My dad often jokes that I enjoy the NBA trade deadline more than the actual games. Of course, that’s not true. After all, the whole point of following the flurry of action on deadline day is to see which teams will act aggressively to improve their chances at a championship, and which teams will sacrifice on-court success in the short term in exchange for future assets. However, something about the wheeling and dealing that teams embark on as they frantically try to finalize trades before the 3 p.m. deadline has always felt more accessible to me than the actual play. From the time I was suiting up for North Andover Booster Club youth basketball, it was readily apparent that I didn’t have a future in professional basketball, or collegiate basketball, or high school basketball, or middle school basketball, for that matter. My player comp: Marcus Smart, but short, can’t shoot, and afraid to dribble. On the other hand, the strategy and planning behind player deals always felt like something I could engage in at the same level as any other fan of the game. In that spirit, here are my takeaways from this season’s deadline on Feb. 6.
By far the biggest deal of the deadline was a swap between a desperate Minnesota Timberwolves organization and a forward-looking Golden State Warriors franchise. The Warriors traded guard D’Angelo Russell and cap filler to the Timberwolves for forward Andrew Wiggins, a top-three protected first-round pick in 2021, and a 2021 second-round pick. Russell was named to his first All-Star team last year with the Brooklyn Nets, before being acquired by Golden State via a sign-and-trade last summer. However, from the beginning of the season, Russell’s fit in the Bay Area was suspect. Immediately after Russell’s deal with the Warriors was announced, The New York Times’ Mark Stein reported that the Warriors had no long-term plans for Russell, and had only acquired him to recoup some value from their loss of superstar Kevin Durant to Brooklyn. The reasons for believing this were obvious: As a ball-dominant scorer and weak defender, he made for a poor fit next to Golden State’s sweet-shooting backcourt of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
I don’t know if there’s a clear winner in this trade. Minnesota got the better player in Russell, but he doesn’t necessarily project as a player who’s going to develop into a top point guard in the league. He lacks top-end athleticism and explosiveness, and rarely gets to the line with only 2.5 free throw attempts per game last season. As a result, he has to play away from the basket, settling all too often for inefficient, long mid-range shots. If Russell isn’t capable of taking another leap toward the upper echelon of guards, it’s fair to wonder what the ceiling on this Minnesota team is. Aside from superstar big man Karl-Anthony Towns, the Wolves’ roster is filled with unproven young talent and uninspiring veterans. If Russell and Towns can’t carry this team to the playoffs in a loaded Western Conference, the pick they owe to Golden State could land as high up as fifth or sixth overall in a well-regarded 2021 draft class.
Golden State carries a little less risk in this deal, but it’s still a suspect return for a team that hopes to return to title contention next year. Wiggins has the potential to fill an Andre Iguodala- or Shaun Livingston-type role for the Warriors as a do-it-all wing with added scoring upside. The issue, however, is that the 24-year-old Canadian has not once in his career lived up to his potential. As the number one overall pick out of Kansas in 2014, Wiggins flashed scoring and defensive potential that lead scouts to give him the nickname “Maple Jordan.” Unfortunately, Wiggins’ reputation this far into his career is that of a streaky shooter who, despite his 6’ 7’’ frame and bouncy athleticism, consistently looked lost defensively. The Warriors will have a chance at two top picks in subsequent drafts (their own in 2020 as well as the Wolves’ in 2021), but will they really want to entrust key minutes on a championship contending team to two rookies? If the Warriors want to reboot and contend with the Lakers and Clippers next year, Wiggins will have to show more in the Bay Area than he did in the Twin Cities.
The NBA also saw one of the most complicated trades in 20 years occur just a few days before the deadline, with four teams exchanging a combined total of 12 players. In the chaos of the deal, the Atlanta Hawks acquired center Clint Capela from Houston, the Houston Rockets received forward Robert Covington from Minnesota, the Timberwolves traded for guard Malik Beasley and forward Juan Hernangómez from Denver, and the Denver Nuggets received guard Shabazz Napier and forward Keita Bates-Diop from Minnesota.
The best player moved in the deal is Capela, so it’s natural to start with the Rockets’ Capela-Covington swap. The 25-year-old Swiss big man had been successful over the past few seasons as a rim-runner, rebounder, and lob threat for Houston. However, Capela found himself in a lesser role this season as the Rockets have more frequently employed small-ball lineups around star guards James Harden and Russell Westbrook. However, trading Capela signifies a commitment by Houston to play even smaller than they had previously. Without Capela, the Rockets don’t have a playoff-caliber big man on their roster. Despite their talent on defense, throwing out the 6’ 7’’ Covington or the 6’ 5’’ P.J. Tucker at center won’t suffice against teams like the Los Angeles Lakers or Denver Nuggets who will counter with Anthony Davis or Nikola Jokic. If this team wants to win come April, they’ll have to score, and score, and score. Any dip in efficiency or numbers from Harden or Westbrook could spell their doom.
The trade doesn’t interest me as much for any of the other teams. Adding Capela was a smart move for the Hawks, as he’ll provide a defensive anchor behind All-Star guard Trae Young. The downside is that it moves John Collins away from his natural position at center: he’s best served as a pogo-stick, under-the-basket rim-runner than a jump shooter at the power forward position. While they haven’t been quite as good this year, Hernangómez and Beasley played a huge part in the Nugget’s finish as the second seed in the Western Conference last year. This projects as a smart long-term move, as Denver likely moved them in order to reap some return before the duo hits restricted free agency at the end of the year. However, Beasley and Hernangómez are hands-down better than the players the Nuggets got in return. In a wide-open Western Conference, I would have preferred if the Nuggets had stood pat and improved their chances at a finals run.
The only other big deal of the day was between two fairly irrelevant teams in 2020. The Detroit Pistons traded center Andre Drummond to the Cleveland Cavaliers for what essentially amounts to cap filler. The real reason Detroit made this trade was to ensure they wouldn’t be on the hook for Drummond’s $28 million player option for next season. While it’s shameless cost-cutting, this current iteration of the Pistons wasn’t going anywhere, and it was the easiest way to provide financial flexibility for what could be a lengthy rebuild. The Cavaliers, on the other hand, get a free look at a two-time All-Star who has led the league in rebounding for each of the past three years. Sure, Drummond is overpaid, a weird fit in the modern NBA next to forward Kevin Love, and hasn’t yet proven in his career that he can contribute to winning. On the other hand, Cleveland is in a pretty dire place as a franchise at this moment; their draft picks aren’t panning out, their best players want out, and their coach may or may not have completely lost the locker room after using racially insensitive language. In other words, no free agents.
Drew Kushnir can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.