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Winners and Losers of the NBA Trade Deadline

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.

Winner: Complaining

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. 

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The Sacramento Kings Play By Their Own Rules

Being an NBA fan now requires a serious working knowledge of subjects that are only tangentially related to basketball. This caliber of basketball is somewhat alienating in its remove from what the average joe knows to be physically possible, so the regular-sized front office wonks become more relatable by default; I will never understand what it feels like to dunk, but the mechanics of negotiating a trade—wheeling, dealing, wearing normal collars, things of that nature—feel almost familiar. More than any other sport, the NBA has lent itself to a kind of economics-tinged abstraction in which players are assets and draft picks are capital. Increasingly, franchises are merely dynamic, volatile portfolios seeking to deliver returns to their emotional stakeholders. 

By trading Tyrese Haliburton, Buddy Hield and Tristan Thompson for All-Star power forward Domantas Sabonis, the Sacramento Kings signaled that the single most pressing thing on their agenda is that they’d like to win basketball games. In fact, they’d like to win enough basketball games to qualify for the play-in tournament as the tenth best team in the Western Conference, which is an honorably silly goal (think: the NBA equivalent of trying to win a free t-shirt by eating a 72-ounce steak and a side of shrimp cocktail), but an honorable one all the same. Beyond simply swapping a very good young player for a veteran stud, though, the Kings have exposed the fundamental incoherence between how basketball fandom is intellectualized and how it’s actually experienced.

From a bloodless, empirical view, the Kings probably shouldn’t have traded Haliburton for Sabonis. National media figures were aghast when the news broke: “MAKE IT MAKE SENSE,” lamented JJ Redick. Kings fans were down biblically bad—the banner of the Kings’ subreddit reads “Welcome to Basketball Hell.”  The 21 year-old Haliburton, a tide-raising playmaker with budding self-creation chops and an artificially suppressed rookie-scale contract, is exactly the kind of player that bad teams like the Kings should want the most. 

Even if Haliburton lacks the requisite oomph to propel the Kings into the play-in right now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing if it helps nudge them towards Paolo Banchero or Chet Holmgren; prideless teams tank without prejudice because it’s a truth universally acknowledged that a general manager in possession of an NBA franchise must be in want of a blue-chip superstar. 

Similarly, erstwhile playoff hopefuls like the Knicks, Pacers, Trail Blazers and Wizards are all eager to slough off productive-enough 29 year-olds so they can force feed shots to tank-friendly, unproductive 22 year-olds. This kind of militant pragmatism—if you’re not first, you need to be last—has become the predominant school of basketball thought and has hollowed out the ambition of the league’s lower-middle class as a result. This is a needlessly severe approach and yet it’s still technically true: as long as only one team can truly succeed, 29 others have to fail. 


In this sense, the Kings are reimagining what “success” really means. No longer are they measuring their progress in terms of some unknowable distant future; instead, they’re actually engaging with the present. The Kings may be the only team in the NBA to realize that, at a certain point, dogmatically maintaining the longest view in the room is the same thing as farsightedness. There are 82 real games that you need to play each year, so why not at least try to win some of them?

On the most basic level, Sabonis makes the Kings a better team now than they were at the start of the week. Sabonis is a legitimately excellent player, even if that has been lost in all the ululating how the Kings’ should be dragged in front of an international tribunal for the sin of trading away Haliburton. And Sabonis is fairly young, too—at just 25 years-old, not only is Sabonis better than Haliburton right now, there’s a very real chance that he’ll still be the better for the next seven-ish years.

A quirked-up white boy goated with the sauce, Sabonis has been one of the NBA’s most statistically prolific big men since 2019—besides Giannis Antetokounmpo, Sabonis is the only player to average more than 12 rebounds and five assists per game over the last three seasons. Despite the Pacers’ organizational curdling stench, Sabonis is in the middle of the most efficient scoring season of his career, upping his true shooting by nearly five percentage points from last year. 

He folds a surprising amount of skill into his punishing,casual physicality, using his body to unsettle defenders and create openings that he can then feather a pass or a shot through. Since Sabonis assumed a starring role with the Pacers in 2019, he’s thrived within a variety of contexts, even occasionally moon-lighting as a spot-up shooter when needed. Toggle through different lineups around him and he’ll alternately be the synaptic hub of a dribble handoff-heavy attack, a quick-hitting facilitator on the short roll, or a punishing interior brute. Already the best Kings’ big man since Chris Weber, Sabonis turns scoring into a simple physics equation—a defender can either remain sturdy enough to hold their ground against him or spry and reactive enough to leap to contest a shot, but not both. 

Most promising for the Kings, though, is Sabonis’s potential fit alongside point guard De’Aaron Fox. After making a leap last year towards near-stardom, the 24 year-old Fox has spent most of this season mired in a quarter-career crisis. Namely, he devolved from a bad shooter to an abysmal one. While the presence of Haliburton ostensibly lightened Fox’s creation burden, Fox and Haliburton struggled to reconcile their fundamentally different ways of processing the game. If Fox plays with the single-mindedness of an Omakase chef and manifests greatness through his own individual vision and talent, Haliburton is a Vegas buffet, offering everybody on the court the opportunity to follow their own bliss. 

