Trade deadline winners and losers: Heat, Rockets bolster title hopes; Warriors, Cavs create questions

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Trade deadline winners and losers: Heat, Rockets bolster title hopes; Warriors, Cavs create questions

That’s a wrap on the NBA trade deadline. With a shallow free agency class this summer and a flattened championship race, this trade deadline figured to be an arms race rather than a scavenger hunt for cap space.

And there was action -- just not at the very top. Both top seeds, Milwaukee and the Lakers, stood pat at the deadline. But there was plenty of movement below.

On Thursday morning, I thought this column would be a winners-only piece. I thought most teams had done an impressive job of managing their assets. But that changed by the day’s end. Let’s hash out the winners and losers.

Winners

Miami Heat

It’s still stunning to me that the Grizzlies didn’t command a pick for taking on Dion Waiters and James Johnson’s contract. Yes, Justise Winslow is only 23 years old, the same age as their rookie Brandon Clarke, but Winslow’s injury woes figured to warrant some sort of draft pick compensation. 

Alas, Heat prez Pat Riley and GM Andy Elisburg were able to land Andre Iguodala, Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill without giving up anything in the draft pick department. Yes, there’s risk here. Iguodala is 36 years old and hasn’t played competitive basketball in half a year. Giving him a two-year extension (second year is a team option) before he steps foot on the court may prove to be unwise.

But the upside of Iguodala, Crowder and Jimmy Butler wreaking havoc on opposing wings is well worth the price of Winslow and two contracts dumps. Scoring against the Heat is going to be a problem in the playoffs. 

Winslow has struggled to gain traction in the NBA as a tweener with an inconsistent jump shot. It was hard to see how he’d fit in the Heat’s playoff attack without the ball in his hands. The Heat have plenty of young players in Tyler Herro, Kendrick Nunn and Bam Adebayo -- seriously, Adebayo is twenty-freakin’-two -- to balance out the aging nucleus of Iguodala, Butler and Goran Dragic. 

On paper, this doesn’t put them over the top in the East. But if the Bucks lose a top guy to injury, the Heat have positioned themselves to have the inside track to the Finals. And they still have long-term flexibility. If Iguodala doesn’t work out, they project to have about $50 million in cap space in 2021 when Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard could all be free agents. 

Houston Rockets

This Rockets team is going to be wild. Really, this trade comes down to this: Can you guard James Harden one-on-one? Can you guard Russell Westbrook one-on-one? By essentially swapping Clint Capela for Robert Covington, the Houston Rockets are betting that opponents’ answers to both are a hard no. Whether that’s true or not will seal the Rockets’ fate.

The Oklahoma City Thunder found out the hard way that Westbrook needs to be in a five-out system that frees up the paint. Steven Adams, a non-spacing big, jammed up Westbrook’s driving lanes as Portland made sure that Westbrook saw multiple defenders in front of him at every turn in the playoffs. 

In the regular season, when teams don’t have nearly as much time to scout and scheme as they do come playoff time, Westbrook can get by simply on his sheer athleticism. Westbrook and Adams lineups scored a healthy 112.9 points per 100 possessions last regular season, per NBA stats. In the postseason, that figure plummeted to 104.9 and the Thunder got waved off by Damian Lillard. The previous season, similar story: 122.2 offensive rating with that duo in the 2017-18 regular season, but down to 102.8 in the playoffs.

The Rockets didn’t want to risk that happening again. Like Adams, Capela is a paint-dwelling big who can get played off the floor in crunchtime. Covington, a long-time darling of the analytics community, can space the floor on the wings and make sure that Westbrook’s defender sits alone on an island with no one behind him. 

As a 6-foot-7 defensive-minded wing, Covington is a Trevor Ariza, James Posey type -- a guy who’s never going to blow you away with his box score stats but fits perfectly next to stars. The Rockets are well aware that Covington’s team’s point differential has been better when he’s on the floor compared to when he’s on the bench for each of the six seasons in the NBA. Covington isn’t a dribble-drive guy, but next to Westbrook and Harden, there may not be much air in the ball left anyway.

