The NBA trade deadline has become an unofficial holy day on basketball’s calendar, representing the ultimately establishment of a team’s identity. This is where months-long storylines come to a head and the drama-filled first half of the season gives way to the intensity and focus that defines the back-half. Amongst the chaos of this year’s especially chaotic edition, here are our winners and losers of the NBA’s trade deadline.
For the umpteenth year in a row, complaining has continued to run up the score against silently enduring. Across the NBA, basketball’s squeakiest wheels were greased—Brooklyn and Philly swapped world-historic malcontents James Harden and Ben Simmons; Goran Dragic was liberated from Toronto. Trade demands are certainly not a new development, but never have they been so protracted and, ultimately, all-around beneficial. Harden, Simmons, Dragic and the teams that dealt them are all better off today than they were on Wednesday. “Player empowerment” is often unfairly sneered as an euphemism for “teams getting screwed over,” but Thursday presented a vision of how players and teams can mutually advance their seemingly conflicting interests.
Loser: The Therapy Industrial Complex
Tired: months of grueling work with psychiatrists and therapy to resolve mental health issues. Wired: being cured because you no longer have to live in Philadelphia.
Winner: The Eastern Conference Playoffs
Long considered the NBA’s kids’ table compared to the perennially loaded Western Conference, the East is now home to the NBA’s most intriguing teams. Between the Nets, Sixers, Bulls, Cavs, Heat and Bucks, there are six teams who can credibly hope to win the conference. And, over the last few days, nearly all of them significantly and materially improved. April and May will be a bloodbath.
The Cavs kicked off the week by trading for Caris Levert, crucially adding a second guy who can, like, dribble and shoot to their surprisingly potent gumbo. The Bucks acquired Serge Ibaka, giving them a drop-coverage friendly stretch-five who provides them with insurance for the injured Brook Lopez.
Most significantly, the Sixers and Nets helped each other heal. In their abbreviated Big Three flop era, the Nets tried to live on buckets alone—Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden were such transcendent offensive players that nothing else really mattered. This year, though, Durant’s injuries, Harden’s apathy and Irving’s terrible taste in Youtube videos revealed the precarity of the Nets’ success—heading into the deadline, the team had lost nine consecutive games and plummeted from the top of the conference down into play-in range. In Simmons, the Nets have seemingly acquired the tonic for their ails; on a team that’s been unable to scrounge up enough defense, playmaking, size or athleticism, Simmons provides all four in spades.
Similarly, Harden legitimizes the Sixers’ championship aspirations. For the first half of the season, Philly’s relative success has been entirely tied to Joel Embiid’s greatness; his 37 percent usage rate is the highest mark that any center has ever posted. But beyond Embiid, the Sixers haven’t really had any other way to conjure productive offense. Tyrese Maxey is a spunky shot-maker, but is more of a sidekick than a co-star; Tobias Harris is the least inspiring efficient volume scorer in the NBA. With Harden, the Sixers have a perimeter counterweight to Embiid’s interior stylings, giving them two of the best isolation scorers in recent history. Even if there are questions of whether the team will able to accommodate two of the most profligate ball-stoppers in the league (will this be the least frequent passing team ever? Will Danny Green ever know the warmth of a basketball’s touch ever again?), the combined talent of Harden and Embiid could prove to be overwhelming.
Losers: Dallas Mavericks
In perhaps the most shocking move of the deadline, the Mavs shipped Kristaps Porzingis to the Washington Wizards for, uh, Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans. Porzingis may not be the All-NBA center that the Mavericks forecasted him to become when they traded for him back in 2019, but he’s still a very good—albeit overpaid—player when he’s available. Conversely, Bertans and Dinwiddie are both mired in the worst stretches of their career. Bertans is a reputed shooter who can no longer make shots. Dinwiddie has struggled to regain his explosiveness after tearing his ACL last year and is shooting 37.6 percent from the floor this year. Unless the two of them can recapture their form from two or three years ago, the value that they bring to the Mavs is dubious.
Winner: Sacramento Kings
Although the Kings don’t necessarily deserve the benefit of the doubt on account of their Kings-iness, their early trade deadline returns don’t seem unpromising. The decision to move on from Tyrese Haliburton was widely pilloried, but the newly-acquired Domantas Sabonis has already shown an intriguing chemistry with star point guard De’Aaron Fox; in their first game together, Sacramento’s star duo demonstrated a nascent, zippy chemistry as a pick-and-roll and dribble-handoff battery that should serve as the foundation of the team’s offense. In a smaller move, the Kings also added Donte Divencenzo from the Milwaukee Bucks, giving them a gritty defensive wing who, theoretically, could help space the floor. Even if the team’s ceiling isn’t necessarily high, this is just about the first time in nearly two decades that their floor has ever crept above ground-level.