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Trade Deadline Takeaways: Harden’s Fit in Philly, Another Perplexing Porzingis Trade, and More

Reactions, analysis, and ripple effects from a busy deadline week-plus in the NBA

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The 2022 trade deadline has come and gone, with virtually every team in the NBA swinging at least one deal before the final buzzer. Our staff takes a step back and looks at the biggest takeaways from the past week-plus of moves:

The Harden-Embiid Duo Could Be Dominant

Rob Mahoney: James Harden and Joel Embiid are too focal—too dominant, really—to be a perfect fit as teammates. But that shouldn’t stop them from winning games and playoff series and, if enough breaks in their favor, maybe the whole damn thing. We tend to gloss over the fact that most NBA championships are won through imperfect arrangements; someone is always suppressing or stretching their game to make everything fit just so. The question for any star is what they have to offer when a possession tilts elsewhere. If the ball goes through Harden, Embiid is still one of the most intimidating forces in the league, too big and too strong for opponents to ignore for even a moment. When Embiid sets up shop on the low block, Harden looms. Closing out late to him is as good as a foul, which means one of the best defenders on the floor is dragged away from Embiid, occupied simply by Harden awaiting his turn.

The Sixers can be dominant in either of those modes at any time they choose. There are obvious, timeworn ways for an outstanding playmaker and an elite scoring big to collaborate more directly on the floor. What makes the Sixers genuine contenders is that those intersections might not even matter. Perfect chemistry isn’t really required; both Harden and Embiid built superstar careers by racking up points in less-than-ideal circumstances, and will now, at absolute minimum, have the freedom to dominate in the same ways they always have against opponents who can’t afford them their complete attention.

It won’t always be pretty. It may not look all that dynamic. Yet this deal guarantees an absolutely punishing offense, built out as an extension of this season’s leading candidate for MVP. There’s no real way to stop Embiid, which is why opponents have moved heaven and earth to get the ball out of his hands. Now, those same desperate teams will be forced to reconsider every stunt, every dig, and every double-team—to have their best hope twisted and turned against them.

Is the Porzingis Trade a Lose-Lose?

Matt Dollinger: Lost in the understandable chaos of the Harden-for-Simmons trade was maybe the biggest head-scratcher since the Lakers gave up actual players for Russell Westbrook: The Mavericks shipped fairly recent franchise cornerstone Kristaps Porzingis and a second-round pick to the Wizards for Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans. That’s right. Not only did Dallas pull the plug on the Porzingis era for two role players shooting under 40 percent from the field, it had to sweeten the deal with a second-round pick, not to mention eat the rest of the ill-fated $80 million deal Bertans signed in 2020.

Rarely does a trade feel like a lose-lose at first blush, but this one feels like two desperate teams flapping in the wind. Porzingis leaves after two and a half disappointing seasons in Dallas, where he put up respectable numbers but couldn’t manage to stay on the floor nor develop much chemistry with Luka Doncic. It really wasn’t that long ago that the Mavs went “all in” for Porzingis. And it was only 12 months ago that it was reported he was “no longer untouchable.” But judging by Thursday’s return, Dallas was open to an all-out petting zoo before the deadline.

Dinwiddie provides the Mavericks some insurance should they lose Jalen Brunson this offseason and adds another ball handler in the interim. But the fact that Dallas couldn’t get more for the 7-foot-3 former All-Star really speaks to how much his star (and stock) has fallen and how desperate Dallas must have been to move on. In Washington, he’ll get a chance to rehabilitate his career once again, possibly next to Bradley Beal, possibly as a placeholder for a long-term rebuild. Either way, it’s a surprising twist for the 26-year-old and the franchise that was “stunned” to land him three years ago.

Phoenix Suns v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

Indy Finds the Right Pace for Its Future

Seerat Sohi: Herb Simon abhors tanking, a position he reiterated to The Athletic in December, while his Pacers sputtered below .500. “I don’t want to see a [rebuild]. If I don’t want to see it, fans don’t want to see it,” the longtime owner told Bob Kravitz. “Why would we want to go through a rebuild when we can build on the go?”

