clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Biggest Winners and Losers From the 2020 NBA Trade Deadline

While no contender went all in, nearly two-thirds of the league made a move before the buzzer. We examine the impact on the playoff race, this summer, and beyond.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The run-up to the 2020 NBA trade deadline wasn’t quite as frenetic and spicy as it’s been in recent years, but we saw some activity and heard rumblings about plenty more ahead of Thursday’s buzzer. And as the deals came in, just like last year, I sat here, like Frank “T.J.” Mackey, quietly judging them.

What follows are my first-draft-of-history impressions of which teams scored and which ones stumbled in this season’s grand NBA roster reshuffling:

Winner: Andre Iguodala

Reasonable people can disagree over the merits of how Iguodala handled his half-season of exile in Memphis. Maybe you, like Iguodala himself, think his approach should inspire a business school case study in how athletes can control their labor and leverage their brand. Maybe you take a less sanguine view of players not playing until they get traded to where they want to play.

I’m somewhere between those poles. (Always with the hot takes, Devine.) It seems to me that if, as has been reported, the Grizzlies and Iguodala agreed from the jump that he’d never set foot in Memphis—that he was purely an asset for the rebuilding Grizz, who had the cap space to eat a contract the Warriors needed to shed and used it to extract a future first-round pick—then nobody actually got “held hostage” here. It also seems to me that, as he bided his time, Iguodala could have refrained from going on television to talk about how excited he was to make his next move before he made it, and about how thrilling it is to mentor young players on good teams in a playoff chase while, y’know, actively not mentoring young players on a good team in a playoff chase.

Wherever you land on all that, it’s hard not to tip your cap to Iguodala here. He stayed home for seven months, played golf, and hung out while collecting the $17.2 million he’s owed this season. Now he gets to go to Miami and not only join a very good team with a real shot at making the Eastern Conference finals, but also put himself in position, at age 36, to collect an additional $15-30 million, after agreeing to a new two-year extension (with a team option for the second season). Maybe that case study’s not such a bad idea after all.

Winner: Miami Heat

It wasn’t quite Pat Riley’s dream deadline scenario, after his pursuit of Thunder forward Danilo Gallinari ran aground over an inability to work out a contract extension, but it was still pretty fruitful. The Heat turned three players who have played minimal roles in their rise to contention—Justise Winslow, whose versatility and game I love, but who has played all of 15 minutes of basketball in the past two months; James Johnson, who only recently cracked the rotation after beginning the season in dutch by failing his conditioning test; and Dion Waiters, whom the Heat had suspended three different times this season—into three players who might have a chance to provide a boost for the stretch run.

How much Iguodala has left in the tank very much remains to be seen, but he brings a level of playoff experience, playmaking savvy, and defensive aptitude that seems like a perfect fit for a positionless team built around swarming defense and off-ball movement. After several ignominious years in New Orleans after signing one of the more disastrous contracts handed out in the day-drunk summer of 2016, Solomon Hill has had a somewhat surprising resurgence this season, shooting a career-best 38.1 percent from 3-point range while defending multiple positions off the Grizzlies’ bench. Jae Crowder has gone the other way, shooting just 36.8 percent from the field and 29.3 percent from 3-point range for a career-low .466 effective field goal percentage. But he, too, brings defensive versatility, giving Erik Spoelstra another tough wing with plenty of playoff experience to deploy in postseason matchups. (Crowder and Hill also got top marks for their stabilizing veteran presence on the precocious Grizzlies, and—recent beefing with baby bears aside—Iguodala’s rep as a leader and second-unit tone setter precedes him.)

The dollars and cents line up, too: Miami lowers this year’s luxury tax bill, shaves about $27 million off the books for next season, and keeps its balance sheet almost entirely clean for the summer of 2021, when the Heat can put themselves in position to go big-game hunting in what could be a mammoth free-agent class. A present-tense boost that keeps open the path to a brighter future is about as much as you can ask for at the deadline, and Miami looks to have accomplished both.

