With plenty of activity in the days leading up to the 2022 NBA trade deadline, it would’ve made sense for us to have a kinda-sorta quiet Thursday. Except for, y’know, the small matter of the game of skyscraper-high-stakes poker still unfolding between the Nets and 76ers, two star-studded big-market teams with championship aspirations. By the early afternoon, the hand was finally over—James Harden is a Sixer, Ben Simmons is a Net—but the dust from one of the most fascinating trades in recent NBA history is only beginning to settle.
While that drama played out, 28 other teams raced like hell to get in on the action, too, leading to a perfect trade-deadline storm: high tension, frantic page refreshing, and the sneaking suspicion that if you leave your phone on the desk as you go to get a cup of coffee, you’re going to miss EVERYTHING.
As the rumors rolled in and the deals got done, as I have for the past three 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: James Harden
Whatever the source of Harden’s fast-developing disenchantment in Brooklyn, he has, for the second time in a little over a year, gotten exactly what he wanted: a move away from a situation he no longer found desirable and to a team where he can join an MVP candidate and a (mostly) ready-made roster with the chance to contend for a championship.
His preferred exit strategy leaves quite a bit to be desired; it’s ironic that he’s wound up in Philadelphia, considering he has essentially D.E.N.N.I.S.-ed two organizations in 13 months. You can’t say the man doesn’t get what he wants, though—including both an exceptionally large payday for next season …
As part of deal, new 76ers star James Harden is opting into his $47.3 million player option on contract for next season, sources tell @TheAthletic @Stadium.— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) February 10, 2022
… and, building off of that opt-in, a pathway to a new five-year contract worth just under $275 million. Money might not buy Harden happiness. It sure as shit might help him rent it for a while, though.
Winner: Delicious, Delicious Irony
I’m sorry, what was that? Did you say that Harden is a Sixer now in part, perhaps, because he found it difficult to stomach a scenario in which a superstar teammate has flouted public safety measures in service of coming to work only some of the time? Well! If that don’t beat all.
Winner: Ben Simmons
Speaking of getting what he wants!
Simmons made it clear many moons ago that he had absolutely no interest in ever putting on a 76ers uniform again (or, for that matter, even engaging in a defensive drill again) after the disastrous end to Philadelphia’s second-round loss to the Hawks. He was so committed to that particular stance that he has spent the entire season effectively floating on the periphery of Philadelphia’s program, more poltergeist than point guard, willing to give up a reported $19 million in fines just to prove how serious he was.
Now, he not only gets out of Philadelphia, but he moves to a team that’s in the New York media market but doesn’t get nearly as much heat as the crosstown Knicks. He gets the chance to slot in seamlessly as a complementary facilitator alongside primary scoring options Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, two crunch-time killers and lightning rods who’ll draw all (OK, maybe most of) the attention that Simmons may not want. He provides an immediate boost to the Nets’ on-ball perimeter defense, off-ball havoc-wreaking, and assignment-switching versatility. He gets the fresh start he desperately desired. Now, we find out what he’s willing to do with it.
Winner: Philadelphia 76ers
The Sixers entered Thursday 2.5 games out of first place in the East, with the NBA’s no. 11 offense and no. 9 defense, despite getting absolutely zero production from their second-best player all season. They’ll enter Friday having replaced that yawning void with Harden, who, in a down year marked by early-season struggles and recent (cough) hamstring tightness, has averaged 22.5 points, 10.2 assists, and 8.0 rebounds per game on .576 true shooting—numbers only he and Oscar Robertson have ever produced.
Doc Rivers spoke plainly about how much Philadelphia needed another guard; here’s the guy who is second in the league in assists. With Harden and Tyrese Maxey, Philly now has two (2!) backcourt playmakers to rely upon to run the offense, dribble the ball up the court, run a pick-and-roll without something catching on fire, drive to the basket, and maybe score while doing so. With all due respect to the ghosts of guards past—George Hill, Trey Burke, Josh Richardson, Raul Neto, we see you, we honor you—this hasn’t really been true since Jimmy Butler and T.J. McConnell left town. This, from a sheer “needing players who can dribble and pass” standpoint, represents a significant upgrade.
