Smart, Affectionate & Youthful

NBA Fact or Fiction: Did any trade deadline move impact the championship picture?

Each week during the 2023-24 NBA season, we will take a deeper dive into some of the league’s biggest storylines in an attempt to determine whether the trends are based more in fact or fiction moving forward.

[Last week: 2024 NBA All-Star Game snubs]

This week’s topic: Did the trade deadline impact the NBA’s championship outlook?

The NBA’s trade deadline came and went, and the best player dealt on Thursday was … Buddy Hield?

Take your pick from Bojan Bogdanović, Kelly Olynyk or other mid-tier names changing teams. Not exactly a paradigm-shifting afternoon, and now the ever-overrated buyout market is all that’s left for roster upgrades.

The New York Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers, Oklahoma City Thunder, Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks all made moves on the margins, but did any of them do anything to close the gap on the betting title favorites?

Those favorites on Thursday morning, according to BetMGM:

And on Friday morning:

  • Boston Celtics (+275)

  • Denver Nuggets (+425)

  • Los Angeles Clippers, Milwaukee Bucks (+550)

  • Phoenix Suns (+1400)

  • New York Knicks, Oklahoma City Thunder (+1800)

  • Minnesota Timberwolves (+2000)

  • Cleveland Cavaliers, Philadelphia 76ers (+2500)

  • Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat (+4000)

The heaviest favorites did relatively little at the deadline, comfortable in their status as the class of their conferences. The Nuggets and Clippers actually did nothing, leaving a door open to their Western rivals.

The Celtics dealt nobody from their playoff rotation and added both Xavier Tillman from the Memphis Grizzlies and Jaden Springer from the 76ers. Tillman provides a bit of depth and playoff experience to the frontcourt, and Springer is a recent first-round pick who won’t see more than garbage time in the playoffs.

The Bucks countered by flipping Cameron Payne for Patrick Beverley, preferring the latter’s defensive body of work, which includes All-Defense selections in 2014, 2017 and 2020. It is not a ringing endorsement of Beverley’s contributions at age 35 that the Sixers were willing to make him available to a potential playoff opponent. Beverley is shooting 32% from distance and averaging 0.5 steals in 19.6 minutes off the bench.

In theory, the rest of the East and West had better have done more than that to join them in serious contention.

LeBron and the Lakers watched the trade deadline pass without making any upgrades. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

The Lakers and Cavaliers stood pat

The ninth-place Lakers — three losses shy of avoiding two must-win games in the play-in tournament — essentially waved the white flag on LeBron James’ age-39 season, keeping the powder dry for the summer, when he will be 40 and they can leverage as many as three first-round picks in their pursuit of another star.

James advocated for reinforcements last week. We don’t know exactly how he feels about the Lakers’ inaction, but his comments after a seventh straight loss to the defending champions were not encouraging. Asked if a healthy roster could recapture the magic that led them to last season’s Western Conference finals, he told reporters, “I don’t know. Not sure. We haven’t gotten to that point, so it’s hard for me to say.”

We’ll mark that as a no.

As comfortable as the Cavs might feel now — winners in 16 of their last 17 games, second to Boston in the Eastern Conference and bolstered by another All-NBA campaign from Donovan Mitchell — I’m not so sure how satisfied you should be when you got owned by New York in last year’s first-round playoff series and …

This after New York landed OG Anunoby at the turn of the calendar. News of Anunoby’s absence for at least the next three weeks also came down Thursday, but his elbow should be rehabbed by the playoffs.

The Knicks are an infirmary right now. Julius Randle’s dislocated shoulder will keep him sidelined through the All-Star break. Jalen Brunson sprained his ankle Tuesday. In due time, the rotation should be fine. There is even a chance Mitchell Robinson returns from ankle surgery in time to join for a playoff run.

The additions of Bogdanović and Burks — 32.8 points per game combined from the lowly Detroit Pistons — will help New York navigate the rest of the regular season without falling much further than their fourth-place status. And if any team improved its chances of winning an additional playoff round this season, it is these Knicks.

Still, it is hard to imagine Bogdanović or Burks cracking head coach Tom Thibodeau’s closing lineup, since Brunson, Randle, Anunoby and either Donte DiVincenzo or Josh Hart are outscoring opponents by more than 20 points per 100 meaningful possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass. Bogdanović is the kind of floor-spacing scoring threat who can swing a playoff game, and that might be enough to boost New York’s prospects in the first two rounds — before weaknesses become more glaring and rotations get squeezed.

Speaking of which …

Hield is one of the NBA’s most consistent 3-point shooting threats, and the Indiana Pacers all but gifted him to a potential playoff opponent. Even if the 31-year-old is shooting below his career average, he is still 38.4% from distance, and that weapon should expand Philadelphia’s offensive arsenal in the postseason.

Then again, Hield has never appeared in the playoffs. The Kings and Pacers have jettisoned him from a pair of upstart playoff cores. His limitations on both ends of the floor, while he has improved, leave teams wanting more on the wing, where the Sixers have been bodied in series against Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Boston.

None of it matters if Joel Embiid cannot get his (twice) surgically repaired left knee right for the postseason, and even a (relatively) healthy Embiid has never been able to bounce the more balanced and skilled Celtics.