Loser: Steve Mills

Losing your job as the guy who makes trades for a team two days before the trade deadline is some pretty tough stuff. From the sound of it, though, he’ll probably land pretty softly, so perhaps not the biggest loser on our list.

Winner: The Knicks!

With Mills and his apparent interest in keeping Marcus Morris around for the long haul now out the door, general manager Scott Perry accomplished what seemed to many (present company included) like it should’ve been the franchise’s no. 1 deadline objective: successfully flipping Morris, a free-agent-to-be in the midst of a career year, for future assets.

Morris is heading to the Clippers, and in his place the Knicks get the Clippers’ 2020 first-round draft pick; swap rights on the Clips’ 2021 first-rounder (which is very unlikely to be worse than New York’s, but still!); the draft rights to 2018 second-round pick Issuf Sanon, a 20-year-old Ukrainian guard; the Clippers’ 2021 second-rounder; and Moe Harkless, whom the Knicks can either try to keep around this summer (they have his Bird rights) or just allow his $11 million contract to come off the books.

In a perfect world, New York would’ve found a way to turn even more of their short-term rotational rentals into young players and future picks. Not missing the chance to sell high on Morris is a good piece of business, though; now we wait to see what’s next for the new front office, which will reportedly be led by high-powered CAA agent Leon Rose.

That said, though:

Losers: The Knicks!

James Dolan has heard your chants, but he’s still not selling, y’all. Doesn’t mean you need to stop chanting, though!

Winner: Minnesota Timberwolves

The Wolves look a hell of a lot different on Thursday night than they did on Thursday morning, with eight new players suddenly plying their trade in the Twin Cities. That’s good, because while the a.m. version was a bad team that had traded away Karl-Anthony Towns’s best friend and left him posting concerning memes, the evening edition is a bad team that has another one of his best friends—and this one might actually be able to throw him an entry pass.

After months of open lusting, Gersson Rosas finally landed D’Angelo Russell, and in the bargain, finally bid farewell to Andrew Wiggins after five and a half largely frustrating seasons in Minnesota. Moving off the final three years and $94.7 million of Wiggins’s maximum contract, which recently seemed borderline impossible, is a win in and of itself. Doing it while adding an All-Star–caliber point guard who can orchestrate in the pick-and-roll and bomb 3-pointers accurately at high volume—and who might be able to shake Towns out of the funk he’s fallen into—seems like cause for celebration in the streets of Minneapolis. (The fact that it cost the Wolves a top-three-protected first-round draft pick in 2021 will keep the celebration from being too raucous, but still.)

I’m intrigued by a revamped starting lineup of Towns (24 years old), Russell (23), rookie Jarrett Culver (20), and ex-Nugget Malik Beasley (23, who struggled in a reduced role in Denver this season but was a key contributor to the squad that earned the no. 2 seed last season), and Juancho Hernangómez (24, who thrived playing off Marc Gasol’s stretch-5 during Spain’s run to gold at the 2019 FIBA World Cup). I don’t expect that group to suddenly send the 15-35 Wolves skyrocketing toward the postseason, but they boast a significantly higher offensive upside than their predecessors. Whether they’ll play any defense depends on whether KAT finally commits himself there, but then, that was always going to be the case.

If Towns and Russell can translate their off-court friendship into on-court chemistry, if Beasley and Hernangómez can shine in larger roles, and if coach Ryan Saunders can construct working second units out of some combination of Josh Okogie, Evan Turner, James Johnson, Jacob Evans, and Omari Spellman, the Wolves might finally—for the first time since the Jimmy Butler fiasco—have something worth building around. And if not? Well, at least they got busy living instead of just waiting for Towns to get so frustrated that he becomes the next star to push himself into pre-agency.

Push: Golden State Warriors

I’m a bit less pumped and jacked about the prospect of Warrior Wiggins than my Ringer teammate Kevin O’Connor. (But then, isn’t everyone a bit less pumped and jacked than KOC?) I tend to think that what a player has shown you over a sample of about 450 games and 16,000 minutes is probably who he is, and expecting too drastic a change in a new uniform is a recipe for disappointment. And while I think moving Russell was the right call—I just never quite saw a fit for him on a team with a healthy Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson—I’m not entirely convinced that moving Russell now was the most prudent course of action. Hanging onto him through the summer in a weak free agent class, and then potentially attaching him to what’s likely to be a top-five pick in June’s draft, might have given Golden State the opportunity to shop for a talent infusion in a slightly higher-rent neighborhood than Wiggins Island.

