2019 NBA Trade Deadline Winners and Losers
Remember when the 2019 NBA trade deadline was supposed to be quiet and relatively uneventful? With Anthony Davis expected to hit the trade market and Kevin Durant set to hit free agency along with a half-dozen other stars, most of the league was expected to bide its time and preserve assets until the summer. The Knicks traded Porzingis and went all-in for the summer. Kyrie Irving publicly retracted his commitment to the Celtics. The Clippers cleared the decks and punted on the playoff race. The Bucks and Sixers loaded up for this spring. The Lakers publicly shopped roughly 75% of their roster and barely got a call back from New Orleans. Durant stopped speaking to reporters for more than a week. Then he broke his silence and said lots of things, but never said he was staying in Golden State.
It's been a busy two weeks. Let's break it all down with some winners and losers.
New Orleans Pelicans
After a trade demand reported at 7 a.m. on Monday morning, it all ends with one final update after 10 days of madness:
Waiting was the right play. The Pelicans will have better options in June and July. Maybe the best offer emerges from New York, where there's still a real possibility that the Knicks land the No. 1 pick and the right to draft Zion Williamson. Maybe it will be Boston and Jayson Tatum will ultimately be the tiebreaker in these sweepstakes. Or maybe there will be a third team who enters the fray after the playoffs and decides to offer a star who can help New Orleans contend as early as next season. (Example: Toronto never would've entertained a DeMar DeRozan trade last February, but its calculus changed by the summer.)
The Lakers assets just weren't good enough. The young players are all decent—Ingram, in particular, could still be very good—but aggregating a bunch of C+ starters together doesn't suddenly add up to an A+ or even a B+ offer. The Lakers were offering first–round picks that would've landed in the mid-20s—much closer to second round value than lottery picks—and promising-but-flawed players who will soon command extensions, but may never be good enough to crack the top half of the playoff bracket in either conference. The Pelicans could have panicked, they could have caved to both external and internal pressure, and they could have executed a franchise-altering trade essentially simply for the sake of having all this over with. They didn't. Good job.
New York Knicks
I wrote about the Knicks and the Porzingis trade last week. It was a massive bet on this summer's possibilities and possibly an indication that they already believe Durant is coming. Even if the second half of that sentence is reading too much into the move—it might be, and tying your future to KD's whims is its own gamble—the deal wasn't nearly as reckless as it seemed when news first broke. Once we found out that New York was getting two first–round picks for Porzingis, in addition to clearing $75 million in cap space for this summer, it became harder to argue this wasn't fair value. In the end, a read on the trade depends on how you feel about Porzinigis, himself.
If you're a Knicks fan who had come to love him and you don't care as much about salary cap victories because you just wanted to enjoy the next 10 years with the first homegrown Knicks star in three decades, I understand hating the trade. If you're a Knicks fan who thinks they just gave away a player who could have one day led a Knicks title team, hating the trade makes sense, but I don't agree with the premise. And if you think that Porzingis has some glaring injury red flags, might be slightly overrated, and was probably never going to be happy in New York anyway—this is where I fall—the trade was a home run. The cap space makes free agents dreams more realistic, and the picks make the Knicks threat as well.
New York has a chance to build a contender this summer, and the front office is going all out to make it happen. Whether it works or not, this degree of ambition is the sort of thing that 60 to 70% of NBA fans will never see from their favorite team.
There's a chance that the Knicks are who we thought the Lakers would be. There's also a chance that the Clippers are smarter and more dangerous than either one. L.A. somehow managed to acquire two first–round picks for Tobias Harris, a player the Clips didn't intend to keep anyway. They are in excellent position to sign Kawhi Leonard this summer, and they now have trade assets and cap space that will give them a chance to get him help. By parting with Harris now, they also have a much better chance to spend the rest of this season losing, a move that will allow L.A. to keep the lottery-protect first round pick that would have been sent to Boston had the Clippers made the playoffs.
