The NBA trade deadline historically has a reputation for being a little underwhelming, but not this year. There were major deals across the league in the days leading up to the deadline, with the long-rumored blockbuster between the Nets and 76ers going down in the final hours. If this wasn’t the biggest trade deadline in recent memory, it’s certainly in the class picture.
The James Harden for Ben Simmons swap will be the headline deal of the deadline, and there’s no doubt it shakes up the championship outlook. Many of the other title contenders around the league made more subtle moves, be it the Phoenix Suns re-acquiring Torrey Craig for more defensive nastiness or the Milwaukee Bucks adding front court depth with Serge Ibaka. Teams in the East playoff picture were particularly aggressive in jockeying for position outside of one or two powers.
The reality of the trade deadline is some teams get better by making moves, and some teams get worse by doing nothing as their rivals improve. Here’s a look which teams should feel better and which teams should feel worse about their chances the day after the deadline.
Teams that got better at the trade deadline
1. Philadelphia 76ers
There are legitimate concerns about how James Harden will age on his next mega contract, and if he and Joel Embiid will be a seamless fit. What isn’t up for debate is that by trading Seth Curry, Andre Drummond, and an inactive player in Ben Simmons for Harden, the Sixers massively increased their title chances this year.
The Sixers were not good enough to win the championship before this trade. Now they are. Of course, the East is loaded and it’s possible the Sixers arrive at the same destination as last season — a second round exit — but their title odds increased massively by adding a second superstar to the mix.
The fact that Philly kept Tyrese Maxey (and to a much lesser extent, Matisse Thybulle) is pretty remarkable. There’s a pretty strong case that the Sixers are the most talented team in the East right now even if the Bucks are a safer choice to come out of the conference. The biggest winner of the trade deadline is Daryl Morey.
The teams above the Celtics in Eastern Conference standings should feel a little more anxiety after the trade deadline. Boston was already playing good ball as of late behind a ferocious defense ranked No. 3 in the league, and they just added two more pieces that will help them this year.
Derrick White is an excellent on-ball defender who has made strides as a playmaker this year. While his offense leaves you wanting a little more, even small improvements as an outside shooter would help the Celtics. Former Celtic Daniel Theis is also a nice addition to the bench as a backup five who gives them coverage versatility behind Robert Williams. The Celtics will still mostly be the Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown show, but they have a truly elite defense to fall back on now. Don’t be surprised if Boston makes a move up the standings and out of the play-in tournament, where they’re currently the No. 7 seed.
The Kings are just about the most hopeless franchise in sports with a playoff drought that will reach 16 seasons if they don’t make it this year. Sacramento is still a couple games out of the play-in tournament, and very likely isn’t accomplishing anything of significance this year. All that said, let’s pause for a moment to acknowledge the Kings actually became better at the trade deadline, at least in the present.
The Domantas Sabonis for Tyrese Haliburton swap was the second biggest deal of the deadline behind Harden-for-Simmons, and I liked that deal from Indiana’s side much more than the Kings’. While Haliburton is a great long-term piece, Sabonis proved in his debut that he’s really good right now. Given his age, team-friendly contract status, and proven production, the Kings can’t really be blasted for doing that deal. Sabonis is no slouch, and it will be fascinating to see where he and De’Aaron Fox can lead the franchise.
The Kings also made a great move by swapping Marvin Bagley III for Donte DiVincenzo in a four-team trade just before the deadline. DiVincenzo is a legit rotation piece on the wing, which will help a Kings team that had very few playable wings. Losing Haliburton hurts their long-term outlook, but the Kings got better right now.
The Mavericks and Wizards agreed to the most surprising deal of the deadline when they swapped Kristaps Porzingis for Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans. The motivation from Dallas’ side was clear: they didn’t think Porzingis was good enough to be Luka Doncic’s main co-star, and by moving him now they open up more opportunities in the future. We’ll see how Dallas comes out of this, but in the present the deal is a big win for Washington.
Taking a flier on Porzingis is exactly what a team in Washington’s position should do. KP is a 26-year-old with All-Star upside who has improved his defense this year. His threes aren’t falling, but he has a track record as a shooter. The biggest issue with Porzingis is his injury history, but the Wizards gave up very little of substance to get him. If Washington can get Porzingis to be the best version of himself over the next two seasons, this trade will look like highway robbery.
Thad Young has been freed. The veteran big man had a great season with the Bulls last year before being banished to the bench for a rebuilding Spurs team following an offseason trade. Now he gets to be the wise leader of the Raptors’ army of versatile 6’8 forwards, adding both passing acumen and defensive IQ to an already feisty bunch.
The Raptors traded their first rounder for Young which seems like a steep price, but they also got back Detroit’s second rounder in the deal. Essentially, the Raptors fell down the draft order 10 or so spots to add someone who should be a great veteran mentor and a useful contributor. That’s a win.
It’s fair to view Caris LeVert as a little bit overrated to this point in his career. He gets tunnel vision as a scorer, and he’s below average as a three-point shooter. Despite that, LeVert feels like a very good fit for what this surprising Cavs team needed, and his addition makes them more formidable heading into the playoffs.
