Everybody told us to expect a quiet 2021 NBA trade deadline … and then, all of a sudden, the Magic were stripping everything down to the studs? And a flood of Kyle Lowry rumors—Philly! Miami! The Lakers! The Clippers?—barreled down the timeline. And where the hell was the Victor Oladipo trade—oh, OK, there it is.
The lesson, as always: Don’t trust anyone. And don’t leave your phone on the desk as you go to get a cup of coffee. (Um, y’know, hypothetically.)
As the rumors rolled in and the deals got done, as I have for the past two years, 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: Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets entered deadline day 3.5 games out of second place in the West. Everyone knew they had the goods to go basket-for-basket with anybody, boasting the NBA’s fourth-best offense led by MVP candidate Nikola Jokic, flamethrowing guard Jamal Murray, and ascendant scoring forward Michael Porter Jr. What they were missing, though, was a skeleton key to unlock their 20th-ranked defense—the sort of big, versatile, gifted defender that Mike Malone could dispatch to deal with apex-predator scoring threats. That’s the sort of player they need to contend and make it through the Western gantlet unscathed, and the sort of player they’ve lacked since Jerami Grant decided to go to Detroit.
We’ll find out come the postseason whether Aaron Gordon—imported from Orlando along with reserve forward Gary Clark for veteran wing Gary Harris, rookie guard R.J. Hampton, and a protected 2025 first-round pick—is really that dude. He’s got the look, though.
Gordon isn’t a wildly disruptive defender—an above-average block rate for a combo forward, a below-average steal rate—but he’s an adaptable one. You can feel pretty good about him handling just about any assignment on any given possession; Gordon ranks 10th in defensive versatility in The BBall Index’s defensive metrics this season, spending nearly as much of his floor time defending point guards (23.1 percent) as power forwards (27.7 percent). That could allow Malone to experiment a bit more schematically down the stretch and into the postseason; you can imagine Denver more readily switching all screens not involving Jokic with Gordon in the mix (and maybe, when they go small with JaMychal Green at 5, switching everything).
Most importantly, at 6-foot-8 and 235 pounds, with a 7-foot wingspan and dunk contest legend athleticism, Gordon has precisely the size and tool kit you’d want to match up against the league’s best big-wing playmakers. The list of Gordon’s most frequent defensive matchups this season includes superstars like Jimmy Butler, Luka Doncic, James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Kevin Durant—exactly the kind of game-changers for whom Denver will need a like-sized answer come the playoffs.
The Nuggets don’t need Gordon to score, and he doesn’t need to dominate the ball; in Denver, alongside Jokic, if you move, he’ll find you, and you’ll score. The degree of the deal’s success hinges on how willing Gordon is to buy into that sort of role—on him accepting the notion, after seven mostly middling seasons with the Magic in a primary role, that the best way for him to make an impact on a team of consequence is to be a lower-usage Swiss Army knife. The version of Aaron Gordon who defends his ass off, runs the floor, and sets screens and looks to make plays for others could be a truly game-changing addition for a Denver team with the firepower to make real noise in the playoffs.
There is a potential gray cloud inside the silver lining of the big swing. Gary Harris’s offensive production has been in sharp decline through the past three seasons (hip and leg injuries have seemed to wreak havoc on his jumper, explosiveness, and finishing ability), but he has remained Denver’s no. 1 backcourt defender and Malone’s best option to tamp down on elite playmaking guards. You might recall that the Nuggets’ 3-1 comeback against the Jazz in Round 1 of last season’s playoffs began in earnest when Harris returned to the lineup, and Donovan Mitchell suddenly stopped looking unstoppable. That guy’s gone now, and Mitchell isn’t—and neither are Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Stephen Curry, Ja Morant, or any of the other tough covers that prospective postseason opponents could throw at Denver. The rest of the Nuggets’ guard rotation—Murray, Monte Morris, Will Barton, PJ Dozier, Facundo Campazzo—will now have to punch above its weight class to make up the difference. But you have to spend money to make money, and Nuggets GM Tim Connelly decided that the potential upside of having Gordon around to connect the dots up front outweighed the potential downside of leaving the backcourt susceptible.
