Every year, the NBA Trade Deadline thrills us with plenty of Woj bombs to go around, and this year’s iteration was no different. Also every year, people like to crown certain teams and players winners and losers of the deadline as if this is an exact science when we have no idea how these movements. We here at Brainiac Sports won’t stand for such shenanigans! However, there are plenty of moves that caught my eye, for better or worse. Let’s rattle off a few of them.
Vucevic to the Bulls: The Chicago Bulls have not made the playoffs since Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo snagged the first two games of their 1-8 first-round matchup against the Boston Celtics before dropping the next four. Yeah, it’s been a minute. This season though, they are in the hunt to get back to the postseason, currently sitting 10th in the East but 2.5 games behind of the 4th seed. Fortunately for them, 10 teams are eligible for the postseason in each conference, with teams 7-10 playing for the 7 and 8 seeds. The Bulls likely needed a push to avoid such play-in games and got one from the biggest name to be dealt at the deadline (since Kyle Lowry didn’t get moved).
Nikola Vucevic isn’t a big-time name but he’s been a solid performer for many years in the morass of mediocrity that is the Orlando Magic. Vucevic has been tasked with carrying a load associated with one a superstar is asked to burden with the numerous injuries that have befallen the Magic this year. Amongst players who have played at least 25 games this season, Vucevic’s usage rate ranks 15th in the league, just behind now teammate Zach LaVine. Vucevic’s arrival should be welcomed by both parties. Big Vooch has never had a pick and roll threat the caliber of even Coby White, let alone a near 50/40/90 scoring dynamo like LaVine. Vucevic should get much easier looks around the rim to boost his efficiency around the rim (he had the 10th worst FG% amongst centers from 0-8 feet, per NBA.com), which should, in turn, boost his efficiency as a whole (per ESPN’s Kevin Pelton, Vucevic’s True Shooting Percentage of 56.5% is below the league average for centers at 60.7%). However, for a team that wasn’t getting much out of its centers and could use an infusion of playmaking, Vucevic should help plenty offensively. Vooch and LaVine can replicate a lite version of the dynamic Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray have in Denver (from where the Bulls current GM previously worked for). Vucevic is averaging a career-high 3.8 assists per game, a career-high 6.5 attempts from three per game, and hitting a career-high 40.6% of those shots per game. He can open up the floor for White and LaVine to drive, create deadly mismatches with his shooting, and can be a fulcrum to run their offense.
Defense isn’t the strength of Vucevic nor the Bulls as a whole (the Bulls’ defense is currently and literally the middle of the pack of the league) but he does make them better. Having their pick only being Top 4 protected with the possibility they can still miss the playoffs could certainly come to bite them, but I don’t expect it to. I’ve never really been a Zach LaVine believer, but I like that the Bulls are and gave him more help to make a playoff push. Vucevic’s salary isn’t crippling either, as he’ll make $24 million and $22 million the next two years. I also liked moves they made on the edges as well, getting Troy Brown Jr. and Daniel Theis for Chandler Hutchinson and Daniel Gafford, getting some more defense and playmaking on the floor. The Bulls will have to make the playoffs this year and beyond for this deal to be a success. I’m expecting they will.
The Miami Heat: Pat Riley you dastardly dog. The Godfather did it again, creating value out of thin air. In the summer of 2019, he turned Josh Richardson into Jimmy Butler. At the deadline this year, he turned Avery Bradley, Kelly Olynyk, Moe Harkless, Meyers Leonard, and Chris Silva into Victor Oladipo, Nemanja Bjelica, Trevor Ariza, and possibly LaMarcus Aldridge. That’s a heist. Oladipo and Aldridge have not played up to the All-Star form we’ve been accustomed to seeing them perform at, but the Heat are neither asking or requiring them to do so. They kept all of Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson, and Kendrick Nunn, which wouldn’t have been the case had they traded for Kyle Lowry, who they can sign this summer along with re-signing Victor Oladipo, whose bird rights now belong to the Heat. At worst, neither of these additions pan out and the Heat ride a team that is currently surging after a start filled with injuries and COVID; at best, Oladipo returns to form, Bjelica and Ariza bring the shooting they need and they go toe-to-toe with the Nets and Bucks. There’s no downside here for the Heat with the upside to win a title. Not bad!
