NBA trade deadline winners and losers: Suns make a statement, Nets’ dream dies, second-round picks have mad value

Every year, it seems, the advance reporting suggests that it’s going to be a pretty quiet NBA trade deadline. And every year, it seems, things go completely bat-guano about 16 hours ahead of the 3 p.m. ET deadline. Last year, it was the James Harden-for-Ben Simmons stare down; this year, it was Kevin Durant moving in silence like lasagna to get himself to Phoenix.

(Well, maybe “like lasagna that had loudly and publicly lodged a request to move into a different pan like six months ago.” But even Mixtape-Era Wayne probably would’ve had a hard time making that sound good.)

By the time the final buzzer sounded Thursday, the West had a new contender, the competition for top-six and play-in spots in both conferences was even tighter, and the race to build the biggest draft-pick war chest had grown all the more ferocious. As the rumors rolled in and the deals got done, I sat here, like Frank T.J. Mackey, quietly judging them. What follows are my first-draft-of-history impressions of which teams scored and which ones stumbled in this season’s grand NBA roster reshuffling:

Winners: The Phoenix Suns

Here’s what I wrote about the Suns in Wednesday’s trade deadline primer:

In a recent conversation with Dave King of Bright Side of the Sun, general manager James Jones said that what he’d most like to add at the trade deadline is shooting — in King’s words, “a guy who can get his shot no matter the situation, no matter who’s defending them, no matter how high-leverage the situation is.” Unless Durant rekindles his offseason interest in a trip to the desert, I’m not sure who else who could hit the market fits that description.

Narrator: “Durant did, in fact, rekindle his offseason interest in a trip to the desert.”

Mere hours after his introductory news conference as the Suns’ new owner, Mat Ishbia reportedly instructed Jones to reach out to Nets GM Sean Marks in a “covert, one-team negotiation” about the kind of big-splash deal he’d dreamed of making. It was an awfully big friggin’ splash.

Brooklyn Nets' Kevin Durant (7) celebrates during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Chicago Bulls Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023, in Chicago. Chicago won 121-112. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)
Yep, Kevin Durant is a monster difference-maker ... when healthy. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)

Out go Phoenix’s unprotected first-round picks in 2023, 2025, 2027 and 2029, plus swap rights on the Suns’ 2028 first-rounder, along with wings Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson and Jae Crowder — effectively the entire wing rotation with which the Suns won the Western Conference two seasons ago and a league-best 64 games last season. In comes Durant: eighth in the NBA in scoring, one of only seven players in the league averaging better than 27-5-5 and a bona fide MVP candidate who was arguably playing as well as he ever had before spraining his MCL last month.

Durant, Devin Booker, Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton are an absolutely devastating foursome, built to punish postseason defenses, inside and out. Durant, Booker and Paul can all carve you up in the pick-and-roll and pull up from anywhere; defenses designed to take away 3-pointers and keep drivers away from the rim now have to worry about three of the best midrange shooters in the world setting fire to their preferred coverage. Durant can also get to the line, averaging 7.3 free-throw attempts per game this season — more than Bridges and Johnson combined — which could prove to be an important source of supplemental offense for a Suns team that ranks 27th in free-throw rate this season, according to Cleaning the Glass.

Durant and Booker are both canny off-ball movers, too, dangerous sprinting off weak-side screens and firing off the catch. They’re also willing screeners who understand how to force defenses to switch into the kind of isolation matchups they really don’t want — the lifeblood of the lion’s share of modern playoff offense in the season’s biggest moments. Spot any of them up opposite an Ayton pick-and-roll, and help defenders find themselves in an impossible position: Stay at home on your assignment and let Ayton have a free run to the rim, or sink in to tag the roller and risk giving one of the best shooters in the world a clean look at a catch-and-shoot triple.

