The Good, the Bad and the Knicks: NBA Trade Deadline Winners and Losers

Friendship, kvetching, Iggy and the Clippers all make the list

February 7, 2020 9:18 am
The Clippers and Heat were big winners at the trade deadline.
The Clippers and Heat were big winners at the trade deadline.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

More than any other league, the NBA is defined as much by its off-court games as by those on-court: the intrigue of roster construction has come to almost overtake the actual basketball product. As such, the trade deadline has become a holy day for those who can distinguish the difference between Bird Rights and Early Bird Rights and also have really strong takes on the value of second round picks. Below, the winners and losers of a busy deadline day and what it means for the rest of the season and beyond.

The Los Angeles Clippers: Winners

Coming into yesterday, the Clippers were firmly entrenched as one of the NBA’s best teams, yet it was impossible not to be at least a mote underwhelmed as their effort level hasn’t quite matched their 36-15 record. For all their depth and talent, L.A. lacked two-way players beyond the duo of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Their supporting cast was composed of a knockdown shooter (Landry Shamet), a heavy-lidded offensive genius (Lou Williams), and a double dose of rabies (Montrezl Harrell and Patrick Beverley), but not any player whose game truly bridged the two ends of the court. In Marcus Morris, a former Knick and the man who mistook his ball for a hat, the Clippers have added a player who can create his own shot as well as he can defend. Not nearly averaging a career-high 19.6 points and shooting 43.9 percent from three, he’s proven himself over the years to be a reliable, at least self-proclaimed, antidote to LeBron James. To wit, the Clips have improved at the expense of the Lakers, winning an intense bidding war for one of the most coveted, available players. As a result, the Clippers have augmented a versatile, gritty team that should now be the favorite to win not just the Hallway Series, but the Larry O’B too. 

Whining: Winner

If life gives you lemons, go on an all-expenses-paid media tour and talk about how lemons are beneath you, thereby making the lemons (which have somehow become the most exciting young lemons the citrus grove has seen in years) super mad at you on Twitter. Ever since last summer, when Golden State, in a craven money-saving move, shipped Andre Iguodala and his $17 million salary to Memphis, Iguodala has refused to even travel to Memphis, opting instead to stay in the Bay Area on the Grizzlies’ dime, promote his autobiography and patiently wait for a team to rescue him. With a trade to South Beach and a plum two-year extension, he has, at long last, gotten his wish. Sure, last year’s ‘yoffs exposed that Iggy may possibly — probably — be supremely washed, but he could boost the Heat’s title aspirations all the same. A bruising defender with shoulders like grapefruits, Iguodala is a perfect fit for the Heat’s culture of heavy-metal ultra-marathoners; he, along with Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill, is yet another heady, tough player on a roster stuffed with them. Although the Heat still lag several games beyond the Milwaukee Bucks in the standings, they’re undoubtedly a more worthy challenger today than they were last week. The squeaky wheel gets the suntan oil. 

Friendship: Winner 

The only thing worse than losing 15 games in a row is losing 15 games in a row without your buddies. Karl-Anthony Towns hasn’t contributed to a win in 10 weeks, but that pain will be assuaged by the addition of D’Angelo Russell, his BFF, from Golden State. To be sure, Russell and Towns will have their on-court issues — defense? we don’t know her — but Russell is also an all-star-level sidekick who will ease Towns’s offensive load. Russell is more than just the Turtle in Towns’s entourage though: he’s the most dynamic scoring guard the T-Wolves have had this decade, averaging 23.7 points per game and 6.2 assists. An expert pick and roll ball-handler, Russell excels at casually loping his way into soft spots of opposing defenses, whether from midrange or behind the arc. While a porous defense should prevent the Timberwolves from challenging for a playoff spot this year or the next, they can cut a kinder, most amicable path forward for the rest of the NBA. The real wins are the friends you make along the way. 