John Collins and Lonzo Ball staying put: I always like when teams reward their homegrown stars rather than look for reasons to trade them. John Collins is the perfect pick and roll dance partner for Trae Young. Sure, his fit has been muddied a little bit with Clint Capela occupying the paint, but when you can also be effective from the outside, that mitigates that clutter a little bit. In more than a normal NBA season’s worth of games (85) games the last two seasons, Collins is shooting 38.6% from three on nearly 3.5 attempts per game. Admittedly, I haven’t been able to watch many Hawks games this season, but by many accounts, Collins has improved on that end, and the numbers back it up. Collins ranks ninth amongst power forwards in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus metric. Though the Hawks’ defense is better when Clint Capela plays alongside Collins (and puts Collins at the 4 more than the 5 where he can be his most lethal self offensively), they’ve been better when Collins plays without Capela this season than they’ve been in years prior. Pay John Collins!
Lonzo Ball is the perfect fit next to Pelicans stars Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram. He doesn’t need the ball and accentuates the strengths of those other two. Last season, the Pelicans’ Net Rating skyrocketed to +11.3 points per 100 possessions when Lonzo shared the floor with Zion and Ingram. This season, that Net Rating sits at just +1.6, but jumps back up to +11.5 when starters Eric Bledsoe and Steven Adams watch those three from the bench. Those three work as a trio and should be playing with each other for years to come. This current Pelicans regime has drafted multiple guards already in Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Kira Lewis Jr. It seems more than possible that the Pelicans opt not to pay what Lonzo could get in restricted free agency, but at least they now have more time to assess the fit. Here’s hoping they keep Lonzo for the long haul.
Orlando Turning Up the Tank: The Magic have had their season wrecked by injuries. They currently have the fourth-worst record in the NBA and are 2.5 games ‘behind’ having the second-worst record in the NBA. The NBA Draft is always a bit of a crapshoot (no one needs to remind fans of the Magic), but the top of 2021’s Draft looks loaded with star power, headlined by Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham and USC’s Evan Mobley, amongst others. At the deadline, the Magic got three first-round picks, two second-round picks, and two young players a team in a situation like theirs should surely look at in Chicago’s Wendell Carter Jr and RJ Hampton from the Nuggets for Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Gary Clark Jr. Not a bad haul at all. Perhaps a change in scenery will ignite Carter into the potential two-way force many (including myself) thought he could turn into coming out of Duke. RJ Hampton has only played 25 games but should get plenty of burn with Magic guards Markelle Fultz and Cole Anthony currently injured. Many saw Hampton as a possible top 10 pick before he opted to play professionally in Australia. With many teams staying in the fight for the play-in, the Magic (in a season currently being played in a pandemic) picked as good a time as possible to flip the switch into tank mode from a team that would’ve been stuck in mediocrity had they chosen not to. At least we’ll always have those glorious Game 1s from the 2019 and 2020 playoffs.
