Grading 2017's Biggest NBA Trade Deadline Deals 1 Year Later
Hindsight is the NBA's shorthand for "Well, actually, I told you so."
Trades in the Association are never met with universal approval. Conflicting views are prevalent at every turn. Some takes diverge from a relative consensus, but those variants never cease to exist.
Re-evaluating past deals is touchy business for this reason. Someone is always wrong. Turning back the clock seldom reveals a mutual benefit. But re-examining the league's biggest shakeups is also necessary practice. Correct verdicts aren't rendered in real time. They unfold over gradual samples.
With the NBA's 2018 trade deadline mere days away, now's the perfect time to indulge that reflection on last year's most impactful moves.
For clarity's sake, this exercise isn't literal. We're opening up the field to blowups, blockbusters and anything in between that took place during the middle of last season, prior to the Feb. 23 deadline. Present-day grades will take into account every aspect of a deal—injuries, subsequent moves, what-if scenarios, big-picture implications, etc.
Ambiguous factors and repercussions considered beyond control won't define these updated marks. But wondering and inferring aloud is permitted.
We're not here to capitulate the I-told-you-so epidemic. Yours truly already offered up thoughts on these deals last season, some of which now warrant a "Well, actually, you're an idiot" or five.
Only the seven splashiest splashes from 2016-17 will be earning chronologically ordered cameos. Apologies to the great PJ Tucker-for-Jared-Sullinger-and-second-round-picks swap. It just missed the cut. (On the bright side, both the Phoenix Suns and Toronto Raptors got what they needed from that deal.)
Denver and Portland Swap Bigs (and Some Other Stuff)
Denver Nuggets Receive: C Mason Plumlee; 2018 second-round pick (less favorable of Portland Trail Blazers and Sacramento Kings)
Portland Trail Blazers Receive: C Jusuf Nurkic; 2017 top-five-protected first-round pick (from Memphis, via Denver; Harry Giles selected at No. 20)
No one can fault the Nuggets for getting rid of Jusuf Nurkic. His partnership with Nikola Jokic didn't just fail to pan out; it devolved into a detriment. Opponents outscored Denver by 15.6 points per 100 possessions when its two bigs shared the floor, and Nurkic's demeanor deteriorated by the game.
Giving up a first-round pick as part of his departure, though? Yikes. Yes, the Nuggets had selections to spare. Acquiring Mason Plumlee was a calculated risk. He seemed like a better potential fit beside Jokic thanks to his passing and defensive mobility.
On some level, he is. The Nuggets were a net plus with both Jokic and Plumlee on the floor last season, and they're outpacing rivals by 7.5 points per 100 possessions in the time their bigs have spent together since Paul Millsap's wrist injury.
Pulling the trigger on this deal still feels like a slight mistake, if only because the Nuggets signed Plumlee to a three-year, $41 million deal...after they acquired forwards Tyler Lydon and Trey Lyles...and also after they inked Paul Millsap...and while knowing they'll (probably) pay Jokic max money this summer if they decline his team option to prevent him from becoming an unrestricted free agent next year.
Nurkic in no way put the Nuggets in a position of power. And yours truly didn't ether them at the time; they received a solid B. But their direction since changes things.
They shouldn't have needed to include a first-round sweetener when taking back someone in line for an immediate raise. And failing that, they should have stayed leaner in the coming years by letting Plumlee walk, optics be damned.
This trade looked excellent for the Blazers at first. They went 14-6 in the 20 games Nurkic played and posted a net rating with him on the court (plus-9.6) that would have ranked second leaguewide. The fractured fibula he suffered in his right leg harshed their playoff buzz, but not their future.
Portland's outlook doesn't look as sexy now. Nurkic has been underwhelming for most of this year. His appetite for long twos has exploded, and his post-ups, which account for nearly one-quarter of his touches, are wasted possessions. The offense is appreciably more efficient when he's on the bench, even as the team has collectively improved.
Bankrolling Nurkic's next contract in restricted free agency will vault the Blazers well into the luxury tax if they don't dump salary elsewhere. He has yet to prove he's worth either form of trouble.