Harden immediately becomes the most dangerous and skilled perimeter scorer that Joel Embiid has ever played with. Worries about Harden’s well-established unwillingness to give much of a shit on defense seem less dire when you remember he’s going to have Matisse Thybulle next to him and Embiid behind him. Long-standing concerns about how Philly’s offense dies whenever Embiid hits the bench should be rendered moot; put Harden on the ball, flank him with some shooting (hey there, Georges Niang, Danny Green, Furkan Korkmaz, and kinda-sorta Shake Milton), and I’m betting things run just fine.
There will be kinks to work out both on the court and off it, as Embiid and Harden—and, for that matter, Maxey, whose stellar play as a sophomore has earned him a role in this discussion—suss out the particulars of Philadelphia’s new offensive pecking order. A staggering amount depends on Harden: the health of his hamstring, how willing he is to defer to Embiid’s primacy, whether leaving behind the malaise of the last few months inspires a turnaround in both his engagement and efficiency, and whether, as the no. 2 option on a team of consequence, he’s finally able to raise his level of play in the postseason.
In the big picture, though, the Sixers just replaced Seth Curry, inarguably a phenomenal role player, with James frickin’ Harden—an All-Star even in diminished form, mere months removed from being an MVP candidate when given a reason to believe. Embiid is a pretty big one.
Winner: Brooklyn Nets
A week ago, the Nets were coming off six consecutive losses, with a bottom-five net rating and the second-worst defense since Durant’s MCL sprain and a suddenly disgruntled Harden. It was a grim position: If circumstances didn’t improve, GM Sean Marks would have to face the chilling prospect of either watching Harden sulk for the next three months just so he could leave for Philly in free agency as the Nets got nothing for him or swallowing hard and ponying up nearly $270 million to keep Harden around—even if he had, shall we say, reasonable concerns about how that outlay might look as Harden rounded into his mid-30s.
Now, the Nets sidestep that hornets’ nest entirely, moving from a 32-year-old with nearly 37,000 career NBA minutes who could have walked this summer to a 25-year-old who’s locked up through 2025—and will take on a deal that costs about $19 million less per year on average in that span than Harden’s next one would’ve. Instead of a disenchanted Harden who’d grown weary of his partnership with KD and a part-time Kyrie, they’ll get a version of Simmons whose legs absolutely could not be fresher and who sounds awfully excited to get back to work (and, presumably, actually clearing a paycheck):
Brooklyn will take its time getting Ben Simmons acclimated, but the star guard welcomes a change of scenery and has already had conversations with Kevin Durant and they’re all on the same page, league sources tell @YahooSports.— Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes) February 10, 2022
Ben Simmons has already talked to Kevin Durant and Sean Marks, @KlutchSports' Rich Paul tells ESPN. Simmons is eager to join Nets and ramp up for a return to play this season, Paul says. "We've got to work to do to get him back to play, but it's a great step in right direction."— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) February 10, 2022
Brooklyn also lands a godsend of a complementary offensive player. It sounds weird to say, given the team recently employed a handful of extremely prolific shooters, but due to injuries, inconsistency, and an aversion to immunization, the Nets kind of didn’t have much shooting on the floor for a lot of this season; they rank 24th in 3-pointers per game, 25th in 3-point attempts, and tied for 15th in long-range accuracy. Enter Curry, who’s averaging 15 points and four assists per game on 49/40/88 shooting splits, while taking a career-high 5.6 triples per game.
If Joe Harris, who’s missed the past three months with an ankle injury, can’t come back by season’s end, Curry is about as good a replacement as you could ask for: a catch-and-shoot marksman who can make opponents pay for committing too much defensive attention to Brooklyn’s big stars, a capable ball handler who can run a secondary pick-and-roll to keep the action moving, and a committed off-ball marathoner who makes life easier for his teammates by keeping defenders glued to him away from the play. And if Harris can return … well, shit, then you’ve got two guys who can do all that stuff! (I’m guessing Steve Nash is salivating at the idea of going small with Simmons and Durant up front flanked by some combination of Irving, Harris, Curry, and Patty Mills, and just daring some postseason opponent to try to match up and keep the scoreboard from spontaneously combusting.)
Andre Drummond, who has been excellent as a board-crashing bull in a china shop behind Embiid this season, will offer Brooklyn a different but still highly productive flavor of backup 5 from LaMarcus Aldridge. And, on top of that, Brooklyn comes away with a pair of future firsts—Philly’s unprotected no. 1 in this June’s draft, which Marks can defer to 2023, and a top-eight-protected 2027 first—to refill the coffers after sending most of the Nets’ draft future to Houston to bring Harden to town in the first place.
