The NBA wrapped up one of the more frenzied trade deadlines in recent league history Thursday. Two mega-trades, along with several other deals involving bit players, seemingly re-shaped half the league’s rosters. Even teams that didn’t make moves seem more interesting. Here are three major questions (and answers) now that the smoke has cleared:
What do quiet deadlines from Bucks, Lakers mean for their title chances?
The lack of action at the deadline by the Bucks (45-7), who hold a 6.5-game lead in the West, was probably smart. (The team's only move was signing forward Marvin Williams, who was bought out by the Hornets.) Entering Monday’s games, Milwaukee has a point differential of +12.5. No team this decade has finished the season with a point differential higher than +10.8. That group? The 2015-16 Golden State Warriors, who won 73 games. That’s some pretty good company.
The Lakers (39-12), who have a three-game lead over the Clippers and Nuggets for the West’s top spot, have needs. They sorely could have used the defense and play-making of veteran Andre Iguodala, whom the Heat acquired at the deadline from Memphis. (He was training on the West Coast during his absence from the Grizzlies.) But Los Angeles was simply hamstrung by a lack of trade assets and made no moves. The Lakers could be haunted by their situation in the postseason.
Los Angeles is almost ridiculously dependent on LeBron James -- it is 15 points per 48 minutes worse when he’s not playing -- and L.A.'s defense has conceded just a shade under four more points per 100 possessions since 2020 began (though L.A. remains fifth overall in defensive efficiency for the season). Neither of these issues probably could have been fixed with a deadline trade.
Aside from 24-year-old Kyle Kuzma, the Lakers don't have much in the way of young talent to offer for an upgrade. And besides, he's an important rotation piece (he averages 25 minutes per game) and key part of a post-James future.
Los Angeles also lacks draft capital. Depending on where they finish in the coming seasons, the Lakers must send two more first-rounders to New Orleans as part of the Anthony Davis trade. Plus, L.A. no longer has 2020-22 second-round picks thanks to other deals.
The other veterans dotting the Lakers' roster don't have much value unless attached to juicy assets -- like the first-round picks L.A. is light on. For better or worse, L.A. was probably always going to be a finished product after filling out its roster around Davis in the summer.
Have changes with lottery odds affected how bottom-feeders operate?
In September 2017, the NBA’s Board of Governors voted to change the draft lottery odds, giving the bottom three teams an equal chance of getting the top pick. We saw the effect of this change, which went into effect for the 2019 draft, at the trade deadline.
Although they each could finish with the worst record in the league, the Cavaliers (13-40) and Hawks (15-39) made deals at the deadline that made them better. Atlanta jumped into Houston’s mega-deal to land productive veteran center Clint Capela, sending a first-round pick to the Rockets. Then they re-acquired 31-year-old center Dewayne Dedmon (along with two second-round picks) from Sacramento.
Cleveland one-upped Atlanta by acquiring a big man of its own, two-time All-Star Andre Drummond. In that deal, the Cavs traded spare parts to the Pistons (playing the role of the classic rebuilding team at the deadline) to lock in a front line of Drummond and Kevin Love for the rest of this season. It’s a deal that, no matter what Drummond decides to with his player option for next season, should make Cleveland better for its next 29 games.
During previous deadlines, teams like Atlanta and Cleveland would be in a shameless race to the bottom, dealing off any player who could bring future assets and make them worse in the short term. Instead of gifting teams competing for playoff spots easy wins, Atlanta and Cleveland should, in theory, provide a lot more resistance down the stretch in 2020.
Let's thank a change in lottery odds for that.
Will standing pat be smarter than making major moves for second-tier contenders?
Houston went all-in on extreme small ball with a wild, four-team trade. Not to be outdone, the Heat engineered their own multi-team deal in an attempt to close the gap on the first-place Bucks. Meanwhile, the 76ers (acquired Glenn Robinson III and Alec Burks) and Clippers (traded for Marcus Morris) made smaller moves around the edges. And Boston, Oklahoma City and Toronto -- all of whom had assets and/or friendly salaries to make a big splash -- did not make any deals.
So what gives?
Boston (37-15) very quietly has the league’s second-best point differential, outscoring teams by 7.2 points per game -- a tenth of a point better than the Lakers. If it wasn’t for the Bucks’ outlandish success, this Celtics team would be clearly seen as a real championship contender. Given the Boston roster is an interesting blend of young players on rookie contracts, emerging prospects approaching extensions or veterans on big deals, it’s hard to see a deal to be made. No huge stars were available at the deadline, so why risk the team’s chemistry for a marginal upgrade?
The Raptors' most tradeable assets, veterans Marc Gasol and Kyle Lowry, are massively important to the success of a team that has won 14 straight games. Besides, Toronto learned last season that keeping a championship window open in lieu of a rebuild can pay off handsomely. Even without Kawhi Leonard, the Raptors (39-14), who have amazing depth, are a powerhouse.
Potential deals involving Thunder vets Danillo Gallinari and Dennis Schroder fell by the wayside so OKC stood pat. That seems like a smart move give Oklahoma City 25-10 record since December 1.
The Heat (34-18) may have added essential depth and veteran pedigree in Iguodala, and the Rockets fully committed to small ball with the addition of Robert Covington. But there's no guarantee these moves make them any better the Raptors, Celtics or Thunder.
How these contrasting deadline approaches play out will be fascinating to watch the rest of this season ... and beyond.
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