Houston Rockets: When it came time to trade franchise superstar James Harden, Tilman Fertitta reportedly refused to trade to former GM Daryl Morey, now operating in the Philadelphia 76ers Front Office, according to Chris Haynes of Yahoo! Sports. Haynes is as good an insider as there is, so I believe that report. Ben Simmons was reportedly offered in a potential Harden trade, along with a multitude of picks. Instead, the Rockets chose to trade him to the Nets in a 4 team that landed them neither Caris LeVert nor Jarrett Allen, Brooklyn’s two promising young players this deal necessitated them part with. Instead, Allen went to Cleveland, and the Rockets flipped LeVert into Victor Oladipo from the Houston Rockets. With hopes (I imagine) of competing for the playoffs, those quickly vanished when injuries to Christian Wood and John Wall led Houston to spiral to a 20 game losing streak and squarely in the Cade Cunningham sweepstakes. After this and Oladipo turned down a two-year extension and little hopes of retaining him, the Rockets traded him again to the Miami Heat for… Avery Bradley, Kelly Olynyk, and a 2022 first-round pick swap? No really, that happened. Granted, Oladipo has not been the All-NBA player he was in the 2017-18 season, but the Rockets knew that and his contract was expiring after this season when they traded for him! (They also couldn’t have known LeVert would miss time removing a form of cancer in his kidney, which he has mercifully fought off and returned to the hardwood). They could’ve taken perennial All-Star and Defensive Player of the Year candidate Ben Simmons (how fun would he be next to Christian Wood?) along with a ton of picks. Instead, the best player they have to show for James bleeping Harden is Kelly Olynyk. Oh, and if their pick falls outside of the top 4, then the Rockets get stuck with the worst of their pick, the Thunder’s 2021 first or the Heat’s 2021 first… the team they just traded Victor Oladipo to and made better. Houston has done well to collect multiple firsts from the Harden, Robert Covington, and PJ Tucker trades, but missing out on even LeVert is a massive miss no matter how you slice it. They better nail those picks and hope the Nets picks turn into gems years way down the road. Good luck playing that game.
Norman Powell to the Blazers: This trade puzzled me, as does seemingly every move the Blazers make. Norm is having a terrific season, is used to playing with two guards at the same time, and can take the pressure off of Damian Lillard, but I just don’t think he fixes Portland’s defensive issues. Portland’s defense ranks 29th in defensive efficiency in the entire NBA. Remember, the NBA consists of 30 teams, so that doesn’t seem very good. On top of that, Portland traded away arguably their best perimeter defender in Gary Trent Jr. There isn’t all that much of a drop-off between Trent Jr. and Powell defensively, but maybe those assets could’ve gone towards getting a stopper or a rim protector. For example, Daniel Theis got traded for Moritz Wagner. JaVale McGee got dealt for 2 2nd round picks? Maybe you don’t trade Trent Jr. for either of those two, but why not try to get someone like that who can provide a jolt defensively for not as much as you paid for more offense? If their plan is to wait for Zach Collins to return from injury, can they really count on Collins to stay healthy? What is the point of Anfernee Simons (or hell, CJ McCollum) if he’s now even more redundant than he already was with the addition of Norm? Is Portland going to pay Powell in free agency when he’s due for a humongous bag of money? I’m not sure of the answer to any of these questions.
The Grizzlies and Spurs Standing Pat: You shouldn’t make a move for the sole sake of making a move. Neither the Grizzlies nor the Spurs had to make a move. Both are firmly in a position to make the play-in games. However, both have too many good players to play all of them. It would’ve been cool to see one of them (mostly the Grizzlies) package some of them to land a player better than any they’d give up, but having too many good players to play is a problem every team would take.
Knicks Doing Mostly Nothing: The Knicks are another team that didn’t *have* to make a move. But with $15 million of cap space at their disposal, they could’ve used it at the deadline, perhaps to take on a bad salary and land an extra first-round pick. It didn’t take a lot to land Victor Oladipo, who reportedly had an interest in the Knicks and that interest was mutual; why not take a shot and see if he can help your long-suffering fan base get back to the playoffs? They did land Terrance Ferguson and the Sixers’ 2nd round pick, but they probably could have done more to improve their position both now and in the future.
The Lou Williams – Lemon Pepper Wing Jokes: Yes, Lou Williams will be playing for his hometown. Yes, that features Magic City, a club that has wings on its menu named after Lou. Since when was eating wings flouting society’s conventions? Let the man eat! (which is also what every guard in existence will do when he and Trae Young share the floor.)