So much for all those complete and total idiots who predicted a quiet 2019 NBA trade deadline. Starting with last Thursday’s stunner that landed Kristaps Porzingis in Dallas, this season’s hyperkinetic deal-making extravaganza featured more than 20 trades—including a couple that did not involve Nik Stauskas and Wade Baldwin IV.
With the deadline buzzer still ringing in our ears, and the first-blush winners and losers all sorted out, let’s turn toward the two-month sprint to the finish line of the 2018-19 NBA season. Here are five questions lingering in my mind after Thursday’s deadline, starting with the biggest Hollywood flop since Mortal Engines.
Are the Lakers Now Officially Wasting a LeBron Year?
The stakes for the Lakers heading into Thursday’s deadline were very clear, and everybody knew them. Getting Anthony Davis meant success; not getting him meant failure. There’s no way around it: The Lakers failed on Thursday. Massively, spectacularly, and very publicly.
The players they did land via trade, swingman Reggie Bullock and reserve big Mike Muscala, should help, because LeBron James teams should always have as many capable 3-point shooters as possible. No brownie points for Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka there, though; that’s something the Lakers should’ve known after watching James make eight straight Finals while flanked by marksmen in Miami and Cleveland. Yet they consciously zagged after landing James last summer, preferring instead to surround him with playmaking ball handlers who have iffy jumpers.
The result: L.A. enters Friday ranked 20th in 3-point makes per game, 19th in long balls attempted per game, 27th in team 3-point percentage, and 21st in overall offensive efficiency. A groin strain that cost James 18 games—already a career high, with more than eight weeks remaining in the regular season—has certainly depressed those numbers. Even when he’s been in the lineup, though, the Lakers have lagged previous James teams when it comes to creating and canning quality shots when they’re not working in transition. They’ve averaged just 92.3 points per 100 half-court plays with LeBron on the floor, according to Cleaning the Glass, which puts the Lakers in the 42nd percentile in half-court execution this season—the lowest mark for a LeBron team since his rookie season, all the way back in 2003-04.
Missing on a world-breaking talent like Davis means the Lakers head into the home stretch with, essentially, the same roster that has produced a bottom-third offense and a barely-.500 record. Maybe a full final two months from James, the additions of Bullock and Muscala, an eventual healthy return by Lonzo Ball (who, in case you hadn’t heard, ain’t goin’ nowhere), and the draining of the abscess created by hanging a “For Sale” sign on virtually every Laker will combine to spark a big run deep into the postseason. But the bet here is that it won’t be enough. Not even close.
As great a difference as LeBron makes through his sheer presence—that was a 28-12-12 triple-double in a one-point win in Boston on Thursday night, if you’re keeping score—he can’t just will his team through the gantlet this time around, because this isn’t last season’s Eastern Conference. The Lakers will have to grind just to leapfrog the Clippers and Kings to get into the postseason; according to multiple projection systems, they’re not even a coin-flip bet to crack the top eight right now. Even if they do get in, if they can’t climb up over the no. 8 seed, they’ll be little more than an amuse-bouche for the all-devouring Warriors. And if this season amounts to nothing more than a first-round washout—or, shock horror, a sixth-straight spring without playoff basketball—well, then the Lakers will have just squandered one of the most productive age-34 seasons ever, banked their hopes of a brighter tomorrow on landing another superstar in a summer when that’s far from a sure thing, and rolled the whole thing over to rest on the age-35 season of a player who will have more total miles on his NBA odometer than all but a few players in league history.
Will the Rockets Waste James Harden’s Best Year?
Daryl Morey worked the margins this week in pursuit of another option that could boost Houston’s rotation in the playoffs. He made three separate trades that, in functional on-court terms, amounted to exchanging James Ennis III for Iman Shumpert. But swapping a larger wing for a smaller one should help; Shumpert was a consistently credible shooter and perimeter defender in Sacramento this season, and Ennis, despite solid enough numbers, has yet to really make the leap from theoretical 3-and-D performer to practical difference-maker.