To some degree, this megadeal doesn’t change the prime considerations of the Nets’ title chase that much: Durant’s health and Irving’s availability come April, May, and June still surpass all other matters. But in terms of balancing Brooklyn’s roster, diversifying the skill sets of its best players, and maintaining a competitive window several years into the future without sacrificing elite talent, it’s tough to come up with a better way for the Nets to stick the landing of the Harden experiment than by coming away with Simmons.
Winner: Daryl Morey
The Sixers general manager held firm throughout months of hearing from jamokes like me about how he should just admit defeat on the Simmons deal and accept some random child’s-birthday-party-goodie-bag package of half-dreamed whatever because he didn’t want to waste this Embiid season. He insisted that taking that kind of deal would be wrong precisely because of this Embiid season and that the best thing to do was wait. So he waited, and waited, and waited.
And then, suddenly, we looked up, and it was deadline week, and Philly had (by some projections) that magic 5 percent chance of winning the whole thing that he’s always looking for, and his top three targets all seemed like they could be available. And then, Philly and Brooklyn were talking. And then, they were haggling over Matisse Thybulle. And then, they weren’t haggling anymore, and it was done, and Morey got his guy.
Six years after his old pal Sam Hinkie espoused the value of taking “the longest view in the room” in his resignation letter, Morey’s willingness to take that same view paid off. Philly now enters the stretch run with two bona fide superstars, two offensive galaxies, a former MVP, and maybe this year’s MVP as well. That’s the kind of firepower you need to take a real shot at the brass ring.
Potential Loser: Literally Everybody Involved in This Whole Thing
Oh, my God, the potential catastrophes! The surfeit of rakes that everybody can step on here!
My colleague KOC is right: Embiid has never played with a guard as great and talented as Harden, and Harden’s never played with a big as multifaceted and brilliant as Embiid. They could make beautiful music together. They could also butt heads over who gets the ball where and when, the relative virtues of rolling to the rim versus popping to the arc off a screen, the importance of moving the ball and your body versus standing like a statue 50 feet away from the basket when you don’t have the rock, who was responsible for guarding that guy on the perimeter—and, perhaps most importantly, who was supposed to show up for Game 6 on the road in Round 2.
Which one would you bet on? And, given the fact that Harden, again, has Operation: Shut Down’d his way out of two cities in a little over 13 months, how confident would you feel that your man’s really in this thing for the long haul?
Congratulations on landing your big fish, Sixers. Please now go ahead and commit $275 million to your new lead guard through age 38. How’s his body going to hold up during those last few years? How’s that contract going to look in 2026? Don’t worry about it! Who needs the longest view in the room when your eyes are on the fuckin’ prize, right?
As long as Harden stays healthy, gets fit, meshes well with his MVP-caliber, ball-dominant teammate, tries a little bit on D, commits to that over next 5yr/ $275m and doesn’t freeze up at critical moment in the playoffs, Sixers will come out fine on this trade.— Michael Grange (@michaelgrange) February 10, 2022
Meanwhile, Nash now gets to take his turn at the game that Brett Brown and Doc Rivers enjoyed so much: Where Do I Put Ben Simmons When It Matters Most?
Are you going to have the ball in his hands rather than Durant’s or Irving’s, regardless of the fact that he doesn’t shoot unless he’s within arm’s reach of the rim—and, famously, sometimes not even then? Everybody loves Simmons at center, sure—I once watched him essentially win Philly a playoff game at Barclays Center by serving in that role—but can you commit to that as a plan of attack if those lineups don’t hold up on the defensive glass or at the rim? Can it work if Simmons, fearful of another free throw meltdown, isn’t willing to go up strong with the ball and get fouled?
Is Simmons really going to just commit to a Dwight Howard–style role in winning time? If not, is it back to the dunker spot? How long does that last before the grumbling resumes? And if you don’t win big with the new configuration … well, you’re not on the hook for the quarter-billion you’d have had to pay Harden, but $114 million through 2025 for a player with a very particular set of skills could be a tricky contract to move. Just ask Daryl.
I think it’s reasonable to look at the way this all played out and think that, today, everybody in Brooklyn and Philly feels like a winner. I also think it’s reasonable to suggest that, a few months down the line, damn near everybody in this situation might look at things very, very differently.
