What was expected to be a quiet NBA trade deadline brought fireworks, as All-Star Nikola Vucevic was sent to Chicago first thing in the morning to set things off, and a number of rumored players changed teams before the 3 p.m. ET deadline.
The landscape of the league changed once again, as tends to happen on deadline day. One West contender improved its fortunes greatly, while Orlando’s wheeling and dealing created another tanking team down the stretch.
Here are your winners and losers of deadline day 2021:
Loser: Western Conference wings who face Denver
By trading for Aaron Gordon (at the cost of Gary Harris, RJ Hampton, and a future first-round pick), the Nuggets plugged their biggest hole, one that has plagued them for multiple years. In Gordon, Denver finally has an answer for the question every NBA contender has to ask itself: “Who guards LeBron?”
There are very few players in the league who can credibly be given that task, and Gordon is one. His strength, athleticism, and IQ make him a nice fit in Denver on both ends, as their aggressive defense and Nikola Jokic-centric offense are relatively unique. Gordon should slide in smoothly, provided he is OK having the ball even less than he did in central Florida.
During the 2019-20 season, when Orlando at least had DJ Augustin to run the offense, Gordon was in the 92nd percentile as a cutter, per Synergy Sports, scoring 1.5 points per possession. If even a fraction of that efficiency and willingness to score off the ball gets on the plane with him to Colorado, Gordon will be a brilliant addition for the Nuggets.
Sure, skepticism is warranted when it comes to his overall defensive impact, as even on an underrated Orlando defense under Steve Clifford, Gordon rarely graded out as an enormous positive on that end. Orlando has been better defensively with Gordon on the bench this season and two of the past three, according to Cleaning the Glass.
However, the Nuggets went from losing Grant, not really replacing him, and having no chance against LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, or Luka Doncic to now having one of the players best-suited to defending those guys in the whole NBA when engaged on that end of the floor.
Winner: The 2024 Orlando Magic
When one of the most reticent tanking teams in the NBA finally tears down its roster, it’s a big deal. The Magic finally looked at their team honestly and realized that not only was it the right time to do so, with a playoff berth unlikely, but also an opportunity to sell relatively high on their best players. Vucevic has been one of the most productive centers in the NBA this season, Gordon is on a hot streak, and even Evan Fournier fetched two second-round picks from Boston.
This not only helps the Magic commit to playing through young players like Chuma Okeke, Cole Anthony, and deadline acquisitions RJ Hampton and Wendell Carter Jr. the rest of the season, but should shore up their lottery odds and allow them to basically start from scratch. The only players Orlando has locked up long-term now are Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz, giving them a strong defensive foundation with two well-regarded young players.
In a strong 2021 Draft, the Magic should be able to add another promising piece and get to work building another winner. Orlando fans may be dreaming of Cade Cunningham already, but if an offensive creator is the bounty, even Gonzaga freshman Jalen Suggs would be a nice get and a strong fit next to Fultz. If you believe Orlando would have been wrong to tread water forever, this is a nice starting point for their rebuild.
Winner: Portland’s bench
Something has gotten into Neil Olshey and the Trail Blazers’ front office. Perhaps it was the electrifying run Portland went on in the Bubble that opened their eyes to the potential of the team, but the Trail Blazers have been remarkably aggressive over the past few months, and have nailed just about every move. With effectively no first-round picks to trade, Portland still got one of the crown jewels of the deadline in Norman Powell, giving up Gary Trent Jr. and Rodney Hood in the process.
There is some risk in giving up two rotation players to get just one back, but not if a deep playoff run is the goal. Hood just has not been the same player this season since returning from a ruptured Achilles’ tendon, and while Trent looks like a good 3-and-D player, he is mostly just a shooter at this point in his career and enters restricted free agency this summer. Portland flipped those two for Powell, who has been among the best sixth men in the NBA and best wing scorers overall in the league for two years running.
With 50/44/87 shooting lines this year and a ton of playoff experience, Powell joins a completely overhauled wing group in Portland, with the potential for some exciting small lineups with Robert Covington at center that the Trail Blazers have never had before. Their team is now far more playoff-ready than it was coming out of the Bubble, and perhaps the best of the post-LaMarcus Aldridge era.
Loser: Danny Ainge and the Celtics
Another NBA deadline, another letdown from Boston’s general manager. The Celtics entered the week as the reported front-runners for Aaron Gordon, then got wrapped up in a potential bigger deal for Evan Fournier before ending up with just Fournier at the cost of two second-round picks.
Then, as the deadline passed, they made a deal with the Bulls to duck the luxury tax, sending Daniel Theis to Chicago for Mo Wagner. In the end, both trades were purely financial, with the Fournier deal using up Boston’s massive traded player exception and the Theis deal saving the team money.
When dust settles, the cost of acquiring impending free agent Evan Fournier will essentially be 4 second-round picks, Daniel Theis, Javonte Green, and Jeff Teague.
Celtic take on Wagner, duck the tax (for now), and maybe have slot for buyout guy. And TPEs. Always TPEs.
— Chris Forsberg (@ChrisForsberg_) March 25, 2021
For a team that has been in three of the past four Eastern Conference finals, this is disappointing. They are clearly banking on Kemba Walker gtting healthy or a young player like Robert Williams III braking out to spur them along in 2021. In the coming days, we will probably hear about more deals that Boston almost made, but don’t get it twisted: The Celtics hardly got better here.
Winner: Luka Doncic
In large part because they lost Seth Curry, the Mavs are a middling shooting team this season. That was maybe the only real hole in their roster, and they helped to plug it with JJ Redick and Nicolo Melli in a deal with New Orleans. On a hot streak, Dallas could join Denver and Portland as the West teams most likely to make a run during the second half of the year.
The conference is suddenly up for grabs, and Dallas found two cost-effective pieces to help them stabilize the offense for the postseason.
Winner: Victor Oladipo
After declining an extension in Indiana and another in Houston, Oladipo ends up in a winning situation in Miami, where he will not have to handle too much on offense or defense. Ideally, his energy and work ethic make him a good fit in the Heat locker room, and potentially set him up for a new contract in south Florida this offseason.
What’s hard to know is how much Oladipo provides at this point in his career, as he is still seemingly recovering from an injury and wasn’t exactly in the best situation in Houston. Still, he got what he wanted and set himself up for the future.
Loser: The Houston Rockets
Please read this.
For the record, the final return Houston ended up getting for Harden was Kelly Olynyk, Avery Bradley, Dante Exum, Rodions Kurucs, four late firsts, five pick swaps that are never gonna happen, and a future 2nd from Indiana.
— Matt (@PanasonicDX4500) March 25, 2021
And Harden is getting MVP buzz in Brooklyn. Not quite what you want if you’re the Rockets.