For the most part, though, that was it. And it was hard not to notice that, as he wheeled and dealed, every move Morey made pared down the Rockets’ total financial obligations by a little bit, and by a little bit more, until eventually, Houston had ducked down below the luxury-tax line.
The Rockets’ willingness to pay the tax has been a topic of interest around the league ever since casino magnate Tilman Fertitta shelled out $2.2 billion to buy the franchise in September 2017. On one hand, Fertitta has maintained that he has “no problem paying [the] luxury tax if I truly think that it truly gives me the chance to win the championship next year,” and that the decisions to let Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute walk in free agency had nothing to do with concerns about their respective salaries inflating his tax burden. On the other, Fertitta has also seemed downright spooked by the repeater tax, which levies monster penalties for teams that go over the tax line in multiple seasons.
“Do you understand what the luxury tax can do to you if you’re in it three years in a row?” Fertitta said in a preseason interview with SB Nation’s Steven Godfrey. “It has another multiplier of three and a half. For every million dollars you’re over, it costs you nine in tax. It’s unbelievable. It’s the difference of making money and losing $60 million a year, just like that.”
The Rockets attached a lottery-protected first-round pick to shed the contracts of Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss; traded swap rights to a future second-rounder to offload Ennis, who could still be a useful cog in a thin perimeter rotation; and dealt another second-rounder to reroute Stauskas and Baldwin, all to get down under the tax line. This does not seem like the most effective way to augment the efforts of the one-man army you’ve built your entire franchise around.
Maybe the Rockets view the returns of Chris Paul (back since late January) and Clint Capela (sidelined since mid-January) as more meaningful than anything they could’ve swung for in a trade. Maybe jettisoning Stauskas and Baldwin was less about penny-pinching than it was about opening up roster spots with which to hunt upgrades on the buyout market, whether it’s in the form of another shooter or another big man who could round out Mike D’Antoni’s playoff rotation. Maybe Houston will reconsider converting the two-way contract of Danuel House Jr., who played well for the Rockets as an injury-replacement spot starter earlier this season before the team declined to bump him up to a minimum-salaried NBA deal for the rest of the season. More could be coming; Morey has long been a fan of saying he doesn’t need to have his best roster until the playoffs get started in mid-April.
Barring those sorts of after-market add-ons, though, the Rockets’ haul looks light. Taking a cost-conscious and conservative approach might be what’s best for business. But doing it while Harden is rewriting the rules of what an individual superstar can do on the offensive end of the court seems penny-wise but pound-foolish.
What Comes Next for the Grizzlies?
Memphis entered the deadline intent on closing the book on the Grit and Grind era, but wound up trading only one of its two remaining linchpins. While Marc Gasol heads north of The Wall to take part in the Great War to come, Mike Conley stayed put. The once-doubted neophyte point guard is now the last man standing in Memphis, tasked with leading a team in transition until such time as the Grizzlies front office—whoever winds up running it—can find a deal that can kick-start an overdue rebuild around franchise centerpiece-in-waiting Jaren Jackson Jr.
That the Grizzlies exited the deadline without a future first-round pick or an exciting young prospect to pair with Jackson has to rank as a disappointment for Memphis fans. Setting aside the emotional aspect of losing a player who’s been such a foundational piece of Grizzlies history, it’s hard to consider Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, C.J. Miles, and a 2024 second-round draft pick a major haul in exchange for a player who’s still as good as Gasol. The on-the-margins deals that sent out JaMychal Green, Garrett Temple, and Shelvin Mack, and brought back only Avery Bradley’s minimally guaranteed 2019-20 contract and sparingly used shooting guard Tyler Dorsey, don’t exactly set the world on fire, either. (As Chris Herrington of The Daily Memphian notes, though, those bookkeeping transactions did allow Memphis to sign ex-Raptors curio Bruno Caboclo for the rest of the season; he’ll never be the Brazilian Kevin Durant, but he’s still just 23 years old with go-go-Gadget limbs, and he put up 16 points, five rebounds, and three 3-pointers in Thursday’s blowout loss to Oklahoma City.)