In some ways, this was a necessary move once the Rockets acquired Westbrook. I really didn’t like the Westbrook trade from the start; he’s probably the worst high-volume 3-point shooter of all-time and plays in a system predicated on efficient 3-point shooting. To me, Westbrook’s uptempo attack would be exposed in the playoffs when the game slows down. Spreading the floor with Covington, a career 36 percent shooter from deep, will help decongest the paint and raise the ceiling on Westbrook’s game.

I liked what all four teams did in this trade, but to me, the Rockets fared out best, with a little help from their executive farm system. You rarely see deals this size -- per ESPN, it’s the most players involved in a trade since a 2000 Patrick Ewing deal that was so long ago it involved Vernon Maxwell -- because it isn’t easy for executives to have intimate knowledge of rival teams’ wants, needs and negotiation styles.

But it helped grease the wheels that three of the architects involved -- Denver GM Arturas Karnisovas, Houston GM Daryl Morey and Minnesota president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas -- used to work together in the Rockets front office from 2008 to 2013. 

Houston will likely be on the lookout for a center on the buyout market. Asking the 6-foot-6 P.J. Tucker to do that full-time is a, um, tall order. Don’t be surprised if the Rockets land a veteran like Charlotte big man Marvin Williams on the buyout market. Or, if they’re lucky, Tristan Thompson.

Milwaukee Bucks

They’re 44-7. The Los Angeles Lakers didn’t do anything. Neither did Toronto or Boston. Philly added Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III, but Thursday’s romp showed they need more than that. And the Bucks aren’t exactly shaking in their boots now that the Clippers added Marcus Morris. 

If the Heat were able to snag Danilo Gallinari, the Bucks may have been sweating right now. But Iguodala is too much of a question mark to strike fear into the Bucks, who have the seventh-highest net rating in NBA history this far into the season. Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks are firmly in the driver’s seat and the road ahead didn’t get any bumpier.

Atlanta Hawks

The 25-year-old Capela makes more sense on the youthful Hawks than the title-hunting Rockets. I worried about Capela’s health when it came to the Rockets’ championship window, but he can develop on a more patient timeline next to All-Star starter Trae Young. Capela is a non-shooting big who has missed seven games this season with foot problems and relies on his hops to make an impact on both ends. 

Foot problems with non-shooting bigs will make Hawks fans queasy, but in Atlanta, he can rest his heel injury and properly rehab without putting pressure on himself to return too soon for a title quest. 

John Collins and Capela aren’t a lock-and-key fit, though it should help matters that Collins has flashed some impressive range this season, shooting 36 percent from deep, mostly at the top of the key. Collins has added a nice pick-and-pop game to complement his devastating alley-oop threat. He’ll find himself in the P.J. Tucker role in the corners more often, but the Hawks can play around a bit in the second half of the season before Collins’ extension talks this summer.

And we might not see much Collins and Capela this season. By trading Jabari Parker and Alex Len for former Hawks center Dewayne Dedmon (under contract through 2021-22) and two second-round picks, the Hawks acquired some insurance both now and in the future in case Capela’s foot problems prove to be more serious. Len’s presence was more redundant with Capela around, but Dedmon’s floor-spacing ability that he showed in his previous stint with Atlanta should be more useful next to the rim-running Collins.

There was some talk that the Hawks were interested in Andre Drummond at the deadline, but Capela provides much more value on his contract. After this season, Capela is due $55.6 million over the next three seasons, for an average $18.7 million. Given the fact that Drummond’s market only netted a second-round pick at the deadline, I’d assume Drummond would be picking up his $28.8 million player option this summer for next season. To me, Capela is a better fit defensively, even with the worries about his health.

Los Angeles Clippers

I like the addition of Marcus Morris, especially on the price that they got him -- Moe Harkless and a 2020 first-round pick. Not only does Morris add to the Clippers’ core of talented wings, but they kept him away from their Staples Center roommates in purple and gold. That’s not nothing.

