The 2021 NBA trade deadline has come and gone. Who were the biggest winners and losers among all the deals that went down?
While there were no major blockbusters or championship-altering moves to be found at the 2021 NBA Trade Deadline, there were plenty of minor, intriguing deals that changed the outlook of several playoff contenders.
From Aaron Gordon joining the Denver Nuggets to the Orlando Magic blowing it up to the Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat trying to capitalize out East, the latest trade deadline leaves us surveying the new lay of the land in each conference.
So who were the biggest winners and losers of this year’s trade deadline? Let’s take a look at five teams in each category.
Winner: Denver Nuggets
The Denver Nuggets may be on the outside looking in at home-court advantage in the Western Conference playoffs, but this 5-seed is suddenly knocking on the door thanks to their trade deadline activity and two injured superstars on the Los Angeles Lakers.
Swapping Gary Harris, RJ Hampton and a protected 2025 first-round pick for Aaron Gordon and Gary Clark was the big move of the day, but the Nuggets’ first move — sending Isaiah Hartenstein and two future protected second-rounders — was an understated maneuver that gives Denver a formidable eight-man core of Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., Gordon, Will Barton, Paul Millsap, McGee and Monte Morris for another postseason run.
Even if they don’t climb into the top-four out West, not one of those teams above them will want to face Denver in a first-round series. The Utah Jazz are coming back down to earth, most of the Phoenix Suns’ young core has never been in a playoff game, the Lakers are banged up and the LA Clippers haven’t instilled fear in anyone just yet. With two solid moves, the Nuggets solidified themselves as contenders, especially by adding a defender like Gordon who can hang with the stronger wings of the West.
Loser: Boston Celtics
Is this it? Is this all you can conjure, Danny Ainge?
The Boston Celtics had the largest trade exception in NBA history to work with and a plethora of rumored targets. They walked out of the trade deadline with Evan Fournier and Moe Wagner, losing Daniel Theis in the process.
To be fair, Fournier is not a bad player, and he’s actually a pretty great fit as another high-scoring wing who is averaging 19.7 points per game on 38.8 percent shooting from 3-point range this season. But to see the Celtics fall short on Aaron Gordon, after already “being this close!” to James Harden and botching the Gordon Hayward-Myles Turner swap last summer that totally would’ve made sense, it’ll be hard for Boston fans to convince themselves Ainge suddenly put this 8-seeded team back on a championship track.
Winner: Chicago Bulls
There might not be a more fun, newly created duo at the trade deadline than pairing Zach LaVine and Nikola Jokic, two extremely talented players who needed a legitimate foil to play off of. Now they both have one, and the Chicago Bulls also managed to solidify their rotation as a potentially pesky playoff team.
Losing Wendell Carter Jr. stings, but only because he’s a former top-10 pick; he really hasn’t been good in Chicago. The Bulls weren’t really getting anything out of the frequently injured Otto Porter Jr. either.
Now they have a depth chart of Tomas Satoransky and Coby White; LaVine and Garrett Temple; Patrick Williams, Al-Farouq Aminu and the newly acquired Troy Brown; Thaddeus Young and Lauri Markkanen; and Vucevic and Daniel Theis. Chicago is only 1.5 games out of a playoff spot, and it’d be pretty surprising if this more competitive, deep group is unable to close the gap in the wake of these savvy moves.
Loser: Orlando Magic
Give the Orlando Magic credit: They knew (and finally accepted) that it was time to blow this team up instead of banging their heads on the same first-round playoff ceiling over and over. But their pre-deadline posturing clearly didn’t work, because the returns they got for Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier were fairly uninspiring.
For Vucevic, a two-time All-Starm the Magic promised to hold out for young players and multiple first-rounders in any trade, which they technically got with Wendell Carter Jr., Otto Porter Jr. and two firsts. But Carter has mostly disappointed so far in the NBA, Porter is a frequently injured wing who hits free agency this summer and may not have a future with Orlando beyond this week, and the two first-rounders — 2021 and 2023 — are both top-4 protected. That makes this year’s pick likely to convey, but the Vucevic trade also makes it less valuable.
In the Gordon exchange, Gary Harris is a great defender, but like most of the players on Orlando’s roster now, he’s struggled with too many injuries to really put it all together. Hampton has potential, but is still largely unproven. Fournier only yielded two second-rounders, and even the 2025 first-rounder in the Gordon deal is still top-5 protected, which means all three of the firsts Orlando received have some type of protection. That’s a fairly disheartening return for the Magic’s “EVERYTHING MUST GO!” deadline involving three highly sought-after players.
Winner: Miami Heat
Somehow, a package of Kelly Olynyk, Avery Bradley (who’s been out injured) and a draft swap was enough for the Miami Heat to get Victor Oladipo, they nabbed Nemanja Bjelica for Moe Harkless and Chris Silva, and they’re reportedly the favorites to land LaMarcus Aldridge’s services now that he’s been bought out by the San Antonio Spurs.