As for this summer: Even if players like Durant and Kyrie Irving seem like they're either staying put or headed to the East Coast, the Clips will have a chance to make all kinds of plays elsewhere, some of which won't materialize until this summer. For instance, if Portland sputters out in the first round of the playoffs and Damian Lillard decides not to sign a supermax extension this summer (or Portland decides not to offer one), would the Clips offer a combination of multiple first round picks and young players to steal him away? That scenario is obviously full of unknowns, but it illustrates what we know for sure: beginning this June, the Clips will be in the conversation for everyone who's available.
Most of Milwaukee's best players are due to hit free agency next summer, and there were limited draft assets to work with in any trades. The buyout market looked like it might be tricky as well—the Bucks already have one of the most well-rounded rotations in basketball, so there were not many minutes to offer prospective free agents like Wes Matthews. All of which is to say, no one should have felt bad for a Bucks team that has the best record in the NBA, but while rivals were poised to add firepower this week, it seemed like was limited room for the Bucks to do anything meaningful at the deadline. And then:
Bledsoe-Brogdon-Middleton-Mirotic-Giannis. That is a squad! Four second–round picks got it done, and now the Bucks are built for war. Given their constraints and considered alongside the stakes for this season's Bucks, that Mirotic move may be the most impressive thing any team did at the deadline.
Kings Playoff Dreams
This may have been one of the wildest trade deadlines of the past 10 years, so a move like Harrison Barnes to the Kings seems relatively modest. For Sacramento, though, this is a win. Barnes can help the Kings win now, he's exactly the sort of not-quite-star the Kings should be willing to overpay with their cap space. Most importantly: De'Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Marvin Bagley, and Harry Giles have all looked impressive this year. There are questions about exactly where those players are individually and how high their upside might be, and mileage may vary on the answers. But they're clearly good.
Something has changed in Sacramento. It's worth investing in stable veterans to give the young players a chance to continue the progress over the next few years. And to that end, Sacramento is currently two-games above .500 and sitting in ninth place in the West. The Clippers, currently 8th, just punted on the rest of the season. I'm not here to say that the Kings making the playoffs over LeBron's Lakers probably would heal the wounds of the '02 Western Conference Finals, but it's an outcome we can all root for, right? And what about a Kings-Warriors playoff series in which every single game is played in the 150s? Get on this bandwagon!
Porzingis concerns are real, and this press conference sort of looks like a hostage video, but there's really no question that betting on Porzingis and Luka was the correct move. The Mavs have limited room to find Doncic and credible sidekick, and now they have a sidekick with a higher upside than anyone they could have reasonably imagined a month ago. The Barnes trade will give them space to maneuver this summer and find ways to build out the rest of the roster before next season. Also, because Porzingis isn't playing this year, there's an opportunity to lose through the rest of this season and potentially keep the top-five-protected pick that would otherwise go to the Hawks in June. If Dallas keeps this year's pick, they can either add one more blue chipper or (better option if it's not No. 1) trade that pick and try to steal a third star who can help them immediately (Bradley Beal? CJ McCollum? Aaron Gordon?).
LaVar and Lonzo
Everything I wrote about the Pelicans also applies here. They could've panicked, they could've caved... They did not. Big Baller Brand 1, Klutch Sports 0.
The Bulls added Otto Porter, a good player, and they gave up almost nothing. Jabari Parker was dead weight the team has been trying to trade for months. Bobby Portis is a restricted free agent and he wants more money than the Bulls will pay him, especially considering the other young guys they have up front. Chicago still has to find a plan for the backcourt that rises above the disastrous status quo they have now, and the Bulls Leadership Committee is still the most ridiculous thing to emerge from the NBA this season, and Gar and Pax will probably have jobs until we're all dead, but the Otto deal was good.
