Trade Deadline Big Picture Takeaways – Eastern Conference
By: Avi Tyagi
As before, I’ll split this column into multiple categories. The Harden trade and the two teams making it get their own piece. The Kings are not in the East so instead we replace it two new sections, the first of which (“I get it but oooh I’m not sure”) focuses on the Cavs. Our second new addition is “Trades Are Hard”. It examines the two most inexperienced teams in the conference, and either their deliberate or reluctant choice to reserve some rumored trade candidates on their rosters. A reminder, no proclamations of winners or losers, that’s pretty bold to make before the playoffs.
I GET IT
The Pacers swapping LeVert for two high-quality seconds and a first makes perfect sense to me. Locking up Brogdon, whom I consider to be their best player, makes sense, even at a significant salary cost. The Haliburton trade caps it off for me. The Pacers have already done what they said they would: They’ve retooled, scraped barely under the luxury tax line (by $320,000), and at the same time, helped their lottery odds this year. The Pacers might have a top 5 pick to complement Hali as part of the young core. Additionally, Brogdon, Turner, and the potential for 22 million in cap space if they choose not to extend Warren, before you even consider whether they keep Buddy Hield in the offseason, all introduce a variety of choices. Receiving a protected second-round pick back for signing Craig in the offseason is a nice bonus too. In the meantime, they can develop Jalen Smith, and perhaps re-sign him if he is offered under 4.67 million (due to his dismissed third year option, that’s the most the Pacers may present). In summary, the Pacers have optionality and flexibility. I get it.
The Hornets made one big move at the deadline. I like it. Montrezl always plays spectacularly in the regular season and fits perfectly as a transition threat with the flying Bugs. He also fits their vision as an offensive rebounding maestro. To procure him through a trade of Ish Smith and the sparingly gamboling Vernon Carey is easily understandable. An added bonus: this might indicate greater faith in James Bouknight’s ability to play with the big club. More minutes for him are now in stock.
Dragic played sparingly for the Raptors. Thad Young is the most Raptor vet possible. A versatile 4 who can guard multiple positions and has potential passing vision. I just described most of this roster. This team practically only plays their starting 5 all game. Procuring Thaddeus at the cost of moving down only a few draft slots, for a team with an excellent draft record, in a class known for its project prospects, might be a coup. With a recent 8-game win streak, Thad, and a potential buyout addition, all of a sudden, there may be another contender in the cluttered East.
Nice underrated move by the Heat. Trading Okpala gives them more space under the luxury tax and nets another second. They now have a roster spot to move Caleb Martin from a two-way to the big club, plus one more slot for a buyout candidate. Most importantly, the amended pick protections free up their 2023 pick to be traded. Draft night now includes the option to deal their next two firsts for upgrades, if they so choose. It might be a minor move now, but it could be massive in the offseason.
The Bucks must really believe in Ibaka improving his play by playoffs time. They’re the ones with the medicals on both him and Donte. They might believe more in his ability to stay healthy and offer quality play at a position of need more than Donte can, while being easier to retain in the offseason. Ibaka might even allow for a Brook Lopez trade in the summer to make potentially re-signing either Connaughton or Portis easier, if either chooses to decline a player option. That being said, it’s hard to look at this deal and not think about how much simpler their title defense would be if they had just kept PJ Tucker. Their deadline moves feel like an admission that some of the waiver wire free agency pickups have not panned out as well as expected and have instead opened up holes in their lineups. Meanwhile, Tucker is thriving in a starting spot with a fellow conference contender. The Bembry move might be massive to try to soak up some big wing defensive minutes, but his 3 is somewhat questionable, so it will be interesting to see what role he plays offensively. Regardless, they still need Ibaka to rediscover his shot blocking prowess once more. It’s an interesting choice to say the least.
I enjoy the Celtics’ choice to usher in Derrick White. He’s a phenomenal perimeter defender and a solid connective passer who might become a clear closing 5 member. Offensively, the roster may potentially no longer meet the threshold of competent spacing around the Jays, due to the come and go nature of both DW and Smart’s 3-ball. Their new backcourt has overlapping skillsets, but their combined efforts on the perimeter may enable the Celtics to exemplify one of the stingier defensive. Derrick’s screen navigation is an underrated strength and might make it easier to blitz the pick and roll. As an on-ball defender, he’s solid, not in the Jrue-Mikal Bridges territory, but few are. My main questions lie with the Theis trade and what that may imply about the Celtics process. It’s hard to see some of Brad Stevens’ coaching favorites make 35 million combined, despite not being members of the closing 5, and not ask some questions. Perhaps Stevens views Theis as a clear plus within the Celtics scheme and feels he may have been a little lax in Houston. Perhaps the Celtics view Theis as a quality backup who may make it easier to trade Horford and his non-guaranteed contract in the summer. They didn’t include anyone they planned to re-sign, but Theis likely has to play as an elite bench option to validate this trade. It’s also a little ironic that the Celtics traded Freedom, considering they now have limited financial flexibility for the next 2 seasons as well. Ducking the luxury tax while adding to this roster going forward will be a monumentally difficult task, if both tasks continue to appeal to them. At least for this season, they gain 5 new aces up their sleeves from these transactions: opened roster spots. A couple of prorated minimums should still keep them under the luxury tax and reap them the rewards of the massive 10-million-dollar payout. Solid buyout signings, which might come at the cost of some young players’ development, could also vault them further up the East’s pecking order. As long as the operating rationale is not primarily driven by Stevens’ favoritism, the Celtics augmented claims for contention emerge as the main takeaway.