Loser: Mature Attempts to Resolve Conflicts via Direct Conversation
Why talk things out when you can just plant your feet, wait, and get what and where you want? Three cheers for hiding and well-placed media leaks!
Winner: Everyone Who Wanted a Resolution to All This and Just Wanted to Think About the Basketball
Now we can put all the histrionics behind us and just focus on what matters most: how Milwaukee and Miami are going to match up in the Eastern Conference finals.
Winner: Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavs did their work early, linking up with Indiana on Sunday to land Caris LeVert. You could argue that the price tag for the 27-year-old—the expiring $17.8 million salary of the injured Ricky Rubio plus Cleveland’s lottery-protected 2022 first-round pick, the Rockets’ 2022 second-rounder, and Utah’s second in 2027—was a bit steep for a player who can get tunnel vision offensively and has been below league average in shooting efficiency every year since his rookie season. But as a high-volume driver who can score inside, make plays in the pick-and-roll, and hit tough shots, LeVert filled a specific and glaring need on a Cavs team that, since the season-ending injuries to Rubio and Collin Sexton, has been almost solely reliant on All-Star point guard Darius Garland to generate offense.
Trading for LeVert was a bet that the support structure that team president Koby Altman and head coach J.B. Bickerstaff have built in Cleveland—a huge, elite defense captained by Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley, a first-unit offense in which Garland can operate at an elite level on and off the ball, a veteran reserve corps featuring Sixth Man of the Year candidate Kevin Love—would help hide LeVert’s flaws and that the Cavs wouldn’t have to distort what’s made them special in order to fit him in. It was encouraging, then, to see Bickerstaff keep second-year shooting guard Isaac Okoro in the starting lineup against San Antonio on Wednesday, leaving intact a quartet (Allen, Mobley, Garland, and Okoro) that has outscored opponents by 12.3 points per 100 possessions this season in favor of working LeVert in off the bench.
There will be growing pains—LeVert needed 11 shots to score his 11 points in 28 minutes off the pine—but he looked comfortable alongside the other four starters in the group that closed out the Spurs with a 13-2 run in the fourth quarter, and he showed flashes of precisely the rim pressure and playmaking that Cleveland needs from him:
LeVert pushes in transition and hits Garland who gives it back. Now LeVert attacks early in the clock, gets a paint touch, draws the defenses attention and dumps to Allen. Value. pic.twitter.com/9k37GPKpY0— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) February 10, 2022
February 10, 2022
Cleveland’s got size, athleticism, versatility, depth, a good mix of youth and experience, and a defense that can put the clamps down on damn near anyone; all it was missing was a jolt to the NBA’s no. 19 offense. If LeVert can provide it, the Cavs will be an awfully tough out in the Eastern playoffs—this year and beyond.
Winner: Indiana Pacers
They probably won’t win too many games the rest of the season, but the other end of the LeVert deal made out pretty well at the deadline, too, seizing on a pair of opportunities: a chance to sink to the bottom of the Eastern standings (and, with it, to the top of the draft lottery odds) and a shot to land a potential cornerstone player on a rookie-scale contract.
After four and a half years of ehhhh success—the East’s sixth-best record since 2017 and three playoff appearances without a series win—the Pacers finally broke up the Domantas Sabonis–Myles Turner pairing. Whether Indiana’s brass decisively chose Turner as its preferred building block at center, or was just able to get a better return for a healthy Sabonis than for an injured Turner, is anybody’s guess. Either way: Sabonis is off to Sacramento (and already fitting in quite nicely, thank you). In his place: Tyrese Haliburton, a 21-year-old wellspring of offensive efficiency whose combination of playmaking touch, shooting accuracy, defensive instincts, length, and versatility make him pretty much an ideal piece to build around for a team in the process of redefining its on-court identity.
Haliburton performed ably in a backcourt timeshare with De’Aaron Fox through his first season and a half as a pro. Recently, though, he’s looked plenty capable of running the show himself: During the 12 games that Fox missed over the past couple of months, Haliburton averaged 19.2 points on 46/39/87 shooting splits to go with 10 assists, 4.1 rebounds, 1.9 steals, and just 3.3 turnovers per game. It’s not easy to find young guards with veteran craft on the ball, a knockdown long-distance shooting touch off the dribble (40.1 percent on pull-up 3s this season, according to Second Spectrum) or the catch (42.7 percent), an ability to excel in a higher-usage role, and the willingness to sublimate himself in a lower-usage one. Haliburton appears to be one of them—and while it cost the Pacers a two-time All-Star to get him, they’ve now got him in-house for a little over $8 million for the next two seasons, and have the ability to keep him around for another half-decade after that with an extension of his rookie deal.