I do think there’s something to be said for the Warriors’ gamble. Insisting on the Wolves’ pick in the 2021 draft, which some evaluators expect to be deeper and more talent-rich than the 2020 class, and limiting protections to only the first three picks—and, if it lands there and the Wolves retain it, no protections on their 2022 pick—is a bet that, even with Russell in tow, Minnesota’s still going to stink next season and beyond. (Which, if they don’t start defending, honestly seems like a pretty good bet.) Add in the four second-round picks the Warriors imported from the Mavericks and 76ers for Willie Cauley-Stein, Alec Burks, and Glenn Robinson III, and the franchise suddenly has a bunch more draft capital with which to hunt upgrades once they get their real team back next season. Considering they ducked below the luxury tax line by sending Evans and Spellman to Minnesota, erasing concerns about having to pay the repeater tax next season, Joe Lacob and Co. should be more than able to afford whatever cost those upgrades require.

If Wiggins proves me wrong and shines in a redefined role, this could wind up being a landmark deadline for the Dubs. But after being burned by brief signs of life from Wiggins a few times over the last few years, I’ll just need to see it before I go all in on believing it.

Winner: L.A. Clippers

After moving heaven, earth, and the rights to about a half-dozen first-round picks to land Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the Clippers didn’t have many tradable assets left to dangle at the deadline. (Or, at least, not ones they wanted to trade.) But they were able to package their most movable remaining pieces—Harkless’s expiring contract, 2018 lottery pick Jerome Robinson, and their 2020 first-round pick—to land Marcus Morris, one of the more coveted frontcourt options on the board.

With the ability to create his own shot off the dribble and shooting a career-best 43.9 percent from 3-point range, Morris represents a significant offensive upgrade over Harkless in the Clips’ starting and closing lineups. It might take him a minute to adjust to a smaller role, after spending the past few months as a de facto no. 1 option on a dreadful Knicks team; once he does, though, he should feast on the cleaner looks and weaker defenders he’ll face as a result of playing alongside Leonard and George. The 6-foot-8, 235-pound Morris also gives Doc Rivers another big, strong, physical, and quick defender to throw at LeBron James—whom Mook has guarded as often as anybody over the past few years—in a potential playoff matchup. (The Clippers still don’t have a great answer for defending Anthony Davis in said series. Then again, hardly anybody else does, either.)

The Clips had to cough up their 2020 first-rounder, plus swap rights on their 2021 first (please stifle your laughter) and Detroit’s 2021 second-rounder (which could be damn near a first-round pick, depending on how long that impending rebuild takes) to land Morris, which stings a bit. But trading later for now is the cost of doing business when you’re a bona fide contender. Steve Ballmer and Co. signed up to live perpetually in the present tense when they landed Kawhi and PG; there’s no parallel track to build on anymore, no alternate option. Now’s all there is for these Clippers, and right now, they might just be the deepest team in the West.

Loser (but only slightly): Los Angeles Lakers

While their stiffest competition landed a useful player that they reportedly also wanted, the Lakers couldn’t find either a perimeter-defending upgrade to match up against the likes of Kawhi and PG (a Covington or Iguodala would’ve hit the spot, but they couldn’t match what Houston or Miami offered) or a playmaking reserve to boost their second-unit offense (Bogdan Bogdanovic, Derrick Rose, et al.).

It’s only a relative L, though. The Lakers retain a healthy lead over the second-place Clips. They still have a way to push the pedal to the metal come the playoffs, still have the kind of chemistry that might not be worth messing with by doing too much tinkering, and should still have options to round out their roster in the buyout market.

Speaking of which ...

