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The Best In-House Upgrades That Can Swing the NBA’s Stretch Run

What trade deadline? Players like Isaiah Thomas, Gordon Hayward, and Andre Roberson can all give their teams late pushes just by getting back to their former levels.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Some teams came out of the trade deadline looking very different, like the Clippers (who lost Tobias Harris) and the Sixers (who acquired Harris). Others, however, stood pat. It’s easy to overrate and focus on the teams that made upgrades via trade, but sometimes the best improvements come internally. As the long march toward more meaningful games in April begins, here are five players whose return or resurgence could be just as helpful as a deadline trade.

Isaiah Thomas, Nuggets

Thomas’s path to playing time has gotten a lot trickier since he signed for the veteran’s minimum in the offseason. While Thomas was sidelined because of a nagging hip problem, Denver’s guard rotation this season has gone from formidable to ocean-deep. Second-year guard Monte Morris has become a revelation, Malik Beasley has started 14 of the team’s past 19 games, reliable scorer Will Barton is back from injury, and Jamal Murray has been toying with a leap all season long. There is seemingly little to no room for Thomas.

Thomas’s best chance at locking down a defined role will be providing a spark off the bench. And he showed some signs of being able to do just that in his debut Wednesday (eight points and two assists in 13 minutes) in a win over the Kings, his first NBA team. “I think he outmatched Swaggy P’s when Swaggy got in,” Morris said about Thomas, referring to Nick Young’s short tenure with the Nuggets earlier in the season. “When IT came in, it went up a couple more notches.”

For the Nuggets, the Thomas signing is all upside. He needs to prove he can still have an impact in the league after a season marred by injury and flared tempers. (For what it’s worth, he’s apparently been a valuable presence behind the scenes.) The Nuggets, meanwhile, can use his instant offense in the playoffs to start the second and fourth quarters. And for a playoff-bound team with little playoff experience on its roster, the more important addition may not be Thomas’s jump shot, but his voice.

Gordon Hayward, Celtics

Hayward’s play this season has been an eyesore. He has had little to no lift, he’s struggled to find his shot, and he often looks uncertain when attacking the basket. Since returning from a gruesome leg injury, Hayward has been a shell of the player who made an All-Star team with the Utah Jazz. This has weighed on the Celtics, who still haven’t found a rhythm despite all of their talent. Lately, though, Hayward has been showing signs of life. Since the start of the calendar year, Hayward has been shooting 50 percent from the field and 38 percent from deep. He has also scored in double digits in six of his past eight games.

Hayward’s importance come playoff time can’t be understated because he may just be the key to unlocking the full potential this deep Celtics roster has. Case in point: The Celtics are 12-2 when Hayward scores 15 points or more, and eight of those 14 games have come in 2019. That’s some much-needed progress.

Lonzo Ball, Lakers

*30 for 30 voice* What if I told you that the Lakers’ most important player wasn’t LeBron James? OK, I’d be wrong. But stick with me here. Since Ball went out with an ankle injury on January 19, a lot of things have happened in Laker Land. Or rather, a lot of things should have happened but didn’t—such as playing defense. It’s hard to quantify how much defensive value one player can bring to a team or can be taken out in his absence, but in the past 10 games that Ball has missed, the Lakers have allowed 118.1 points per 100 possessions, good for 26th in the league, and are 3-7. The Lakers are in the bottom third of the league in offense; they simply just don’t have the roster to outscore opponents in a shootout.

Getting Ball back in the next few weeks (he was expected to be out four to six weeks) will be a godsend in this area. His instincts, especially around the perimeter, should limit opposing guards’ ability to go off against the Lakers, and his ability to switch and defend multiple positions is unique on this roster. Lonzo is no LeBron, but his defense could be the game changer the Lakers need to spark their run to the playoffs.

Andre Roberson, Thunder

Few teams have been as defined by their defense this season as the Thunder. And yet the player who used to be the heart and soul on that side of the ball has yet to play a single game this season. Roberson has been out for more than a year now after suffering a ruptured patellar tendon, which has led to two different setbacks. The latest came in November, when it was announced he had an avulsion fracture and would be reevaluated in six weeks. It’s been more than six weeks and the Thunder have not provided an update or new timeline for Roberson’s recovery, so it’s not out of the question that he might not play the rest of the season. OKC reportedly nabbed Markieff Morris from the buyout market Thursday, which could be a bad sign for how they feel about Roberson’s chances of seeing the floor again this season.

If Roberson does return, though, there’s a chance the Thunder could go from the third-best defense to the best in the league. He would add more perimeter help and make OKC’s defensive identity even stronger—which are the only ways a team can give the Warriors some trouble in the playoffs. With Paul George having an MVP-caliber season, getting a healthy Roberson back would be a luxury overall and a necessity against a team like Golden State.

Clint Capela, Rockets

James Harden’s habit of scoring at least 30 points has become as routine as brushing your teeth. So while the Rockets have been without Capela since January 13, they have stayed above water, going 9-6 over the 15 games before the All-Star break. But look at some of the teams (and centers) they’ve lost to: Brooklyn (Jarrett Allen), Philly (Joel Embiid), Pelicans (Jahlil Okafor scored 27!), OKC (Steven Adams), and Minnesota (Karl-Anthony Towns). Capela is crucial to Houston’s success—he gives them a reliable inside presence on defense (right now, that’s Kenneth Faried and Nene) and adds a different dimension to their offense. Harden needs his rim-running partner.

Capela’s 12.6 rebounds a game are sorely missed too. During his time on the sideline, the Rockets have been the league’s worst team in rebounding percentage aside from the Knicks and the Suns. If Houston’s strategy the rest of the way (they’re currently the 5-seed in the West) is to double down on their strategy of Harden doing historic things, Capela’s ability to create second chances will be crucial.