The Cavaliers’ multi-stage roster detonation made for a pulse-pounding NBA trade deadline: LeBron James received a brand-new supporting cast, Dwyane Wade embarked on a reunion tour with the Heat, Derrick Rose was kicked to the curb and Isaiah Thomas joined Lakers guard Lonzo Ball to form one of the league’s oddest couples. While contenders like the Warriors, Spurs, Rockets and Celtics all stood pat Thursday, there were also some noteworthy moves on the margins, including former lottery point guards Emmanuel Mudiay and Elfrid Payton finding new homes.
- LEBRON JAMES
The Cavaliers, of late, had looked utterly broken as a Warriors threat and increasingly vulnerable to the Eastern Conference competition they’ve dominated for the past three postseasons. Constructing a quality five-man lineup that could function defensively has been a problem all season, and Kevin Love’s recent injury only ramped up the inconsistency and chaos. Isaiah Thomas was struggling in a recent offensive role and consistently playing pitiful defense. Jae Crowder was an unexpected disappointment. Derrick Rose was an expected disappointment. And Cleveland’s other pieces often looked too old, too slow or too disinterested to provide sufficient help to LeBron James.
Thursday’s rash of activity—adding George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. while trading away Thomas, Wade, Crowder, Rose, Iman Shumpert, Channing Frye and a first-round pick—undoubtedly has a short-term bent. Yes, Cleveland retained its top chip, Brooklyn’s first-round pick, but it dealt away multiple expiring contracts, took on long-term money for both Hill and Clarkson and replaced name recognition and star power with role players who address Cleveland’s need for defensive competence and energy.
- DWYANE WADE
Cynically, financially and sentimentally, being traded to the Heat is the best thing that could have happened for Dwyane Wade. At 36, it was unreasonable to expect Wade to handle major minutes and responsibilities during a deep postseason run. A potential match-up with the Warriors, in particular, was not going to go well for him. Heading back to South Beach removes any expectation of postseason success. If he pulls off a first-round series win, like he did against Charlotte in 2015, it only adds to his legend. If not, no one will hold it against him. Plus, Dion Waiters’ season-ending ankle surgery fully cleared the runway for Wade’s return: the Heat need not worry about Wade/Waiters minutes-crunching or ego collisions.
Money-wise, Wade really made a killing since Pat Riley played hardball and opted not to re-sign him two summers ago. After earning $23 million last year and cashing in a $16 million buyout from the Bulls last fall, he signed a new one-year, $2.3 million contract with Cleveland.
- KNICKS FANS
Losing Kristaps Porzingis to a season-ending ACL injury was as brutal as it gets for a fan base that’s accustomed to nonstop brutality. Will Porzingis, at 7-3, be able to fully recover his athleticism and continue on his glorious track? How much will this lost year stifle the developments he needs to make in filling out his game? Will New York, with so little other talent and no leverage, be forced to max him out regardless of the injury? Is there any point to watching a Knicks game over the next three months? Great news: Emmanuel Mudiay is an ideal tank commander. The 21-year-old guard ranked 479th out of 482 players by ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, and the Nuggets’ net rating was a whopping 12.7 points worse when Mudiay took the court this season. He’s young, he’s on a cheap rookie contract, he’s theoretically hungry for a change of scenery after losing his starting job multiple times in Denver and he’s capable of occasional highlight-reel plays. Most importantly, though, his teams have consistently performed poorly when he’s on the court.
- BLAZERS FANS
Rather than adding talent for a potential push into the West’s top four or off-loading one of the cap-clogging contracts on its books (Evan Turner, Meyers Leonard, or Moe Harkless), the Blazers had to settle for a pure salary dump of Noah Vonleh. That move brought Portland below the luxury tax line—a clear financial win—but it did little to relieve the fan base’s feelings of gridlock and stagnation. The 22-year-old Vonleh never found a clear role in Portland after arriving in a trade for Nicolas Batum, but most teams would prefer continuing to develop him rather than moving him for nothing.
- ORLANDO MAGIC
Later, the Magic opted to keep Payton instead of Victor Oladipo, who was traded in a package for Serge Ibaka once it became clear that the Payton/Oladipo pairing wasn’t a productive match. Payton’s career has plateaued while Oladipo has risen to All-Star status in Indiana. Orlando’s new regime shouldn’t be held responsible for mistakes made by former GM Rob Hennigan. Nevertheless, Thursday represents a painful and fruitless end to an experiment that lasted too long.
- ISAIAH THOMAS
Scapegoating Thomas for Cleveland’s struggles is clearly misguided given both the severity of his hip injury and his need to scale back his role following a breakout 2016-17 season in Boston. He was in a tricky spot with the Cavaliers and he was given a comically short window to settle in and prove his worth.
That said, Thomas did himself no favors in recent weeks, publicly questioning Cleveland’s coaching staff and his teammates while simultaneously struggling to make a positive impact on either end of the court. It’s been a discombobulating two-year run for Thomas—a dream followed by a nightmare, with personal tragedy and injury mixed in—but his Cleveland tenure already feels like a gigantic missed opportunity. James might dominate the ball and cast a shadow over his teammates, but his presence guarantees a deep playoff run. For a player who languished in two of the NBA’s biggest backwaters—Sacramento and Phoenix—earlier in his career, this was an unprecedented chance to win big while supporting one of the sport’s all-time legends.