NBA trade-deadline progress reports: Cavs' honeymoon period is over; Lakers sit pretty
Blake Griffin to Detroit wasn't a deadline deal, but it was close enough and that situation has turned dire
Last month's NBA trade deadline was wild -- not so much for the collective action, but mostly because the Cavaliers up and unloaded what felt like half their team, which triggered moves for three other teams. Now that we've had at least a reasonable amount of time to watch these new faces in new places, let's look back at the notable deadline deals and hand out some progress reports.
The Cavs came out like gangbusters after their deadline deals, knocking off Boston and OKC in dominant fashion as just about everyone jumped right back on the bandwagon that they were again the team to beat in the East. At All-Star Weekend, TNT analyst Kenny Smith was less certain.
"They're in this honeymoon period where nobody has a game plan for them yet. We'll see what that looks like in March, when they go around the league a little bit."
To Smith's point, we're now into March, and since those two initial wins over Boston and OKC, the Cavs are 3-4 with their new players in uniform, and those three wins have come against two tanking teams in Brooklyn and Memphis and one team well on its way to tanking in the Pistons. Meanwhile, they've lost to all four playoff teams they've faced -- the Wizards, Spurs, Sixers and Nuggets. They're a pretty average team across the board over those seven games.
There's still no denying this was a wise move for the Cavs, who got younger, deeper and more versatile defensively. The fact that they can space the floor with shooters (when Love comes back, especially, next to Hood and Clarkson and perhaps Kyle Korver in certain lineups) alongside LeBron makes them infinitely more dangerous if they can get hot at the right time in the playoffs. They also covered themselves in the event that LeBron leaves this summer by hanging on to that Brooklyn Nets 2018 first-round pick.
But as far as actual results on the floor so far, it's been pretty average stuff after the immediate success, which can probably be at least somewhat attributed to Smith's lack-of-scouting theory. The bottom line is this: If the Cavs were looking like a long shot to make it back to the Finals before the trade, they're not looking like a much better bet right now. I'd put them among four teams that could legitimately win the East under optimal circumstances, with the other three being Toronto, Boston and Washington.
If you really want to get crazy, you could make a case that Philly could get on a run and threaten to make the Finals. They have an elite defense and two players capable of winning a game, if not a series, on their own. That's the definition of a puncher's chance. I'd give the Cavs the same type evaluation. Puncher's chance, but when you puncher is LeBron, that's still a pretty good punch.
Los Angeles Lakers
Who they added: Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye
Who they traded: Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance, Jr.
Progress Report: A
This move was almost entirely about clearing cap space to go after max free agents this summer and next, but as an added bonus, Isaiah Thomas is getting better and better and the Lakers are on fire, having won five of their last six and six of 10 since the trade went down.
When Thomas flamed out in Cleveland, he immediately became perceived as damaged goods, nowhere near the player he was a year ago in Boston. That's how perception works, but we know perception's not always reality. The reality is this: Isaiah has looked pretty good with the Lakers. No, he's not the guy he was in Boston last season, but does he need to be?
Let's say this thing keeps going well for the Lakers to close out this season, and Thomas feels wanted, and useful, and feels his game coming back around playing with a pass-first guy like Lonzo in a super uptempo system, and all the sudden the Lakers have a guy who was a second-team All-NBA player less than a season ago who might not have much of a free-agent market to dive into. Could they get him for a Lou Williams-type deal -- three years, $24 million?
Thomas no doubt still thinks he's worth a max deal, and maybe some team will be desperate enough to give it to him. But the Lakers have nothing to lose. He's getting a great audition on a team that is rapidly rising, and if he leaves, he was never the team's anchor plan anyway. Again, this was all about cutting salary for the next two summer as Thomas and Frye are on expiring deals. That doesn't mean there isn't a chance, perhaps an increasing chance, that Thomas fits with L.A., finds his game, accepts a reasonable deal, and the Lakers get a big-time bench scorer at worst to go with a young core starting to turn heads and still money to go after a big name.
The Lakers have to love where they're at after this deal.
The Pistons are turning into a dumpster fire before our eyes. When this trade first went down, it was hard to see what Detroit was thinking taking on Blake Griffin's monstrous contract -- which is guaranteed over the next five years for more than $170 million. Assuming they cannot find anyone to to take this deal off their hands, as they so kindly did for the Clippers, they're going to be paying Griffin just under $39 million in 2022, when he'll be 33 years old. He's nowhere near worth that money right now. In 2022, that's going to be lead tailgate with no hinges.
Even if the Pistons were to get hot and sneak into the 7 or 8 seed in the East, this deal would still look bad long term, but now that's looking less and less likely. Everyone got excited when Detroit won four straight to start Griffin's tenure, but two of those wins were against Brooklyn and Memphis, and since that time they've been one of the worst teams in the league, having lost nine of their last 11 to fall five games out of the No. 8 seed in the East.
When this deal went down, I had a scout tell me flat out it was a desperate move by desperate team.
It's starting to look like that was an understatement.
Los Angeles Clippers
Progress Report: A
Since the new Clippers have been in uniform, L.A. is 9-3 and continuing to hang in the playoff race out West. Just as the Pistons put themselves behind the eight ball by adding Griffin's money, the Clippers freed themselves by dumping it. They're going to be one of the few teams with big-time cap space to go after free agents the next two summers, and oh by the way, you could very easily argue they got better in the near term as well with this deal.
