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6 NBA teams that got better at trade deadline, and 3 that got worse

Kyrie Irving went from requesting a trade to being traded to the Mavericks in just 48 hours, Kevin Durant was dealt to a new super team in the middle of the night, and the Los Angeles Lakers somehow completed their season long mission to rebuild the rotation around LeBron James and Anthony Davis just before the buzzer. The 2023 NBA trade deadline was one of the most active we’ve ever seen, and it changed the championship picture for the rest of the season.

We’ve already graded every deadline deal, and handed out our prestigious winners and losers. Now it’s time to get down to brass tacks: which teams really got better, and who ended up getting worse?

While there will still be a few players changing teams via the buyout market, rosters are pretty much set now for the stretch run. Here’s how we view what’s left in the wake of the trade deadline.

These teams got better

1. Phoenix Suns

When Kevin Durant named the Phoenix Suns his preferred destination following his trade request over the summer, we were completely bewildered at why the Suns reportedly didn’t put their best assets on the table to get him. Since then, KD put himself back in the MVP conversation, and new Suns’ governor Mat Ishbia pushed to get the deal done. As one super team ends in Brooklyn, a new one begins in Phoenix, and this time it feels a little more stable.

There are still some concerns here: Phoenix’s fifth best player … Torrey Craig? Landry Shamet? The Suns’ depth is going to be a real issue, as will injury concerns given how often Durant and Chris Paul have missed games over the last few years. There also just isn’t a lot of time left to gel. Still, a core of KD, CP3, Devin Booker, and Deandre Ayton has championship potential, which Phoenix’s roster didn’t have before. The Suns are the big winner of the trade deadline, obviously.

2. Los Angeles Lakers

I am still marveling at what the Lakers pulled off. By trading only one top-4 protected first round pick — that immediately turns into a second rounder if it isn’t convey in 2027 — the Lakers added three key rotation players that each fit the team well in D’Angelo Russell, Jarred Vanderbilt, and Malik Beasley. LA ended the trade deadline with one more move, essentially swapping out Thomas Bryant for Mo Bamba, that gives them a little more length and defensive versatility in the front court while preserving a shooting threat. It might be too late for the Lakers, who currently sit at 25-31, but no one will want to see them in the playoffs if they can qualify.

Maybe LeBron and AD would have preferred adding a third star like Kyrie, but improving the depth to such a significant degree improves their chances at a deep playoff run just as much, in my opinion. Russell adds a dash of needed playmaking after exiling Russell Westbrook, and he can space the floor as a spot-up shooter around James and Davis, too. Beasley is an elite bench volume three-point shooter, while Vanderbilt is a great rebounder and adds some toughness inside. Bamba is a historically long big man who is hitting 40 percent of his threes on low volume this season.

All LeBron wanted was a chance this season. He’s got it now, and there can’t be any more excuses.

3. Golden State Warriors

Gary Payton II showed his immense value to the Warriors as a defensive stopper on Golden State’s run to the championship last season. GP2 cashed in on his breakout year by signing a free agent contract with the Portland Trail Blazers that was too rich for Golden State with a massive luxury tax bill hanging over their head, but credit Warriors management for realizing Payton was a better fit than another player with a mid-size contract already on the roster.

The Warriors finally cut bait on James Wiseman, the former No. 2 overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, and added Payton in a separate deal. Golden State’s braintrust had been fiercely loyal to Wiseman despite overwhelming evidence that he wasn’t going to help them win any time soon. They did well to come to their sense and realize Payton’s production was worth so much more than Wiseman’s potential for a team led by three aging veterans in Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green.

Payton is a bit short for a wing defender, but he can guard up because of his length, IQ, and all-around intensity. The Warriors needed a jolt if they were going to go on another postseason run, and getting last season’s breakout role player could be just what they needed.

4. Dallas Mavericks

The Mavericks had been paying for their foolish decision to not give Jalen Brunson a contract extension when they had the chance all season. Without Brunson around, Luka Doncic was putting up one of the highest usage rates in league history and had very little help creating offense off the bounce. Kyrie Irving will be a wonderful on-court fit in that regard. Irving can take some of the creation burden off Luka’s plate while also spacing the floor for him when Doncic has the ball. These are two of the most brilliant offensive talents in the league, and their games should complement each other very well.