The Pacers can now tinker and toy with a backcourt rotation of Haliburton, 2021 first-round pick Chris Duarte, Malcolm Brogdon (once he’s healthy after a prolonged Achilles issue), and Hield (who’s owed a pretty reasonable $39 million over the next two years on a declining contract, and who, defensive deficiencies notwithstanding, has averaged a tick under 19-5-3 while shooting 40.3 percent from 3-point range on near-Stephian volume over the last three seasons), and see what that group looks like backstopped by a version of Turner that’s likely to be rejuvenated by finally being confirmed as Indiana’s top big man. Sabonis’s departure also creates a path to more playing time for rookie power forward Isaiah Jackson, who opened some eyes during a recent tryout in the rotation, and maybe a chance to take a look at Suns 2020 lottery pick Jalen Smith, who averaged 11 and 9 on 48 percent shooting over a 10-game stretch when pressed into duty earlier this season, and whom Indy added just before the deadline for defensive wing Torrey Craig.
They can hope to shoot the moon with their own draft pick, likely to land near the very top of the 2022 draft, and, thanks to the LeVert deal, two more picks likely to fall somewhere between nos. 20 and 35 in June. They’ve got the potential to clear about $21 million in cap space this summer to add more pieces. They’ve also got Hield and potentially Brogdon to deploy as trade chips in the market this offseason, as they look to balance the roster and do what the Pacers always do: try to make the playoffs and be pretty good for a pretty long time.
Indiana entered this season, and especially this deadline, seeming stale and stuck. Thanks to a clever couple of days, it moves forward with a ton of new possibilities to explore.
Winner: New Orleans Pelicans
I understand the arguments that some very smart folks have made about why they didn’t like a 22-32 Pelicans team sending out the exceedingly solid Josh Hart, 2019 first-round pick Nickeil Alexander-Walker, and what could be a top-10 pick in June’s draft to take on $78.8 million in guaranteed money over the next two seasons for CJ McCollum, Larry Nance Jr., and Tony Snell. I get the big-picture concerns about value, about Hart being a better deal at $13 million than McCollum is at $30 million, about the importance of financial flexibility as you try to build a winner, etc.
I guess … I just don’t really give a shit?
McCollum is a very good offensive player—in the 90th percentile among guards in offensive estimated plus minus despite missing a month and a half with a collapsed lung—who directly addresses New Orleans’s most significant problems: a lack of high-end shot creation, perimeter shooting, and half-court playmaking. Yes, he’s a worse defender than Hart, but Hart wasn’t the key to the Pelicans’ rise to respectability on the defensive end; they’d allowed 1.4 more points-per-100 with him on the court than off of it during their 40-game surge. The linchpins of the defense have been rookie stud Herb Jones, underrated back-line big man Jonas Valanciunas, and the long-armed Brandon Ingram; New Orleans has defended at a league-best rate with those three on the floor, and they’re not going anywhere.
And while McCollum’s salary induces some sticker shock, taking on his contract—and that of Nance, who profiles as a solid fit in Willie Green’s frontcourt rotation, but who might be out until nearly the start of the playoffs after undergoing right knee surgery—doesn’t really preclude New Orleans personnel chief David Griffin from maneuvering. It doesn’t push the Pelicans into the luxury tax, meaning they’ll likely have access to their full midlevel exception should an opportunity arise in free agency for one of their final roster spots. The protected 2022 first-rounder they sent Portland only conveys if it lands between the fifth and 14th picks; if for some reason it lands in the top four, New Orleans keeps it. If that happens, according to John Hollinger of The Athletic, the Pels will instead send the Bucks’ top-four-protected 2025 first, and if that doesn’t convey, they don’t owe squat.
On top of that, the Pelicans still have control over seven additional first-round picks and four extra second-round picks between now and 2027, thanks to the bounty of the Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday trades. Which is to say: Griffin still has plenty of sweeteners to attach to a contract—say, McCollum’s $36 million expiring deal for 2023-24—if he either needs to change course midstream, or he sees a chance to go big-game hunting.
