NBA Trade Deadline: Knicks, Thunder, Jazz, Rockets and the 10 Biggest Winners
“In a lot of ways it’s harder in this league,” another NBA executive says, “to go from middle-of-the-pack to the top than from the bottom to the top.”— An NBA executive to SI's Joe Posnanski.
Every NBA franchise has been to the playoffs at least once since 2004; 23 of the league's 30 teams have made it in the last three years.
It's almost impossible to be consistently awful. Over half the teams make the playoffs every year; the rest are given first crack at selecting the best young prospects. Even the Clippers have some recent history of playoff success, with an Elton Brand led team making Game 7 of the second round in 2006.
It's not difficult to build a 45+ win team; it's actually pretty easy.
For franchises to miss the playoffs for more than five straight years, two things usually have to happen: they have to wait too long to rebuild, and then whiff in the Draft.
Locking a mediocre team into place, not losing, is what gets a franchise into trouble. Rebuilding is like ripping off a band-aid: it's better to do it all at once.
Going from a 45+ win team to a 55+ win one is the most difficult leap in the NBA. Elite teams, ones that win 55 or more games, have All-NBA talent surrounded by complementary pieces that maximize the strengths and minimize the weaknesses of their franchise player.
The problem is that there isn't a large time window to acquire that talent: once an All-NBA player finishes his rookie deal, his team won't be drafting in the upper reaches of the lottery, and they won't have the salary cap space to add an impact player in free agency.
Giving out a max contract destroys your roster flexibility. Once you do that, your team is pretty much stuck in place. And while you may be able to fool your fans, you won't be able to fool your players.
That's what happened in Denver and Utah: the Nuggets and Jazz had no high-upside young players who could become All-Stars, no salary cap room to sign one in free agency, and no trade assets to get one. Carmelo Anthony and Deron Williams knew there was no chance they could contend for a championship where they were, and once that happened, their time in those cities was numbered.
Going into the trade deadline, some teams needed to get worse and start the rebuilding process (sellers), while others needed to get better to improve their chances in the playoffs (buyers). With that in mind, here's a quick look at the ten biggest winners from an exciting and frenetic week of trading:
10. Houston Rockets
By moving Shane Battier and Aaron Brooks, good players who weren't in Houston's long-term plans, the Rockets have begun the difficult process of moving on.
In return for strengthening their draft position this year, the Rockets got two first-rounders as well as two young players with upside potential in Goran Dragic and Hasheem Thabeet. More importantly, they are acknowledging the need to rebuild—look for Kevin Martin and Luis Scola to be put on the trading block in the off-season.
** The Grizzlies did strengthen their playoff chances by adding Battier, but it's hard to call a team a winner when they had to acknowledge that they whiffed completely on the No. 2 overall pick in last year's draft and are so incompetently managed that they had a possible trade vetoed because they didn't get it in before the deadline. **
9. Washington Wizards
All that keeping Kirk Hinrich would do for Washington is cost them a few ping-pong balls.
By the time the Wizards made it back to the playoffs, Hinrich would have been long gone. In return for dumping him, they got Jordan Crawford—a 6’5" rookie shooting guard out of Xavier who can score in a hurry, and a first-rounder in the 2011 Draft.
Exactly the kind of move a rebuilding team should make.
8. Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavs had to pay over $12 million (the difference between the contracts of Baron Davis and Mo Williams) to acquire the Clippers’ 2011 lottery pick.
Even more important than the young talent they could get is the signal paying for the pick says about the franchise. Cleveland is willing to spend—and spend big—to become an elite team again. That’s a great sign for Cavs fans.
7. Minnesota Timberwolves
Minnesota struck gold this offseason when they picked up former No. 2 overall pick Mike Beasley for two future second-rounders.
The Wolves have the fourth worst point-differential in the league (-6.0), so they should play as many high-upside young players as possible. The team is going to lose anyway, so they might as well be getting better in the process.
Anthony Randolph fits that description to a T—an athletic 6’11" 225 forward with career per-36 minute averages of 16.5 points, 11.1 rebounds and 2.4 blocks. He’s an intriguing piece to put next to Love and Beasley, and all it cost Minnesota to get him was a redundant small forward in Corey Brewer, and renting their cap space to acquire Eddy Curry’s contract.
