Winners: Orlando Magic
Better late than never. The Magic didn’t exactly net a king’s ransom when it traded four veterans — Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier and Al-Farouq Aminu — in three deals Thursday, but its sell-off was a long time coming. Orlando hasn’t won a playoff series since 2010, and there was no sense in clinging to the dream that Vucevic, a two-time all-star center, was capable of leading it to postseason glory. Coming out of the pandemic with the same, unsuccessful core group was an untenable proposition.
All told, the Magic got three first-round picks, two second-round picks, Wendell Carter Jr., Gary Harris, R.J. Hampton and some veteran spare parts in deals that sent Vucevic and Aminu to the Chicago Bulls, Gordon to the Denver Nuggets and Fournier to the Boston Celtics.
There are the outlines of a 23-and-under core developing: Markelle Fultz, Jonathan Isaac, Mo Bamba, Cole Anthony and Carter are intriguing on paper, although all five players carry injury histories, as does Harris. Salvation for this group will need to come through the draft, and the Magic is now in the driver’s seat to claim the NBA’s worst record. A high selection should deliver real help; the top five of the well-regarded Class of 2021 is loaded with difference-makers such as Cade Cunningham, Evan Mobley and Jalen Suggs.
Losers: Houston Rockets
When the Rockets traded James Harden in January, they opted to reroute Caris LeVert from the Brooklyn Nets to the Indiana Pacers in exchange for Victor Oladipo. Losing a franchise player is a tough pill to swallow, and Oladipo’s inclusion helped the Rockets save face because he was an all-star headliner for the return package.
Houston’s bet on Oladipo, which was widely panned because Oladipo is a pending free agent and LeVert was locked in on a quality value contract, was grounded in a desire for flexibility. If he played well with a change of scenery, he could be re-signed or flipped at the deadline for additional assets.
Oladipo instead flopped in Houston, which recently lost 20 straight games, and had to be dumped to the Miami Heat for next to nothing. The Rockets received Avery Bradley, Kelly Olynyk and the rights to swap 2022 first-round picks in the deal, which doesn’t guarantee any meaningful help to their rebuilding effort. Bradley has a team option next year and is likely to be a free agent, and Olynyk is on an expiring contract. Because the Rockets could use either their pick or a Brooklyn pick that they received in the swap with the Heat, according to ESPN, Houston’s best-case scenario is a marginal move up in the draft order if the Nets finish above Miami in next year’s standings.
The Rockets don’t just miss Harden. They miss former general manager Daryl Morey, too.
Winners: Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets took a step back in free agency when the Detroit Pistons came calling for Jerami Grant and Mason Plumlee, but they did a nice job rebounding at the deadline. Aaron Gordon, a versatile forward, arrives to step into Grant’s defensive-minded role, while the well-traveled JaVale McGee will back up franchise center Nikola Jokic. The best part for Denver is that Gordon ($18 million) and McGee ($4 million) will make less than Grant ($19 million) and Plumlee ($8 million) while being capable of delivering similar results.
Gordon was the biggest name to join a West contender at the deadline, and he should benefit from playing in Jokic’s orbit. Denver now sports a fearsome frontcourt rotation of Jokic, Gordon, Michael Porter Jr., JaMychal Green, Paul Millsap and McGee. That group looks playoff-ready, even if Gary Harris’s departure opened a backcourt hole.
Losers: Philadelphia 76ers
The 76ers should be in title-or-bust mode, but their only deadline addition was backup guard George Hill, who has spent much of this season injured for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Pulling out all the stops to snag Kyle Lowry from Toronto would have been a dream move worth cashing in some younger rotation players, given how well Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris have played this season.
Winners: Brooklyn Nets
The best way to explain why Philadelphia was a loser is to imagine the sigh of relief from Brooklyn once the deadline passed. Lowry would have been a major addition for the 76ers or the Heat, a crucial piece for postseason matchups with the Nets’ Kyrie Irving and James Harden or the Milwaukee Bucks’ Jrue Holiday.
