Before the trade calls were finalized, while the digital ink on the trade tweets was still drying, pundits were rushing to figure out who won and lost at the NBA’s trade deadline.
Thursday, at the top of that list, was the Clippers, the only big-time contender to make a significant move, nabbing Marcus Morris at a reasonable price while upgrading their shooting and physicality.
A sneakier winner at the NBA’s Thursday deadline, though, was one of the league’s most recent rules tweaks — the flattening of lottery odds — intended to combat tanking.
While the Lakers, the Milwaukee Bucks, the Toronto Raptors, the Boston Celtics and the Utah Jazz all went through the trade deadline without upgrading their rosters, some of the NBA’s worst teams made significant talent upgrades with losing no longer as closely tied to draft position as it was prior to last season’s reform.
New Orleans won the right to draft Zion Williamson No. 1 last season even though the Pelicans won 33 games — better than six other NBA teams.
The Minnesota Timberwolves, currently 10 games behind the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies and owners of the fourth-worst record in the NBA, acquired the biggest impact player to move, getting former Lakers first-rounder D’Angelo Russell from Golden State in the day’s first — but not only — surprise.
Minnesota has wanted Russell since this summer, when he landed in Golden State as part of the sign-and-trade between Brooklyn and the Warriors for Kevin Durant. With Russell always viewed as a bit of a wonky fit whenever Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson got healthy, the Warriors turned him into another future first-round pick with minor protections and former No. 1 overall selection Andrew Wiggins, who will get a chance to prove his skills can be a positive on a winning team.
With Minnesota, Russell will become the unquestioned lead guard while partnering with a beaten down Karl-Anthony Towns, who hasn’t played in a Minnesota win since Nov. 27 after missing their only five wins since with a knee injury.
After Minnesota fell to Atlanta on Wednesday, Towns’ frustration couldn’t be contained.
“I’ve been losing for a long time,” Towns told reporters. “I’m not trying to do that ... anymore. Every possession means a lot. You obviously see my patience running low with a lot of things, so there’s no excuses, we’ve got to get it done.”
The deal should improve Minnesota’s chances at winning both now and in the future — there aren’t many 23-year-old guards in the NBA who score as often (23.6 points per game) and as efficiently (37.4% from three-point range) as Russell.
It comes days after Minnesota kicked off the deadline activity in earnest by shipping “three-and-D” forward Robert Covington to Houston as part of a sprawling four-team trade that included Denver and Atlanta.
Like the Timberwolves, Atlanta can’t have realistic playoff hopes after winning only 14 games so far this year, but the losing and chase for the worst record in the NBA didn’t stop them from acquiring Rockets center Clint Capela, the type of pick-and-roll partner and rim protector the Hawks desperately needed as they build around All-Star guard Trae Young.
Not to be outdone, the only team worse in the East than Atlanta, Cleveland, swooped in and acquired former All-Star center Andre Drummond from Detroit, sending out only salary filler and a future second-round pick for the NBA’s leading rebounder.
While Cleveland suddenly has one of the most crowded frontcourts in the NBA with Drummond, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson, the Cavaliers will get a 30-game look at how Drummond, one of the top 2020 free agents, fits with their young guards Collin Sexton and Darius Garland.
Near the top of the standings in the East, Miami made the biggest move, acquiring Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder from Memphis in a deal that failed to also net them Oklahoma City forward Danilo Gallinari after the three sides were close.
Still, Iguodala’s presence paired with Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo’s emergence and a roster full of capable role players could have the Heat in contention with the Bucks in the Eastern Conference.
Houston has fully leaned into playing extreme small ball with Covington on board and no traditional center in the rotation Thursday against the Lakers. The Rockets also turned Jordan Bell, whom they acquired from Minnesota, into the long-armed Bruno Caboclo.
Other than the Clippers, the Heat and the Rockets, most contenders either operated on the margins or did very little.
Philadelphia acquired a pair of bench players in Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III from Golden State for second-round picks. Denver swapped out bench players, sending Juancho Hernangomez and Malik Beasley to Minnesota while adding Noah Vonleh and Jordan McRae.
The biggest splashes, though, came at the teams with the longest climbs.
While the buyout market will add help to teams near the top — albeit usually in small increments — teams at the bottom of the NBA’s standings decided to make their own luck on the trade market rather than waiting for the draft lottery.