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Hollinger: Trade deadline was a dud when it comes to major swings. Here’s why

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As it turns out, you can’t have much of a sale if there aren’t any deep-pocketed shoppers. A blah NBA trade deadline came and went with some deals, yes, but virtually none of truly lasting consequence, as asset-dry teams mostly spent the week sifting through the discount bins. Not a single All-Star-caliber player changed teams, and only two players who make more than $20 million (Gordon Hayward and Bojan Bogdanović) switched jerseys in the last 48 hours. (Spencer Dinwiddie was on this list until his $1.5 million incentive for playing 50 games this season vanished when the Toronto Raptors waived him with 48 games under his belt. Adding to the sting: He had missed two games earlier in the season.)

Blame this on two factors. First, blockbuster deals require assets, and few of the would-be acquiring teams have any left. Aspiring contenders such as the Denver Nuggets, Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks, Minnesota Timberwolves, Boston Celtics, Dallas Mavericks, Phoenix Suns, LA Clippers, Cleveland Cavaliers and, stretching the definition but humor me, Los Angeles Lakers were limited in what they could do because they burned through most or all their draft capital in previous trades. This is the hangover from the eruption of deals in recent years, when teams traded half a decade of draft capital to get a star.

Even the few deals those asset-dry teams made showed the strain of their previous commitments. The Mavs bartered a future swap just to get a backup center, while the Suns have been reduced to dealing swaps of their swaps of their swaps like it’s a fractional timeshare ownership. No wonder the Atlanta Hawks couldn’t get their money back on Dejounte Murray; the contending teams they hoped would pay top dollar for him were scrounging for nickels under their couch cushions instead.

Second — and hallelujah to this — several teams did their work early rather than blithely wait until midnight on Christmas Eve like they do every other year. You didn’t see any stars change teams this week partly because the deals already happened; James Harden, Pascal Siakam, Terry Rozier and OG Anunoby were traded earlier in the season. Houston traded for the injured Steven Adams a week ago. The Detroit Pistons and Washington Wizards even completed their Earth-shattering Mike Muscala trade before we hit February.

The lack of available draft capital likely resulted in some “dying-on-the-vine” situations too, where teams with expiring contracts of quality players to trade either had to accept less than they expected or pivot to, uh, hoping this summer goes better. The Indiana Pacers had to take three second-rounders for Buddy Hield, while the Brooklyn Nets accepted the same (and not great pick quality) from Phoenix for Royce O’Neale. Monté Morris netted just a single second for Detroit. Other expirings, such as Alec Burks, Kelly Olynyk and Hayward, only moved as part of larger proceedings.

Those were the ones that got to the finish line; many didn’t. Bruce Brown and Gary Trent Jr. in Toronto, Tyus Jones and Delon Wright in Washington, Markelle Fultz in Orlando and Naji Marshall in New Orleans will hit free agency this summer even though you wouldn’t necessarily bet on them returning to their current teams. (Brown technically has a team option for $23 million next year; you’ve got better odds of seeing Sasquatch than he does of having that option picked up.)

Thus, as far as shopping extravaganzas go, this was more like a flea market than Rodeo Drive. The trade deadline came and went with teams mostly discarding players they didn’t really want or exchanging them for other players they wanted slightly more.

By my unofficial count, there were 17 trades, involving 46 active players, in the 36 hours before the deadline Wednesday and Thursday (there was also a trade between the Nuggets and Clippers not involving any NBA players that I didn’t count here).

Of those 46 players, only 18 could be described as players the other team actually wanted. Several of them were waived right away (my unofficial count is at 10 as of 11 a.m. ET the day after the deadline), while others surely will join those ranks before long.

Partly, it’s an inevitable consequence of trading: There have to be matching salaries involved, and the teams on the buy side aren’t going to willingly include their best or favorite players just to be nice. Additionally, salary dumps have always been part of the game and were again here, with purely luxury tax driven deals to offload salary accounting for four of the trades.

Still, this year felt quieter than usual. Maybe we’re accustomed to the annual spectacle of the Hawks spending the whole year engaged in trade talks for a key starter and then not doing anything, or to the Bulls’ operators being unable to connect their rotary phones to the other 29 front offices.