Aside from all the bookkeeping and asset management, though, I just like what trading for McCollum says about this Pelicans campaign and the team Griffin and Co. have put together. This season could’ve been over before it started, with the announcement of Zion Williamson’s broken foot; it looked like it was, when New Orleans opened up 1-12. But with first-year head coach Green learning on the fly, Ingram developing into a bona fide leader on and off the court, Valanciunas being just what the doctor ordered, and several other surprises (Jones being an immediate impact starter, Jose Alvarado solidifying the backup point guard spot, Jaxson Hayes developing at power forward) along the way, the Pelicans put themselves in position to make a run at the play-in even without their centerpiece.
This team has earned the right to compete for something meaningful this season, and its fans have earned the chance to root for an organization that’s actively trying to win games. Taking a big swing for McCollum is a move in that direction; it doesn’t make the Pelicans a championship contender, but it makes them better. We should applaud that.
Losers: The Lakers
It’s not a shock, really. I mean, we all knew who the Lakers’ most moveable players were—Talen Horton-Tucker, maybe Kendrick Nunn—and we all knew that neither were particularly likely to entice many suitors, what with Horton-Tucker shooting 27 percent from 3 and Nunn not having suited up at all this season. Rob Pelinka really had only one thing he could use to sweeten the pot, and you wouldn’t want to give up an unprotected 2027 first-round pick if you were him, either. Not after seeing how the roster you (in conjunction with LeBron James and Anthony Davis) put together had performed, and not after envisioning how it might look in six years’ time without LeBron defying history and physics.
Even so: There isn’t a team in the NBA that needs something to feel good about more than these Lakers. Los Angeles was smacked by Giannis and the Bucks, lost to a post-trade Portland team that was a who’s who of “who’s that?” and came to the conclusion that many observers had reached long ago: The Lakers no longer believe they can win at a high level with Russell Westbrook as the third star flanking LeBron and AD.
ESPN’s Dave McMenamin reported in the run-up to the deadline that “standing pat and hoping that winning percentage improves to finish the season strong is not seen as a viable option by players on the team.” And yet, that’s just what they did. Nothing came together for L.A. on deadline day. (Fitting, considering how the last couple of months have gone.) So now Pelinka will try to snag some help on the buyout market—and, pause for laughter.
Jefferson & Perkins reaction to "Lakers shifting their focus to the buyout market" pic.twitter.com/eSVVM5EPBB— CJ Fogler (@cjzer0) February 10, 2022
Frank Vogel will keep trying to get a roster strip-mined of defensive talent to stop people, and LeBron, AD, and Russ will keep trying to figure out some way to win enough games to avoid another ignominious early postseason exit, if they can make it at all.
Maybe they will. Westbrook has been a better player in the second half of the season than the first in the past few years; Davis hasn’t often looked like the peak version of himself this season, but could still recover that form; LeBron remains LeBron. It’s looking more likely, though, that the emperor has no clothes—that the Lakers aren’t a tweak away from being a contender, but rather really are a 26-30 team with a legitimate chance of finishing ninth or 10th in the West when it’s all said and done. That’s the thing about all-in moves: Sometimes, you lose everything.
Loser: Dallas Mavericks
So the Mavs sent out the best player in this deal—Kristaps Porzingis, legitimately playing the best two-way basketball of his career when healthy despite shooting a career low from 3-point range. I will stipulate that “when healthy” does a lot of work in any discussion of Porzingis, who has missed 21 games this season, including the last five, and has played more than 66 games only once in six seasons.
Dallas did it, it seems, to get off of the balance of Porzingis’s contract—$69.8 million over the next two seasons—because Mark Cuban and Co. had lost faith that Porzingis would turn into the ideal star-level partner for Luka Doncic that they envisioned when they traded for him in 2019. Doing so, though, required them to take back two players on shaky-to-downright-bad contracts who haven’t played well this season: Spencer Dinwiddie, whom KOC reported last week Washington wanted to move “because he looks like a shell of his former self and his teammates don’t want him there,” and Davis Bertans, who is paid exclusively to make jump shots, and who is currently making just 32 percent of them. And Dallas sent out a second-round pick to take back that money?