I wrote about the Sixers deal here. It's a good deal if it's a hedge against paying Jimmy Butler. It's a reckless gamble that will probably end badly if the team seriously intends to bring back each member of its "Big Four" this summer. In either case, I appreciate the Sixers for remaining equal parts thrilling and concerning in literally every month since Joel Embiid got healthy three years ago. And on a related note: the Markelle Fultz deal was a fairly impressive return that is also flat-out heartbreaking.
This is team that has spent several years patiently waiting to land Anthony Davis, it was all aligned for this summer, and for the past 10 days, it looked like everything was about to fall apart. That didn't happen. The Celtics can still deal for Davis in June or July, and if reports are true, GM Danny Ainge never explicitly promised to trade Jayson Tatum for Davis. Instead, Ainge merely promised the Pelicans that any Davis offer will be "worth the wait."That gray area guarantees that we'll have more fun staring contests waiting for us this summer. Also, this is why people hate the Celtics.
Yes, they survived the Klutch/LeBron power play for AD. If Durant leaves Golden State and the Celtics can add Davis to (most of) the team that's already in place, they will be next year's title favorites, and the past 10 days will have been one of the most crucial stretches of the past 20 years in Boston. While various East rivals loaded up on firepower that will almost definitely be irrelevant when it's time for the Warriors to win another title in June, the Celtics retained their shot at multiple titles over the next few seasons. However...
The Knicks threat is real, and not just for Kyrie Irving. If New York wins the lottery in June, Zion Williamson is more valuable than anything the Celtics can offer New Orleans. Zion can sell tickets for a team that has always struggled to maintain interest in its market, he has upside that's at least as high Tatum, and he's under team control on a rookie deal for two more seasons than Tatum would be. Zion ends the AD sweepstakes immediately. Beyond Zion, though, think about what happens if New York lands at No. 2 or 3. That pick, plus two Mavs firsts, plus Kevin Knox and Dennis Smith Jr.... That offer is significantly more lucrative than anything the Lakers were offering this week, and considering the success of Sacramento (the Celtics have their top-1 protected pick this season) the Knicks godfather offer might beat any Boston offer, too. Meanwhile, Anthony Davis has made it clear that he'd like to be in New York. And if Davis lands in New York, Boston's chances of keeping Kyrie Irving are instantly cut in half. The title team that Ainge has spent years trying to build could very well come together in New York City instead of Boston.
There are all kinds of variables baked into the scenario above, and knowing the Celtics, the Kings will miss the playoffs by one game and still somehow land in the top three of the lottery. Again, this is why people hate the Celtics. Things just tend to work out for them. But there's a lot more reason to sweat than there was two weeks ago.
Marc Gasol helps, but he's lost a step defensively, and it's not even clear he'd be part of the best Toronto lineup in the playoffs. Meanwhile, in the past three months, the Raptors have gone from the clear favorites in the East to arguably the least imposing playoff team of the big four (Boston, Philly, Milwaukee, Toronto). I'm not sure what Masai Ujiri could have done to change that reality, but in any case, the Raptors were on the outside looking as most of their rivals got better.
Big picture: Kyle Lowry has been declining for months, the chemistry between Lowry and Kawhi Leonard still hasn't materialized, Pascal Siakam is a great complementary player but probably not someone who can anchor a new era next season, and the Clippers just cleared an obscene amount of cap space for this summer. Toronto could absolutely make the Finals a few months from now, but this was not a great week.
Houston still has James Harden, so there will always be a chance. But after additional moves to duck under the luxury tax this week, the edges of that roster are getting bleak:
It's really depressing that this is all it took for another team to land Marc Gasol: Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, CJ Miles, 2024 second-round pick. The Grizzlies were always the one team that every NBA could agree to enjoy, and now we're watching them stripped for parts like a car that was totaled and left in a ditch by the highway. It's a bummer. Here's to hoping they can get more for Mike Conley in June, and here's to hoping that Jaren Jackson Jr. turns into the new Kevin Garnett.