Conversely, in Sabonis, Fox now has a co-star who could be complementary, not competitive. Sabonis is an elite screen-setter who creates advantages for his teammates by concealing his intentions from the defense until the point of contact; it’s not a coincidence that Malcolm Brogdon blossomed from a perfunctory, low-lift combo guard to a high-level pick-and-roll operator once he partnered with Sabonis in Indianapolis.

Together, Sabonis and Fox have a natural symbiosis—in Sabonis’s first game with the team last night, the Kings exploded for 132 points and 32 assists against the Minnesota Timberwolves. For the first time in his career, Fox is playing next to a player who can single-handedly create advantages for the offense. Fox was already the fastest player in the league—now, aided by Sabonis’s versatile, bruising playmaking, he’ll seem functionally even faster. Although the brawling Sabonis and the speedy Fox move at such disparate tempos, they could establish an effective, arrhythmic synergy. 

Whether it leads to anything “significant” is a mystery and also kind of irrelevant—there’s an intangible value in playing basketball each night that your fans are happy to watch. So much of the NBA is oriented around transaction-based palace intrigue; the Kings are a reminder that it’s nice to care about the day-to-day too.

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NBA Pacific Division Preview and Betting Odds

Division Winner Pick: Phoenix Suns +190

Phoenix was such a fun story to follow last season: they went undefeated in the bubble (without even making the playoffs); traded for Chris Paul; watched Devin Booker blossom into a near superstar; made the Finals; lost the Finals.

Now the Suns have a real shot to win this division and also get the top seed in the West. Not only are they bringing back their same core from last season, young guys like Deandre Ayton, Cam Johnson, Mikal Bridges and Cam Payne will continue to improve. As an organization, the Suns should look to maximize their current situation; they’re a legitimate title contender–and championship windows close fast. 

Just as Phoenix benefited from some well-timed injury luck in last year’s postseason, it will find itself in a favorable situation in their division this year. The veteran-heavy Lakers will probably care more about load-managing their stars than pursuing a division title; Kawhi Leonard might not even play for the Clippers this season. Too, Klay Thompson might not be back for Golden State until the new year and the Kings are, well, the Kings. At plus odds and taking all of those factors into account, the Suns offer a ton of value.

“What If Everything Goes Right?” Pick: Golden State Warriors +550

Wardell Stephen Curry II. If you have him on your team, you have a shot. Steph will go nuclear. Would it really surprise you if he averaged 40 PPG in a month? 

The two surgeries for Klay aren’t great. And not playing in a game for over two years isn’t ideal. Still, that’s part of his allure. Maybe smoking weed, hanging out with his dog and going out on his boat will be just what he needs to return to prime Klay. Encouragingly, his game is sort of perfect for coming back from two major injuries. Even if his defense may not reach its previous peak, Klay’s effectiveness has never been predicated on his explosiveness or athleticism—it doesn’t matter if the guy barely dribbles because he’s the second greatest shooter in the history of his sport, behind only his teammate. 

Draymond is what he is. 

Andrew Wiggins is a wild card. 

Everyone should buy the dip on James Wiseman’s stock. 

Finally, if Klay comes back and is even 70 percent of his old self from the jump while Steph continues to do Steph Things, the Warriors could be elite.The other guys can play their own roles. Plus, it’ll be fun to watch the Warriors with some stake in the game at those division odds.

The Longshot Pick: Los Angeles Clippers +900

Okay, +900 isn’t *really* a long shot, but it’s not like anyone’s going to pick the Kings. 

The case for the Clippers: Paul George, two years removed from a serious MVP push, really shut a lot of critics up last year in the playoffs, when Kawhi wasn’t healthy. Is it out of the question that we get some form of that for an entire season? Or maybe even three-quarters of the season? After all, he’s just three seasons removed from receiving serious MVP consideration. 

Along with George, guys like Reggie Jackson and Terrence Mann emerged in Kawhi’s absence. Sometimes, all it takes is guys experiencing a high pressure situation like the playoffs to build on that for an entire season. Also, Marcus “Flask Dad” Morris does some truly wild things to swing a handful of games every year. 

Is it probable that all this will happen? No. But they don’t call it the longshot pick for nothing.

Best of the Rest:

Los Angeles Lakers -106

A team with Lebron and Anthony Davis is good enough to beat anybody, but its ambitions lie far beyond the regular season. Maybe the Lakers will chase home-court advantage in the playoffs, but their ultimate goal will probably be keeping their cadre of old guys fresh. Although the greatness of Lebron James and AD aren’t in question, there are a slew of variables for this overhauled team: can they stay healthy? How will Russell Westbrook mesh with Lebron and AD? Can Melo score enough to warrant heavy minutes? How will their rotation shake out?

Odds of -106 with a team constructed like that is not particularly tasty. Come playoff time however, it’s a different conversation—never bet against Playoff Lebron.

Sacramento Kings +20000

A few nice things about the Kings: De’Aaron Fox is one the most thrilling players in the league and will form an intriguing backcourt, alongside Tyrese Haliburton. Marvin Bagley isn’t the worst rapper in the NBA. All of those people who claimed they could score against Harrison Barnes within five minutes, one on one, were wrong.

The Kings are not winning the division.