INTERESTING BUT UNSURE
Off the bat, I’m not sure I’d swap that caliber of assets for a player who might not slot in perfectly with my starting 5, as the Cavs have chosen to do so. LeVert is a fun player when he’s cooking, and might bring significant value as a driver in isolation or off the catch, as a distributor, and as a creator off the bounce. Scouting through the list of other potential options, it’s hard to find a potential starting caliber guard with a similar contract structure. The Cavaliers retain the option to generate about 40 million in cap space with only their big 3, Lauri, Okoro and their 2023 1st rounder on the books. If LeVert plays well, they may retain him, else go big game hunting. The questions lie with value and fit. Does LeVert function well enough with Garland to warrant playing starting minutes? He’s a minus defensively, and not much of a catch and shoot opportunist historically. He will provide a boon to the backup bench minutes, and might form a connection with the bigs in the PnR in those minutes, but he’s not an efficient self-creator yet (career 52.6% true shooting, 3% below league average). Is a first and 2 2nds the going price for that player in this market? It might be with the rumblings surrounding the proliferation of more project-type players outside the top 20 in this upcoming class. Is it worth the potential opportunity cost? Should they have traded Collin Sexton first, and would that have netted them a better return with more leverage than they might have in a restricted free agency sign and trade? Is there a way they can keep Collin and maintain the roster’s balance, or would that be a superfluous choice that doesn’t fit some of the team’s pressing needs? I don’t find it definitive; hence they earn their spot here.
TRADES ARE HARD
The Orlando Magic’s last trade deadline was far more eventful. Receiving the Dozier drop off was nice, but the presence of the buyout market really squeezed them out of producing pick assets with Gary Harris, Terrence Ross, and Robin Lopez. It still feels like they should have been able to produce some value out of it, considering the opportunity it would present other teams to clear their books. One wonders how serious conversations were with the Lakers about trading that trio for Westbrook, Bazemore, Jordan, and draft pick compensation. It would also be worth monitoring if a lack of a trade means they’re invested in re-signing Bamba in restricted free agency.
Marvin Bagley is a Piston as a prime second draft candidate, long rumored to be of interest to the Pistons front office. Intriguingly, Jerami Grant and Kelly Olynyk are still Pistons as well. One ponders what the market may have been for the latter two. If they’re still on the roster to provide some semblance of spacing for Cade to operate with, that’s totally reasonable. The interest in both seems less prolific than expected, so they opted to maintain the functional components of their offense. Just an interesting choice to note for a rebuilding team.
HOPE IT WORKS
The Bulls made no moves and are hoping to reinforce their competitive pedigree through the buyout market additions. Considering the reinforcements arriving for the surrounding contenders, that may not be sufficient. Troy Brown, Coby White, and Derrick Jones might not suit the fully equipped roster. All 3 may shine brighter elsewhere with more available developmental minutes, instead of pressing playoff stakes. Perhaps the team views this cast as potent enough as is. However, the gap between 2nd and 5th in this conference is 2.5 games, with the Celtics and Raptors surging as well. One minute, you could be enjoying a feel-good, underdog season headlined by savvy free agency moves, a nice second round find in Ayo, and an offensively complementary duo in Lavine and DeMar. The next, you’re on the road for the playoffs, potentially facing elimination against another contender who made big additions and with Zach Lavine approaching free agency. Despite outstanding play from their core 5, the Bulls’ Cleaning the Glass net rating is indicatively 6th in the conference. Now they’re without Caruso and Lonzo for an extended period of time as well. Tristan Thompson off of the buyout market may provide some front court depth, but his role is otherwise ambiguous. This is indeed a precarious position and they didn’t exactly improve their margin for error.
The Wizards are confusing. They trade out of the first round for Aaron Holiday, then trade him for cash considerations (Hello again Cash C.). Scrapping Harrell like that, despite his overall resume this season, for limited long-term prospects is another questionable move, at best (Hello again to you too, perennial Ish Smith deal). They were also the ones to trade for Dinwiddie and re-sign Bertans to those contracts in the first place. However, the KP trade, at the expense of some financial flexibility, is fascinating. if healthy, a repeated remark for KP, it’s difficult to suggest the roster enjoys a lower upside. Beal is out the rest of the season, which might supplement earning a top 5 pick. Is there a potential outcome where a successful draft presents a face of the future to complement a healthy KP, Beal, and solid surrounding pieces such as Kuzma and Avdija, and creates a solid playoff roster? Might the ceiling of that group still only be that of a 7 seed in an uber competitive eastern conference? Will Brad hit 3s again (4 straight seasons under 36%, including easily a career worst 30% this time)? Does this open up the pathway to a Bradley Beal offseason sign and trade, kickstarting a rebuild? Can KP play well enough upon returning from his latest knee injury to generate offseason players and picks as well, if they opt for that alternative? See what I mean: the Wizards are enigmatic and it’s hard to gain a clear read on their vision and offseason approach.
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