This doesn’t really save Dallas any money for a while: Dinwiddie and Bertans actually combine to make a little more than Porzingis next season, and while only $10 million of Dinwiddie’s salary is guaranteed for 2023-24, realizing that savings will mean waiving him … in which case Dallas will still need to replace whatever minutes and production he’s providing as a complementary ball handler and scorer alongside Doncic. In fact, once you factor in the reported new four-year, $55 million contract extension for ace 3-and-D forward Dorian Finney-Smith, Dallas is already over the luxury tax line for next season.
The deal does get Dallas out of Porzingis’s $36 million player option for 2023-24, though, paving the way for Finney-Smith’s extension. And, in theory, breaking up Porzingis’s unpalatable deal into two smaller unpalatable deals could provide new GM Nico Harrison and the rest of Dallas’s brain trust with more flexibility as they try to construct rosters around Doncic that can do more than just make the playoffs.
In the meantime, though, Dallas is in fifth place in the West, just two games behind the Jazz for home-court advantage in the first round. After a sluggish start to the season, Doncic has been his All-NBA-caliber self since coming back into the lineup in the past month, and the Mavs have had the second-best defense in the NBA in 2022. This is a team that should be trying to get better and push deeper; does trading away your second-best player, the one who’s supposed to raise your ceiling, get you closer to that goal?
Maybe it doesn’t get them much further away. Porzingis’s consistent struggles to stay on the court make him a tricky player to bank on. His fit with Doncic has never been as seamless as everyone in Dallas hoped. And it’s worth noting that Porzingis has missed most of Dallas’s recent run to defensive excellence, and that they’ve actually prevented points better without him on the court in that span. Maybe getting to spot up off of Doncic helps reignite Bertans’s shooting stroke. Maybe a change of scenery and role allows Dinwiddie to return his production to pre-injury Brooklyn levels, mitigating the loss of Tim Hardaway Jr. to a fractured foot in the short term and potentially providing some insurance in case Jalen Brunson gets an offer too rich for Dallas’s blood in unrestricted free agency.
It just … seems like a lot of maybes, and like it’s hanging Dallas’s hopes of meaningful progress toward title contention on another “maybe” I just don’t see coming yet: that maybe having more salaries between $10 million and $20 million per year puts the Mavs in better position to construct a package for the next hoped-for star to pair with Doncic, now that the Porzingis experiment is at its end.
Push: Washington Wizards
After a promising 10-3 start to the season curdled into the East’s fourth-worst record since mid-November, dropping Washington one game out of the play-in tournament, the Wiz needed something to shake them up. Unfortunately, it was more bad news: Bradley Beal needed season-ending wrist surgery. Without their leading scorer and assist man in tow, reported interest before the deadline in players like Sabonis and Jerami Grant no longer seemed to make much sense; why go all in for a team that, according to multiple projection systems, is much more likely to miss the play-in tournament than make it?
It made sense, then, that Washington pivoted to selling, reportedly making every player besides Beal and Kyle Kuzma available. The Wiz sent former Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell to Charlotte for a future second-round pick, journeyman point guard Ish Smith, and big man Vernon Carey; they shipped third-string point guard Aaron Holiday to Phoenix for some cash. But then: the big one.
I don’t have a ton of confidence that relying on Porzingis to be the secondary-scoring running buddy for Beal will work out any better for the Wizards than it did for Doncic and the Mavs. I’m also not sure that team president Tommy Sheppard deserves bouquets for shedding Bertans’s albatross contract and the unpopular Dinwiddie, considering, y’know, he was the one who signed those guys. But moving off of those deals and bringing in a player as talented as Porzingis … it’s at least different?
Ultimately, the Wizards’ future will be determined by what Beal decides this summer—whether he agrees to sign a new five-year, $245 million contract extension, or chooses after a largely unremarkable decade in D.C. to try to find greener pastures (albeit ones that get him less green). There is something to be said for different, though … especially when “different” removes longer-term salary—right now, the Wiz have only Daniel Gafford’s extension and rookie contracts on the books past 2023-24—and provides some new options for how to build out and balance the roster.