Western Conference Elitists
Growing up on the East coast, I've spent the better part of my adult life listening to Western Conference snobs drone on about the inferiority of the East while proposing a bunch of playoff re-seeding models that will never be approved and wouldn't be nearly as fun as they think. To those people, I say... as of Thursday afternoon the four best teams outside of Golden State all play in the East, the Knicks are looming next year and ready to be the superteam LeBron couldn't build, the Warriors will go 12-0 on the way to the Finals without breaking a sweat, and until then, Marvin Bagley and Brandon Ingram will spend the next two months fighting it out for the final playoff spot in the West. Is it time to have the reseeding conversation? I mean, really, this is embarrassing. Someone call the league office.
People Pretending to Know How Good Tobias Harris Is
One more note on the Sixers: No one has any idea whether Tobias Harris is good, and we should all be up front about it. Yes, fine, his numbers are impressive. We can all acknowledge that much. But I'm not sure Tobias Harris has played a meaningful basketball game in his entire career. That's not a strike against him, either; that's what happens when you spend several years in Orlando and Detroit. Now Harris will suddenly be thrown into the mix with one of the best teams in the league. Can he knock down open looks in big games? Can his defense hold up against good teams? Will his efficiency remain as lethal when his touches are cut in half? We'll all find out together.
[screaming into the void]. It's fine. I'm not mad. Actually, this is funny to me.
Portland Trail Blazers
Like a version of the Wizards that's consistently fun to watch and life-affirming, but still destined to disappoint everyone. I'm not sure what Neil Olshey should have done, but trading for Rodney Hood and Skal Labissiere probably isn't going to be enough to raise the ceiling.
The Balance of the NBA
At some point we need to have a longer conversation about how the middle of the NBA is slowly being razed and transformed into an empty parking lot where a handful of forgotten teams (Pacers, Pistons, Blazers) toil in obscurity. The league is now dominated by a handful of teams going all-in and spending a ton of money to try to win immediately, while others are gutting their rosters in an effort to recruit stars in free agency. Both approaches are smart and reasonable. And it may be a bad sign for the NBA that "winning consistently and spending responsibly while paying your good players even if they're not quite great" is a strategy that's become increasingly obsolete, and maybe objectively foolish. But speaking of foolish...
The Lakers overplayed their hand and dove headfirst into a game that they had very little chance of winning. The long odds on any Davis Lakers trade were obvious in December, but that did not deter the team from negotiating this trade through the media and accidentally poisoning the rest of this season in the process. Whether the urgency was a reaction to pressure from LeBron James or a case of Rob Pelinka and Magic Johnson misreading the market or simply an implicit acknowledgment that L.A. can't beat Boston's offer in July, this was a very public failure that creates even more questions going forward.
In the past 24 hours there have been reports that disrupting the Lakers locker room was a concerted strategy on New Orleans' part: lure L.A. into trade talks, leak their offers, and wreck their season. Perhaps that's true, but throughout the staring contest of the past two weeks, the most credible source of negotiation updates was an L.A. Times reporter.
In a broader sense, there's an art to all this that seemed to be lost on the Lakers. While teams like the Knicks and Clippers were shrewd and decisive in the shadows, Magic and Pelinka were clumsy in the most public way possible. It was all enough to prompt a double-take at everything else that's happened over the past few years: the Lonzo pick in 2017, the D'Angelo Russell trade, missing on Paul George, waiting on Kawhi, letting Brook Lopez walk, and a disastrous run of free agent signings after signing LeBron James. You never want to bet against LeBron or the Lakers, but this week makes you wonder. Maybe this team is more incompetent than anyone realizes.
And then, in the middle of the busiest trade deadline in years, Kevin Durant broke his silence in the most Kevin Durant way possible. There's a lot to say to about that press conference, but this is a trade deadline column. For now, what matters is that it was honest, bizarre, and inscrutable. The backlash was inevitable, but the timing couldn't have been more appropriate. While the league goes crazy, it's important to remember that the one player who can truly change the balance of power remains a mystery to just about everyone.