In an ironic twist, I think there’s a tiny chance he could be this year’s Tobias Harris -- a former No. 1 option big wing who struggles to find his role on a contender midseason. Last year, it was the Clippers who dealt Harris (for a far tastier haul), and now, they’re adding Morris, who is shooting 43.9 percent from 3-point land -- way over his previous career rate of 36 percent. Even if he regresses a bit, Morris will be another body to throw at LeBron James and keep Kawhi Leonard and Paul George fresh for the long haul. All things considered, the Clippers have to feel good about their work on Thursday.

Losers

Cleveland Cavaliers

Something went wrong here. It had to have. A Tristan Thompson deal fell through at the last minute, right? The Cavs couldn’t possibly think that Kevin Love, Drummond and Thompson can play in the same frontcourt. Right???

I don’t know what the Cavs are doing with Thompson. According to Yahoo! Sports’ and friend of the program Chris Haynes, Thompson is not a buyout candidate. As of now. That may change. But this is one of the more befuddling transactions of the season. Perhaps the Cavs thought that a measly second-round pick was too good to pass up for Drummond. But in that case, why couldn’t they find a taker for Thompson?

Now, the Cavs have potentially two unhappy veterans in Thompson and Love. If there’s a plan in place, I don’t see it. But hey, championship banners fly forever.

2020 free agents

Of all the parties involved at the trade deadline, Brandon Ingram, Andre Drummond and DeMar DeRozan could be the most disappointed of all. Cap space evaporated on Thursday. Atlanta did have two max slots, but now it only has one after its deadline moves. Memphis decided to chew up all its cap space in the deal with Miami to get Justise Winslow. If Cleveland doesn’t re-sign Drummond, where does he get his big payday? DeMar DeRozan may just pick up his player option for $28.8 million next season rather than test the market.

As of now, only five teams project to have cap space this summer, per salary cap guru Jeff Siegel. Of those, only three will have max slots -- Atlanta, New York and Detroit. There will be some sign-and-trade options that can open up the market for some of these guys, but Draymond Green, Buddy Hield and Eric Gordon were wise to lock in extensions when they did.

Golden State Warriors

As I wrote in an expanded piece on Thursday, I’m not a huge fan of the Andrew Wiggins deal, but I get the allure of Wiggins. Many doubted keeping Klay Thompson over Kevin Love in 2014, and that turned out pretty good for the Warriors.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

Will the NBA bubble be safe for players?

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NBC Sports

Will the NBA bubble be safe for players?

The NBA recently released a 113-page health and safety protocol for the 22-team NBA restart.

Will it be enough to keep the players safe in the NBA bubble?

“There are millions and millions of people and thousands of activities that are far riskier than what the NBA is trying to attempt here,” said Nate Duncan on The Habershow podcast with NBC Sports national NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh.

Duncan, the host of a popular NBA (Dunc’d On Basketball) and COVID (Covid Daily News) podcast, does not anticipate a large spike in positive COVID-19 tests among NBA players.  

“Once we actually get into the bubble, between that point and the end of the season, I think fewer than 16 players will test positive,” Duncan said.

LISTEN TO THE HABERSHOW HERE

Here are the timestamps for Haberstroh’s interview with Duncan:

8:10  The NBA's rules for the bubble

17:20  Why Disney staffers don't necessarily need to be tested daily

32:10  The biggest threat to the bubble

42:30 Why the NBA could be in big trouble for next season

46:50  Whether the NBA should finish this season or not

For more from Haberstroh, listen to his conversation with TrueHoops’s Henry Abbott on life inside the NBA bubble

Zion Williamson, Pelicans enter NBA restart as most compelling team

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NBC Sports

Zion Williamson, Pelicans enter NBA restart as most compelling team

With the NBA heading to Orlando next week, there is no shortage of storylines to follow in the leadup to the league’s late-July restart. Everyone will be closely monitoring the coronavirus front. Go ahead and brace yourself for silly asterisk talk. Keep an eye on the lack of home-court advantage. The mental health aspect of spending months in a bubble will be a challenge but maybe also an opportunity

But in my mind, no storyline is more fascinating than the immediate future of the New Orleans Pelicans. Between New Orleans’ explosive young roster, led by teenage phenom Zion Williamson, potential coronavirus complications on the floor and the bench, and a run at the No. 8 seed out West, no team embodies the full spectrum of conflicting emotions heading into the NBA bubble quite like the Pelicans. 