6. LA Clippers
The Clippers will save over $12 million by swapping Baron Davis for Mo Williams.
It cost them a 2011 lottery pick to get the deal finished, but that was fairly expendable considering they have a talented young player at every position as well as Minnesota’s 2012 first-rounder, which figures to be fairly high.
And while they were rebuffed last summer in the free agent process, the emergence of Blake Griffin completely changes the Clippers’ place on the NBA landscape.
Right now, L.A. has only $19 million in salary committed for the summer of 2012, when Deron Williams, Chris Paul, and Dwight Howard hit the open market.
5. Utah Jazz
Utah got quite a haul for giving up the best point guard in the NBA: a 28-year old former All-Star point guard, a 19-year old 6’10" 250 big man taken third overall in last year’s draft, and two 2011 lottery picks (the Nets and their own).
** New Jersey would have to go 21-4 just to reach 40 wins and get the No. 8 seed in the East, while Utah’s first-rounder became a lot more valuable with Williams’ departure; there’s no way they make the playoffs now. **
Going forward, the Jazz have two 2010 lottery picks (Favors and Gordon Hayward), two more in 2011; as well as attractive trade pieces in Devin Harris, Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. If they draft well and move the veterans who don’t “fit” with their new young core for more prospects, they shouldn’t be down too long.
4. Atlanta Hawks
At the age of 32, Mike Bibby is almost completely finished. Swapping him for Hinrich is a huge upgrade for Atlanta on both sides of the ball.
Bibby is one of the worst defensive players in the NBA, while Hinrich, at 6’3" 190 with a 6’6" wingspan, can ably defend both guard positions.
Offensively, he becomes the best passer on an Atlanta team loaded with individual scorers; his career average of 5.7 assists is higher than any of the Hawks.
With his addition, Atlanta is now in a race with New York and Miami to see who can get the best defensive center this off-season. All three are “donut teams”—great looking All-Stars around the perimeter with a big hole in the middle.
3. Portland Trail Blazers
When someone offers a 28-year old All-Star who can defend three positions and averaged 18/10 last season for two reserve big men and two first-round picks, you make sure they stay on the line before they change their mind.
Wallace’s numbers dropped after Ray Felton’s departure from Charlotte, but they should improve their playing off of Andre Miller, one of the best alley-oop passers in the NBA.
Short-term, Portland became the proverbial team “no one wants to play” in the West. They have a lineup of Camby / Aldridge / Wallace / Roy / Miller with Nic Batum, Wesley Matthews, and Rudy Fernandez off the bench. Long-term, they are now set up beautifully to transition from the Brandon Roy era to the LaMarcus Aldridge one.
** Charlotte wasn’t on pace to make the playoffs; they didn’t have a single promising under-25 player and they had $58 million committed in 2012 and $40 million in 2013. You can’t fix a foundation that rotten, you’ve just got to start over. It's not pretty, but they had no choice. **
2. New York Knicks
New York now has two All-NBA forwards in the prime of their careers.
While they gave up a lot, an Amare/Melo/Fields core is only one piece from serious contention: a center who can block shots, defend the low post and rebound. And with only $45 million in salary committed for next season, they should be able to pick one up in free agency.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder
Of the NBA’s ten best teams, Oklahoma City was one of four, along with Atlanta, New York and Miami, who needed a defensive-minded seven-footer.
They got him today in the form of Kendrick Perkins, a 6’10" 280 brick wall of a center, who has been Dwight Howard’s Kryptonite in the playoffs the last three seasons.
While Perkins is still coming back from an ACL injury in last year’s NBA Finals, he’s only 26-years old and should re-sign for a reasonable contract after this season.
With a front-line of Perkins, Ibaka and Nazr Mohammed (who the Thunder acquired for barely-used spare parts DJ White and Mo Peterson), Oklahoma can now compete with the front-lines of Los Angeles, Dallas, and San Antonio in the Western playoffs.
They’ve exploited the window before Durant and Westbrook signed max-contract extensions brilliantly; shrewdly managing their cap space and setting themselves up long-term with a talented young player at each position: Perkins, Ibaka, Durant, Harden, and Westbrook.