Getting a first-rounder for Plumlee, who the Blazers were never going to pay, remains a victory. Forking over the rights to a wing (Justin Jackson) and Harry Giles to draft another big in Zach Collins is not.
Collins may turn into something. He's already a more prominent part of the rotation—a switchier/actually playable version of Meyers Leonard, per se. But Portland is overrun with bigs in a wing's league, and that won't change by paying Nurkic, retaining Ed Davis or Noah Vonleh (restricted) or holding onto Caleb Swanigan and, to a lesser extent, Leonard.
Serge Ibaka Leaves Disney for The North
Orlando Magic Receive: SG/SF Terrence Ross; less favorable of Los Angeles Clippers' and Toronto Raptors' 2017 first-round picks (Anzejs Pasecniks selected at No. 25 with LAC's pick)
Toronto Raptors Receive: PF/C Serge Ibaka
Feel free to give the Magic a grimmer grade. They unloaded Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis (plus Ersan Ilyasova) to get Serge Ibaka. A few months later, they then sold him for pennies on the dollar. To make matters worse, the Oklahoma City Thunder eventually used the crux of their return from the Ibaka trade to land Paul George.
Some twist of fate.
Evaluating this deal against the Ibaka acquisition itself puts us in a gray area. The Magic never should have went that route with Bismack Biyombo and Nikola Vucevic in tow. That move reeked of general manager Rob Hennigan trying to save his job.
And yet, he about-faced before actually losing his gig. The Magic did well to get a first-rounder for a player on the cusp of free agency, and Terrence Ross' $10.5-million-per-year price point remains reasonable, even as he collects dust with a right knee fracture.
Orlando also turned Anzejs Pasecniks, the No. 25 pick, into a top-20-protected 2020 first-rounder from Oklahoma City and 2020 second-rounder from the Brooklyn Nets or New York Knicks. Those are solid assets if the new front office regime wasn't hot for anyone left on the board. It only looks blah now because the Magic, along with two-thirds of the league, passed on Kyle Kuzma (No. 27).
But to flip the script yet again, the Magic couldn't get the more favorable of that Clippers and Raptors pick?
Toronto president Masai Ujiri remains a trade-deadline master.
Never mind him scooping up Ibaka on the cheap. By getting the Magic to accept the less favorable of Toronto's and Los Angeles' picks, he put the team in position to draft OG Anunoby, who is already a member of the starting lineup. And though his shooting percentages have plummeted in recent weeks, he's a workaholic on defense and ranks 11th among all small forwards in ESPN's Real-Plus Minus.
Ibaka's contract is all that prevents the Raptors from earning the highly sought A+, as three years and $65 million is a mild overpay for a plateauing big. They have Ibaka doing more stuff off the dribble, but his three-point clip has dipped and he's past his rim-protection peak.
Boogie to The Bayou
New Orleans Pelicans Receive: SF/PF Omri Casspi; C DeMarcus Cousins
Sacramento Kings Receive: SG/SF Tyreke Evans; PG Langston Galloway; SG Buddy Hield, 2017 top-three-protected first-round pick (Zach Collins selected at No. 10); 2017 second-round pick (from Philadelphia, via New Orleans; Frank Mason III selected at No. 34)
Investing in the DeMarcus Cousins-Anthony Davis setup looks almost reckless on the heels of the former's season-ending Achilles injury. This souped-up Twin Towers framework was hardly an airtight success story to begin with, and the Pelicans now must address Cousins' next contract without knowing how he'll rebound from this enormous setback.
Paying him is dangerous for obvious reasons. Achilles injuries alter, sometimes ruin, career arcs. But the Pelicans can't hit the eject button, either. They don't have the wiggle room to make a dent in free agency without jettisoning other contracts.
Waiting to re-stack the deck until 2019 or 2020 after cutting bait with Cousins is similarly out of the question. Davis can turn down his 2020-21 player option and become a free agent in the summer of 2020. The Pelicans don't have the luxury of time. This trade, and the decision that awaits them now, will define their direction for the next half-decade or more.