By all indications, all systems remain a go for Williamson. The plan is for him to continue progressing toward playing in Orlando, but, like the rest of the league, the Pelicans are not yet authorized for five-on-five work with their players. How Zion or any other player’s body responds to four months without organized basketball is anyone’s guess. 

Let’s assume Williamson does make the trip. That in itself is great news for the Pelicans, for fans, and, most notably, TV partners. 

It’s not a surprise the league put Williamson and the Pelicans front and center in a 6:30 p.m. ET tip-off against the Utah Jazz on ESPN to kick off the restart. New Orleans was booked for a franchise-record 30 national TV appearances in Williamson’s rookie season -- with good reason. According to ESPN tracking, national TV ratings were 30 percent higher for Williamson’s national TV games than the average nationally televised game. 

Zion-related ticket sales saw a similar boost. In road games that Williamson played, attendance in those visiting arenas soared to 19,022 fans on average, a towering figure that would have ranked No. 1 in road attendance for any team. By comparison, Anthony Davis and the 2018-19 Pelicans ranked just 19th in road attendance.

It’s worth noting that part of the surge in excitement was due to Williamson missing the first three-plus months of the season with a knee injury. However, once Williamson took the court in late January, he more than lived up to the hype. The 19-year-old was a marvel on the boards and showed far better playmaking skills than many expected. No teenager has ever posted a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) north of 22.0 in the NBA. Not LeBron, not Luka, not Kobe, not AD. 

Zion, entering Orlando play, is at 24.2. This is rarified air among rarified air. 

Now, it’s true that plenty of stud rookies put up monster numbers without corresponding team success (Kyrie Irving’s rookie season comes to mind). And yes, the Pelicans haven’t exactly lit the world on fire this season, but they’re 10-9 in games that Zion plays and 18-27 in games that he doesn’t. If you drill down even further, a superstar-level impact -- not just box score stats -- begins to emerge.

In the 565 minutes that Williamson played this season, the Pelicans have outscored opponents by 120 points, which works out to plus-10.4 points per 100 possessions. For any player, that’s an incredible figure. Among All-Stars, only Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Kawhi Leonard have higher on-court ratings. For a teenager, that’s obscene.

Worse yet for the league is the fact that the Pelicans are in prime position to maximize Williamson’s talents both now and in the future. Veterans Jrue Holiday, Derrick Favors and JJ Redick helped boost Williamson’s on-court numbers this year, while Lonzo Ball and All-Star forward Brandon Ingram, both just 22 years old, feature complementary skill sets to Williamson.

Knowing what kind of once-in-a-generation talent they had on their hands, the Pelicans didn’t want to overdo it with his minutes early on. But in time Williamson regularly played between 30 and 35 minutes and produced like a top-15 player in the league in those minutes.

It remains to be seen how the Pelicans plan to manage Williamson’s workload in the seeding games. Given his injury history, the long layoff and his immense size, Williamson’s availability will be one of the most fascinating storylines of the restart.

But one has to always wonder if his head coach, Alvin Gentry, will be managing those minutes at all. CDC guidelines state that individuals who are 65 years old or older are high risk for serious illness due to COVID-19. Gentry, who is 65, remains steadfast in his intentions to be in Orlando with his team at full capacity, telling The Athletic on Tuesday: “I plan on coaching without any restrictions. We’ll see if the league comes up with a different plan.” 