Brooklyn, when healthy, has looked like the East’s clear favorite. While the Nets couldn’t find a way to cash in the injured Spencer Dinwiddie for a playoff rotation piece, they will be glad that Lowry didn’t move and that the only additions their top competition made were role players such as George Hill in Philadelphia and P.J. Tucker in Milwaukee. Once Kevin Durant comes back from a bothersome hamstring injury, the Nets will be poised for conference domination.
Losers: Los Angeles Lakers
To clarify, they’re only mild losers. The Lakers stood pat, confident in a well-constructed roster built around LeBron James and Anthony Davis. They had no pressing needs other than better health, so sitting out was perfectly defensible.
With both of their stars sidelined with long-term injuries, though, the Lakers don’t control their own destiny like they did a few months ago. The Lakers enter Friday’s action as the West’s No. 4 seed and could easily slide into the play-in round by the time James returns from a high ankle sprain.
The Nuggets’ addition of Gordon, the Los Angeles Clippers’ trade for Rajon Rondo and the Portland Trail Blazers’ acquisition of Norman Powell hurt the Lakers’ chances at remaining in the West’s top six by the end of the regular season. None of those is necessarily a title-altering move, but the accumulated upgrades will make life more difficult for James and Davis once they return.
Winner: Raptors President Masai Ujiri
Toronto would have been better off taking the plunge and trading Lowry, but Ujiri deserves credit for his other maneuver. With Powell putting together a career year in advance of hitting free agency this summer, Ujiri sold high on the scoring wing by sending him to the Trail Blazers for Gary Trent Jr. and Rodney Hood.
While Powell is a better player than Trent now and should give Portland a boost before the playoffs, Trent is just 22 and will be a restricted free agent this summer. Ujiri will therefore be in position to match any offers on Trent — an advantage he wouldn’t have had with Powell — and he should have the flexibility to sign Trent to a long-term deal after negotiating a bargain extension for OG Anunoby. This season has been a nightmare for the Raptors, but eventually launching the post-Lowry era with a core group of Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, Anunoby and Trent would look pretty darn good.
Loser: Celtics President Danny Ainge
Boston smartly used its trade exception and two second-round picks to add Fournier, a perimeter scoring specialist from Orlando. This was a logical move in a vacuum for the Celtics, who have gotten little bench production and needed to balance their roster positionally. Fournier should help boost a flat offense that often lacks ball movement and has repeatedly struggled to execute late in games.
But Fournier won’t lift Boston back into the East’s contender conversation and will need to be paid once the summer rolls around. What’s more, bringing on his contract required the Celtics to ship starting center Daniel Theis to the Bulls so that they could avoid paying the luxury tax. Trading Theis does open up opportunities for promising big man Robert Williams, but it was a far less desirable option than shipping out Tristan Thompson, who has been ineffective since signing as a free agent before the season. That entire sequence of moves was a reminder of how much better the disappointing Celtics would be if they had simply kept Gordon Hayward and Theis.
Winner: Victor Oladipo
Many analysts will be tempted to label Pat Riley and the Heat as the big winners of the deadline because he added Oladipo, three-and-D wing Trevor Ariza and stretch forward Nemanja Bjelica, and he could add LaMarcus Aldridge after he was bought out by the San Antonio Spurs. Of that group, though, only Oladipo has a chance to be a big-time difference-maker in the playoffs.
Oladipo is the real winner of the exchange because his interest in playing for Miami has been well-chronicled over the past year and because the Heat probably could have swung a deal for Lowry instead. The 28-year-old guard, who was a two-time all-star with the Indiana Pacers, needs to rehabilitate his reputation and market value after two injury-plagued seasons and a forgettable stint with the Rockets. Joining the Heat for a possible deep postseason run is Oladipo’s best shot at maximizing his next payday. He will join an organization that excels at getting the most out of its players, regardless of what stage they are at in their careers.
Losers: Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavaliers took a flier on Andre Drummond at last year’s deadline and officially have almost nothing to show for it. In a waste of time for all parties, Drummond, 27, was shut down in February after playing just 25 games, and Cleveland was ultimately unable to find any takers for his $28.7 million expiring contract. On the bright side, the Cavaliers did land Jarrett Allen, their new center of the future, as part of the Harden deal back in January.
This story has been updated with clarifying details on the Rockets’ pick swap.