Still, the Pelicans didn't give up much for Cousins, who was playing like one of the 10 or 12 best players in the league prior to his injury. Losing a sound-yet-unspectacular prospect like Buddy Hield won't come back to haunt them. Their winning percentage with Cousins (44.0) was only a tick better than it was before the trade (40.4), so he didn't torpedo their lottery odds.
Maybe the Pelicans tank for a higher pick without him. We can't be sure. We also can't be sure whether they'd have known to take Donovan Mitchell if they ended up in the same range. Bringing in the superstar at a clearance-rack cost offered far more certainty.
Should Cousins' future in New Orleans go belly up, the Pelicans can at least point to the experiment as proof of their commitment to Davis. That, coupled with the prospect of a massive designated player extension, might convince him to reciprocate their allegiance before they're forced to shop him.
That's the answer to the morbid question of whether Cousins' injury culminates in a rosier grade for the Sacramento Kings. They don't deserve anything more than C-level sentiments.
Hield is a quality scorer, and the Kings might one day coax consistent pick-and-roll initiation out of him. Mason was developing at faster rate than De'Aaron Fox before his right heel injury. Parlaying Collins into Giles and Jackson is to-be-determined OK. Giles won't play this season, while Jackson just recently became a rotation fixture.
Selling low on Cousins doesn't look much better than the initial reaction. Who knows if the Kings could have gotten more? They certainly should have made the call to move him sooner.
Sacramento's cap-space allocation is more uncomfortable than anything. Footing the bill for veterans Vince Carter, George Hill and Zach Randolph didn't wreck their lottery chances, but it delayed a youth movement already minimized by carrying Kosta Koufos and Garrett Temple.
Fox will have a say in how this deal is interpreted down the line. Shipping out Cousins improved the Kings' draft spot even with the Philadelphia 76ers' pick swap. Spinning this decision gets far easier if he develops into a legitimate No. 1 or No. 2 building block.
Lou Williams Rockets His Way to Houston
Houston Rockets Receive: PG/SG Lou Williams
Los Angeles Lakers: SG/SF Corey Brewer; 2017 first-round pick (Tony Bradley selected at No. 28)
Champions of pettiness can penalize the Rockets here, as Lou Williams is balling so hard right now. He rates as one of this season's 10 most valuable offensive contributors, according to NBA Math's Total Points Added metric.
Just one problem: He's doing this for the Clippers, because the Rockets traded him away. And we shouldn't care.
Houston nabbed Chris Paul, for crying out loud. It doesn't matter that he's missed almost half the year. He's Chris gosh darn Paul. The Rockets are a semi-legitimate threat to the Golden State Warriors in large part because of him. And Williams was, in terms of salary, the centerpiece of Paul's return trade package.
Oh! And Williams wasn't playing with Houston like he is now. He shot 38.6 percent overall and 31.8 percent from three through 23 regular-season outings, and his spasmodic drives to the basket didn't cut the mustard during the playoffs.
The lone gripe: Paul's next contract. We have to see how much (and how long) the Rockets sink into the soon-to-be 33-year-old over the summer.
Magic Johnson's first move as president of the Lakers was, well, whatever.
Neither he nor anyone else in the organization could have known what Williams would go on to do. And it certainly seemed as if the No. 28 pick (Tony Bradley)—which the Lakers turned into No. 30 (Josh Hart) and No. 42 (Thomas Bryant)—was enough while Williams labored through inefficiency with Houston.
To that end, we have no way of knowing whether they could have done better. But snagging Corey Brewer instead of an expiring contract profiles as a failure. The Clippers would get more for Williams now if they moved him as free-agent-to-be.
Again: Johnson doesn't have a crystal ball. And he was roughly six seconds into his tenure as Lakers president when he made this decision. He didn't have weeks upon weeks to suss out offers. But he could have waited out the market a bit longer. He traded Williams on Feb. 21, two days before the trade deadline.
Hart may demand the Lakers get more credit in time. He has light-years to go as a pull-up shooter and pick-and-roll triggerman, but he's one of their most reliable off-ball options and is finding nylon on more than 70 percent of his looks around the rim.