There’s a feeling of running to stand still here. The Grizzlies know it’s time to turn the page, but they don’t yet know what sort of sentence they want to write next. A lot of that will depend on what they’ll do with Conley this summer. After rumored deals with Utah, Detroit, and Indiana fizzled, Memphis opted to hang on to its 31-year-old conductor, believing there will be a more robust market for his services in the offseason, when at least some teams aiming for high-priced free agents come up short and could be willing to part with multiple picks and young assets to lock in a near-All-Star veteran playmaker for two more seasons.
Keeping Conley could help further Jackson’s development. It could also help the Grizzlies avoid becoming bad enough to finish with one of the first eight picks in the 2019 draft. (Memphis owes a top-eight-protected 2019 first-rounder to Boston. You’d typically root for the balls to bounce your way to keep your lottery pick, but if the Grizzlies don’t convey the pick this year, it’s only top-six-protected next year, and completely unprotected in 2021. Basically, the longer Memphis keeps the pick, the better the asset they’ll wind up handing the Celtics. The Grizz would prefer to just get it over with.) It also carries a risk, though: chiefly, that Conley gets hurt over the next 26 games, scuttling any bigger offers and leaving the Grizzlies with yet another albatross contract stifling the rebuild.
As I took stock of what the Grizzlies did and didn’t do on Thursday, though, I found myself awfully interested in seeing what the hell this team will look like over the next couple of months.
Maybe it’s my longtime from-afar Memphis admiration getting the best of me, but I’m pretty down to watch a Jackson–Jonas Valanciunas frontcourt combo. Jackson’s beyond-his-years perimeter game should complement Valanciunas’s interior bruising, and Conley can activate them both in the pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop. Both can protect the rim, with Jackson’s light feet in space covering for Valanciunas and allowing him to play closer to the basket, where he’s a dynamite defensive rebounder.
Wright’s role had waned in Toronto after early-season struggles, but he’s a big, versatile, instinctive playmaker capable of filling multiple roles on either end of the floor. I’m here for some weird-ass lineups. Give me a Valanciunas-Jackson–Kyle “Slow-Mo” Anderson–Wright-Conley group. Get small and nasty with Conley-Wright–Jevon Carter three-guard groups. Play skyscraper ball with Anderson running point and Caboclo at the 2. Let’s unshackle all these misfit toys, J.B. Bickerstaff. Without Gasol, the Grizzlies will never again be what they once were. But they can still be delightfully weird.
Which Deal Has the Biggest Risk of Going South?
I’ve got reservations about things breaking bad in Toronto if Gasol isn’t amenable to reducing his role to fit into the Raptors’ framework, if his arrival wreaks havoc on Nick Nurse’s lineups (does he shift Serge Ibaka to power forward and Pascal Siakam to the 3, and how does that reorient the wing rotation?), and if the team stumbles to an early postseason exit that prompts both Gasol and Kawhi Leonard to opt out of their contracts and leave town. I’m also not completely sold on Tobias Harris being a home run in Philadelphia, as I wrote on Wednesday. To me, though, it’s still the Porzingis deal.
Porzingis may well wind up being the best and most valuable player moved before the deadline. He’s one of 35 players in the 3-point era to make an All-Star team by his age-22 season, and while getting hyped up by the New York media market might have played a role in that, so did the fact that he’s a legit 7-foot-3 stretch-5 who’s one of only two players in NBA history to rack up 250 3-pointers and 350 blocked shots through his first three pro seasons.