Winner: Darren Collison

With apologies to Rajon Rondo and Alex Caruso, the Lakers continue to need another ball handler they can trust. The Clippers briefly added Isaiah Thomas in the three-team deal with the Knicks and Wizards, but they’re not holding on to him, so they could use one, too. Nearly 10 months since he last suited up, the 32-year-old Rancho Cucamonga native and UCLA star—who apparently just told his old buddy Matt Barnes that he’s still 50/50 on a comeback—could still have his pick between the title-favorite L.A. squads and be the belle of the buyout market ball.

If the company he was keeping on Thursday night is any indication …

... he might be wearing forum blue and gold at that ball, should he decide to attend.

Winner: Houston Rockets

Part of me thinks I should go the other way here. After all, Houston just traded its starting center and its first-round pick this June for a 3-and-D swingman, a 2024 second-round pick, and Bruno Caboclo, now two years past two years away from being two years away, and still not really there yet. That just doesn’t feel like a sound allocation of assets, you know?

But what can I say? I’m a sucker for commitment to the bit. And, my friends, shopping and then trading Clint Capela for Robert Covington, rolling with a starting lineup that features zero players taller than 6-foot-6, and essentially turning Russell Westbrook into 6-foot-3 Ben Simmons On the Nights Joel Embiid Doesn’t Play—all pace-pushing, wreaking havoc in transition, slicing to the rim through wide-open driving lanes—is some extreme commitment to the bit. I have no idea how this team’s going to stop anyone, but maybe that won’t matter if Houston’s scoring 120-plus every night. Fuck it. Damn the torpedoes, Mike, Daryl, James, and Russ. Let’s get weird.

Slight Winner That Resembles a Big Loser: Detroit Pistons

Listen, it sucks to lose a player as good as Andre Drummond—not my favorite center, not somebody I’m positive will ever be a meaningful contributor on a good team, but still a durable and productive monster—for almost nothing. Which, honestly, is just about what Detroit got for him in its stunning late-in-the-day trade with Cleveland: the expiring contracts of erstwhile Piston Brandon Knight and John Henson, plus a 2023 second-round pick. Yipes.

But it’s been clear for a while now that Detroit needed to tear this thing down and start fresh, and it’d be awfully hard for the Pistons to do that if Drummond had picked up his $28.8 million player option next season. A few months ago, it seemed all but certain that the 26-year-old would opt out to hit the open market, becoming one of the few All-Star-level players available in unrestricted free agency. But the frigid trade market for his services ahead of a summer in which so few teams are in line to have cap space might have changed Drummond’s thinking; Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com reported Thursday that Drummond “is likely to pick up” his 2020-21 option.

It would’ve been a hell of a lot cooler if Detroit had found a way to also flip Rose, Markieff Morris, Tony Snell, Langston Galloway, or basically anybody else who’s not on a rookie contract; not getting a lot more done by Thursday does constitute a disappointment. But for the Pistons, moving Drummond to prevent him from locking in another year on their books, while also getting some financial relief and a draft asset they can spin forward, does have value—even if it’s just in confirming the direction the franchise intends to go.

Loser: Andre Drummond

Yeah, this one’s just a straight-up loser. After years of double-doubles, staggering rebounding numbers, and incremental improvement as a playmaker and interior defender, Drummond found out that hardly anybody seemed all that interested in him. That meant, for most of Thursday, that it looked like he’d be staying put in Detroit until the summer. And then: Cleveland. He did not love to see it ...

… and it’s tough to blame him. Not only did Drummond not land with a contender; he landed in arguably a worse situation than the one he was just in. Now he’ll spend the next two months trying to figure out how to fit in alongside the young guards who have helped facilitate Kevin Love’s season-long descent into madness. And, all the while, he’ll have to wonder who (if anyone) is going to be willing to fork over another max salary or something like it for his services, either this summer or in 2021, where there’ll be more teams with money to spend but perhaps few with an especially big appetite for Drummond’s contributions.

And hey, since we’re talking Cleveland ...