Bojan Bogdanovic Joins Washington for a Hot Minute
Brooklyn Nets Receive: SF/PF Andrew Nicholson; SG Marcus Thornton; 2017 lottery-protected first-round pick (Jarrett Allen selected at No. 22)
Washington Wizards Receive: SF Bojan Bogdanovic; PF Chris McCullough
Jarrett Allen playing like a draft-day steal seals this near-perfect grade for the Nets. He's coming along as a pick-and-roll diver, and head coach Kenny Atkinson has given him the freedom to occasionally test his range outside of eight feet. He has also flashed an ability to gather position with a few dribbles and finish off some niftily angled jump hooks.
Bigger, burlier centers will overpower Allen on the block and underneath the rim, but he has the length and spring to match Dewayne Dedmon's airborne rebounding style. He's already there on the offensive side; he grabs almost 11 percent of Brooklyn's misses when he's in the lineup—the fifth-highest mark among all rookies and sophomores.
Acquiring this much upside for a player, in Bojan Bogdanovic, who had one foot out the door is a major win. It helps that the Nets didn't need to pay out the rest of Andrew Nicholson's contract, too.
Funding the final three years and $56.3 million of Allen Crabbe's deal isn't the most economical investment, but they're the ones who signed him to that massive pact in the first place. They deserve brownie points—or, if nothing else, a relative pass—for turning a player they didn't want into one they coveted.
One qualm: Procuring this pick could have, in theory, empowered the Nets to cough up the Boston Celtics' first-rounder (via their pick-swap obligations) as part of the D'Angelo Russell trade. Kyle Kuzma is a stud and just the kind of cross-position wing for which Brooklyn has a soft spot (see: Crabbe, Allen).
General manger Sean Marks has not said Kuzma was on his radar, and the Nets, like almost everyone else, passed on him once. Perhaps they knew deals for Crabbe and DeMarre Carroll would be in play later on and didn't want to overload the wing spots. Maybe they figured Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Caris LeVert rendered a Kuzma flier moot.
Either train of thought is valid—borderline excusable. But those what-if pangs are enough to derail a flawless review.
ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton went in on the Wizards after this deal, and his words ring even truer one year later:
"At the same time, despite being a pretty efficient scorer as well (his .572 true shooting percentage is solidly better than league average), Bogdanovic still rates worse than replacement level by both ESPN's real plus-minus and Basketball-Reference.com's box plus-minus metrics because of his lack of measurable defensive contributions. Bogdanovic averages just 0.6 steals per 36 minutes and has blocked three shots all season.
"As a result, I put Bogdanovic seventh in my rankings of wings available at the deadline. Worse yet, wing wasn't really Washington's area of need. Their biggest problem is backup point guard, which hasn't yet been addressed."
Escaping Nicholson's contract keeps the Wizards from failing the hindsight test. But the ramifications of letting Bogdanovic walk in free agency are less forgivable than prioritizing a no-defense wing over the more urgent need for a second-string playmaker.
Maxing out Otto Porter and re-signing Bogdanovic wouldn't have made long-term sense. The Wizards are over the luxury-tax line without the latter on the ledger. But they perhaps could have hashed out a one-plus-one deal that effectively contained a no-trade clause yet rendered him a tasty trade chip at this year's deadline.
Bogdanovic needed to be game for this type of contract. The two-year, $21 million agreement ($1.5 million guaranteed in 2018-19) he reached with the Indiana Pacers implies his consent wouldn't have been an issue.
Instead, the Wizards have nothing to show for trading their third first-rounder in four years other than a smaller tax bill. They also would have been in position to draft Anunoby or Kuzma had they never made this deal. Just saying.
Dallas Ends Up Giving Philadelphia a Premium for Nerlens Noel
Dallas Mavericks Receive: C Nerlens Noel
Philadelphia 76ers Receive: C Andrew Bogut; SF Justin Anderson; 2017 second-round pick (Jawun Evans selected at No. 39); 2020 second-round pick
Life came at the Mavericks fast.