Draymond Green’s Sanity: Loser

The Steph Curry-Klay Thompson-D’Angelo Russell triptych was bound to be awkward and redundant, but at least Russell tries reasonably hard and is good at basketball. D’Angelo Russell’s replacement, Andrew Wiggins, is neither. By this time next year, Wiggins will whimper I am Reek every time Draymond Green so much as looks at him. 

The New York Knicks: Losers, forever

Where to begin? On the surface, the Knicks are beginning to act like a normal basketball team, which is good. Firing Steve Mills — whose only qualification to run a basketball team is that he has streamed JD and the Straight Shot’s 2019 “album” The Great Divide in its entirety — is something that a normal basketball team would’ve done eons ago. Trading Marcus Morris, a capable veteran on an expiring deal, for a first round pick? Also good! But the Knicks excel in making everything look so hard. On deadline day, they hired Leon Rose, CAA’s uber-agent, to be their new president of basketball operations, only to deny hiring him. Their haul for Marcus Morris (Moe Harkless and a late first-rounder in a weak draft that shouldn’t result in anything meaningful) was disappointing considering that Morris was rumored to fetch much more. The Knicks spent last summer stocking up on veterans with one-year deals who would be easily movable if–when–the team proved itself to be pure butt; as of today, the roster is still ridden with nearly all of this very same flotsam. The Knicks had no hope in October and don’t now and probably won’t until the heat-death of the universe.  I think I speak for Knicks fans everywhere when I say that the only thing I hate more than the Knicks is myself for being a fan.

The Center Position: Loser

At the deadline, the Detroit Pistons essentially gave Andre Drummond to the Cleveland Cavaliers for 1000 dollars’ worth of Diamond Dazzler Lotto Scratchers. While Drummond is one of the greatest rebounders in NBA history, he lacks utility beyond his glass-eating. He’s quietly on the way to a potential Hall-of-Fame berth (every player who has matched his career averages is a HOFer), yet it’s unclear how much a center of his ilk can effect winning in the modern NBA. Drummond has a $28 million player option for next year and will surely ask for a max contract should he opt out — arguably way too much for a center who doesn’t have a particularly advanced offensive game or show any indications that he can anchor an elite defense. 

In this same vein, the Houston Rockets — the most ardent devotees in all of sports of doing weird stuff — are making history by choosing to be really short. Having traded Clint Capela for Robert Covington as part of the NBA’s biggest trade since 2000, the Rockets excised their only legitimate big man, leaving P.J. Tucker, a fire hydrant in shoes that cost more than your rent, as their de facto center. For the last two years, the Rockets have deployed Tucker at the five in certain lineups — the Tuckwagon made common appearances against the Warriors in their two playoff series — and this marks their boldest gamble that analytics are more revealing than common sense. The Tuckwagon has far outpaced lineups with Capela this season and during last year’s playoffs, but it’s primarily been a situational weapon since it places a mammoth physical burden on the 6’5 Tucker. 

Moreover, the Western conference playoffs are a minefield of talented bigs who can simply hold the ball above their head while Tucker flails at their respective chins; to make the finals, the Rockets will have to beat out Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic, Kristaps Porzingis, Rudy Gobert, Steven Adams and Montrezl Harrell. Their offense, however, could be utterly unguardable. For years, Capela was a dangerous roll-man and lob threat, but his role has shrunk ever since Harden discovered that he didn’t need a screen to toast defenders. By swapping the paint-bound Capela for a good shooter in Covington, the Rockets have cleared the lane for Russell Westbrook and James Harden; Westbrook is the only player whom defenses can safely ignore from deep, but that invites him to catapult to the rim and force yet another rotation. As long as their interior defense holds up, the Rockets will force big men to negotiate the fraught politics of perimeter defense and even possibly off the court altogether. 

The Rockets may not have the talent to match up with the Bucks or the Lakers — or the Clippers or the Nuggets or the Heat or the Jazz — so their best hope will be that their new gambit can help them steal marginal advantages each possession. No other team at the moment has the chutzpah (or is it the mandate of a penny-pinching man-baby owner?) to try what the Rockets are trying, but Houston’s successes and failures will have wide-ranging implications for where basketball is going, both big and small

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