The Heat are just the opposite. They earnestly believe they can beat Boston with Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and whoever else is along for the ride, because they have done it twice in the past four years. Miami was quiet on Thursday, having made noise last month, when it added erstwhile Celtic Terry Rozier.

All of this ignores the changes Boston made to its roster since losing Game 7 of the 2023 East finals to the Heat — namely, adding Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis to form the league’s most formidable top six. This is what separated the Celtics as favorites from the start, and while the Knicks and Sixers may have narrowed the field enough to challenge the Bucks, there is still another level to climb to the top of the East.

On the other side of the bracket …

A retooled frontcourt should help Luka Dončić, Kyrie Irving and Dallas do their best to avoid the West’s play-in tournament, although the front office severely hindered its future flexibility to acquire a pair of reserves.

Dallas dealt a 2030 first-round pick swap to acquire Grant Williams over the summer, gave up on him a few months later and attached a 2027 first-round pick to him in exchange for Washington, and I’m not sure the idealized versions of Williams and Washington are all that different. Washington’s floor may be higher, but he has no playoff experience, and Williams previously proved his ability to swing a second-round Game 7.

The Mavericks turned another first-round pick swap into Gafford, who will in all likelihood back up rookie center Dereck Lively II. At the very least, Dončić gets 48 minutes of pick-and-roll partnership in the middle.

Bottom line, though, I’m just not sure how much more Gafford and Washington provide than Lively and Williams against the Nuggets, who will run Nikola Jokić and Aaron Gordon into both until Dallas submits.

Besides …

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA - DECEMBER 11: Gordon Hayward #20 of the Charlotte Hornets drives to the basket against Jaime Jaquez Jr. #11 of the Miami Heat during the second quarter of their game at Spectrum Center on December 11, 2023 in Charlotte, North Carolina. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Can Hayward help the Thunder win the West? (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

No move at the deadline may have bolstered a legitimate contender more than Hayward’s arrival in OKC. The young Thunder needed a veteran whose shot warranted a rival’s respect more than third-year wing Josh Giddey, and Hayward — or, at least, the healthy version of the one-time All-Star — provides just that.

Hayward averaged 15-5-5 on 47/36/77 shooting splits in 32 minutes per game for the Hornets this season. He fits seamlessly into a lineup of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Lu Dort, Jalen Williams and Chet Holmgren — a foursome that is outscoring opponents by 7.9 points per 100 meaningful possessions, regardless of who joins them. Hayward’s poise and connectivity should amplify his untested teammates.

Except, Hayward has played no more than 52 games in a season since 2018-19, and he is on pace to miss that mark again. He is reportedly nearing his return from a calf injury that has cost him the past 22 games. Even if he manages to avoid further injury, Hayward has not meaningfully impacted a playoff series since the first round in 2017. That’s not to say Hayward can’t do it at age 33. It’s just that he hasn’t since age 26.

It is curious that the Thunder did not address their need for more size. Holmgren runs the risk of being bullied by Jokić, and Oklahoma City could have scored Gafford instead of providing the pick that routed him to Dallas. Facilitating that deal says a lot about the Thunder’s confidence that a player of Gafford’s caliber cannot meaningfully alter the outcome of the West bracket, and a buyout option would be no less effective.

Regardless, Hawyard’s arrival vaults OKC into a realm somewhere still below the more battle-tested Nuggets and Clippers, likely on a level that slopes downward toward Phoenix and Minnesota, since …

The Suns and Timberwolves only made moves on the margins

Royce O’Neale made his way to Phoenix, and Monte Morris found a new home in Minnesota.

O’Neale might actually crack the Suns’ crunch-time lineup, depending on how trustworthy Eric Gordon can be on defense. O’Neale is a 3-and-D type who is shooting roughly league average (36.6%) from the arc and defending a step slower than he might like. He did not significantly alter the Utah Jazz’s fortunes when they needed him to be a similar weapon for several years running. That might change in the space provided by Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal, but if you’re a team banking on O’Neale to play meaningful minutes in a high-leverage playoff series, you probably have bigger concerns than a serviceable role player.

The Suns already had the talent to challenge anyone in a playoff series. They either will or will not, but O’Neale isn’t going to make four rounds of difference on a team so heavily dependent on its three stars. He’s just one more body to cycle through an assembly line of Gordon, Grayson Allen and several others.

Similarly, Morris can spell Timberwolves point guard Mike Conley. Morris is shooting 38.9% from deep in his career, and he has long been one of the league’s best assist-to-turnover ball-handlers, but the upgrade from Jordan McLaughlin isn’t so significant that Minnesota can breathe easier opposite, say, 48 minutes of Clippers guards James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Morris just returned from a quadriceps injury that forced him to miss the season’s first 43 games, and he is 2-for-11 from 3-point range in six outings since.

If you figured the Mavericks, Thunder, Suns and Timberwolves were contenders already, you shouldn’t feel much more confident than you did earlier in the week. Maybe breathe a little easier, tighten that belt loop a notch, but just the same, most everyone dealt on Thursday is the fat to be trimmed from a playoff rotation.

Determination: Fiction. No team did enough at the deadline to supplant the established title favorites.