Picking up Nerlens Noel for what amounted to a non-shooter and a fake first-round pick that divested into two seconds initially graded out as a steal. Dallas collared his Bird rights just in time for restricted free agency, and he appeared to be a fantastic buffer for Dirk Nowitzki.
In the 200-plus minutes those two played together last season, the Mavericks outdueled opponents by six points per 100 possessions on the back of top-tier defensive returns. Noel's rotations around the rim could be late, and his accuracy from close range slipped a tad, but the marriage seemed to work. Give him a training camp in his new digs, and it seemed like he would thrive.
Then came the offseason.
Noel passed on a reported four-year, $70 million offer at the start of free agency, according to his former agent, Happy Walters. With no long-term agreement in place by late August, he opted to sign his $4.2 million qualifying offer and explore unrestricted free agency in 2018—a dice roll that hasn't come close to working out.
Head coach Rick Carlisle slashed Noel's playing time less than 10 games into the season. That turned into him falling out of the rotation by late November, which led to him eating hot dogs at halftime in early December, having thumb surgery and, perhaps, leaving Dallas altogether.
Whatever happens next, the Mavericks lose. They completed this trade intent on making him their center of the future. Inevitably dealing or letting him walk for nothing will be a major L—irrespective of how much responsibility Noel wears for his doghouse status.
Nothing and no one can get in the way of the Sixers inadvertently bamboozling the Mavericks. Their return bears more resemblance to a heist following Noel's fast and furious demise.
He could reinvent himself as a star center elsewhere, and it won't matter. Joel Embiid's MVP ceiling officially has the rubber stamp. He makes the best possible iteration of Noel expendable.
Unless you can't look past the Sixers selling Jawun Evans to the Clippers for $3.2 million, they come out of this deal better for wear. Their multiyear flier on Justin Anderson alone makes this highway robbery.
Chicago Does Oklahoma City Many, Many Solids
Chicago Bulls Receive: C Joffrey Lauvergne; SG Anthony Morrow; PG Cameron Payne
Oklahoma City Thunder Receive: PF/C Taj Gibson; SF/PF Doug McDermott; 2018 second-round pick
What in the actual heck were the Bulls thinking?
Mr. Dumbdumb (aka me) gave them a B- shortly after they completed this deal. I'm not hiding from it. Cameron Payne blinders used to be a thing. Destroy me accordingly.
Payne has yet to play this year while recovering from his zillionth right foot injury. The 12 combined appearances he made through the regular season and playoffs in 2016-17 delivered no lasting defense of his fit or future.
Sleep will not be lost over Joffrey Lauvergne's departure. But he's mustered more outings with the championship-hopeful San Antonio Spurs than Cristiano Felicio has under his belt for the (mostly) tanking Bulls. And whereas Felicio will run Chicago $32 million over the next four seasons, Lauvergne is playing out a two-year, $3.2 million deal (player option for 2018-19).
Flipping Doug McDermott remains inane. Taj Gibson was on his way out and unable to log time on the wings. McDermott won't be due a raise until this summer and paced Chicago's shallow well of wings from beyond the arc.
Including this year's second-round pick is the worst part. The Bulls didn't trade Jimmy Butler out of nowhere. His named bandied about the rumor mill all season. The Minnesota Timberwolves, his current team, tried dealing for him in 2016, Marc Stein reported for ESPN.com at the time.
General manager Gar Forman and vice president of basketball operations John Paxson had to know moving him and leaning into a reset was a distinct possibility. Even the slightest inkling should have stopped them from conceding a future second-rounder that, depending on where it falls, awards the owner (now the New York Knicks) a fringe first-round prospect—the cost-controlled bread and butter for rebuilding squads.
Ah, well. At least the return on Butler no longer looks like a steaming pile of garbage—courtesy of Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen, with possible thanks to Zach LaVine. (Then again, agreeing to toss the No. 16 pick into that blockbuster remains one of the worst decisions in recent superstar auctions.)
Check it: The Thunder effectively turned Lauvergne, Payne, Anthony Morrow's cadaver and Enes Kanter into a quarter-season of Gibson and, at minimum, one to two years of Carmelo Anthony.
They're still winning.