The Pacers snagged Reggie Miller with the 11th pick in 1987 and Rik Smits with no. 2 in 1988. The next year, they took George McCloud no. 7, and haven’t picked higher than 10th since. They’ve made scintillating playoff runs and fielded tough, well-balanced teams, but always fell short to the transcendent stars—LeBron James, Michael Jordan, and Shaquille O’Neal—that eluded them.

They were on a similar pace this season, nose-to-nose with the Kings on the treadmill of mediocrity, before the two teams agreed to a trade that sent shock waves through the NBA: a six-player deal that sent Domantas Sabonis to Sacramento and Tyrese Haliburton to Indiana. They also swapped Caris LeVert to the Cavs for Ricky Rubio’s expiring contract, netting a first-rounder and a second-rounder, and received Jalen Smith, the 10th pick in 2020, in a deal for Torrey Craig.

Between Haliburton, Smith, 20-year-old Isaiah Jackson, and old-head rookie Chris Duarte, the Pacers suddenly have a promising young core. They’ll also enter the offseason chock-full of assets and cap space, and if all goes right—or wrong, rather—they’ll have their best chance in more than 30 years of drafting in the top five, where transcendent stars are more likely to be found.

The Kings, on the other hand, haven’t made the playoffs in 16 years, and have kept their feet on the accelerator only to get outpaced by younger legs like the Grizzlies. Memphis bridged two eras of basketball with a three-year teardown that netted them Ja Morant (no. 2) and Jaren Jackson Jr. (no. 4). In a few years, that could be the Pacers.

The Kings May Have Something

Justin Verrier: Forget for a moment that Domantas Sabonis is signed for only two more seasons after this one. Or that internet sensation Tyrese Haliburton is apparently a paragon of efficiency at the tender age of 21. Or even that Richaun Holmes, a useful-as-all-hell center named in many a rumor last year, was not traded before this year’s deadline, and thus will likely be relegated to bench duty. Instead, just watch:

Look at that ball movement! Look at those transition plays!! Look at all this exclamation!!!

Tuesday’s blockbuster trade with the Pacers probably didn’t appreciably change the Kings’ outlook for this season, much to the chagrin of shaka enthusiasts everywhere, but it did clarify the wayward franchise’s identity. The last time Sacramento had something was three years ago, when Dave Joerger strapped the offense to De’Aaron Fox’s jetpack and the Kings sprinted their way to a near-.500 record. Puzzling decisions—including the firing of Joerger—ensued. But in their first game since the widely panned trade, Sacramento looked like that team again—only a more talented version.

For all the swooning over Haliburton and the consternation over Fox’s struggles this season, the 24-year-old still has the speed to warp opposing defenses. And Sabonis may be his kindred running mate—a big who can control the defensive boards and start the break, and punish set defenses with either post-ups or brick-laying screens. Add in Harrison Barnes’s shooting, Davion Mitchell’s agitated-Chihuahua energy, and the newly acquired on-ball juice of Donte DiVincenzo, as well as a small-ball maester in Alvin Gentry, and you suddenly have cogency—sweet, refreshing cogency—between Sacramento’s personnel, the executives picking the personnel, and the coach organizing the personnel for the first time in … 15 years?

They may not be able to stop anyone. Or shoot. And Sabonis could walk in free agency as soon as the going gets good. But the Kings have something once again.

A Sad Day for the Bagley Believers

J. Kyle Mann: When I became a Bagley Believer some time in the spring of 2017, I honestly did not believe there was any chance that we would be sitting where we are, wondering if Marvin Bagley III could ever be a significant piece for a successful NBA team ever again. I saw a guy who had endless energy, who had an eye-popping second jump that seemed to overwhelm defenders, and I saw a player with the inklings of shooting upside. In the time between that optimistic moment and this deflated one colored by the shoulder-shrug of “maybe things could turn around,” we’ve seen a player who’s struggled to stay on the court (only 86 games played through the past three seasons), struggled to find rhythm within the Kings offense, and struggled to be an impact defender.