Before swinging that big deal, Denver started Thursday by upgrading at backup center by sending third-year big Isaiah Hartenstein and a pair of future second-round picks to Cleveland for JaVale McGee. The Nuggets have actually broken even with Jokic off the court this season, but relying on Hartenstein, Green, and rookie Zeke Nnaji to credibly man the middle when Serbian Totoro needs a breather seemed like a dicey proposition in the playoffs. McGee returns for a second tour of duty in Denver as a more dependable and stable option behind Jokic, nearly a decade removed from his Shaqtin’ a Fool residency and now a proven postseason veteran with three championships to his name.
Loser (for Now, Anyway): Orlando Magic
Four-fifths of the lineup that started the Magic’s Wednesday win over the Suns will suit up elsewhere come Friday. That in and of itself is no great sin; Orlando is, after all, 15-29, in 14th place in the East, in the middle of a dismal skid ever since Markelle Fultz went down and is looking to be in no danger of righting the ship before season’s end.
The three trades that the Magic made on Thursday all feel fairly justifiable individually. Moving Gordon to Denver returned a high-end backcourt prospect in Hampton, a stalwart defender and teammate in Harris (who will double as a $20.5 million expiring contract next season), and a protected 2025 first-rounder. Flipping Evan Fournier—who hit the game-winner against Phoenix, which was a nice way for him to end his time in Florida, all things considered—to Boston brought back two future second-round picks. And if the Gordon and Fournier deals weren’t going to bring back immediate help to keep Orlando competitive for postseason berths through the next two seasons, then sending All-Star center Nikola Vucevic—the franchise’s centerpiece, and also a 30-year-old with two years left on his deal—to Chicago for protected first-round picks in 2021 and 2023, former lottery pick Wendell Carter Jr., and swingman Otto Porter Jr. (who would be a $28.5 million expiring contract next season, if he doesn’t wind up on the buyout market before that) makes sense.
Taken in the aggregate, though … it all feels pretty underwhelming, doesn’t it?
It’s hard to fault the Magic for deciding it was time to move on from the previous core. It’s just also hard to get too excited about a new core of Jonathan Isaac (who’s coming off consecutive devastating leg injuries), Fultz (who’s coming off an ACL tear), a center tandem of Carter Jr. (who’s an intriguing player, but one whose development fell off a cliff in Chicago) and Mo Bamba (who’s played 224 minutes this season and at this point remains more of a theoretical prospect than an actual one), and rookies Hampton, Cole Anthony (who’s been out since before Valentine’s Day with a fractured rib), and Chuma Okeke (who’s looked good!), and three extra protected picks over the next five years. The counterargument: The real core pieces are the ones to come with Orlando’s own first-round picks, since the team owns all of them, and they’re probably going to be really good, since the Magic are probably going to be really, really bad.
It’s possible this could all work out—that Isaac could come back 100 percent and look like the game-breaking defensive prospect he was before going down, that Fultz could pick up where he left off, that one or more of the new rookie-scale prospects could pop, that Orlando could land Cade Cunningham and change the entire trajectory of the franchise, etc. Right now, though, it feels like the Magic held on a bit too tight and a bit too long to players who could’ve netted more value sooner and, instead of securing a triumphant return, wound up with more of a shoulder shrug in what is now a decade-long construction project that hasn’t really built anything or been particularly fun along the way.
Winner: Terrence Ross
The newly minted elder statesman of the Orlando Magic had a fun time on Twitter on Thursday as his running buddies all got picked off one by one:
— Terrence Ross (@TerrenceRoss) March 25, 2021
Lol if you don’t laugh, you cry— Terrence Ross (@TerrenceRoss) March 25, 2021
It seems like as healthy a way to deal with the stresses and imbalances of deadline day as any other, you know?
Low-key Winner: Cleveland Cavaliers
“Tidy asset management” doesn’t exactly inspire fans to sing hymns of praise, nor should it, but the entire JaVale McGee era was a decent bit of business for the Cavs. They acquired McGee in the offseason by basically renting out their cap space to the Lakers, agreeing to take on his $4.2 million salary to free up L.A. to add Marc Gasol in exchange for a 2026 second-rounder. Then, a half-season later, they move him to Denver for two more second-rounders—one in 2023 protected through the 46th pick (meaning they’ll get it so long as the Nuggets are pretty good) and an unprotected selection in 2027 (and who knows what Denver, or the league at large, will look like at that point?). They also get a look at the 23-year-old Hartenstein, who’s shown some flashes of being a useful pick-and-roll-finishing big man in limited run in Houston and Denver, and could find more opportunities to develop behind Jarrett Allen than he did behind Jokic.
