The year was 2004, and it was nearing the trade deadline. Rasheed Wallace was traded to the Detroit Pistons, a team who would go on to win the NBA championship four months later. Almost exactly four years later, Pau Gasol was traded from the Memphis Grizzlies – a team for which he was the franchise centerpiece for the last seven years – to the Los Angeles Lakers, the eventual winner of the 2009 NBA championship.
By now, you can easily point out the obvious common theme with both these trades which occurred near the trade deadline. These were trades which ultimately paid off for the ‘cramming’ NBA team looking to elevate its status from good to great. And not just ‘great’ in terms being able to compete at the highest level, ‘great’ in terms of winning it all. These two trades were perfect examples of last-minute deals that ended up making the difference for the respective franchises.
Today, we are in the year 2021, and in one of the two most unique seasons in NBA history. Last year, NBA basketball was played in a bubble. This year, it started out with no fans in the stands. And you might think that the pre-trade deadline (plus buyout market) moves made by the Brooklyn Nets would put the franchise in the category of those teams who crammed real hard within the season to elevate their team further – but they don’t. This phenomenon is something that has been going on for a very long time – and we are just lucky to be living in an era where there’s so much coverage in the NBA.
But with Rasheed and Pau Gasol as glowing examples of last-minute deals which ultimately led to winning the prize, will the recent additions made by title contenders really pay off? Let’s examine each of these acquisitions.
LaMarcus Aldridge to the Brooklyn Nets
The already-stacked Brooklyn Nets stack up even more by adding LaMarcus Aldridge (LA). For those of you not following LA’s career, he was best known as the franchise centerpiece for the Portland Trailblazers pre-Damian Lillard. It’s appropriate to say that he was in between the Brandon Roy and Damian Lillard eras of Blazers basketball, a player who overlapped with both star players. Of course, Brandon Roy tragically ended his promising career in injury and Damian Lillard currently rules over Portland basketball.
The San Antonio Spurs acquired LA and this made for a formidable one-two punch with then-new superstar Kawhi Leonard – a pairing that was short-lived. If anything, LA is known for his short-lived promising stints in very solid contenders. And now, with the Brooklyn Nets, he still comes out as a very solid addition to the cocktail of superstars that include Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. And don’t forget about Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, remnants of the lob city era.
Aldridge adds depth to a team which early on lost a lot of it due to the Harden trade and injury to Spencer Dinwiddie. He also adds size when it’s needed, because frankly I’m tired of watching the Nets put a 6’4” Bruce Brown at center. LA’s paint and mid-range scoring is also a huge boost for the Nets who have mainly relied on outside shooting. With Aldridge now in the fold, it sure looks like the Nets have two different starting lineups on the same team.
Rajon Rondo to the Los Angeles Clippers
When the Clippers lost to the Nuggets in last year’s bubble playoffs, it was not just their team chemistry that was questioned – it was their lack of a true point guard. Lou Williams was more shooting guard than a traditional playmaker, and Patrick Beverley was solid on offense but was really relied on as a defensive specialist. Reggie Jackson – while playing a lot of point guard when Russell Westbrook was sidelined for a long time in OKC and in fact a starter for the Pistons – was never really looked upon as a franchise’s point guard, being solid at best.
Acquiring Rajon Rondo, who was instrumental to the Lakers’ run last year, is by far the biggest move the Clippers made this season. While the Clippers addressed their lack of size in the offseason by adding Ibaka to man the paint and adding Batum to guard the perimeter, they never really plugged their big hole at point guard. Adding Rondo to the mix reduces the burden of both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to create plays – as both weren’t really known as playmakers earlier in their career. At the same time, Rondo is another type of Patrick Beverley who will compete at the highest level on defense.
When I heard of this trade, I was scared because I still remember what Rondo said in his post-Finals interview last year – somewhere along the lines that both his IQ and LeBron’s IQ matched together was unbeatable.
Andre Drummond to the Los Angeles Lakers
Drummond has career averages of 14 points and 14 rebounds, and in fact averaged at least 15 rebounds in three different seasons. He is 8th all-time in career rebounding average, and all seven names ahead of him didn’t even play in the 90’s. And so when I think of this last-minute acquisition of the Los Angeles Lakers, I think of how much bigger the Lakers have gotten and how much this fills the gap of an injured Anthony Davis in the interim, and makes up for the loss of both Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee in the offseason.
I wasn’t a big fan of the Lakers freeing up space for Harrell and Schroeder to join the roster during the offseason. While I saw this as a way for them to improve their offense which relied heavily on both AD and LeBron at that point, I felt that losing both Dwight and McGee was a severe diminution in size. The Drummond signing makes logical sense in this manner, and they didn’t really have to give anyone up.
But does this elevate the defending champs above the heavy favorite Brooklyn Nets and the retooled Clippers? That remains to be seen. Right now, a healthy AD playing with a healthy LeBron is what the Lakers need to see.
JaVale McGee and Aaron Gordon to the Denver Nuggets
This move by the Denver Nuggets shouldn’t go unnoticed. The Nuggets in the offseason couldn’t keep the up-and-coming Jerami Grant, who showed clear flashes of brilliance in last year’s playoffs, and they also couldn’t keep Mason Plumlee who was a solid backup for superstar Nikola Jokic and who looked better in a fast-pace lineup.
When I learned that McGee, who was solid last playoffs against Jokic and the Nuggets, and Gordon who was the most popular Orlando Magic player (because of the Slam Dunk contest) were both heading to the Nuggets, I wasn’t too much excited. I saw this move as a way of making up for what they lost, and at the same time confuses me as to who the Nuggets’ third option will be. Because this year, Michael Porter Jr. (MPJ) has emerged as the Nuggets’ third best player, behind the dynamic duo of Murray and Jokic – nearly doubling his rookie scoring and rebounding averages while shooting over 50% from the field and 40% from the three-point line.
Adding Gordon to the mix, while without a doubt a talent infusion, confuses me as to what his role will be with the 2020 Western Conference runner-up. Because of Plumlee and Grant leaving in the offseason, I saw this last-minute move by the Nuggets as simply making up for what they lost.
Victor Oladipo to the Miami Heat
Not to be outdone are the Miami Heat, a franchise that since Pat Riley ran the show, has always managed to surprise us with acquisitions. Last year the addition of Jimmy Butler proved to be the one move that elevated the solid young Heat team to a title contender, overthrowing the East favorite Milwaukee Bucks. And this year, the last-minute addition of Victor Oladipo might just prove to be a big one.
Victor Oladipo is not the same player we saw who took LeBron’s Cavs to the full seven games in 2018, providing a scare to tarnish LeBron’s legacy of never losing in the first round. But he is still at least 80 percent of the best version of himself which is good enough to make the Heat a serious contender once again in the East.
Earlier in the season it sure looked like the Heat were falling off the race. But with Jimmy Butler coming back, we started to see the Heat team that took the eventual champions to six games. Oladipo won’t be the Jimmy’s number two, but he sure can be anyone’s number three.
Whether these last-minute moves by these four NBA title contenders will pay off we will probably only know until at least the end of the playoffs or even two or three years from now. So far only the Heat and Nuggets among these five contenders have enough flexibility for the next three years. Brooklyn’s effort to stack their team and fill in every gap is unmatched. The Clippers adding Rondo should make Kawhi stop whining about the lack of a true point guard. And the Lakers adding Drummond could prove essential to the team’s survival in the tight Western conference playoff race.