Also, as much as we love to give the Heat flak for not including Tyler Herro in a potential James Harden trade, they were probably right to avoid doing so in a deal for the 35-year-old Kyle Lowry. Holding firm on that negotiating point was the right way to go.
The Heat didn’t sacrifice any of their youth or future draft picks, will be adding Oladipo and most likely Aldridge, and are currently only 0.5 games out of a top-4 seed in the East. After a brutal start, things are suddenly looking up, especially since Dipo wanted to be in Miami and is now more likely to re-sign there.
Loser: Toronto Raptors
The 2021 NBA Trade Deadline was supposed to be “transformational” for the Toronto Raptors. I wouldn’t exactly call Norman Powell for Gary Trent Jr. and Rodney Hood “transformational.”
True enough, most Raptors fans are probably just happy they don’t have to deal with the emotional weight of Kyle Lowry’s inevitable goodbye, but not being able to work out a Lowry trade means they’ll likely lose him for nothing in free agency. Powell’s return was odd, since Hood hasn’t been very good or even available in recent years.
Trent is a nice piece, given that he’s a 22-year-old sniper enjoying a career year of 15.0 points per game on 39.7 percent shooting from deep, but Powell was averaging nearly 20 a night on 43.6 percent shooting from beyond the arc. The Raptors had to do something with Powell because of his impending player option, but they were unable to turn Lowry, Aron Baynes or anyone else into assets to give this imploding team more of a clear direction.
Winner: Philadelphia 76ers
The top team in the East didn’t have to make any major deadline moves to bolster their position, so they didn’t. Instead, the Philadelphia 76ers made a minor but incredibly smart and cost-effective trade for George Hill, shipping out a mere package of Terrance Ferguson, Tony Bradley and two future second-round picks in this three-team trade.
Ferguson had seen action in a grand total of 13 games with Philly this season, and while Bradley played a bit more, averaging 14.4 minutes per game across his 20 appearances, he was hardly vital to this team’s expected playoff rotation.
Now the Sixers have another experienced veteran guard for their bench, one who can play either backcourt spot, defend, make plays off the dribble, score and knock down catch-and-shoot looks. Hill has averaged 11.8 points and 3.1 assists per game on .508/.386/.840 shooting splits this season, and although he’s been out since January with a thumb injury, he should be ready to return to action for a Finals contender in the next week or so.
Loser: LA Clippers
The LA Clippers needed another creator, but MAN are they putting a lot of faith in the legend that is Playoff Rondo.
Giving up Lou Williams — a beloved teammate and historically dominant sixth man — for Rajon Rondo would’ve been a stretch no matter what at this point, but Rondo has been really bad for the Atlanta Hawks this year. He’s averaged 3.9 points and 3.5 assists in his 14.9 minutes per game, appearing in 27 contests for the Hawks and shooting just 40 percent from the floor.
He’s much more suited for a playoff run on the defensive end than Lou Will, but that’s only if Playoff Rondo makes an appearance. At age 35, that’s less of a sure proposition than it used to be, even coming off a terrific postseason run with the defending champion Lakers. Maybe Rondo gives the Clippers an inside track to beating that other LA squad, but giving up Lou Will to make it happen (while taking on the last year and $7.5 million of Rondo’s contract) just isn’t stellar.
Winner: Dallas Mavericks
Giving Luka Doncic another shooter and proven playoff competitor to work with? That’s great.
Giving him J.J. Redick and Nicolo Melli while only having to give up James Johnson, Wesley Iwundu and a second-round pick? That’s pretty fantastic.
Redick was never going to command a first-rounder at 36 years old, but the Dallas Mavericks did still did well to add two shooters to a roster that’s surged up to seventh in the West in recent weeks. Johnson was a tough veteran, but he and Iwundu were hardly playing, so this is a great return for a team that’s starting to get its act together.
Loser: Houston Rockets
Massive contracts like John Wall and Eric Gordon weren’t going anywhere, especially with Gordon currently injured. But Victor Oladipo — arguably the main returning piece in the James Harden blockbuster — is now gone, and for what? Avery Bradley, Kelly Olynyk and a 2022 draft swap?
That’s a horrendous return for the Houston Rockets, especially since they could’ve kept Caris LeVert in the Harden deal instead of rerouting him to Indiana for Oladipo. Meanwhile, Bradley (team option for next year) is hurt and Olynyk becomes a free agent this offseason.
While it’s good that the Rockets can swap any first-rounder they own in 2022 — including the Brooklyn Nets’ pick — to the Heat in that swap, this is a really disappointing return, even for a player who was always going to get a lower return because of his recent injuries, inefficiency and status as an unrestricted free agent this summer.
The bad continues to get worse in Houston, which, by the way, just snapped a 20-game losing streak earlier this week.