Perhaps it's fitting that in a season of change, transition, parity, and uncertainty, a trade deadline rife with activity offered little clarity even after the dust settled.
This was supposed to be about the winners and losers of the deadline. But, when trying to sort out which teams might fit where in that binary structure, it became clear that things were a little bit too nuanced and convoluted for the win-loss paradigm. For the most part, the teams involved in the trades prior to Thursday’s 3 p.m. ET cutoff did a bit of both.
Of course, nobody can ever foresee exactly how trades are going to work out. There's always uncertainty. Time and circumstance inevitably change the accounting significantly. Maybe it was the byproduct of there being more buyers than sellers and not enough supply to meet the demand, but these deals (and non-deals) were particularly hard to parse. It felt like a lot of teams simultaneously took a step forward and a step back. Lateral moves. Sound and fury signifying who knows what.
It's unclear, in some cases, what teams were trying to do; in many cases, where the intent was clear, it's debatable whether what they're trying to do can possibly work. Almost every deal seemed to come with more questions than answers.
The Heat traded three players who've barely played for them this season for three wings who should all be able to contribute, including one of the deadline's big prizes in Andre Iguodala. But it's impossible to know how impactful Iguodala will be at age 36 after an eight-month hiatus, and sending out a promising 23-year-old in Justise Winslow puts no small amount of pressure on Miami and Iguodala to justify the gambit.
The Grizzlies acquired Winslow in the deal but agreed to take back a ton of dead salary, crippling their 2020 cap space. Are they better off with Winslow and a clogged cap sheet next year than they would've been with a high second-round pick and heaps of space?
Can the Rockets really ride out the season and succeed in the playoffs with 6-foot-5 P.J. Tucker as their full-time center? Can Clint Capela coexist with John Collins in Atlanta? Can Minnesota ever have even a top-20 defense with Karl-Anthony Towns and D'Angelo Russell? What on earth are the Cavs going to do with Andre Drummond? Can the Pistons make good enough use of the 2020 cap space they just opened up to justify salary dumping their best player?
Trade season also brings tension between activity and inactivity; crimes of omission rather than commission. To wit: did the Bucks lose out by not making an upgrade, or did they win because nobody in the East significantly closed the gap on them? Did the Lakers lose because they watched the Clippers nab Marcus Morris, or did they win after being spared from overpaying for a potentially overrated player?
The Sixers did about as well as they could've done on the margins by acquiring Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III without surrendering meaningful assets, but did little to address the glaring problems with their halfcourt offense. So, how do we categorize their performance at the deadline? Should we praise them for making a couple of smart marginal additions, or criticize them for not doing enough?
No deal catalyzed the overarching sense of deadline-day bewilderment quite like the Warriors-Timberwolves deal that sent Russell to Minnesota and Andrew Wiggins and a top-three protected 2021 first-rounder to Golden State. Here was a big trade swung by two terrible teams that are terrible in completely different contexts: The Warriors are in a strange, injury-induced gap year after five straight Finals runs, biding time before they presumably return to some measure of prominence. The Wolves are simply having another in a long line of miserable seasons that sometimes feel like they'll keep coming in perpetuity.
Minnesota's front office clearly felt the need to do something to signal to Towns it was committed to keeping him happy. But Russell and Towns, for as dynamic as they could be offensively, profile as an easily exploitable defensive duo, especially with Robert Covington no longer there to help cover for them on the wing. Even with Russell and a likely top-five pick in the upcoming draft, the playoffs feel like a long shot for the Wolves next year, which means they'll be forking over a lottery pick to the Warriors. The Wolves finally got their man after months of increasingly desperate overtures, but it's debatable whether they should've been so desperate to pursue Russell in the first place. And it's hard to see this move propelling the franchise toward the kind of sustained competence that's eluded it for nearly two decades.
The move was equally mystifying for Golden State, for whom the downside was all about opportunity cost. Given what the Warriors sacrificed to sign Russell, and given that he seemed to be part of the team's plan to nab another superstar to pair with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green once the former two returned to health, Wiggins and a pick feels like a paltry return, and not one they can parlay into another star. But then, there's a decent chance that pick will turn out to be really good, and there's even a chance their motion system can finally get the most out of Wiggins in a complementary role; that paring down his on-ball usage and unleashing him as a cutter off of Curry's and Thompson's gravity might be just what he needs.
So, again, while that trade is interesting from multiple angles, it's far from clear who won or lost.
It all seemed to reflect the present state of the league, where plenty of interesting stuff is happening, but it's hard to suss out what it means or what it portends. Every good team has flaws, and the pool of contenders seems to deepen and shallow constantly. No runaway favorite has emerged, and the deadline kept the picture perfectly hazy.
Some of these moves could work out great. Some might flop. The majority of them probably won't change much. Who were the winners and losers? Call it a cop-out, but the truth is, I really don't know. And only time will tell.