Losing an All-Defense-caliber win- stopper such as Bridges (plus two other solid perimeter defenders) hurts, but the quartet ought to be pretty excellent defensively, too. Ayton’s ability to hold up in space and clear the defensive glass should pair well with Durant’s length, shot-blocking, positional versatility and passing-lane cluttering, all while backstopping Paul’s persistent larceny and Booker’s steady on-ball improvement. It remains to be seen who’ll round out the starting five — I’d bet on Torrey Craig getting first crack as a low-usage, 3-and-D, point-of-attack defender, though maybe the returning T.J. Warren or defensive stalwart Josh Okogie gets a look — but this has a chance to be the best lineup in the league.

The Suns had already started to climb out of the hole they dug in December while ravaged by injuries, winning nine of their past 11 games with the NBA’s seventh-best net rating in that span to move within two games of third place in the heavily congested West. They just added the best player who will move at this deadline — one of the five best players in the league when healthy — and now have Durant, Booker and Ayton all under contract through 2026, potentially extending a title window that seemed like it might’ve been shut by a smiling Slovenian last spring.

Reasonable people can argue about whether this makes Phoenix the favorite to come out of the West, whether you’d pick the Suns over the Celtics or Bucks in a hypothetical Finals matchup, etc. What’s inarguable, though, is that nobody is going to be particularly excited about the prospect of dealing with Durant, Booker and Paul in a seven-game series.

A month ago, the Suns were reeling. Not anymore.

The most important people in the NBA right now: The Suns’ training staff

And now, the “caveat emptor” zag:

On paper, the Suns have the firepower to incinerate any defense they’ll face in the postseason. In practice, doing so will require keeping Durant (currently out due to an MCL sprain, marking the fourth straight season in which he has missed significant time due to a leg injury), Paul (a 37-year-old, 6-foot point guard with more than 46,000 minutes on his odometer and a haunting medical history in the postseason) and Booker (who just missed nearly two months due to groin and hamstring issues) upright, ambulatory and in working order for the next four months.

That’s the rub in these sorts of “four quarters for a dollar” trades: It’s obviously great to get the premier transcendent talent, but now you’ve got precious little depth behind your stars if something goes awry. (I do kind of like the follow-up move to add Oklahoma City’s Darius Bazley — an athletic, 6-foot-8 combo forward who isn't as skilled as the outgoing Dario Saric but might be able to defend a bit more on the perimeter.) The Suns might be a little more than three months away from a return to the Finals; they also might be a couple of false steps away from relying more on Cam Payne and Landry Shamet than they'd like after trading away their entire draft future.

Loser: The Nets’ attempt to be a super-team

In their bid to take over the New York market, to return to the top of the East for the first time since Jason Kidd was throwing alley-oops to Kenyon Martin and to win the franchise’s first championship since the ABA merger, the Nets chased superstars … and once they got them, they struggled at seemingly every turn to manage them in ways that elevate an organization rather than keeping it constantly scuffling through the mud.

For that brief moment when Durant, Harden and Irving were healthy, it looked like Brooklyn would thrive anyway. But the powers that be couldn’t make that moment last. When Durant asked out, Irving started looking for sign-and-trades and owner Joe Tsai made it clear he wanted to put his foot down in a power struggle, the dream was dead. It just kept toddling around for a few months before Phoenix pronounced it.

Who deserves what share of the blame for the way things in Brooklyn imploded is something that’ll be debated for ages. What this four-year episode makes clear, though, is that while it’s hard to get superstars, it can be even harder to have superstars.

And now, the Nets are back where they started: without any.

Winner: Devin Booker’s ability to manifest a super-team with intention

Booker, to Yahoo Sports’ Vincent Goodwill, in November 2018:

The way Booker sees it, the Suns aren’t in any position to take down the defending champion Golden State Warriors or even the next tier of contenders. But he knows the path to greatness — look at [Draymond] Green’s recruitment of [Kevin] Durant in 2016 — is possible and can change the league forever.

“… Dynasties only last for so long,” Booker said. “I’m not wishing trades upon any of the super-teams.”

But …

“I’d like to build a super-team. I’d like the super-team to come to me.”