Low-key Loser: Cleveland Cavaliers
Thirteen months after trading a second-round pick to get Andre Drummond, Cleveland couldn’t even get that much in return for him, and will instead work with him on a buyout that will let him pick a new home. What a short, not-that-strange-or-rewarding trip it’s been.
Loser: Houston Rockets
When the James Harden blockbuster went down, the Rockets could have just held on to Caris LeVert, the rising young swingman that Brooklyn sent out as part of the package to land the former MVP. Instead, they chose to send LeVert—and the remaining two years and $36.3 million on his contract—to Indiana in exchange for Victor Oladipo, who was on the books for more money this season but came off the books after it. The thinking, it seemed, was that new Houston personnel chief Rafael Stone could double-dip, letting Oladipo put up numbers for a couple of months before flipping him at the deadline to another suitor willing to pony up in a big way for a high-octane combo guard amid the playoff race.
And then, well, Christian Wood went down, and the Rockets completely fell apart, losing a franchise-worst 20 straight games. And while Oladipo did put up numbers (21.2 points, 4.8 rebounds, 5.0 assists, and 1.2 steals in 33.5 minutes per game in Houston), he also shot 41 percent from the field and 32 percent from deep without looking great on defense. He also turned down an extension offer from the Rockets that made it clear to just about everyone that he didn’t seem all that interested in sticking around Houston beyond this summer, which doesn’t exactly boost your leverage as a seller. In the end, it doesn’t appear a frothy market ever developed for a short-term rental of the 28-year-old, who’s now three injury-plagued and inconsistent years removed from his All-NBA peak.
As a result, the Rockets wound up taking what they could get from the Heat, who finally consummated their long-rumored, much-discussed mutual interest with Oladipo at the bottom-of-the-barrel cost of Avery Bradley, Kelly Olynyk, and the right to swap 2022 first-round picks with either Miami or Brooklyn. (Let it never be said that the Rockets don’t land their players where they want to go.) In essence, then, Houston passed on the chance to pair LeVert with Wood in the core of whatever the next competitive iteration of the Rockets might look like so that it could potentially shave about $18.5 million off its cap sheet—Olynyk’s $12.2 million expiring contract, plus Bradley’s $5.9 million team option for next season. Well, that ought to make Tilman Fertitta happy, at least. Doesn’t do a whole hell of a lot for what looks like one of the toughest rebuilding jobs in the league, though.
Winning and Losing Is in the Eye of the Beholder: Kyle Lowry
It sure looked like Lowry expected to be moved after the Raptors’ Wednesday night pasting of the Nuggets. He appeared to have tears in his eyes as he walked off the court following a quintessential Lowry performance—eight points on five shots, nine assists, five rebounds, a block, and a game- and career-high plus-42 in 33 minutes. He even found the cameras in the tunnel to throw up some deuces on his way to the locker room:
If this is the end, isn't this the exact way you'd envision Kyle Lowry saying, "It's been real, y'all." pic.twitter.com/BrSZHYa0FV— Michael Lee (@MrMichaelLee) March 25, 2021
It sure seemed, as Thursday wended its way toward the 3 p.m. ET buzzer, like he was going to be on the move. The Raptors made one larger deal (swingman Norman Powell to Portland for Gary Trent Jr. and Rodney Hood) and two smaller deals (Matt Thomas to Utah, Terence Davis to Sacramento, both for future second-round picks) that seemed to signal Masai Ujiri was preparing for a major roster overhaul to come. Would it be Philly? No, the Sixers went with George Hill from OKC. Would it be Miami? No, the Heat went with Oladipo. What about the Clippers? Nope—Rajon Rondo from Atlanta. The Lakers? Nah, maybe that one never made too much sense anyway.
And then, the buzzer went off … and nothing.
The Raptors are keeping Kyle Lowry, source tells ESPN.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) March 25, 2021
Now, I am on the record as saying this is not a bad outcome for the Raptors. If there wasn’t a no-doubt-about-it deal on the table for Ujiri and GM Bobby Webster to take (and, to hear Woj tell it, there wasn’t) and if Lowry was content to finish out the final season of his contract as a Raptor before heading into unrestricted free agency this summer (and, to hear Woj tell it, he was), then there was no reason to push for a deal. The Raptors—1.5 games out of the play-in tournament, four games out of sixth place—can exhale, and see whether a roster that is finally more or less healthy, that just took apart a damn good Nuggets team the night before the deadline, and that just replaced Powell with a hell of a young player in Trent Jr., might have something to say about the way the Eastern standings look before season’s end.
