Normally a piece like this leads with winners.
But with apologies to the Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors, no NBA trade deadline story matters more than the Los Angeles Lakers failing to secure Anthony Davis.
Loser: Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers got their green light when Davis made his intentions clear with his trade demand of the New Orleans Pelicans 10 days before Thursday’s deadline.
Now is the time. Or it was. But with the deadline passed and Davis still in New Orleans, the Lakers are left reeling without a second superstar and the sudden realization that their collection of young talent built in recent years doesn’t hold much value.
All signs pointed to mutual admiration between Davis and the Lakers. LeBron James and Davis dined. Davis reportedly made his initial list of teams that he’d sign a long-term deal with strictly the Lakers. There was very little reported about offers for Davis that didn’t involve the Lakers.
A Lakers fanbase that feels entitled to every All-NBA caliber big man looking to get out of a small market started to believe it would happen.
But the Pelicans shunned the initial lowball offer from Magic Johnson’s camp. The Lakers reportedly upped their offer to multiple first-round picks and the bulk of their young core including Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram as well as cap relief.
But the Pelicans wanted more. More to the reported tune of four first-round draft picks. The Lakers balked. And here we stand. Anthony Davis is still a Pelican, and he will presumably go to the highest bidder in a more competitive offseason trade market that will invite the Boston Celtics to the party.
What now for the Lakers?
The Lakers are left wondering what went wrong. This was their first, best shot to land the superstar they coveted to line up alongside James. But the Pelicans weren’t interested in what they had to offer. The Lakers’ young core has looked OK at times playing alongside James early in the season.
But during James’ extended absence with a groin injury suffered on Christmas, the young Lakers were left to their own devices. And they didn’t impress. They lost five of their next six games with James out of the lineup. They went 5-11 as James sat most of January.
James returned to help the Lakers to an overtime win over the Clippers last Thursday. But with trade rumors swirling and apparently distracting, even James couldn’t save Los Angeles from an embarrassing 42-point loss to the Indiana Pacers on Tuesday, the worst of his NBA career.
The Lakers have invested lottery picks in Ball and Ingram in recent years and found a late gem in Kuzma as they rebuilt for the LeBron era.
But right now, that’s not a core that looks like a winner. It’s definitely not one the Pelicans valued enough to part with their transcendent young big man.
Winner: Non-Celtics East contenders
With James moving out West, the East race became wide open for the first time in almost a decade. Eastern conference teams not named the Boston Celtics got that memo ahead of Thursday’s deadline, with the Philadelphia 76ers, Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks each going all in to contend for the conference crown and a potential championship this season.
The 76ers made the first splash, acquiring Tobias Harris from the Los Angeles Clippers early on Wednesday for some role players and draft picks that includes two first-rounders. They gave up a haul for a premium scorer who will be a free agent this summer. But it’s the kind of gamble that’s worth taking when a shot at a championship is at stake. A core of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler and Harris has a real shot of winning the conference, which could entice Butler and Harris to both stick around on long-term deals.
Bucks, Raptors get aggressive too
The Bucks, owners of the NBA’s best record and fresh off an overwhelming win over the Washington Wizards that included a 50-point first quarter, got even more explosive on Thursday, adding Nikola Mirotic for some bench players and a handful of second-round picks. A stretch four, Mirotic will add another scoring threat to the roster who can hit from deep and open up space for Giannis Antetokounmpo to do his thing.
The Raptors, facing the added pressure of trying to keep impending free agent Kawhi Leonard from becoming a one-year rental, added a veteran All-Star caliber center to their roster with the addition of Marc Gasol for some role players and a second-round pick. He’ll join a core featuring All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry and versatile big men Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka that has compiled the NBA’s third-best record.
All three teams made aggressive moves to get better. It obviously won’t work out for all of them this season. But if you’re a fan, it’s the approach you want from your team.
Loser: Boston Celtics
The Celtics’ options for trades involve consolidation. They have a glut of overlapping talent and would be best served to package a couple of their valuable young players for a superstar. Read: Anthony Davis.
But Kyrie Irving’s contract in addition to Davis’ reported desire to not end up in Boston hamstrung the Celtics. Irving and Davis are both signed under “Rose Rule” contracts that are allotted one per team in the NBA. So unless they wanted to deal Irving, they were forced to sit out the Davis sweepstakes until the summer when Irving’s contract expires. It’s hard to blame the Celtics for standing pat, but with the competition around them getting better, their chances of winning the East just dropped.
Winner: Markelle Fultz
Fultz has been a massive disappointment, a bust of a No. 1 overall draft pick in Philadelphia. Tensions were growing with the 76ers after his agent pushed for him to shut down early in the season citing a mysterious nerve ailment for his well-documented shooting woes. Whether treatment will actually help Fultz regain his shooting form is yet to be seen.
But he’ll have a chance to give it a go elsewhere after Thursday’s trade to the Orlando Magic. With speculation that his struggles have been exacerbated by a mental block, a fresh start seems like a good place for Fultz in terms of basketball and life.
Losers: Philadelphia 76ers
Wait, aren’t the Sixers already listed as winners here? Yes. But that was for the Tobias Harris deal. Overall, the Sixers absolutely qualify as winners. But it must be noted that the Fultz trade amounts to a capitulation that their 2017 first-round pick was a bust.
The Sixers traded up with the Celtics in the 2017 draft only to watch Boston get arguably the best player in the draft with their former No. 3 overall pick. They gave up another first-round pick to their rivals in the process to do the deal. Thursday’s return of a first-round pick originating from the playoff-bound Oklahoma City Thunder, a second-round pick and Jonathan Simmons is a meager haul in comparison.
Winner: Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers made a difficult move that won’t sit well with some fans in trading away the team’s best player in Harris. But they did it for the right reason. The worst place to be in the NBA is stuck in the irrelevance that is the middle. And that’s the blueprint they were sitting on, watching Harris and Danilo Gallinari lead the team to the eighth-best record in the West, a spot with the upside of losing to the Golden State Warriors in the first round.
So they commenced a rebuild and picked up some pieces with real upside down the line in the aforementioned first-round draft picks. It’s a move that gives the Clippers flexibility to clear out salary space for the loaded upcoming free-agent market. The Clippers were going nowhere as constructed in a conference with the Warriors still at their peak. Forward thinking is the right move for a team like the Clippers with zero prospects now.
Winner: Dallas Mavericks
The Mavericks added to the excitement of star rookie Luka Doncic by trading for another thrilling prospect in Kristaps Porzingis. They gave up a pair of first-round picks in the deal and unloaded Dennis Smith Jr. in the process, a player who was proving to be a bad fit in Dallas.
They also dealt Harrison Barnes to the Sacramento Kings in a deal that will clear up cap space for this summer’s free-agency bonanza, a shot to add a third star to the mix.
The future in Dallas looks very bright, indeed.
Loser: New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans still have Anthony Davis, but their superstar cornerstone will be on his way out the door this summer. And it’s their fault for failing to build around him. It amounts to a crippling missed opportunity for a small-market franchise.
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