The Cavs’ desperately needed another ball handler after season-ending injuries to Ricky Rubio and Collin Sexton, and LeVert checks that box. He’s top-10 in the league in drives, and he can beat opposing defenses as a passer when he wants to. This Cavs team has gotten it done with defense all year, and LeVert’s scoring punch will be a nice boost when possessions break down late in the shot clock. Cleveland has the defensive infrastructure to hide his shortcomings on that end, too. LeVert is not a perfect player, but this is a nice situation for him.
Teams whose jobs got more difficult after the trade deadline
The Warriors have the second best record in basketball, and have somehow stayed afloat even while missing Draymond Green for more than a month with a calf injury. The Warriors can absolutely win the title this year as currently constructed, but the reality is that anything less than a championship is going to be seen as a missed opportunity. Golden State had the ability to add another meaningful piece for the playoff run, but they chose to hold onto their young assets instead.
Warriors ownership wants the team to compete for titles now while developing James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga, and Moses Moody for the future. That sounds nice in theory, but if Stephen Curry never wins another ring in the Bay, holding onto them will seem like the kiss of death. Golden State had the chance to cash in some of their young lottery picks for a proven talent, but they decided to try to maintain their future while competing for a title now.
Losing in the Western Conference Finals or NBA Finals won’t be good enough for the Warriors. They need another championship while Curry and Green and Klay Thompson are still around playing at a high level. For a team that should view itself as championship or bust, completely sitting out the trade deadline while other contenders got better is an odd choice.
Maybe the Nets had no choice but to trade James Harden. It sure seems likely he would have left as a free agent after this year. Maybe he would have dogged it the rest of the season if Brooklyn kept him given that he just sat out the last week with a questionable hamstring strain. Factoring in the massive package of picks and players the Nets surrendered to get him, losing him for nothing after the playoffs would have been devastating.
Getting Ben Simmons and Seth Curry a nice boost for Brooklyn’s future. I also believe that it’s hard to still view the Nets as a title contender this season after the trade as long as Kyrie Irving is only playing road games.
With a healthy and engaged Harden and Kevin Durant, and Kyrie playing half the time, Brooklyn still had title upside, at least in this blogger’s opinion. Simmons is a huge talent but it’s hard to know what to expect from him the rest of this year. Curry will be a great replacement for Joe Harris if he can’t come back from injury, but he doesn’t offer any creation ability. It’s still KD vs. the world for home games as long as Kyrie doesn’t get the jab, and that feels like a losing proposition for Brooklyn despite how brilliant Durant is.
Trading Harden was a good move for Brooklyn future, but a bad move for their present. Just one man’s opinion.
3. Miami Heat
The Heat made a minor move that could set them up nicely for the future. I’ll let John Hollinger of The Athletic explain:
The pick was originally slated to go to the Thunder in 2023 unless it landed in the top 14, with similar protection in 2024 and 2025 before becoming unprotected in 2026. The trade eliminates the 2023 and 2024 possibilities; it’s now a top-14 protected pick in 2025, and unprotected in 2026, greatly increasing the Thunders’ odds of receiving a high pick.
Why would Miami agree to this? Because now the Heat can trade two first-round picks on draft night — their 2022 and 2023 picks – by agreeing to a deal before the draft and executing it right after their 2022 selection is made, thus satisfying the Stepien Rule preventing traded future picks in consecutive years. This deal set up Miami to double down on its current roster for next season, and the Heat did their work early. Dropping Okpala from the roster also lets Miami sign 2-way Caleb Martin to a roster contract for the playoffs while staying just below the luxury tax.
That’s a nice piece of business for next season. But this year? The Heat decided to sit on their hands with a team that’s clearly in the mix to come out of the conference. Maybe the Heat are good enough to reach the NBA Finals as currently constructed, but adding another piece would have given them more margin for error as other contenders in the East reloaded.
The Bulls did nothing at the trade deadline as their rivals in the East improved. Chicago has been staying near the top of the East standings despite so many injuries this season, but there’s no guarantee that continues with Alex Caruso, Lonzo Ball, and Patrick Williams expected to miss at least another month. Seeding suddenly became more important as the rest of the conference added reinforcements. The Bulls have a tough road ahead of them in the coming weeks.
The fully healthy version of Chicago is good enough to compete with any team in the East, but there was room for improvement. Chicago could have used a backup center who isn’t Tony Bradley, and another option at the four to take pressure off Williams’ young shoulders. The Bulls have been one of the league’s great stories to this point, and they have the right ingredients to succeed in the playoffs, but sitting out the trade deadline may prove to be a foolish choice.
The Mavs’ decision to trade Porzingis is all about finding a better co-star to pair with Luka Doncic for the future. The question is what becomes of the rest of this season. Dallas is currently No. 5 in the West, and Porzingis’ improved play from last year’s playoffs was a major reason for that. There’s an argument that losing KP will be addition by subtraction for Dallas this season, but I’m not sure I’m buying it. Unless Dinwiddie and Bertans immediately provide way more than they did in Washington this year, it seems like the Mavs are taking a step back to take a step forward in the future.