They might not. In two months’ time, if the Raptors wind up on the outside of the playoffs looking in, Ujiri and Webster might come to rue the missed opportunity of not at least getting something for Lowry before he left. Come Friday morning, Lowry might feel pangs of regret for not pushing harder to get Ujiri to move him to a team where he’d have a better chance of winning a second championship, likely all but cementing his Hall of Fame bona fides in the process. Maybe, though, those sorts of regrets aren’t the ones that any of the parties involved here were most concerned about.
You don’t trade someone who’s meant as much to a franchise as Kyle Lowry has meant to the Raptors unless someone gives you a reason to. If they don’t, then you let the greatest player in franchise history run out the season, and you try to come to a reasonable deal with him in free agency, and if you can’t, then you let him walk with head held high, throwing flowers at Lowry’s feet as he does so. This is how you treat your legends, and if Lowry ever had any reason to doubt that that’s how the Raptors and the fans back in Toronto see him, then the outpouring of love he got this week—and especially on Wednesday—should erase that for good. There’s more than one way to win. Maybe Lowry and the Raptors found another one here.
Winner: Chicago Bulls
The Bulls entered Thursday at 19-24, clinging to the final play-in spot in the East and facing the conference’s second-toughest remaining schedule. They also entered Thursday just three games out of fourth, with a legitimate All-Star and top-10 scorer in Zach LaVine who gives them a puncher’s chance in any fight. So first-year personnel chief Arturas Karnisovas chose to turn that puncher’s chance into a one-two punch, packaging up Carter, Porter, and protected first-round picks in the ’21 and ’23 drafts to go get Vucevic, a two-time All-Star who instantly becomes the Bulls’ best big man since Joakim Noah finished fourth in MVP voting in 2014.
To be fair, there’s some downside risk here. Carter, still a few weeks shy of his 22nd birthday, could absolutely still develop into the Horfordesque center so many envisioned coming out of Duke. If the next couple of years don’t break the Bulls’ hope, those two first-rounders—both top-four protected—could wind up delivering mid-lottery talent to Orlando rather than Chicago. I can understand why some fans might feel a bit apprehensive about packaging all that together for the right to pay $46 million for Vucevic’s age-31 and -32 seasons.
But Carter has battled injury, inconsistency, and Hoiberg-and-Boylen–induced mania throughout his three seasons; recently lost his starting job to Thaddeus Young because Chicago’s starting lineup was ghastly with him in it; and would be up for an extension after next season. Porter, once someone whose max-contract offer sheet seemed legitimately defensible to some writers (cough, cough), has been limited by injuries and played fewer than 900 minutes over the past two seasons. Those picks will be closer to mid-round, at best, if the Bulls make the playoffs—which they’re now a more serious threat to do, because Vucevic is really friggin’ good.
Vucevic is eighth in the NBA in value over replacement player this season, right between James Harden and Kawhi Leonard. He just made his second All-Star team on the strength of a career year, averaging just under 25 points, 12 rebounds, and four assists per game while shooting 40.6 percent from 3-point range on 6.5 attempts a night. He’s a heady and willing facilitator from the elbows and the post, and another reliable playmaking option to bolster an offense that ranks a middling 16th in half-court scoring efficiency. Vucevic will be the most dangerous pick-and-pop and dribble handoff partner whom LaVine has had since Karl-Anthony Towns, and this version of LaVine will be the most dynamic, attention-demanding scoring threat whom Vooch has ever played with. They should make life easier on one another, and for the rest of the Bulls. They’ve got a chance to do some real damage together.
The Bulls’ new brain trust also shuffled up some of their supporting cast, pulling off a three-team deal with the Celtics and Wizards that yielded Daniel Theis, a tough defender and rebounder who fared well for two seasons as Boston’s undersized starting center, and Troy Brown Jr., a 2018 first-round pick with some playmaking and defensive chops who fell out of favor in Washington, but averaged 15-7-4.5 for the Wizards in the bubble. It’ll be interesting to see how Billy Donovan juggles the rotation now; Vucevic, Thaddeus Young, Theis, Al-Farouq Aminu, and the rumored-to-be-moving-but-staying-put Lauri Markkanen make for a fairly crowded frontcourt. You also get the sense that Karnisovas and Co. aren’t necessarily thrilled to keep rolling with Tomas Satoransky and Coby White at the point, given all that Markkanen-for-Lonzo chatter throughout the day. For now, though, they’ve got options to play with, and two versatile, skilled, damn good offensive players to force opposing defenses to make some pretty tough choices.
