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NBA Trade Deadline Winners, Losers: It’s a good day to be LeBron

Kurt Helin
NBC Sports

The NBA Trade Deadline did not disappoint.

The stunners started when the Clippers traded Blake Griffin and continued through the Cavaliers blowing up their roster, and Memphis holding on to the one guy that everyone thought would be traded.

Trying to figure out who won and lost trades on the day they happen tends to be a fool’s errand — we often don’t see the wisdom, or we miss the flaws at first. That’s not going to stop us. Here are our Winners and losers from the wild 2018 NBA Trade Deadline.

Winner: LeBron James.
For the first two-and-a-half months of the NBA season, LeBron James played like an MVP and carried the Cavaliers as far as he could. And it wasn’t far enough. It was clear that the Cavaliers were not on the level of the Warriors or Rockets, and they may not be on the level of the Celtics or Raptors. LeBron became dispirited, his effort waned, particularly on defense, and there wasn’t enough on the team to lift the Cavs up without them — Isaiah Thomas returned and was a shell of his former self, Jae Crowder was a disappointment, and Cleveland just looked look old and slow, particularly on defense. They were not contenders and didn’t look like a team that could make the Eastern Conference Finals.

LeBron should be energized now — the Cavaliers will be younger, more athletic, better defenders and better shooters. How much better is an open question, but better. They also should play faster and be more entertaining. That should fire LeBron up — he’s got a chance again. This team could get him back to the NBA Finals. It could help him stay a Cavalier this summer. Maybe it can’t, it’s far too early to know, but we know for sure the previous iteration of the Cavs couldn’t. A chance is all LeBron can ask.

Losers: Boston Celtics/Toronto Raptors. While the Cavaliers found reinforcements and got better, the two top teams in the East stood pat. The gap closed, and that has them as losers.

Both teams tried to make moves. Boston was active making calls — they tried to move Marcus Smart in a trade, they made calls about Tyreke Evans and were close. However, in the end, the only move the Celtics made was to bring in Greg Monroe to add a little scoring punch off the bench and that is it. The Raptors picked up Malachi Richardson in a trade, but the former Syracuse shooter is a project who doesn’t help them now. Toronto contacted the Clippers about DeAndre Jordan, but there was no deal to be had.

The Eastern Conference Finals could still be Boston vs. Toronto, we don’t know how good these Cavaliers are going to be. But the gap narrowed, Cleveland still has LeBron, he can still dominate, he has some help now, and that should worry Boston and Toronto.

Winner: Koby Altman, Cavaliers GM. Within the 48 hours before the trade deadline, Altman was called a puppet of owner Dan Gilbert and a guy thrown in the deep end who couldn’t really swim. There were questions if he was up for the job.

Any more questions?

Altman pulled off what nobody saw coming — in two trades he revamped the problem areas of the roster on and off the court. Cleveland is now more athletic, should defend better, and has more shooting. Altman did all without giving up the Brooklyn Nets pick. Yes, the Cavaliers took on a lot of future money and had to give up their own first-round pick, but this was a bold stroke from the GM to give his team a chance this season. And a chance to retain LeBron James.

Loser: Isaiah Thomas. Think about where Thomas was one year ago. Around the All-Star Game in 2017 we were talking about how IT was carrying the Celtics to a surprisingly good season, he was one of the league’s leading scorers, and he was on the fringes of the MVP conversation. He ended up an All-NBA player.

What a fall it has been. He was traded to Cleveland in the Kyrie Irving deal — a trade the Cavaliers considered rescinding after they saw just how injured his hip was (not that they would have gone back on it, what the Cavs wanted most was the unprotected Brooklyn 2018 draft pick). Thomas missed the first couple months of this season, and since his return he has not been his vintage self — shooting 36.1 percent (but still gunning away) and being one of the worst defenders in the NBA. Despite all his flaws this season, he was happy to talk publicly about how everything else was wrong with the Cavaliers. So Cleveland sent him to the Lakers in a three-way trade, and now Thomas will soon be back to a sixth-man role behind Lonzo Ball (once Ball gets healthy), then IT heads into free agency with a lot of question marks. His stock is falling fast, and the Cavaliers pulled the ripcord.

Thomas was classy on his way out the door,


Winner: Detroit Pistons. For now. Don’t forget about the other big deadline trade, just a week earlier. Detroit has won five straight games since Blake Griffin came over from the Clippers, and it’s not a coincidence. The Pistons are dramatically better when Griffin and Andre Drummond share the court (plus +22.4 points per 100 possessions, albeit in limited minutes so far). Detroit has a top-eight offense and defense since the trade. Griffin himself is averaging 21.5 points and 7.8 rebounds a game, plus he is assisting on 31.3 percent of teammates buckets when on the court. The Pistons look like a playoff team.

The short term — as long as Griffin stays healthy — was never the question. The negatives were long-haul — the Pistons are loaded with salary and all-in with this roster, considering how much Griffin, Drummond, and the injured Reggie Jackson make there’s not a lot of flexibility. The Pistons are what they are, and they have paid a lot of money for a guy with a long injury history in Griffin. A lot of us think the Pistons will come to regret this trade. Just not this season.

Winner: Dwyane Wade. He gets to go home. Wade had come to Cleveland to play with LeBron again, but as everything went wrong in Cleveland his people made it known he would eventually like to get back to Miami to finish his career there. Thursday, as they blew up the roster, the Cavaliers did Wade a solid and moved him where he wanted to go (for only a protected second-round pick). Wade got what his heart desired.

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