But the Hawks and the Bulls weren’t the only two teams to stand pat; excluding minor salary housekeeping, the Nuggets, Heat, Clippers, Bucks, Kings, Pelicans, Warriors, Lakers, Cavs and Magic all sat this one out. That’s nine of the league’s 17 teams with winning records entering Thursday’s games, plus one of the other teams named Golden State. (I kid, I kid; the Warriors were 24-25 at the deadline but obviously have looked better of late, including cooking the Pacers on Thursday night to get back to .500.)

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Dallas and New York made the biggest moves, although it’s hard for me to get too worked up about either. The Knicks continue to make incremental progress in their steady step up the Eastern Conference ranks, acquiring Alec Burks and Bogdanović without surrendering anything of Earth-shattering importance; they need another point guard and another center but have three open roster spots to play with in the buyout market.

As for Dallas, it continued throwing caution to the wind to build a win-now team around Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving. I’m not sure exchanging their one truly good asset (a 2027 first) to turn Grant Williams into P.J. Washington was the right play; a more patient approach would have seen them have picks in 2025, 2027 and 2031 to put into a deal for more star-wattage after draft night. The Mavs aren’t in the contender class right now, and the Wizards and Daniel Gafford aren’t lifting them there.

I wrote earlier about Washington’s uneven play in Charlotte, but the Gafford deal was interesting because the Mavs gave up an unprotected pick swap in 2028 to the Thunder for an actual, real draft pick in 2024, then flipped that pick (and the unwanted contract of Richaun Holmes) for Gafford. Gafford is a tough rim protector who was quietly having a solid year in Washington and is signed for two more seasons, albeit for a bit more than you’d prefer ($28 million total), but at this price, the deal was a no-brainer for a rebuilding Washington team.

However, the real story here is the fascinating bet by the Thunder, a true casino spin. It’s possible it pays off zero and they gave up a first for nothing. On the other hand, they’re likely to be really good in 2028 and the Mavs might not be, to the point that being able to trade up several spots in the first round of that draft is probably worth giving up a pick expected to land around 26th in 2024. Even if Dallas is middling-average and has, say, the 18th pick, if the Thunder are 28th, that’s a reasonable return. Of course, the bigger idea for Oklahoma City is that it has so many draft picks that moonshots on high-end outcomes are worth more than just grabbing a solid-ish player in the late 20s. A chance to land a top-five pick, even if unlikely, is worth chucking the dice.

Speaking of rolling the dice, the Thunder made another fascinating move to send out two second-round picks to bring in the oft-injured Hayward for the stretch run. They certainly could use a connector with the second unit, and the three-for-one trade with Charlotte helped clear out a roster jam and some salary cap flotsam for next year. Oklahoma City now has near-max cap room for the coming summer; one wonders how the Thunder might try to use it.

Otherwise, one big trend we saw was teams trying to lock in low salaries ahead of cap-space summers. Toronto shed salaries but added Ochai Agbaji’s inexpensive deal; the Pistons did the same with Quentin Grimes and Simone Fontecchio (a $3.9 million cap hold regardless of what they end up paying him, provided they remember not to start him more than six times or play him more than 839 minutes the rest of the season).

The onerous restrictions on luxury tax teams led Phoenix and Boston to take the opposite tack. The Celtics were willing to overpay a bit for Xavier Tillman because he adds inexpensive help now and they have the ability to re-sign him with Bird rights this summer. The Suns did the same with free-agent-to-be O’Neale and Memphis’ inexpensively-signed-through-2026 David Roddy.

The latter required a tricky first-round pick-swap trade that’s an even wilder lottery ticket than Oklahoma City’s above; it doesn’t pay out unless the Grizzlies finish with a better record than each of Washington, Orlando and Phoenix in 2026, but it’s still a pretty sweet return for a marginal player who was clogging an already-full roster.

The new collective bargaining agreement also shone through in other places, including the Warriors’ and Clippers’ last-chance saloon bids to creatively use cash in trades before the post-2024 rules stop teams over the tax apron from doing so. (More on that here and here.)

Overall, however, it was an underwhelming deadline day. Even with more liberal salary-matching rules in the new CBA, there are just too many good teams handcuffed by either the luxury tax, their lack of tradable draft picks or both. Going forward, one wonders if this is a random blip in time or if it signals the beginning of a new trade deadline reality.


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(Photo of Dejounte Murray: Ezra Shaw / Getty Images)

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