Four-and-a-half years later, Booker’s a three-time All-Star and an All-NBA first-teamer who gets to run the wing with Durant while Paul runs point. This is a level of speaking it into existence that would make LaVar Ball so proud he’d tear off his shirt and challenge a former WWE champion to a fight on national television.

Winner, kind of: Jae Crowder

After sitting out the entire season to date looking for a trade because the Suns wanted to play Cam Johnson over him, Crowder finally got traded … and, thankfully, traded again, this time to a team that didn’t still have Johnson there, ready to play over him.

It took four months on ice, but Crowder will wake up Friday where he wants to be — a Marquette product back in Milwaukee, yet again the potential missing piece on the wing for a team with championship aspirations. He sounds stoked.

(You can tell he’s stoked because of the capital letters.)

Loser: The 2022-23 Brooklyn Nets’ championship hopes

In the long, long ago of Tuesday afternoon, I wrote that Brooklyn’s decision to take the Mavericks’ offer for Irving, which prioritized starting-level veteran players over future draft considerations, suggested that the Nets planned to try to remain competitive right now, which suggested that Durant would be sticking around. Welp!

Maybe the Nets were operating under the assumption that Durant was sticking around. (The initial reporting seemed to indicate they were.) But you know what happens when you assume; if they didn’t expect Durant to ask out again in the wake of Irving’s exit, just months after he told them he didn’t like the way things were working and he wanted to leave, well, then, shame on them.

Now, the Nets find themselves somewhat stuck between stations, with no incentive to tank (Houston still controls every Nets draft through 2027, thanks to the first Harden trade) but also no real shot at the brass ring. This looks like a roster in transition — a bunch of pretty good players but no great ones; plenty of interchangeable quality wings but no top-flight offensive engine to consistently create high-value shots for them; the bones of what should be an excellent defense but not enough oomph to reach the heights that Boston, Milwaukee, Philly and full-throttle Cleveland can.

That’s not bad; it’s just also not what anyone in Brooklyn’s brain trust thought they were signing up for. Then again, there has been a lot of that going around at Barclays Center the past four years.

Winners, potentially: The Nets of a couple of years from now

The glass-half-full take, from Brooklyn’s perspective:

While the Rockets own their draft future, the Nets now own Phoenix’s, plus Philly’s 2027 first (from the Harden-for-Simmons deal) and Dallas’ 2029 first (from the Irving trade) and a boatload of new seconds. Brooklyn now has one massive, long-term salary commitment — the $113.9 million owed to Simmons through 2025 — and an otherwise reasonably clean cap sheet after next season, and in Bridges, Johnson, Dorian Finney-Smith and Royce O’Neale, all of whom are signed beyond this season, it has a ton of the kind of multi-positional, 3-and-D wings contenders crave. (Bridges, who has the highest offensive upside of the bunch, reportedly isn’t going anywhere.)

That, plus rising young center Nic Claxton, provides plenty of raw material for the Nets’ front office to work with in trying to find a path forward after their failed attempt to build around the superstar talent that vaults you into championship contention — the kind of mix that should allow Brooklyn to stay respectable and competitive enough to avoid handing the Rockets premium draft picks for the rest of the decade and could allow Marks & Co. to rebuild the roster in comparatively short order.

Loser: The conceit that maybe the Sixers and Nets both won and/or lost the Harden-Simmons trade

Philly actually won a playoff series last season, which Brooklyn didn’t. Daryl Morey got Harden back on a sub-max deal and used the ill-gotten savings to add several key rotation pieces. The 76ers are no longer on the hook for Simmons’ contract, still actually have their MVP centerpiece and All-Star-caliber table-setter and look likely to have home-court advantage in Round 1, with a legit shot to advance further.

The Nets, on the other hand, just watched their expected empire crumble before their very eyes. Simmons has rarely looked comfortable on the court this season, showing only brief flashes of realizing the “he can be our Draymond Green!” pipe dream while spending a far greater share of his time seemingly unwilling to look at the rim and disinterested in being fouled; Brooklyn now has to either pay Simmons nine figures over the next three years in hopes he figures it all out or add sweeteners to pay his freight to put a final period at the end of the disappointing sentence of the past few years.