Porzingis is where the league is going. That’s why Dallas swallowed $32.8 million in 2019-20 salary owed to Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee, and forked over two first-round draft picks—an unprotected 2021 selection, and a top-10-protected 2023 choice—to pair him with the Mavericks’ other future superstar, Luka Doncic. If he makes a full healthy return from the torn left ACL that has kept him out of action for 367 days and counting, and looks exactly like the kind of ascendant superstar whose loss some Knicks fans (cough, cough) are still mourning, then Mark Cuban won’t sweat the high price he paid, or the cost of a full-freight maximum-salaried contract extension once Porzingis reaches restricted free agency this summer.
But what if KP doesn’t look the superstar part once he gets back on the court—if he’s not as explosive getting off the ground to fire 3s, block shots, or throw down dunks, and if the durability concerns that dogged him throughout his New York tenure continue to rear their ugly head? What if he and Doncic don’t mesh as well as we all imagine they will? What if Porzingis, press-conference back-slapping to the contrary, really is interested in exploring the one-year qualifying offer to reach unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2020 and give himself maximum flexibility over his next career move? What if a chemistry experiment gone awry prompts Doncic to look at how Porzingis forced his way out of New York and say, “Hey, I can do that, too”? I wouldn’t bet on the situation in Dallas deteriorating as rapidly and completely as it did with Porzingis in New York. If it does, though, the Mavs could find themselves with a whole bunch of cap space that players don’t want to take, without draft picks to use to add talent around Doncic, and with few appetizing paths to building the kind of sustainable winner they’ve been missing since the 2011 championship.
Could Anything That Happened at the Deadline Make the Warriors Sweat?
(“Please,” said the Warriors fan. “Don’t mention sweat.”)
I’m very intrigued by what adding Nikola Mirotic does for the Bucks. They have been the class of the Eastern Conference almost all season long, they annihilated the Warriors at Oracle Arena earlier this season, and they now seem to have matchup answers to the kinds of questions that floor-spacing playoff opponents could pose of a Bucks roster heavily dependent on the slow-footed Brook Lopez. I’m not saying Mirotic is the antidote for the Death Lineup or anything, but a version of the Bucks with even more size, length, shooting ability, and versatility seems like a pretty damn good adversary for Golden State.
That said: No, I don’t think the Warriors are losing sleep over any deadline moves. They’ve been too dominant of late—winners of 15 of their past 17 games, with their DeMarcus Cousins–infused five-All-Star lineup outscoring opponents by 23.9 points per 100 possessions since his return and the classic Death Lineup right behind at a robust plus-20.2 points-per-100 over the past two months. Neither the Nuggets nor the Thunder added any pieces—though the return of Andre Roberson could give Oklahoma City a boost—while Houston largely stood pat. And I don’t know if you heard, but the Lakers actually didn’t get Anthony Davis, after all that. FiveThirtyEight gives the Warriors a 57 percent chance of winning their third straight championship; that’s surprising only because it might be kind of low.
Looking past this season, though, the Lakers’ failure to land Davis could wind up hurting the Warriors. Davis remaining on the market means the Celtics can still get in on the bidding this summer, and if New Orleans likes what Danny Ainge has to offer, that could (a) build the most formidable Eastern challenger Golden State has seen since landing Kevin Durant and (b) take Davis off the board as a future target for a Warriors ownership group and front office bent on perpetual dynastic domination.
To the extent that any recent developments shook the throne, though, it was the Knicks clearing up two max salary slots in the Porzingis trade, which touched off all manner of speculation about whether there’s already a wink-wink deal in place for Durant to join forces with Kyrie Irving or another star at Madison Square Garden. That clearly rankled both Irving and Durant, and left the Warriors—who seem to have been bracing for Durant’s exit all season—again dealing with the possibility of this era in Golden State greatness ending come July. For now, the Warriors’ hold on the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy seems vise-grip tight. Whether it remains that way through the start of free agency, though, is the story we’ll all be focusing on … whether KD likes it or not.