Winner (With One Caveat): Boston Celtics
Brad Stevens entered his first trade deadline as Boston’s basketball operations boss at the controls of one of the NBA’s hottest teams: 15-6 since New Year’s Eve, outscoring opponents by an East-best 10 points-per-100, fueled by the offensive fireworks of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, and backstopped by the NBA’s no. 1 defense in that span. So, naturally, he did what any rookie exec who didn’t want to rock the boat would do: He traded away his sixth and seventh men, plus a former lottery pick and a future first-round choice, in a series of moves that leaves him with five open roster spots.
Josh Richardson had a strong half-season in Boston, rebuilding his career after shaky stints in Philadelphia and Dallas left him with a reputation as a nice 3-and-D player … albeit one whose 3 kind of comes and goes, and who can’t really do much off the dribble or reliably make plays for others. But rather than facing a decision on whether or not to pay him next summer, Stevens instead redirected Richardson to San Antonio, packaging him with 2019 draftee Romeo Langford and a top-four-protected 2022 first-round pick in exchange for Derrick White—another excellent defensive guard who is under contract through 2025 for an exceedingly reasonable $52.8 million.
White hasn’t shot the ball as well this season as Richardson (just 31.4 percent from 3 this season, compared to 39.7 percent for Richardson) but offers much more upside as a playmaker (a career-high 5.6 assists per game, compared to 1.5 for Richardson). He’s also got plenty of experience under Ime Udoka, from the Celtics head coach’s days as an assistant with the Spurs, and played alongside Tatum, Brown, and Marcus Smart on Team USA during the 2019 FIBA World Cup. (Don’t ask how that one turned out.)
He’s sort of like a more sedate Smart: a strong 6-foot-4 combo guard who can handle defensive assignments across multiple positions, and who’s not a point-god-level facilitator on offense but can comfortably handle the ball and run secondary actions. He might not offer the same north-south pop as Dennis Schröder (more on him in a minute), and he might not be as much of a threat to knock down a catch-and-shoot 3 as Payton Pritchard, but he’s more reliable—a steadier option to have on the floor against really good opponents, especially in the context of a playoff series. And with three more guaranteed years on his deal, White fits neatly into the core of a Celtics team whose most important contributors are all 27 and under, and all locked up for at least two more seasons.
Bringing in White afforded Boston the flexibility to move on from Schröder, whose contract is also up at season’s end. After signing him to a one-year deal for the taxpayer midlevel exception in free agency, the Celtics didn’t hold Schröder’s Bird rights; they weren’t going to be able to offer him a significant raise over the $5.9 million he took this season after things went south with the Lakers. So they flipped him to Houston, along with reserve centers Enes Freedom and Bruno Fernando, to bring back old buddy Daniel Theis—a rotation member of three Celtics playoff teams, and the starting small-ball 5 on the Boston squad that took the Heat to six games in the Eastern Conference finals back in the bubble.
Stevens returned the German big man to a frontcourt mix featuring Robert Williams III, Al Horford, and Grant Williams, steadfast in his belief that all that is old can be made new again. It’s also a bet that even a more limited version of Theis will provide more stability on the boards and on the defensive end than Freedom (whom the Rockets promptly waived, giving him more time to prepare for CPAC) or Fernando in a postseason setting. And to wrap things up, Stevens also moved the expiring contracts of the injured Bol Bol and P.J. Dozier along with some cash to the Magic, wiping just under $4.1 million off the books to make sure that the Celtics duck the luxury tax by about $2.5 million—likely just enough room to allow them to fill their empty roster spots without going back over the line.
All told, then, the Celtics moved a bunch of players who weren’t going to be around for the long haul for two who should upgrade this season’s playoff rotation and fit neatly into their future plans. Nice work … with one teensy-weensy exception:
Spurs will have right to swap first-round picks with Celtics in 2028 as part of Derrick White trade but Boston’s 2028 pick is top-1 protected, sources tell MassLive.— Brian Robb (@BrianTRobb) February 10, 2022
Giving up swap rights six years down the line, and putting only a top-one protection on your pick … well, there’s a reason teams ask for that stuff. It might amount to nothing. It probably will amount to nothing. But if some weird set of circumstances befalls the Celtics in a half-dozen years’ time, and it results in San Antonio getting the second pick in the draft rather than it coming to Boston, there’ll be an awful lot of hand-wringing over the time Brad decided getting Derrick White was worth not sweating one small detail.
An earlier version of this piece misstated the terms of the remainder of Kristaps Porzingis’s contract. He is owed $69.8 million over the next two years, not $101.5 million over the next three.