Maybe that’ll be enough to send Chicago rocketing up the standings, and maybe it won’t. But after a half-decade of mostly desultory basketball since Tom Thibodeau’s ouster, the Bulls saw a chance to make a clean break and reach for something better, and they went for it. There’s something to be said for that, I think; now, we find out if fortune really does favor the bold.
Winner ... I Think. OK, I’m Not Totally Sure: Portland Trail Blazers
The trade that surprised me most on Thursday, by some distance, was Portland sending Gary Trent Jr. and Rodney Hood to the Raptors for Norman Powell. There were lots of teams in on Powell—the number of suitors ran “in the teens,” according to Marc Stein of The New York Times—but I didn’t expect him to land with a Blazers team that already features two elite backcourt scorers and creators in Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Especially not at the cost of Trent, the 22-year-old swingman who has built on his bubble breakout by averaging 15 points per game on 40 percent 3-point shooting while guarding every perimeter position.
Sure, Trent, a 2018 second-round pick, is set to hit restricted free agency this summer, and will surely command a massive raise. But Powell, 27, holds an $11.6 million player option for next season; he’s almost certainly going to opt out and hit unrestricted free agency, where he’ll be in line for an even larger payday than Trent, and could have a strong enough market that he winds up being a short-term rental. Isn’t that a bit of a risky play?
For the long haul, it might be. Right now, though, Powell is an upgrade. Like Trent, he’s a high-volume sharpshooter, off the dribble and off the catch, who can defend three positions. But he can also break down a defense and get to the rim (he’s taking 36 percent of his shots at the basket this season, compared to 15 percent for Trent), convert those up-close tries at a higher clip (63 percent, compared to 61 percent), and hunt contact to get to the line (his free throw rate is twice as high as Trent’s this season), all at a higher level than Trent.
All of that makes Powell a better bet to serve as a secondary offensive engine for Portland, and I can see that being a particularly attractive area in which to try to upgrade for the stretch run. When trying to figure out the deal, I kept thinking about the minutes when Dame and CJ aren’t on the floor together; unsurprisingly, those minutes have not gone well at all:
Room for One More?
|Players Off||Minutes||Offensive Rating||Defensive Rating||Net Rating|
|Players Off||Minutes||Offensive Rating||Defensive Rating||Net Rating|
|Dame + CJ||423||122.2||118.8||3.4|
|Dame, No CJ||1091||119.0||120.0||-1.0|
|CJ, No Dame||154||108.2||113.0||-4.8|
|No Dame, No CJ||401||107.5||116.2||-8.7|
Adding Powell—who’s averaging 23.5 points per game on 53/45/86 shooting since moving into Toronto’s starting lineup two months ago—means Terry Stotts can now always keep two legitimately dangerous scoring threats on the floor as well as have another release-valve playmaker who can make opponents pay for trapping Lillard. Whether Powell will boost the 29th-ranked defense that has been Portland’s bête noire all season remains to be seen, but he should help make its top-six offense even tougher to guard—which could be a pretty big deal in the playoffs for a team that has struggled to consistently beat traps and high-pressure postseason defenses.
Beyond that, swinging for Powell—one of the most sought-after players in the market at this year’s deadline—provides a jolt for a team that had started to look a bit stale. His addition, paired with the recent return of McCollum after nearly two months on the shelf with a fractured foot, and the impending arrival of Jusuf Nurkic after an even longer shutdown due to a fractured wrist, makes the Blazers deeper, more skilled, and potentially a tougher matchup on both ends of the floor than they were entering the deadline.
Enes Kanter on Jusuf Nurkic's impending return: "You guys watch Marvel, he's like Thanos' last stone. We're going to go out and destroy everyone."— Sean Highkin (@highkin) March 26, 2021
Lillard is 30, McCollum is 29, Portland is one and a half games out of fourth, and the West feels more open than it’s been in years; this, GM Neil Olshey reasoned, is the time to go all-in and take a risk. Powell doesn’t balance the Blazers as well as a frontcourt playmaker like Aaron Gordon might have. But he should make their greatest strength even stronger, and I’m sure Portland’s prospective postseason opponents aren’t too excited about that.