I Don’t Know What to Do With My Hands?: Cleveland Cavaliers

I mean, I guess you make the trade for Drummond because it basically costs you nothing, and—similar to the thinking behind Atlanta going after Clint Capela—you think a big man will help organize your young and scattered team. (We’ll table, for the moment, the bit about Detroit’s defenses faring worse with Drummond on the floor for most of his career.) Except … like, you also still have Tristan Thompson, who’s going to hit free agency this summer, and you didn’t get anything for him? And you still have Love? And also Larry Nance Jr.?

Maybe this all shakes out just so. Maybe Drummond finds fast chemistry with Love in the frontcourt, and their inside-out combination helps unlock more possibilities for Darius Garland and Collin Sexton. Maybe Drummond opts in or locks in an extension while taking a bit of a haircut on the annual average value of the contract. Maybe GM Koby Altman finds a sign-and-trade for Thompson, and the Cavs start to coalesce into a team with an identity and direction. I’m having a hard time shaking the feeling, though, that bringing in Drummond kind of amounts to just rearranging very expensive deck chairs.

Loser: Kevin Love

After all that stomping and pouting and shouting: still in Cleveland, guys.

Double Loser: Tristan Thompson

Not only did Thompson not get moved to a team looking to make “a serious playoff run”—he also just lost his starting job on the worst team in the East. Woof.

Winner: Memphis Grizzlies

I liked the Grizzlies’ end of the Iguodala deal more before it became clear they were moving Crowder and Hill, two veteran leaders on expiring contracts, and taking on more expensive, longer-lasting deals. But I was still on board for that cost of doing business when the business you’re doing is landing Justise Winslow—a 6-foot-6, 225-pound Swiss army knife who has already been a legit 3-and-D swingman, a solid starting point guard, and a starting center in a Game 7 in his young career. Winslow, 23, has guarded everyone from Kemba Walker to Karl-Anthony Towns, and locked up on a sweetheart deal that will pay him $13 million a year for the next two seasons (with a team option for 2021-22).

I hear the concerns about Winslow’s injury history. The former Duke standout has missed 133 games in the past four seasons, with more to come (we still don’t know when he’ll be back to 100 percent after suffering a bone bruise in his back that’s kept him out since early December). But it’s not as if Winslow has dealt with chronic injuries to one particular part of his body—a torn labrum in his right shoulder prematurely ended his 2016-17 season; a left knee strain cost him 14 games in 2017-18; a sore right hamstring and a bruised right thigh shelved him for portions of last season; and now, it’s the lower back. The Grizzlies have already managed one lower-back injury this season: De’Anthony Melton missed most of the first five weeks of the season, and he’s since become one of the league’s highest-impact reserves. Memphis is betting its medical team can help get Winslow right, too, and plug another tough, physical, athletic, and versatile piece into one of the sport’s most wonderful-to-watch young rosters.

After adding Winslow, Grizzlies executive vice president of basketball operations Zach Kleiman also nipped any concern over locker-room discord in the bud by making it clear that Dion Waiters won’t be sticking around. He redirected former Grizzlies forward James Johnson to Minnesota for Gorgui Dieng (a solid paint protector, rebounder, and newfound floor spacer) to back up Jonas Valanciunas. (A pair of fun facts: Dieng, amazingly, ranks sixth in Timberwolves history in win shares; he is also now Memphis’s highest-paid player.) And in flipping Caboclo—who showed flashes of being a legit NBA shot blocker and rim runner—to Houston for Jordan Bell, he also scooped up a 2023 second-round pick swap with the Rockets. Maybe it amounts to nothing. But maybe, after the the contracts of James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Eric Gordon expire, the Rockets aren’t very good, and Memphis winds up with a pick in the mid-30s to either use or trade for something else.