The verdict is in. Play the song.

Winner: Robin Lopez

Tweet of the deadline:

If only The BrooklyKnight were still around for Lopez to kick his ass, too.

Winner: Cam Thomas

I don’t think he’s going to continue averaging 44.7 points per game. (I don’t think.) But while Spencer Dinwiddie and Bridges will take their share of shots, there shouldn’t be any reason the Nets’ current in-between roster construction can’t afford the scorching-hot LSU product the opportunity to cook plenty for the next two months. And all available evidence suggests that if this dude takes a bunch of shots, he’s going to score a bunch of points. It remains to be seen whether that’ll translate to many wins. If nothing else, though, it might offer a reason to smile.

Winners: Chaos as a constant, the inescapability of impermanence

Dog, the Nets looked like championship contenders a month ago.

A butterfly flaps its wings in Beijing, and in Central Park, you get rain instead of sunshine. Jimmy Butler turns sideways slightly as he falls, the Celtics deliver a decisive, 43-point beatdown, and the fates of a handful of franchises change forever.

I will grant that the fact that we’re all just building sand castles on the shore, waiting for the tide to come in, isn’t necessarily actionable information. Still, what a reminder of how fleeting all of this really is.

Losers: Dan and Jake

The week before the deadline, we really wanted to see John Collins and O.G. Anunoby move to new destinations:

Alas, neither Collins nor Anunoby found a new home. Oh, well. See you guys back at the rumor mill this summer — say, around the draft?

Winner: Shifting around piles upon piles of second-round draft picks

The Nets got two second-round picks in the Irving trade; the Thunder got two for Mike Muscala. The Nuggets got two for Bones Hyland and sent three to the Lakers for Thomas Bryant. The Wolves got three seconds, plus Mike Conley, in Wednesday’s three-team deal. The Spurs got a pair for Jakob Poeltl and four more for Josh Richardson. The Bucks paid five seconds for Crowder; the Hawks sent that many in a three-team deal to get Saddiq Bey from the Warriors … who then turned around and shipped five to Portland for Gary Payton II.

I’m sure there were other multi-second deals I missed while jacked into the Matrix, but the point is this: The next time someone hand waves the inclusion of a second-round pick in a deal, just remember that while one second-round pick might not get much done, a whole bunch can help grease the skids on all kinds of deals.

Loser: The Grind

Damian Lillard is still not running from you.

That said …

Sometimes when you win, you really lose, and sometimes when you lose, you really win, and sometimes when you win or lose, you actually tie, and sometimes when you tie, you actually win or lose: The Portland Trail Blazers

The Blazers made several trades Thursday, shipping two players out, bringing four players in and adding a bunch of draft capital …

… and at the end, I’m kind of just scrunching my face and tilting my head at it, like a dog who’s not entirely sure what you’re trying to say to him because it isn’t about food. (I also might just be a little hungry.)

Turning Josh Hart (who has a player option for next summer) into a flier on Cam Reddish and a lottery-protected first-round pick that turns into four seconds if not conveyed (again with the seconds!) is fine. If Reddish pops on his third team, the Blazers can keep him around in restricted free agency; if not, well, he got them some picks.

Ditto for Payton, whom the Blazers effectively replaced with another defensive demon in Thybulle — himself a restricted free agent this summer — after injuries scuttled his first season in Portland. Thybulle’s averaging nearly three steals and five deflections per 36 minutes of floor time and sits near the top of the league in several advanced defensive metrics; he hardly ever shoots the ball, but his frenetic activity and off-ball cutting might play up on a team with as much shooting as the Lillard-and-Anfernee Simons-led Blazers.

There is a bit of an element of swapping deck chairs, though — like a team committed to trying to compete for a postseason berth, even while sitting under .500 and clinging to a play-in spot by half a game, might have missed an opportunity to fortify itself rather than once again relying on Lillard to put everybody on his back. Then again, cross-training workouts with weight that heavy probably get you, like, super ready to run to the grind instead of away from it.

