, with the new lottery distribution, the bottom three teams receive the same odds, so either the Suns or Bulls may have diminished their ping-pong possibilities with their deadline activity. But within the bottom three, order doesn’t matter all that much—it can affect only a team’s floor (the team with the worst record could fall to fifth at worst, second-worst to sixth, and third-worst to seven). The three tank winners should be satisfied regardless of where they finish in that group on a job well—or very, very poorly—done.

While the Cavaliers did well to get worse at the deadline and affirm their place in the race to the bottom, the Knicks kept pace and more. The Kristaps Porzingis trade doesn’t count for this analysis because it came just before deadline week, and the additions of Dennis Smith Jr. and DeAndre Jordan might have actually improved the Knicks in the short run. But at least the Knicks rerouted their tank quickly and are finally doing this losing business right.