It’s possible the eighth-place Grizz—now 2.5 games ahead of the no. 9 Trail Blazers and four up on the 10th-place Spurs—wobble a bit after moving two rotation mainstays with Winslow still not ready to go. (Though I don’t expect replacing Crowder with Kyle Anderson in the starting lineup to lead to a major drop-off; the Anderson-Valanciunas–Ja Morant–Jaren Jackson Jr.–Dillon Brooks lineup is plus-10 in 72 minutes this season and has defended like gangbusters in that small sample.) But I still like how Memphis played its hand, exiting the deadline with a 23-year-old who could fill a big hole on the wing, a reasonable extension for Dillon Brooks, more depth in the frontcourt, and a roster 10 deep on dudes who can play and who are all guaranteed through the end of next season. Friday marks the one-year anniversary of the Grizzlies trading Marc Gasol to Toronto. It’s staggering how much work they’ve done, and how far they’ve come, in 365 days.

Winner-ish: Atlanta Hawks

I definitely arched an eyebrow when I saw that the Hawks had traded for Dewayne Dedmon, their former starting center, one day after trading for Clint Capela to be their new starting center. As my Ringer colleague D.J. Foster noted, sending out picks—most notably Brooklyn’s 2020 first-rounder, which should land somewhere around no. 15 overall—for get-you-over-the-hump veterans when you’re 13-38 smacks of malpractice. (For what it’s worth, the Dedmon deal did net Atlanta a pair of future second-round picks to help restock the coffers.)

That said: the 13-38 product the Hawks have been putting on the floor has often smacked of malpractice, too. Importing Capela (whose fit and value I wrote about earlier this week) and Dedmon (who had a dreadful start to his three-year, $40 million contract in Sacramento, but who averaged 10.4 points, 7.7 rebounds, and one block per game while shooting 37.2 percent from deep as a stretch 5 in two seasons in Atlanta) should help raise the Hawks’ floor, establishing a baseline of defensive professionalism in the paint that could make life easier for Atlanta’s young core. Taking on about $30 million in 2020-21 salary for Capela and Dedmon cuts into the Hawks’ flexibility next season, but they still project to be nearly $50 million under the salary cap, which gives them plenty of room to either rent out cap space for more assets or fit in a high-price player whom Travis Schlenk might see as a fit in his ongoing (and evidently expedited) rebuilding project.

Contextual Winner Whose Victory Ultimately Does Not Solve Their Problems: Philadelphia 76ers

Philadelphia couldn’t reasonably expect major upgrades at the deadline without moving one of its biggest pieces. Rather than abandon ship on their titanic (and hopefully not Titanic) team, the Sixers sent the Warriors three second-round picks for Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III, then bid farewell to Trey Burke and James Ennis III. (Shout-out to parallel structure.)

After a half-decade spent fighting off injuries and inconsistency, Burks and Robinson both seized the opportunities afforded to them by Golden State’s gap year. Burks averaged 16.1 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 3.1 assists in 29 minutes per game; Robinson, 12.9 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 1.8 assists in 31.6 minutes per game. Both have shot well on a notable number of attempts, with Burks hitting 37.5 percent from 3-point range on 4.7 long-distance tries a night, and Robinson canning 40 percent of his 3.5 triples per contest. Burks steps in as Philly’s best half-court slashing/scoring option; Robinson offers a chance for an upgrade over Ennis in the 3-and-D wing department.

All of which is fine. More shooting certainly can’t hurt a Sixers team that often looks like it’s gasping for air in the half court. (Perhaps Brett Brown winds up taking a stab at something like a small-ball fivesome of Ben Simmons, Burks, Robinson, Tobias Harris, and Furkan Korkmaz, just to see what a Philadelphia lineup looks like when Simmons plays in as much space as possible.) But after watching the Sixers get rinsed in their last four games—double-digit defeats to the Hawks, Celtics, Heat, and Bucks—it’s a little hard to get too jazzed about Burks and Robinson. The new dudes might matter if Simmons, Harris, Joel Embiid, Al Horford, and Josh Richardson (when he’s healthy) can finally figure their shit out. If they don’t, though, nothing else will.

I Get It, But … : Denver Nuggets

Beasley and Hernangomez were ninth and 12th, respectively, on the Nuggets in minutes, and were both set to reach restricted free agency this summer. Denver wasn’t going to give significant raises to two fringe pieces, even if they might be good enough to play bigger roles than that, so moving them to Minnesota in Tuesday’s four-team monster deal and extracting some value for them—headlined by Houston’s 2020 first-round pick—makes sense. It felt like a precursor to another move, though … and, with the exception of redirecting Shabazz Napier from Minnesota to Washington for Jordan McRae, it never came.

