Who were the biggest winners and losers at the trade deadline?
Winner: Golden State Warriors
The only moves before Thursday's trade deadline that will impact the NBA's championship picture were the three trades made by the struggling Cleveland Cavaliers.
The consensus seems to be that the Cavaliers have dramatically improved their chances of winning a second championship before LeBron James can become a free agent this summer. I'm not so sure.
Unquestionably, Cleveland has improved compared to the dysfunctional group we saw lose 14 of its last 22 games. Since returning from his hip injury, Thomas has been one of the league's least effective players, and replacing him with a point guard rotation of George Hill and Jordan Clarkson will immediately improve the Cavaliers.
Cleveland has also added more shooting with Rodney Hood stepping into the wing rotation in place of Jae Crowder and Dwyane Wade, and more athleticism and explosiveness in the frontcourt with Larry Nance Jr. replacing Channing Frye.
Perhaps more important, the Cavaliers have reset their chemistry after the difficulty of integrating Thomas led to finger-pointing in the locker room. Something had to change in Cleveland, and many things did.
All of that should concern the Celtics and the Raptors, who had to hope -- if only briefly -- that the Cavaliers might be so broken as to crash out early from the playoffs, before a possible Eastern Conference finals matchup with them. Surely, neither Boston nor Toronto wants to see even a lesser Cleveland team in the playoffs after the Cavaliers soundly defeated both en route to last year's NBA Finals.
At the same time, I don't think Cleveland's moves should cause the Warriors to fear a fourth consecutive Finals matchup. Dealing Thomas ceded the possibility that the Cavs could get him back to last year's All-NBA form, which would have given them a second shot creator on the perimeter. And Crowder, sent to the Utah Jazz, looked like an ideal matchup for Golden State's versatile frontcourt. Without them, Cleveland is left with a lower ceiling.
Projections using the multiyear, predictive version of ESPN's real plus-minus (RPM) don't suggest this Cavaliers roster is in the same class as the Warriors. Let's take a look at a possible rotation once Kevin Love returns to the lineup.
RPM projects Cleveland as nearly average defensively, which would be a huge improvement for a team that currently ranks 29th in defensive rating. However, the projection of an offense 2.9 points per 100 possessions better than league average would be slightly worse than what the Cavaliers have managed so far (3.4 points per 100 possessions better).
This kind of team would typically win about 47 games in a full season, similar to Cleveland's current pace but obviously much better than the team has managed recently (and better than what the Cavaliers' negative point differential would typically suggest).
It's possible role players such as Hill, Hood and Nance will exceed their projections playing alongside James. Still, the pressing question of who the Cavaliers' third-best player is after James and Love remains up for debate, and that's a big downgrade from when Kyrie Irving was a part of Cleveland's big three.
Winner: Los Angeles Lakers
Loser: Isaiah Thomas
I suggested last month that the Lakers should look to sell high on Clarkson in the midst of the best season of his career if they could find a taker who would send back expiring contracts in return. Little did I imagine then that the Lakers would be able to foist Clarkson on the very team whose star they hope to sign.
To be clear, we should not consider this a "LeBron or bust" move for the Lakers. Whether they're planning to aggressively pursue multiple max players this summer or pivot to 2019, as ESPN's Ramona Shelburne and Adrian Wojnarowski reported earlier this week, moving Clarkson's salary was an important step.
The Lakers now have two paths available. If need be, they can renounce the rights to restricted free agent Julius Randle and waive Luol Deng and stretch the $36 million-plus remaining on his contract. Those moves probably would give them enough cap space to sign a max free agent with 10-plus years of experience (like James) and one with seven to nine years of experience (like Paul George).
Alternatively, they can hang on to Deng, try to re-sign Randle to a reasonable contract and wait until summer 2019, when there will be additional max talent on the market. In that case, the Lakers would still have about $45 million in cap space to take on short-term salary from teams in the luxury tax or sign players to one-year contracts. They're in an enviable position either way.
The same can't be said for Thomas, who has seen his market value diminish dramatically over the past nine months. The best remaining hope for Thomas to get the kind of lucrative deal he was hoping to command would have been turning things around with the Cavaliers and having James re-sign in Cleveland. That would have all but forced the Cavaliers to re-sign him using Bird rights.
Now, Thomas finds himself with a team that's unlikely to have any interest in re-signing him to a long-term deal. Perhaps if he proves a good fit, Thomas could re-sign a one-year deal with the Lakers that gives him a chance to rebuild his value. But if Thomas continues to struggle in L.A., the Brink's truck isn't coming.
Winner: Teams playing the buyout market
Loser: Memphis Grizzlies
A major storyline before the deadline was lottery teams holding on to players on expiring contracts when they didn't get the return they sought. Most notably, the Grizzlies kept Tyreke Evans when they were apparently unable to get a first-round pick for him.
The fact that Evans was on a one-year contract complicated both Memphis' efforts to trade him and the team's future efforts to re-sign him. The Grizzlies have only non-Bird rights, a weak form of Bird rights that allows them to exceed the cap to re-sign him for 120 percent of his $3.3 million salary. To pay Evans more than that, Memphis will have to utilize its midlevel exception.
If Evans ends up walking for a similar or more lucrative offer elsewhere, getting anything in return would have been better than keeping him. The Grizzlies also had to weigh how much keeping Evans and playing him the rest of the year will hurt their draft positioning. Amazingly, Memphis has outscored opponents by 0.8 points per 100 possessions with Evans on the court this season, according to NBA Advanced Stats. When Evans sits, the Grizzlies have been outscored by 8.4 points per 100 possessions. Considering all that, I would have traded Evans. One thing I wonder is how much the public posturing that Memphis expected a first-round pick in return affected the internal decision-making about whether to trade Evans for second-round picks.
Though Evans probably won't hit the buyout market, other players who ended up staying put such as Tony Allen, Marco Belinelli, Vince Carter, Nerlens Noel and Brandan Wright could secure buyouts from their teams. That's good news for the contenders that didn't make a trade Thursday.
The Oklahoma City Thunder could particularly benefit from adding a guard to help fill the void left by Andre Roberson's injury, while a buyout was always the best chance for the Golden State Warriors to upgrade their bench. The Cleveland Cavaliers opened up two additional roster spots with their trades (one of them earmarked for Kendrick Perkins). The Houston Rockets also have a spot open, as do the Toronto Raptors, who can offer more than the veterans minimum using their biannual exception.