Winner: Reunions!

A lot!

GPII’s back in the Bay. Eric Gordon rejoined the Clippers, who drafted him all the way back in 2008. George Hill’s back in Indiana. John Wall — somewhat less happily, you’d imagine — is back in Houston. Patrick Beverley, dealt to Orlando for Mo Bamba, might soon be on his way back to Minnesota, where he thrived last year. (Then again …)

Add the pre-deadline-day returns — D’Angelo Russell back to the Lakers, Poeltl back to the Raptors, Warren back in Phoenix, Dinwiddie back in Brooklyn — and there’s a real “Maybe this time we can make it work” vibe. Just in time for Valentine’s Day!

Loser: The state of Ja Morant’s worrying union

Seven weeks ago, Morant was already looking ahead to the Finals:

Now, he’s looking at a Nuggets team with the best offense in the NBA, the newly terrifying Suns and a Mavericks squad that can run out Luka Doncic and Irving in a seven-game series, all while the physically and emotionally wounded Grizz have lost eight of 10.

Mock not the basketball gods; they will give you something to worry about.

Winners: Folks who like heavyweight title fights

In the West: Fourth-place Dallas added an All-Star scorer and complementary playmaker in Kyrie Irving to pair with Luka Doncic. Fifth-place Phoenix got, um, Kevin Freaking Durant. The sixth-place Clippers landed the backup center they sought in Charlotte’s Mason Plumlee, plus a pair of guards, veteran Eric Gordon and sophomore Bones Hyland, who can add playmaking and scoring punch off the bench. And the Warriors — who, yes, entered Thursday sitting in ninth place, but remain the defending champions until dethroned and still employ Stephen Curry — finally chose a timeline (for now, at least) by essentially trading stagnated former No. 2 overall pick James Wiseman for old friend Gary Payton II in a deal I’m really bullish on. Wiseman, for all his physical tools and evident talents, hadn’t meshed with Golden State’s style or shown a consistent capacity to play its way. Payton, on the other hand, walks into Chase Center with a championship season’s worth of reps in the Warriors’ way.

(I’m hopeful that a fresh start in Detroit alongside Cade Cunningham and Jaden Ivey will do Wiseman some good. Then again, he’s going to have to carve out a role in a pretty crowded Pistons frontcourt, with Isaiah Stewart, Marvin Bagley III and Jalen Duren all still in the picture.)

In the East: League-best Boston added a strong fit for its bench corps in former Thunder big man Mike Muscala, who’s a legit stretch 5 (38.2% from deep on more than 1,100 attempts over the past seven seasons) and in whose minutes Oklahoma City dramatically outperformed its opposition for three years running. Second-place Milwaukee — which, by the way, hasn’t lost since Khris Middleton returned to the lineup — got Crowder to fill that P.J. Tucker-sized hole in its rotation. (The Bucks also did it without trading Grayson Allen, whose shooting and complementary off-the-dribble game makes him someone worth keeping around, even if you can’t stop thinking about Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown pulverizing him on switches in last year’s conference semis.) Third-place Philly replaced Thybulle with Charlotte’s Jalen McDaniels, who’s not as dangerous and disruptive of a defender as Thybulle is, but who’s a bit bigger (6-foot-9 with a 7-foot wingspan) and has a somewhat better-rounded offensive game — a bit more juice off the dribble, shooting 34.2% from long range and 77.8% from the free-throw line for his career — that could make him more readily playable in the postseason than Thybulle, whom playoff defenses just flat-out ignore.

Just how wide open you think the East, West and title races are likely depends on which province you hail from. But the fact that so many championship hopefuls made moves, big or small, to try to shore up weaknesses and amplify strengths suggests that they think they’ve got a real shot — which ought to make for some compelling basketball down the stretch, and hopefully some gnarly playoff matchups.

Loser: The contenders who didn’t really get in the ring

With the caveat that we outsiders and plebes don’t know exactly what was and was not offered, at what price point, in what deal structure, at what moment in time … man, it sure feels like the Grizzlies missed an opportunity.