Harris has gone over 20 points in half his games with the Clips entering Tuesday, and he's been terrific from three -- a shade under 41 percent in 12 games entering Tuesday. Bradley has been out of late with a sports hernia, and it will be interesting to see how the Clippers handle his impending free agency this summer. They have a ton of options, and are still scrapping to get in the playoffs. Signing Lou Williams to that three-year, $24 million deal was a steal considering how well he's played. Too have gotten rid of Griffin's money and arguably gotten better in the process, yeah, the Clips are still loving this move.
Who they added: Jae Crowder
Who they traded: Rodney Hood, Joe Johnson
Progress Report: A
Utah has won eight of 10 since the trade, and while Crowder certainly hasn't been the catalyst of that movement, he's fit in really well. Crowder never settled into his game in Cleveland, but in Utah, a tough, defensive-minded organization, he makes all the sense in the world as a versatile defender and a floor spacer for Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert.
Crowder is playing right around 27-30 minutes a night off the bench, and since the trade, the Jazz have been by far the best defensive team in the league with a bonkers-good 96.7 rating. Entering Tuesday night, they are two games in the loss column from the No. 8 seed. They can still get there.
Long term, Crowder is locked up through next season at just over $7 million a year, so he can settle in further and continue to carve out his role with a team that is clearly on the upswing. Ultimately, Utah effectively traded Hood for Crowder here. Crowder, at peak level, is probably a better player than Hood on any team, certainly a better two-way player, but on the Jazz, he is much more useful than Hood, even if his 3-point shot continues to be pretty erratic.
Bottom line: I love Crowder in Utah. He embodies the hard-hat, no-frills identity of that team, and vice versa. Great move for Utah that is already paying dividends.
New York Knicks
People around the league still like Mudiay a lot. Kenny Smith was incredibly high on the Knicks acquiring him when we talked at the All-Star Game. The same scout I talked to about the Blake/Detroit deal went so far as to say Mudiay could end up being another Chauncey Billups -- a guy who was also largely written off after his career started slowly, only to take off once he found the right situation and gained, or re-gained, his confidence.
That comparison is obviously a huge stretch right now, but the point is well taken, that Mudiay has a lot more in him than we've seen. Almost everyone will tell you Mudiay is a hard worker, first and foremost, and he just wasn't getting the opportunity in Denver. You can't blame the Nuggets. Jamal Murray is a better player, by a long shot, at this point. Mike Malone had to put the ball in Murray's hands. But Mudiay's jumper has been coming around all season, and so far in New York he's playing decently well.
Mudiay went for 20 points and seven assists against the Warriors on better than 50-percent shooting, including 3 of 5 from downtown. He also posted a bagel vs. the Kings on Sunday, going 0 for 6 from the field in 19 minutes. Ultimately, New York has another year to decide on Mudiay; he's locked up through next season and then can be extended a qualifying offer of less than $6 million in 2020.
That's reasonable money for a guy a lot of people still believe in, especially when you consider there are already signs that New York is backing off the idea that Frank Ntilikina is the clear-cut point guard of the future (if that was actually ever anyone's belief other than Phil Jackson). They've actually been playing Ntilikina a lot more off the ball now that Mudiay and Trey Burke are on board.
Good opportunity here for Mudiay, and the returns so far have been, well, decent.
Who they added: Dwyane Wade
Who they traded: Nobody (second-round pick)
Progress Report: B
This grade is an A before you consider the actual real-time basketball implications. Wade never felt right playing in Cleveland or Chicago. Players move around all the time these days, but Wade belongs in Miami. Everyone knew it. He knew it. Legacy-wise, this is a terrific thing.
Having said that, the Heat are just 5-4 since the trade, and Wade is leading the team in usage rate over that time which is a stretch at this point in his career.
All said, Wade is still helping Miami as it moves toward the playoffs. He's already made a game-saving block in his first game back against Milwaukee and a game-winning shot against Philly. He's coming off the bench, playing around 20-25 minutes, and he actually leads the team in usage since his return. That feels like a bit much, but it's also a product of the lineups he's playing most of his minutes with.
Ultimately, Wade can still play. He is helping a playoff team. Most importantly, he is back in Miami. It never felt right otherwise.
Who they added: Elfrid Payton
Who they traded: Nobody (2018 second-round pick)
Progress Report: C+
I'll be short with this one. Payton has put up pretty good numbers on paper with the Suns, but we already know he can put up decent numbers on paper on a terrible team. He was doing it in Orlando all season. If Phoenix wants to dish up another helping of that then have at it. If they think they can put him next to Devin Booker and go somewhere meaningful, they're wrong.
Payton can't shoot, and as my CBS colleagues keeps pointing out to me when I bring up his inability to shoot, he's even worse at defense. Yes, Phoenix only gave up a second-round pick for him, which tells you how much value he has, or doesn't have, but the only question here is if the Suns are going to re-sign him this summer as a restricted free agent, or even extend his $4.5 million qualifying offer in the first place. I wouldn't suspect there would be a huge market for Payton, but who knows. There's often one team willing to do something irrational.
I mean, the Pistons traded for Blake Griffin.
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