Of course, nothing with Kyrie is ever this simple. Irving has proven to be a ticking time-bomb of controversy over the last few years. He’s also a free agent after this season. Dealing two quality starters in Spencer Dinwiddie and Dorian Finney-Smith hurts Dallas’ depth and its defense, but there’s no doubt the ceiling has been raised with Irving. I would have felt much better about the Mavs’ chances this year if they could have moved Christian Wood for a more defensive-minded center, but that didn’t happen. Imagine if the Mavs got knocked out early, and Irving bounces to a new team in free agency. What happens to Doncic then? Trading for Kyrie is an extremely risky move, but it gives Doncic the co-star he needed, for now.

5. Milwaukee Bucks

If Jae Crowder is in shape and ready to go, he feels like a perfect fit for Milwaukee ahead of the stretch run. Every team Crowder has been on in recent years has been extremely successful: he was part of NBA Finals runs with the Miami Heat and Suns in 2020 and 2021 respectively, and helped Phoenix win a league-best 64 games last year. Then Crowder lost his starting spot to Cam Johnson and chose to sit out this season. He’s going to need to hit the ground running for Milwaukee, and it isn’t a given considering how much time he’s missed this year.

If Crowder can be the best version of himself, he adds volume three-point shooting and some tough defense to the front court. The Bucks really need Khris Middleton to get and stay healthy to have a chance to win the title, but Crowder will be a nice addition if Milwaukee can get to full strength.

6. Los Angeles Clippers

The Clippers essentially swapped in Mason Plumlee, Eric Gordon, and Bones Hyland for Luke Kennard, John Wall, and Reggie Jackson. I’ll say it’s a slight upgrade. LA badly needed another big man in the rotation, and Plumlee has quietly had a very good year for a terrible Hornets team. Gordon is a better defender than Kennard while still being able to space the floor as a shooter, and Hyland is a young shot creator with real upside.

The Clippers will still go as far as Kawhi Leonard and Paul George take them in the playoffs, but head coach Ty Lue now has some added versatility on the roster to put the right pieces around his two stars depending on the matchup.

These teams got worse

1. Brooklyn Nets

This one goes without saying: losing Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving would make any team worse. I thought the Nets had a small chance at making the Finals out of the East if they kept their team together — let’s say, 10 percent? — and now that goes down to zero percent even if they make the playoffs. The Nets won’t be in the mix to win the championship any time soon. Their Durant-Irving-James Harden experiment will go down as the biggest super team bust in NBA history — yeah, even more so than this one.

I do think the Nets did well to recoup some quality starters and future draft picks. Four unprotected Suns picks is a huge haul. That unprotected 2029 first round pick from Dallas for Kyrie could be real nice, too. Brooklyn can’t tank because the Rockets own basically all of their draft picks going forward because of the Harden trade, but they still have some pretty good pieces on this roster after the blowup even if they now lack a star to stir the drink.

2. San Antonio Spurs

This Spurs season has been about one thing since they made the decision to trade their best player Dejounte Murray to the Atlanta Hawks over the summer: putting themselves in the best position possible to win the lottery and land 7’5 French super prospect Victor Wembanyama. There are four horrible teams this year — Spurs, Hornets, Pistons, and Rockets — and San Antonio made moves at the deadline to try to ensure they will finish in the bottom-3 with a maximum 14 percent chance at landing the first pick.

The Spurs moved off center Jakob Poeltl and guard Josh Richardson. Poeltl got them a 2024 first round from the Raptors that feels like a tremendous return for an offensively limited big man. San Antonio got worse, but that was always the plan. If they can land another generational big man to follow in the steps of David Robinson and Tim Duncan, it will all be worth it.

3. Utah Jazz

The Jazz’ 10-3 start was the best story in the early portion of the NBA season, but Utah always preferred to be in the Wembanyama sweepstakes than fighting for playoff position. By trading Mike Conley, Malik Beasley, and Jarred Vanderbilt, the Jazz basically ensured that they will be praying for ping-pong balls in the lotto rather than fighting for the No. 8 seed.

Utah was loudly criticized for getting only a top-4 protected 2027 Lakers pick out of their tear down, but there’s a chance that ends up being a pretty valuable selection one day if it isn’t flipped in a trade before that. Either way, Utah picked its direction when it traded Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell over the offseason. Their deadline deals proved they never lost sight of it.

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