Saturday, March 2, 2024

Re-Grading 2023 NBA Trade Deadline’s Biggest Deals 1 Month Later

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D’Angelo RussellRonald Martinez/Getty Images

The Trade

Los Angeles Lakers Receive: D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley, Jarred Vanderbilt

Minnesota Timberwolves Receive: Mike Conley, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, 2024 second-round pick, 2025 second-round pick, 2026 second-round pick

Utah Jazz Receive: Russell Westbrook, Juan Toscano-Anderson, Damian Jones, 2027 first-round pick


Grades

Lakers: A

Untimely injuries do not change the relative awesomeness of this deal for the Lakers. A sprained right ankle has limited D’Angelo Russell to just four appearances (really three). And the indefinite absence of LeBron James with a right foot injury changes so much about this season.

Here’s the thing: L.A. didn’t break bread with Utah and Minnesota strictly because of this season. The additions of DLo, Malik Beasley and Jarred Vanderbilt beefed up their depth and functional sensibility, rendering them more of a top-down threat should they crack the play-in tournament and playoffs. But this deal was also about optimizing the future.

DLo (free agent), Beasley (team option) and Vanderbilt (non-guaranteed) can all come off the books after this year. That allows the Lakers to go the not-max-but-still-a-boatload-of-cap-space route over the summer if they so please. In the event free agency isn’t their preferred place of operations, they have three players who loom as more valuable trade assets than the one player they gave up to get them.

Oh, there’s also the chance this core #justworks. The Lakers wanted for depth, athleticism, shot creation, outside accuracy and volume and complementary defense prior to the trade deadline. The arrivals of DLo, Beasley and Vando address nearly all those deficits. Los Angeles has the option of futzing and fiddling on the margins rather than exploring whole-sale transactions.

Even without a hefty everyone-is-available sample, this deal has already paid dividends. The Lakers are 7-4 since the deadline, with the league’s best defense. Their offense is still, frankly, crud. But that’s to be expected when they don’t have LeBron or DLo, their two best shot creators, shot makers and passers.

It is more notable that the Lakers are surviving these absences at all. Losing LeBron would have been a nonstarter beforehand. There is something to be said about increasing the roster’s structural coherence by shipping out Russell Westbrook. To do all this, while surrendering only one pick that’s safeguarded against disaster, is a demonstrative W.


Timberwolves: D-

Whenever you can trade a (then-)26-year-old playing some of the best basketball of his career for a 35-year-old, all in the name of optimizing a 30-year-old center you overpaid to acquire in the offseason, you absolutely have to do it.

Except you don’t.

DLo’s impending free agency must be factored into this return. If the Wolves believed he was on his way out or flat-out didn’t want to bankroll his next contract, they had little leverage and were smart to get something, anything, for his services.

That doesn’t make this a good deal. It is overcorrection to last summer’s overcorrection, when Minnesota moved heaven and earth and the rest of the universe to land Rudy Gobert. This move also came at a time when the team was rolling. It has been without Karl-Anthony Towns for most of the year, but it posted a 14-7 record while hovering around the top 10 in both offense and defense from Jan. 1 to the trade deadline.

Since moving DLo, though, the Wolves are 4-5 and rank outside the top 16 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Conley has, as expected, acted like connective tissue and is draining 38.3 percent of his triples. But his 10.6 points and 4.9 assists per game don’t come close to supplanting DLo’s production, and the Minnesota offense lands in the 35th percentile when he soaks up time beside Gobert and Anthony Edwards.

Some level of judgment should be reserved until Towns rejoins the rotation. But the Wolves weren’t setting the world on fire at the time of his injury. His return could merely complicate an already convoluted product at the most critical juncture of the season.

Worse, there’s no guarantee Minnesota improved its outlook beyond this year by effectively swapping DLo for Conley, 15ish minutes per game of Nickeil Alexander-Walker and seconds. For now, this trade looks like a potential dud—one threatening to derail a team that seemed like it was on to something at the time of its completion.


Jazz: B-

Reflexive reactions largely criticized the Utah Jazz for not getting more while forking over three major rotation players. And where there wasn’t initial disdain, there was onset confusion. “This is all Beasley, Conley and Vanderbilt were worth?! And they took back a player the Lakers have been trying to trade since, like, the moment they acquired him?!”

It turns out this preliminary shock was half-warranted. On the one hand, Westbrook’s mammoth salary comes off the books after this season. Conley, meanwhile, wasn’t exactly an asset. He is guaranteed $14.3 million next season, which is a lot to pay when waiving a player, even if you’re stretching it over three years. But keeping him at his full number of $24.4 million would be similarly tough to stomach when he’ll be 36.

On the other hand, Vanderbilt has been a shot of adrenaline for the Lakers defense. And Beasley is hitting enough of his threes for Utah to miss him. It would have been nice to grab more than one protected first-rounder.

Still, the market is the market. The Jazz wouldn’t turn down noticeably better offers if they were available. And the protection on that Lakers pick is minimal (Nos. 1-4), a big friggin’ deal when it post-dates both James’ and Anthony Davis’ contracts.

Yes, this trade still looks a little worse one month later. It also needs to be viewed through the lens of Utah’s bigger picture. It didn’t need more first-rounders projected to convey later in the draft. It needs bigger bites at the apple. The Lakers’ 2027 first offers that opportunity, and it didn’t cost the Jazz anyone who profiled as a member of the roster beyond next season. (The 23-year-old Vanderbilt comes closest, but his offense fit beside Walker Kessler would’ve forever capped his role.)

—Favale

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