What was expected to be a sleepy NBA trade deadline season has kicked off with, well, maybe not a bang, but a very complicated sound? Like, maybe it’s kicked off with a bagpipe?
Sure. Let’s go with bagpipe.
The Minnesota Timberwolves, Atlanta Hawks, Houston Rockets and Denver Nuggets engaged in a four-team, twelve-player trade — the NBA’s biggest deal, players-wise, since the Knicks traded Patrick Ewing to the Sonics twenty years ago.
You can read all the specifics here, but the net takeaway (as far as meaningful assets go) is:
To Rockets: Robert Covington — a three and D wing whose been a bit lighter on both of those things than usual this year.
To Hawks: Clint Capela — a bouncy, rim-rolling center, known in Toronto as: “the guy we could have had instead of Bruno Caboclo.”
To Nuggets: A first from the Rockets, and if you’re feeling charitable maybe Shabazz Napier is a real asset?
To Minnesota: A Nets 2020 first (via the Hawks), and RFAs Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez.
It’s an interesting deal for a lot of reasons. The Rockets now seem committed to their “Tuckwagon” lineups that feature former 6’6” Raptor P.J. Tucker at centre and shooting everywhere — excepting Russell Westbrook.
Minnesota didn’t get two first rounders like they wanted — and the one they did get, a likely mid-round pick in this year’s thought to be underwhelming draft, isn’t that impressive. But there are reasons to like Beasley and Hernangomez — both of whom could probably play big and arguably productive minutes now (forcing the Wolves to pay them this off-season, but I digress). Still, giving Karl Anthony Towns more real NBA players to work with is a win in ‘Sota.
The Nuggets turned guys that they weren’t using because they’re Raptor-level deep, into a “future” first, Napier — whose fine as a score first back-up PG — and stuff (though I suppose Keita Bates-Diop and Noah Vonleh still have some “interesting young player” sheen on them, but good luck getting minutes in Denver’s still crowded rotation.)
Atlanta added a guy in Capela who a couple of years ago looked like almost the Platonic ideal of a modern centre — all destructive rolls to the cup, good to great rim protection, and enough mobility to handle switches. The last year or so haven’t been as kind to the Swiss centre — his efficiency numbers have declined on both sides of the floor, but the Rockets had increasingly marginalized him on offense as they pushed their offense away from pick-and-rolls and more to Harden and Westbrook (and Eric Gordon) isolation plays.
As a Raptors fan though, you’ve got to be loving this. There were three scenarios a Covington deal could have really hurt Toronto, and this trade? It doesn’t check any of those boxes. Let’s review.
The Eastern Playoff Picture
Covington had long been connected to the Philadelphia 76ers — and he would have been a fantastic fit — Covington has the size (7’2” wingspan) to guard players like Siakam, and jostle with Ibaka. A knee injury he suffered a year ago, has slowed him a bit, but Toronto doesn’t feature a lot of raw burners on offense to take advantage of that.
His acquisition also could have allowed the Sixers to move Al Horford to a sixth man role where his all-around skillset on offense would be much more valuable as a fulcrum for the Philly second units — think Gasol as a force-multiplier. Right now, Horford is being somewhat wasted as a glorified stretch four who doesn’t really have the off-the-bounce juice to constantly punish defenders closing out on him.
The move also means that Covington didn’t become a member of the Miami Heat, a team whose defense has been steadily sliding as the season goes on (and who might find playing Duncan Robinson and or Kendrick Nunn tricky in the post-season, due to those defensive issues). Nor did Covington become a Buck — which would have been the ultimate “I already own two Porsche’s but I want a Maybach in the garage as well” move. That kind of trade would have given the Bucks another veteran presence in case they were worried Pat Connaughton and Donte DiVicenzo might struggle in the playoffs.
NBA Finals Implications?
The Nuggets may still go out and get Andre Igoudala — maybe with that Rockets first? — getting them the big physical 3-and-D wing they lack, but Covington was that guy right now.
It means the Nuggets biggest weakness — handling big wings, of which the Raptors are stocked — is still in play. It also, possibly, reduces their functional depth. Hernangomez and Beasley are both good players, and if the Nuggets get hit by the injury bug, they may rue sacrificing them.
The Rockets are interesting, they might be better just punting on size and rebounding in order to force teams into nightmare situations on defense. Every. Single. Possession. Stylistically though, it cuts the Rockets options in terms of what they could turn to if things got tricky for them. Enter Nick Nurse, who’d spend a Finals match-up with Houston tinkering with a million ways to push the Rockets into said tricky situations.
It also means the Rockets are going to be even more ill-equipped at attacking Toronto’s weakest point — defensive rebounding. Now, three-pointers create long-rebounds, which are more likely to be 50-50 balls than at the rim attempts, but Toronto should be able to authoritatively clean the boards (for them), while guys like Siakam, Ibaka, Gasol, and bigger wings like Hollis-Jefferson and Anunoby could feast on the offensive end, making the Rockets the team that can’t end defensive possessions.
If the two teams did match up — that swing in total possessions could be huge.
Looking to the Future
This isn’t as big a concern for the Raptors — so much can happen in “ze future” — but at first blush, there’s reasons to be encouraged here as well.
The Capela acquisition gives the Hawks a very good young player on the same timeline as their core. It’s also a bit limiting.
Some have commented on the fact that Capela has another three years and $51.3 million on his contract after this year, but that’s not a problem for Atlanta. After the trio of Chandler Parsons, Evan Turner and Jeff Teague come off the books this year, Capela will be their only eight-figure guy. (Note: Parsons has already been waived.)
The real issue is that Capela seemingly plays the same position, and role, as John Collins — arguably the Hawks second best player.
Look at how both players dominate in the restricted area (rankings are based on a minimum seven paint attempts a game).
‘Two’ much in the paint?
Collins is hitting a respectable 35.6 percent on 3.6 three attemps a game. A lot of his utility comes from the fact that when he sets a screen he can pick and pop or roll to the basket. Will he be as valuable when defenses know that there is less space for him to roll? Can he hold up defensively playing more on the perimeter?
The Hawks seem to have pushed themselves into the new bugaboo in the NBA — teams wasting years trying to make awkward front-court fits work together. Utah, Phoenix, Sacramento, and Philly are just a few of the names that come to mind.
Collins won’t need to be paid until Capela has only a year left, so if it doesn’t work you could easily trade the one or the other and keep a pretty clean cap sheet — but is that the sort of floor you’re looking for when giving up a first?
Regardless, as a Toronto fan you have to like that a team that has a bona fide All-Star caliber player in Trae Young just created a duplication of skills rather than finding a complimentary piece.
The other future look here is the Golden State Warriors. Next year, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are going to be back together — and they’re going to be angry. While D’Angelo Russell has somehow become under-rated, and it says here, will be a spectacular fit for the Dubs on offense, there were rumbles of the Wolves making an absolutely stupid offer for Russell — one involving multiple first round picks not from the 2020 draft, as well as Andrew Wiggins (who, as badly cast as he’s been as the Wolves top guy, has a skill-set that could be particularly terrifying by the Bay, and might be a better overall fit than Russell).
That fact that a nightmare scenario — where the Wolves make the three most frightening teammates in the NBA better in the short term and give the Warrior front office the assets to keep their dominance going — didn’t happen is also a win for Toronto fans.
Robert Covington is a Rocket. Raps fans should feel pretty good about that.