The coaching situation around the league remains fluid, sources say. While the National Basketball Players Association and National Basketball Referees Association have both announced ratified agreements on a return-to-play, the coaches’ union has not publicized a similar pact. Gentry’s top assistant coach and defensive guru Jeff Bzdelik, 67, may also be in occupational limbo due his age. According to Dallas Mavericks coach and president of the National Basketball Coaches Association Rick Carlisle, the NBA has told coaches that age alone won’t be sufficient enough of a reason to keep them from going to Orlando. Coaches, along with all staffers, will have their medical records screened by a panel of independent physicians to determine their risk levels.

To give it their best shot at the playoffs, the Pelicans will need all hands on deck. Beyond Williamson and the coaching situation, perhaps the most intriguing part of the Pelicans’ restart is their playoff situation. The Pelicans are currently 3.5 games back of the Memphis Grizzlies for the No. 8 spot, tied with the Portland Trail Blazers and Sacramento Kings in the standings. Historically, a gap that wide is just about insurmountable.

But the Pelicans have been gifted a unique opportunity to punch their ticket into the postseason. New Orleans can earn a play-in series if they finish as the No. 9 seed and are within four games of the No. 8 seed. Heck, the Pelicans could supplant the Grizzlies in the eighth slot altogether.

Using win-loss records from the 2019-20 season, the Pelicans have the easiest strength of schedule of all the 22 Orlando-bound teams, with an average opponent win percentage of .495.  

They could fumble out the gate, but it will get easier. After two tough games against the Jazz and Clippers, the final six games on the Pelicans’ schedule will be against teams with losing records: Memphis, Sacramento, Washington, San Antonio, Sacramento (again) and Orlando. Even better for Pelicans’ chances, their strength of schedule pales in comparison to Memphis (.603), Portland (.601), San Antonio (.567) and to a lesser extent, Sacramento (.530). 

The path is there. If the Pelicans go 7-1 in the seeding games and the Grizzlies sputter with a 3-5 record or worse, the Pelicans would earn the No. 8 seed (barring a similarly dominant run by Portland, San Antonio or Sacramento).

At first glance, this appears to be an inside job by the NBA to get Williamson into the playoffs, but that’s not what’s happening here. With a brutal front-loaded schedule back in November and December, the Pelicans were supposed to have the easiest remaining strength of schedule down the stretch. The soft slate in Orlando actually maintains the integrity of the team’s original 82-game itinerary.

A lot can change between now and the Pelicans’ July 30 game. Medical staffs around the league remain worried about how players’ bodies will adjust to the new normal and a short ramp-up time. Four months without organized five-on-five basketball is unheard of in these players’ careers. 

And then there are the virus concerns. Three unnamed Pelicans players tested positive with coronavirus this week and there’s no telling how that might impact their health on or off the court. On Wednesday, Brooklyn Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie tweeted that he’s still feeling ill nearly a week after his initial positive test. The self-isolation programs may be completely prudent from an infectious-disease perspective, but it’s undeniably troublesome for a player’s conditioning and readiness to play. It’s unclear at this point if the Pelicans players who tested positive are symptomatic or expected to play without restriction in Orlando.

Raising more questions for New Orleans is the free agency side of things. Favors will be an unrestricted free agency this summ-- uh, fall and will be looking to cash in after a strong age-29 season. Meanwhile, Ingram will be a restricted free agent hoping for a big pay day from New Orleans or elsewhere. If either of those players feel significantly less than 100 percent in Orlando, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them sit out to preserve their long-term health and earning potential.

You can say what you want about LeBron James’ Lakers, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks and the rest of the contenders (don’t sleep on Houston or Philly, by the way). But in my book, no team is more compelling over the next month than the Pelicans. If Williamson is playing his full minutes and they’re able to send their complete coaching staff, I’m picking the Pelicans to make the playoffs and face none other than the Lakers in the first round. After the Davis trade a year ago, wouldn’t that be fun? Come to think of it, that matchup might be the most intriguing aspect of it all.

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.