I come not to besmirch Luke Kennard, whom Memphis wound up landing from the Clippers in a three-team deal that sent the just-returned Danny Green to Houston and three second-round picks (again!) to L.A. The 26-year-old out of Duke is an elite shooter, knocking down more than 44% of his long-range tries in each of the last three seasons; out of 278 players to attempt at least 250 3-pointers in that span, Kennard ranks second in accuracy, behind only Brooklyn’s Joe Harris and just ahead of new teammate Desmond Bane. That sounds like a pretty useful weapon for a Memphis team that ranks 20th in 3-point makes per game, 24th in team 3-point accuracy and 23rd in half-court scoring efficiency.

A weapon’s only useful if you wield it, though; as Clippers beat reporter Andrew Grief of the Los Angeles Times noted, Kennard “turned down shots often enough to rankle coaches who implored him to shoot [and] had fallen out of the rotation this month after returning from a calf injury.” If Kennard won’t let it fly, he might not be that meaningful of an improvement over Green, who’s much older but also a much better defender on the wing … which, with Bane and Ja Morant entrenched in the backcourt, Jaren Jackson Jr. defending so well he drives Redditors insane and Steven Adams (when healthy) placidly manning the middle, is where Memphis could use a hand. And yet, with Anunoby reportedly available and the Nets suddenly flush with 3-and-D wings, the Grizz — who control all of their own first-round draft picks plus a top-four-protected Warriors pick in 2024, and who are replete with cost-effective young talent — couldn’t manage to pry one loose.

Maybe no bid Memphis could’ve made would have convinced Masai Ujiri to part with Anunoby. (Toronto’s decision to trade a top-six-protected first-round pick for old buddy Jakob Poeltl suggests that, underneath that gruff exterior, Masai might be growing a bit sentimental when it comes to His Guys.) Maybe Marks, having just concluded what must feel like the longest millennium of his life, wouldn’t be swayed from the conviction that the next step for Brooklyn involves finding out whether his “Oops! All Wings” crew can coalesce into a playoff team. But you’ve got to be really good to win four straight playoff series, and as good as the Grizzlies can be when they’re healthy and rolling, it’s hard to shake the feeling that they reached a moment of truth, only to watch their competitors seize it.

The same could be said for the Kings, whose lone move was adding young ex-Net Kessler Edwards; the Cavaliers, who didn’t find a wing, either; the Pelicans, another Anunoby suitor who wound up settling for Josh Richardson; and the Heat, whose move to shed Dewayne Dedmon’s salary and create some room under the luxury tax wasn’t a precursor to something larger, after all.

OK, one last one:

Winners: The races for sixth (and the play-in, too)

The Heat didn’t make a move, but they’ve got Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, and they’re going to be really good whenever those guys are around. The Knicks added Josh Hart, a tough-as-nails versatile wing defender/rebounder who feels like he was designed in a lab to play for Tom Thibodeau, and who clearly has a special place in the heart of college teammate/New York point guard Jalen Brunson:

Meanwhile, the Hawks bolstered their wing with Saddiq Bey from the Pistons. The Raptors brought back Poeltl while trading none of their most sought-after targets; neither the Bulls nor Wizards did any selling, either.

That’s six teams separated by four games, all of whom seem to believe they should make the playoffs. It’s a similarly tight squeeze in the West, where 4.5 games separate fourth from 13th; freshly bolstered Dallas, Phoenix and the Clips are all knotted up for 4-5-6, while the Pelicans, Wolves, Warriors, Thunder and Lakers are all hot on their heels. (Hell, even after trading three rotation players, the Jazz might not even be that bad.)

How dangerous most of those teams could be if they made it to the postseason, I’m not sure. It does seem clear, though, that most, if not all, of them are going to be playing their asses off in games that matter as we move past the All-Star break into the dog days of the season before hitting the home stretch. Meaningful NBA games in late winter and early spring; imagine that.

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