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The Trade Deadline Closed the Gap on the NBA’s Ruling Class

After months of speculation, Kyle Lowry went … nowhere. But while the Lakers and Sixers missed out on the best player on the market, the Heat and Nuggets gained ground, creating a more wide-open race for the 2021 title.

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The most pivotal star on the market at the NBA’s trade deadline turned out not to be quite as available as his suitors had hoped. Most of the league was operating under the assumption that Kyle Lowry would be moved at some point on Thursday—the only negotiation was where and for what in return.

“I’m gonna be honest,” Lowry said Wednesday night, following what even he treated like his last game as a Raptor. “Usually I bullshit y’all, but it was kinda weird tonight.” The next day turned out to be even weirder; when the dust settled after months of trade rumors, Lowry’s situation hadn’t changed. For a fleeting moment, the latest intel ranked the top-seeded Sixers and the defending champion Lakers among the favorites to acquire Lowry. Neither did because no one did; the Raptors chose instead to busy themselves with housekeeping (relocating free-agent-to-be Norm Powell, clearing a few roster spots) while shrugging off overtures for the greatest player in their franchise’s history. Lowry will play out his season with Toronto—and in Tampa—delivering for the Raptors in the bulldogged way he always does, but not elevating a championship contender as much of the league expected he might.

The basketball world is flatter now than it was even a few hours ago. The latest NBA arms race almost solely involved teams on the outside of contention that are angling for a way in. Chicago made the day’s biggest advances, solidifying its push for a playoff spot by acquiring All-Star Nikola Vucevic and filling out its bench with veterans. Denver, which sits at fifth place in the West amid a slow-burn season, made its bid for a return trip to the conference finals by landing a perfect complementary piece in Aaron Gordon. The most comprehensive changes came in Miami, where the .500 Heat tic-tac-toed their way to a revamped supporting cast, replacing Avery Bradley, Kelly Olynyk, and Moe Harkless with Victor Oladipo, Nemanja Bjelica, and Trevor Ariza. The reporting consensus also favors Miami to make one more addition once veteran big man LaMarcus Aldridge clears waivers and hits the buyout market.

These aren’t the kinds of moves that change the landscape of the entire league, but they do reduce the distance between two key points: the not-so-convincing place where the Nuggets and Heat found themselves this deep into the season; and the sort of first-order championship contention those organizations aspire to. For teams scrounging together deals to overcome the odds, conference-wide clarity is the enemy. It works in service of superteams and living legends, who decorate their stout empirical cases with even more daunting proof—as if a LeBron James team has ever needed the help. A deadline like this one, particularly in contrast to what could have been, gives the rest of this season a pleasantly muddled outlook. We know enough at this point to know the major players in the title race, but not so much as to pencil in teams as loaded as the Lakers or the Nets. The field for this year’s playoffs, while not exactly wide open, is at least sort of inscrutable.

The road to the Finals looks longer and more challenging for the Lakers than it did a season ago. By not making any additions to help weather the injuries of LeBron and Anthony Davis, the defending champions have left themselves open to a backslide in the standings and a brutal playoff draw that could pit them against the Clippers as early as the first round. Those Clippers, contenders in their own right, had a similarly mild deadline; after weeks of rumors connecting them to more ambitious trade targets, they could muster only a deal for Rajon Rondo, whose flat play in Atlanta had made him completely expendable.

To take it on faith that either L.A. team will just romp their way to the Finals ignores the reality of their circumstances and the strength consolidating in the West. If they’re not fully operational, the Lakers or Clippers might not survive a series against the Jazz—and perhaps the same could be said of a matchup with the Suns, or now the improving Nuggets. Utah and Phoenix are the two best teams in the West by record thus far, formidable under the qualifier that they don’t enjoy the security of an unimpeachable superstar or a playoff-proven formula. They’re still dangerous enough to eliminate a team that does. The opportunity cost of the Lakers not making a move this week (or of the Clippers not making a more significant move) could be the sort of decision that feels damning in retrospect. The gap between the favorites and the challengers is closing and slim enough now for a team like Denver to see the promise in a puncher’s chance.

A similar uncertainty crackles in the East, where the Sixers are compelling but imperfect, the Bucks are weighed down by the same old questions, and the Nets haven’t had their best player—in his first season back from a brutal injury—on the floor in more than a month. Those are excellent teams, just not so excellent as to deter the Heat from making clear, easy upgrades across their rotation. Miami didn’t even give up much to better its chances: a second-rounder here, a meaningless pick swap there, and a few role players who hadn’t quite worked out. The case for Miami would be stronger with Lowry, though a deal of that magnitude would have required giving up players of more substance. These deals more cleanly merge the team the Heat were with the team the Heat want to be, complete with all of the core players who serve as a through line between the two. Oladipo doesn’t have to live up to a star like Lowry for the Heat to thrive. He just needs to give them more than Bradley could and leave room for Tyler Herro (reported as part of the cost of landing Lowry) to find his way to another standout postseason.

Even a modestly successful version of Oladipo would give the Heat offense—largely sketched out in curls around the perimeter—a downhill push it otherwise lacks. This is a team that could stand to diversify its shot creation, but is also grasping for role players who can actually knock down their open looks. Bjelica, whose disenchantment in Sacramento dragged down his otherwise consistent percentages, can do so more reliably than Olynyk. Even when Harkless was able to hit his 3s this season, opponents never bothered to guard him. Their disregard cost him a rotation spot. Ariza arrived in Miami (after more or less taking this season off, slotted as a technicality on the Thunder roster) a week before the deadline with the halo of reputation; he will offer more for the Heat and demand more of their opponents than Harkless could.

Miami was already a better team than its record, undercut by COVID-related absences, injury, and cold shooting spells so pervasive they became an altogether more baffling kind of front. Count the Heat out at your own risk. They’ve already begun to equalize, but a wider menu of supporting talent should help them to manage the chaos in their conference.

Brooklyn made its only recent addition well in advance of the deadline by scooping up Blake Griffin from the scrap heap. When they couldn’t land Lowry, the Sixers made a consolation play for the ever-solid George Hill. Those teams had fewer outright needs than the Heat, but they also haven’t done as much as Miami of late to improve their chances. It was a midseason deal for Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala that changed the Heat’s fortunes last season, defining a team that would swell to the limits of the bubble and make an extraordinary run through the 2020 playoffs. That version of the Heat found opportunity in the strangeness of its situation. This one threatens to do more of the same as a team that’s moved close enough to the heavyweights of the league to make its own luck.