What Denver did land could help. Noah Vonleh and Keita Bates-Diop are both athletic, versatile young forwards who can defend multiple positions in the frontcourt; Bates-Diop, who’s shot 16-for-35 from the short corners this season, could become an interesting 3-and-D type to pair with Nikola Jokic. McRae’s not as good of an all-around player as Beasley, but he provides instant offense off the bench, averaging 12.8 points in 22.6 minutes per game in Washington while shooting 37.7 percent from 3. He could ably step into at least some of Beasley’s minutes and replace some of his production without an eight-figure payday in five months.

Getting another first-round pick to eventually add low-cost talent is a good piece of business for a team not in a huge market that has already committed nine-figure deals to Jokic and Jamal Murray and has to be conscious of the luxury tax line and the balance sheet. And it’s understandable that a Nuggets team built around a 24-year-old (Jokic), a 22-year-old (Murray), and a 21-year-old (Michael Porter Jr.) would think more about the big picture than trying to go for it all right now. It’s just a little hard to shake the feeling that a damn good team—on pace for 56 wins, one of six teams to rank in the top 10 in offensive and defensive efficiency, with a puncher’s chance at making the Finals—might have missed an opportunity to grab the brass ring.

Lowest-of-Keys Winner: Portland Trail Blazers

Neil Olshey did his work early, but what looked like a salary dump—Kent Bazemore and Anthony Tolliver to Sacramento in exchange for Trevor Ariza, Wenyen Gabriel, and Caleb Swanigan—has paid real dividends for Portland. Ariza, 34, looked cooked for the better part of a year and a half before landing in the Pacific Northwest, but he has slid seamlessly into Portland’s starting frontcourt alongside Hassan Whiteside and Carmelo Anthony. He’s averaging about 10 points and five rebounds per game on 48/39/88 shooting splits in seven games, and the Blazers have outscored opponents by 3.5 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions with him on the court.

Portland’s still got a way to go to overtake Memphis and steal a spot in the West’s top eight, and whether it does so depends more on whether Damian Lillard can sustain his recent MVP-level play than on any around-the-margins tweaks. But when you’re in danger of drowning, all you can do is keep kicking and trying to keep your head above water. The Melo signing helped keep Portland afloat. The Ariza trade has, too. Now Jusuf Nurkic is practicing and Zach Collins is starting individual workouts, and the Blazers have a chance. It might not be much, but considering how bleak things looked in Portland early in the season, it ain’t nothing.

Slight Loser: Milwaukee Bucks

After hearing chatter about how the Bucks brass was open to shopping the 2020 first-round draft pick it got from Indiana in the Malcolm Brogdon deal and willing to dip into the luxury tax, it was a little disappointing to see Milwaukee stand pat on Thursday. We don’t have to relitigate the Brogdon trade every time we talk about the Bucks, but now that we know they’re not using that ammunition to make this year’s team the best possible championship contender, this does feel like an appropriate time to mention that it’s a bit of a bummer.

That said:

Winner: Milwaukee Bucks

While it remains to be seen what comes down the pike in the buyout market, I don’t think any of the other would-be Eastern contenders did anything that should scare Milwaukee—Toronto and Boston opted out, the Pacers made their acquisition when Victor Oladipo came back, and Philly … well, the Bucks just annihilated Philly, and I don’t think Burks and Robinson are going to change that math too much. I’m guessing they’re not sweating the Clippers adding Marcus Morris, either.

The deadline didn’t change the fact that the Bucks remain the best team in the NBA, and the odds-on favorite to win the 2020 championship.

The Mismatch

Ten Questions About the Upcoming Season, Plus Zion Williamson’s Health and Kyrie Irving’s Instagram Live

The Answer

What Makes a Mid-market Team Desirable?

Higher Learning

The Democratic Honeymoon Is Over and Prayers for Jelani Day

View all stories in NBA