If the NBA All-Star Game has traditionally served as a stopping point not only to glorify the first half of the regular season but also to take a breather before the decisive race for the playoffs, the winter trade deadline, scheduled for February 10 this year, was the apogee of drama. Two Latvians – Kristaps Porzingis and Davis Bertans – were unexpectedly drawn to the epicenter of this season’s change deals.
Both – the leaders and title contenders are changing
Indiana Pacers were the first to set the course for a serious rebuilding of the team towards the end of the term, sending one of their leaders Caris LeVert to the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for veteran Ricky Rubio and draft choices. Both teams have gone in diametrically opposite directions this season. Pacers keep surprising with poor performance without claims to the playoffs in the return season of head coach Rick Carlisle. Meanwhile, Darius Garland of the Cavaliers, who earned his first All-Star appearance this year, along with Jaret Allen and freshman Evan Mobley are not only going towards the playoff games but even a home-court benefit.
However, Levert’s deal is not the most significant change in the Pacers camp, as only a few days later, the two-time All-Star participant of the Pacers – Domantas Sabonis – also went to his new home in California. The Lithuanian, who has accumulated respectable statistics this season, averaging 19 points per game, 12 rebounds, and 5 assists, will continue to represent the Sacramento Kings, which will fight desperately to enter the play-in tournament, thus maintaining the chances for a spot in the playoffs. Entering the playoffs this year is particularly important for the Kings to avoid becoming an anti-record holder with 16 consecutive seasons without doing so. To avoid this unpleasant record, the Sacramento Kings had to part ways with promising sophomore Tyrese Haliburton and sniper Buddy Hield.
A similar tactic to the Pacers has been chosen by Portland Trail Blazers, who are struggling without their leader, Damian Lillard, and currently rest at the bottom of the Western Conference. Norman Powell and Robert Covington have been sent to the Los Angeles Clippers in exchange for players that are unlikely to have a long-term future with the club, while Lillard’s longtime partner, CJ McCollum, has gone to the New Orleans Pelicans to play shoulder to shoulder with Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson.
The Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors have also marginally improved their respective lineups. In exchange for former Mavericks player Josh Richardson, the Celtics secured Derrick White of the San Antonio Spurs and re-established the longtime Celtics center Daniel Theis, who so far, had spent the season with the Houston Rockets.
The Toronto Raptors’ Slovenian star Goran Dragic, coveted by many clubs, and was also keen to join the Dallas Mavericks, eventually got sent to the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for Thaddeus Young, Drew Eubanks, and a second-round draft pick.
The biggest excitement of the evening was taken care of by the worst kept secret in the league – James Harden’s desire to leave the Brooklyn Nets and return to his close friend, Daryl Morey, who currently serves as the president of basketball operations of the Philadelphia 76ers. Brooklyn Nets’ big 3 – Harden, Durant, Irving – has thus become one of the most impressive “what if?” scenarios in league history. The trade also puts an end to speculation as to whether and where Philadelphia’s problem child Ben Simmons, who refused to play for the 76ers this year, will get sent. Simmons, along with Seth Curry and Andre Drummond, is moving to the Nets to pursue a career in New York. It should be noted that Brooklyn also received two first-round draft picks.
By tightening the balance of the deal, both teams have gotten what they desired. The Philadelphia 76ers are trying their best to win the title, while the team’s biggest star, Joel Embiid, is having an MVP-worthy season, averaging more than 29 points per game, and beating Nets’ Kevin Durant for most points scored in the league. Embiid is currently also bookmakers’ favorite to land the MVP award this season. Harden’s accession is clearly a “win now!” step.
As long as Kevin Durant is healthy in Brooklyn, the Nets’ chances for the title will always be very high. The nets’ main priority this season should be to step up their defense. That’s where Brooklyn currently ranks at the bottom of ratings. Ben Simmons’ addition is a definite and immediate improvement, while the services of rebound specialist – Andre Drummond, will also be greatly appreciated. Steph Curry’s 40% accuracy from the distance will further unleash Durant’s range in the attack, stretching the opponents’ defense down the field.
The trade of Latvians puts a bold point
If the deal between Harden and Ben Simons is considered to be the most significant event of this trade window, then the trade of Kristaps Prozingis to Washington Wizards in exchange for none other than another NBA Latvian – Davis Bertans and defender Spencer Dinwiddie, caused no less noise among NBA fans.
Rumors about Porzingis’ potential replacement have been lingering in the air for a long time. They have always been based on endless health woes, as well as his contract worth more than $30 million per season, which runs until 2023/2024. Kristaps has already missed more than 20 games this season. Apparently, the new Mavericks management had already decided to put an end to Porzingis’ experiment and look for other ways to improve the team’s chances to compete for the NBA title in the near future.
There is no doubt that this trade was based on monetary considerations. By splitting Porzingi’s contract into two smaller ones (Bertan’s $16 million per season and Dinwiddie’s $18 million), the Mavericks are significantly improving their off-season maneuver chances to find additions to the lineup. Given the rising wage ceiling, these contracts will look better and better over time.
Although the Mavericks’ main drive for the deal was a financial restart, adding Dinwiddie and Bertans is also logical from the game point of view. The Mavericks needed reinforcement on the outside line – another player who can both control the game and score points. That is why the primary target for this position was Goran Dragic. In terms of player qualities, Spencer Dinwiddie is not far from the prototype they were looking for. In a way, Dinwiddie serves as insurance to Dallas against losing their second ball-handler after Doncic – Jalen Brunson – in the off-season. Brunson’s contract expires at the end of this season, and the player will be eligible to demand at least $15 to $20 million per next season. If Dallas is not ready to pay the luxury tax, it will be very difficult to find a place for such an agreement in the current team iteration.
Davis Bertans, meanwhile, will have the opportunity to play basketball again, instead of warming the Wizards’ crowded bench. It is naive to think that Bertans could suddenly become a 31% thrower from a stable 40% long-range shooter and wouldn’t be able to recover unless he gets reasonable playing time and repetitions. The Mavericks are basking at the bottom of the league in long-range accuracy this season and will surely benefit from Bertan’s services. The Latvian will rock the number 44 in the future since No. 42 is already taken by Maxi Kleber from Germany.
With Washington leader Bradley Beal ending his season prematurely due to wrist surgery, Kristaps Porzingis has every chance to become the Wizards’ main star and revive talks about his performances at the New York Knicks, which granted him the nickname Unicorn. One of Wizards’ centers, Montrezl Harrell, has left the team for Charlotte Hornets, which frees up playing time for Porzingis.
If the Wizards fail to agree on a new contract with Bradley Beal in the upcoming season, it is also plausible that the team’s future could be built with Porzingis in its center, as long as the player from Liepaja manages to rehabilitate his status in the league.