It’s been nearly a month since the NBA trade deadline passed, and the dust has settled on a flurry of deals and free-agent signings.
Teams such as the Chicago Bulls and the Miami Heat took big swings to beef up their roster by trading for former All-Stars Nikola Vucevic and Victor Oladipo, while title contenders also netted former All-Stars, as the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers added depth via the buyout market by adding bigs Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond, respectively.
With the postseason less than one month away — and with playoff seeding still at stake for nearly three-fourths of the league — we tapped our analysts to identify which newcomers have surprised the most in each conference, along with addressing the future of how the league manages the buyout system.
1. Which new player-team fit has been the most surprising in the West?
Tim Bontemps: I thought Rajon Rondo was about the best the LA Clippers could do to upgrade at point guard, but I didn’t think he’d have much of an impact. Rondo has made shots, organized the team and helped keep it winning while Kawhi Leonard has missed time. We’ll see how much gas is left in the tank in the playoffs, but so far, so good.
Kevin Pelton: Rondo with the Clippers, who have gotten the kind of production from him they might not have expected until the playoffs. Rondo has played better across the board than he did with the Atlanta Hawks, and the Clippers have outscored opponents by a ridiculous 23.4 points per 100 possessions in his 167 minutes, per NBA Advanced Stats. Of course, “National TV Rondo” predated “Playoff Rondo,” so it hasn’t hurt that five of the Clippers’ nine games with the point guard have been showcases.
Brian Windhorst: If you’re asking about surprising — and this hardly changed the shape of the league — but James Johnson has been a productive addition to the New Orleans Pelicans. He was seen as salary ballast in a trade that sent JJ Redick to the Dallas Mavericks, and he is playing well enough that he might help his stock in the offseason.
Tim MacMahon: The Rockets aren’t exactly on the radar — unless you’re looking at lottery odds — but Kelly Olynyk has played well since arriving in Houston as part of the underwhelming return for Victor Oladipo, averaging 17.4 points and 7.8 rebounds per game while shooting 59.3% from the floor and 41.5% from 3-point range. Olynyk is on an expiring contract, but the Rockets are open to re-signing him.
André Snellings: I wouldn’t say “surprising,” but the best outcome in the West has been Aaron Gordon to the Nuggets. Gordon is a young, skilled combo forward who is both a strong passer and a dynamic finisher around the rim. He appeared to be exactly what the Nuggets needed before the trade, and the fit has been better than advertised. The Nuggets are outscoring opponents by 12.6 points per 100 possessions with Gordon on the floor, the best mark among regulars on the team and illustrating just how much of a great finishing acquisition he has been on an already strong roster.
2. Which new player-team fit has been the most surprising in the East?
MacMahon: Blake Griffin has been a phenomenal fit off the Brooklyn bench. He has proved that his legs still have some spring left, and he has provided some offensive punch to the second unit with his finishing, shooting and passing. The surprise is how well Griffin has held up on the defensive end. “Small sample size alert” certainly applies, but the Nets allowed only 102.7 points per 100 possessions during Griffin’s 218 minutes entering this week.
Snellings: The Bulls were a fringe playoff contender in the East coming up to the deadline, just under .500 with a scoring margin just below neutral when they traded for Nikola Vucevic — a two-time All Star center in his prime who had led the Magic to the playoffs in each of the past two seasons. But instead of surging, the Bulls have won only five of their first 15 games with Vucevic, while being outscored by 8.4 points per 100 possessions with him on the court. Vucevic’s box score numbers have been consistent, but clearly, he and his new teammates need to get on the same page and improve their synergy to have a chance to make the postseason.
Pelton: Wendell Carter Jr. with the Orlando Magic. He has played his best basketball as a pro since being sent to Orlando in the Nikola Vucevic trade. In particular, that difference can be traced to Carter’s finishing. He is hitting 78% of his shots inside three feet with the Magic, according to Basketball-Reference.com, and has nearly as many dunks (17) in 13 games with Orlando as in 32 games with the Bulls (23).
Bontemps: Luke Kornet was certainly not seen as an important player when the Boston Celtics acquired him at the deadline in a luxury tax-saving move that saw the Celtics deal Daniel Theis. But Kornet gave Boston good minutes while Tristan Thompson was out, and he has proved to be a good fit for coach Brad Stevens’ offensive system.
Windhorst: Daniel Gafford has had four of his highest scoring games of his career since getting sent to the Washington Wizards from the Bulls. He has had a positive impact on the bench and been a contributor — though maybe not as much as Russell Westbrook — to the Wizards’ recent hot streak.
3. Which recent trade or buyout acquisition will make the biggest impact in the playoffs?
Snellings: Andre Drummond to the Lakers, because he helps take pressure off Anthony Davis. The biggest impediment to a potential Lakers repeat is the health of LeBron James and Davis and the heavy load that they must carry. With Drummond joining Montrezl Harrell, Markieff Morris and the much-improved Kyle Kuzma in the frontcourt, James and Davis shouldn’t have to do so much heavy lifting, which improves the likelihood that the team can physically withstand the grind of another deep postseason run.