Life comes at you fast in the NBA. As my cohost Jonathan Tjarks says: It gets late early. After Bagley’s trade to the Pistons, part of a four-team deal that netted Milwaukee Serge Ibaka, we’re teetering on an all-out free fall into full-on journeyman status for Bagley. The saddest part is that a lot of the league likely feels we’re past that point—that it’s been over. Bagley is still only 22, and he’s been in an abysmal Kings organization without any consistency. There have been real moments of promise; we didn’t imagine that.

In this new start, he has to pick a tangible, value-driven identity that affects winning. I’ve given up hope on Marvin being a creator, but I still think there is soap in the rag for him as an energy big who gobbles up easy offense around the rim, especially next to a natural sharer like Cade Cunningham.

We’re at a crossroads with Bagley. Even as a once-proud Bagley Believer, I’m afraid the glorious roads might be barricaded.

Sacramento Kings v Boston Celtics Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

The Mild, Mild West

Zach Kram: While some of the best Eastern Conference teams made the most striking trades this week, the West’s action concentrated closer to the bottom of the standings. Out of the players added to the seven Western teams with a winning record, potentially the most impactful for this year’s postseason is, uh, Aaron Holiday as a backup guard for Phoenix? Torrey Craig to Phoenix, as an extra serviceable wing? The candidates don’t exactly jump off the page.

Several of these teams made no deals at all this week. The Warriors were silent—no surprise, given GM Bob Myers’s history, but still a minor disappointment given the team’s chance to win another title this year. Memphis also stayed pat, choosing to keep its core together—even upcoming free agent Kyle Anderson—rather than deal for a win-now upgrade. Denver didn’t trade for anyone after acquiring Bryn Forbes in January (though may get Jamal Murray and/or Michael Porter Jr. back from injury). And Minnesota stayed out of the action as well.

The two West teams that actually completed newsworthy trades probably produced more questions than answers. The Jazz dealt Joe Ingles for luxury tax relief, plus Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Juancho Hernangómez. But even with Ingles gone, the young Alexander-Walker—who sports a 25 percent usage rate but poor shooting and defensive numbers—seems redundant with Donovan Mitchell, Mike Conley, and Jordan Clarkson on the roster. With the league’s top-rated offense but 12th-ranked defense, Utah needed another wing stopper, but didn’t achieve that goal.

The Mavericks were the most confounding team of all, as they swapped Kristaps Porzingis and a future second for Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans, releasing themselves from questions about one player’s health, fit, and contract to ... confront themselves with questions about two players’ health, fits, and contracts. While Porzingis hasn’t lived up to his billing as Luka Doncic’s potential costar, he’s still a productive two-way player whose basketball ability might be underrated now, given all the focus on his max deal. But Dinwiddie (172nd in true shooting percentage) has struggled mightily this season in his return from an ACL tear, and doesn’t make sense on a team with Doncic, Jalen Brunson, and presumed buyout target Goran Dragic, while Bertans is a marksman shooting 32 percent on 3-pointers this season. Dallas didn’t even add any picks or help its future financial flexibility in the trade.

All in all, the deadline was a great day for Phoenix, which improved at the margins while all its closest competitors didn’t. The Suns inched closer to a repeat Finals berth.

End of an Era in Portland

Logan Murdock: The end of the Dame-CJ era is frustrating because of its inevitability. In a league that’s seen historic star-player movement in recent years, Blazers management consistently preached that the duo of Lillard and McCollum would bring a title to Portland. For years, then–general manager Neil Olshey held on to the dream that they’d be the best backcourt in the league, but they made the Western Conference finals only once.

There’s honor in loyalty. But CJ’s departure is heartbreaking for all involved. He’s heading to basketball purgatory in New Orleans, and Dame’s time in Portland is as uncertain as it’s ever been. Even still, I can’t help but wonder whether the two players would’ve been better off if these moves had happened four years ago.