Bontemps: Before Jamal Murray‘s injury, this answer would’ve been Aaron Gordon, as I thought his arrival made Denver a legitimate championship contender. Now, I’ll say George Hill, who has only just begun playing for Philadelphia but is a perfect fit as an off-ball shooter next to Ben Simmons, as well as another long, rangy defender.
MacMahon: Aaron Gordon would have been the easy choice, but unfortunately Jamal Murray’s season-ending injury drastically diminishes Denver as a threat to make a deep playoff run. The Clippers got some criticism for overpaying in the Rajon Rondo deal, but he fills their glaring void for a savvy facilitator. And Playoff Rondo is a real thing, as his two championship rings prove.
Pelton: Aaron Gordon. Jamal Murray’s injury means adding Gordon probably won’t help Denver duplicate last year’s deep playoff run, but he’ll still be key as the Nuggets try to advance without their high-scoring guard. Gordon has fit in quickly in Denver, hitting an incredible 63% of his 2-point attempts, and the Nuggets will badly need his defense if they match up with the Lakers in the first round — as they would if the season ended today.
Windhorst: When the Nuggets traded for Aaron Gordon, they ranked 20th in the league in defense. Since he arrived, they’ve zoomed to 11th. That improvement — he isn’t the only reason, but his inclusion has helped them in multiple ways — has widened the Nuggets’ margin for error. Without Jamal Murray, that improvement is vital to their remaining chances to make a deep run. Gordon has been the definition of an impact player.
4. The most underrated recent roster addition this season is …
Windhorst: This is speculative because he just returned from injury, but George Hill could end up being a solid addition for Philly once the playoffs arrive. He has a history of making true contributions in postseason games and has no issue filling a variety of roles.
MacMahon: George Hill certainly didn’t have a glorious 76ers debut, going 1-of-5 from the floor and getting scorched by some of Stephen Curry‘s flames, but I like his potential fit in Philadelphia. He’s no Kyle Lowry, but Hill is a good defender and shooter and a solid secondary playmaker. That’s a nice option for coach Doc Rivers to have in closing lineups.
Bontemps: The Norman Powell–Gary Trent Jr. swap is underrated in terms of how nicely it is working out for both teams. Trent is a guy who can grow with Toronto long term, while Powell has slotted in perfectly alongside Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, giving the Blazers another dependable scoring option in the playoffs.
Pelton: Ersan Ilyasova. The Utah Jazz signed Ilyasova, who hadn’t played since August 2020, coming out of the All-Star break. Getting his first extended action on Saturday against the Lakers with both Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert sidelined, Ilyasova knocked down six 3-pointers and scored 20 points. Given Utah’s depth, Ilyasova might not match that total in the playoffs, but he gives coach Quin Snyder a different look as a stretch 5 option.
Snellings: Lou Williams to the Hawks. On deadline day, much more attention was paid to the Clippers getting Rajon Rondo than to the Hawks adding Williams. But quietly, the Hawks have won nine of the 12 games since Williams joined the team by a margin of plus-5.0 points per game as compared to 23-24 with a margin of plus-1.4 before his arrival. Williams gives them a veteran shot-creator who can keep the ship moving in the right direction when Trae Young goes to the bench or make key shots with the closing unit.
5. Fact or fiction: The buyout system needs a major overhaul.
Pelton: Fiction. As I recently examined, players acquired via buyout rarely contribute much to their new teams. Whatever perceived benefits would come from changing the buyout system would almost certainly be outweighed by the unintended consequences of a rule restricting players’ right to buy their own free agency.
MacMahon: Fiction. More often than not, the buyout market is much ado about little impact. There have been a grand total of two buyout players over the past decade to play at least 100 playoff minutes for a title team: Peja Stojakovic for the 2011 Mavericks and Markieff Morris for the 2020 Lakers. Morris was so coveted after the championship run that the Lakers ended up re-signing him for the veterans minimum.
Bontemps: Fiction. Every year, people panic about the buyout market. And every year, the vast majority of those players do nothing in games that matter. I don’t see a need to rework the entire system to fix something that isn’t an issue to begin with.
Windhorst: Fiction. It’s not a positive trend the way it’s going; this is a bastardization of the rules that has developed over the past 10 to 15 years. But it’s not hugely consequential. There might be a few tweaks, but freedom of movement is a strong tenet of the players’ union, and veterans like this option being available.
Snellings: Fact. Not necessarily because of what has happened so far, but for the potential of what could happen in the future. The current buyout method incentivizes good players to leave bad situations and join the best contender they can with very little consequence. I’d like to see some rules in place that appropriately value and assign acquisition cost to bought-out players, before a true impact player does join a contender at the veterans minimum and potentially changes the entire championship landscape.