NBA Trades

Breaking Down The Four-Team Mega-Trade

The trade deadline is off and running with a twelve-player blockbuster. Who won the deal?

A heretofore quiet trade season was busted wide open late Tuesday night with the announcement of a four-team, twelve-player blockbuster between the Rockets, Hawks, Nuggets, and Timberwolves. The headliners of the trade were Robert Covington (headed to Houston) and Clint Capela (on his way to Atlanta), but here is the full, somewhat confusing recap of what each team is receiving:

  • Houston Gets: Robert Covington, Jordan Bell
  • Atlanta Gets: Clint Capela, Nene
  • Denver Gets: Keita Bates-Diop, Gerald Green, Shabazz Napier, Noah Vonleh, Houston’s 2020 first-round pick
  • Minnesota Gets: Malik Beasley, Juancho Hernangomez, Evan Turner, Jarred Vanderbilt, Brooklyn’s 2020 first-round pick (via Atlanta)

A lot to unpack here, in terms of both the actual assets swapped and the teams’ motivations for doing so. Let’s start at the top, with the team pushing all its chips to the center of the table:

Houston Rockets: Once upon a time in 2015, Warriors’ head coach Steve Kerr made the audacious move of swapping his starting center for Andre Iguodala in a playoff series, pushing Draymond Green to the 5 and unlocking the Death Lineup. The Warriors would go on to win the first championship of their dynastic run, thus validating and codifying the small-ball revolution which had been nibbling around the edges of relevance until that point. [Apologies to Erik Spoelstra and Chris Bosh, but that’s not quite the same thing.] By effectively swapping Capela and a first for Covington, Houston GM Daryl Morey is betting he can take the evolution of pace-and-space to its logical conclusion by mothballing the center position entirely. The move taxes the math to its absolute breaking point, with the assumption being even more spacing and switchability will make up for the loss of size, rebounding, interior defense, and rim-running Capela provided.

It seems crazy at first blush — especially considering the types of big men they could come across in playoff series against teams like the Lakers, Nuggets, or Jazz — but there is a certain internal logic. Capela is most effective as the roll man in the PnR, but the isolation brilliance of James Harden (and to a lesser extent, Russell Westbrook) has made this skill set less critical to their offensive ecosystem over time. [Capela has remained the most frequent recipient of Harden’s assists, and to his credit, has developed into an active cutter from the dunker spot this season.] The vertical spacing he creates on the lob will be missed — perhaps they are hoping this void can be filled by Isaiah Hartenstein, the newly acquired Bell, the desiccated remains of Tyson Chandler, or maybe someone who isn’t yet on the roster — but they are betting the addition of another shooter, and the vacuum created in the lane by this five-out look, will more than offset what is lost. [The new deployment could have shades of Milwaukee’s offense from last season, only with Harden playing the Giannis role as the hub. It’s a similar idea, though it didn’t feel as weird or icky when the Bucks did it, primarily because they still kept two seven-footers on the floor and lost virtually nothing at either end. They don’t call him The Freak for nothing.]

Houston’s “Tuckwagon” units (with P.J. Tucker as the nominal center) have had some success, and adding Covington to those groups will actually render them a bit bigger and more switch-y. A presumed closing lineup of Harden/Westbrook/Gordon/Covington/Tucker will be a nightmare to guard, and the upgrade from Danuel House/Ben McLemore/Austin Rivers to RoCo defensively could make things less leaky. Even still, lineups featuring the foursome of Harden/Westbrook/Gordon/Tucker are -15.3 points per 100 possessions in an admittedly small sample of 166 minutes this season, and most of the Rockets’ big-minute configurations included Capela, so there’s no guarantee of the new look being a clean fit.

For one, Covington has the reputation as a knockdown outside shooter, but the reality is he kind of, well, isn’t. He’s a career 35.8% shooter from deep on a healthy diet of attempts, but he’s down to 34.6% this season. Most of his attempts are of the catch-and-shoot variety, so it’s not as though his percentages are being dragged down by having to create off the dribble. League-average outside shooting isn’t terrible, of course, but if he’s stealing minutes from either of House (37.8% from three) or McLemore (38.4%), and not just Capela, then it’s conceivable RoCo actually brings down the team’s collective shooting ability in certain lineups rather than enhancing it. [Not to bring up old shit, but a team who once endured an 0-for-27 stretch in a Conference Finals Game Seven loss might be sensitive to such things.] His ability to make life at least a little difficult for the LeBrons and Kawhis of the world probably outweighs these concerns in the long run, and his contract remains a gem (Houston will owe him $12.1M and $13M over the next two seasons beyond this one), so even as this is a definite gamble, it is also a calculated one.

When assessing why the Rockets would be gung-ho about dumping Capela, one needn’t look much further than owner Tilman Fertitta’s wallet. He appears to have no appetite whatsoever for paying the luxury tax, and this deal should cut costs enough to get Houston below the line. However things work out for this weirdo roster, it will come to be seen as a referendum on the limits of the analytics movement and the value of non-shooting bigs in the marketplace going forward. It is about those things to a degree, but we shouldn’t overlook how, as with most things, the decision to make this “bold” move was mainly about a billionaire’s bottom line.

Atlanta Hawks: Capela will go from catching lobs from veteran flamethrower Harden to first-time All-Star Trae Young in Atlanta. Some pundits have expressed concern that Capela’s “timeline” doesn’t fit with the young core of the Hawks, but I find this criticism overblown. Capela is only twenty-five, and is on a perfectly reasonable (and clearly movable) contract which should encompass his absolute prime. [He has three years and about $56 million remaining on his deal after this season.] At some point you just need good players and adults in the room, and GM Travis Schlenk got both of those things with Capela, and at a fairly minimal cost. They take on long-term money in turning Evan Turner’s expiring contract into Capela, but they were slated to have a metric shit-ton of cap space this summer anyway, so no huge loss of flexibility. Sure, a rebuilding team may not want to be in the business of giving away first-round picks, but what are the odds they were going to strike gold in the 15-to-16 range on someone as good as Capela in a draft widely viewed as being weak?

The Hawks also get Nene’s mummified corpse in the deal, and he will presumably be waived. Because time is a flat circle, his inclusion in the deal hearkens back to when a young, knuckleheaded Wizards team traded for Nene in 2012. His acquisition (along with the subtraction of JaVale McGee and Nick Young) immediately brought a professional presence to the locker room, as Capela may now be asked to do for Atlanta.

The trade feels like a win for the Hawks, but it does raise the question of the future of John Collins. League insiders have expressed doubts about whether or not Atlanta will want to ink the Wake Forest product to a monster extension when he becomes eligible this summer, particularly after his 25-game suspension for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug program earlier this year. When the rubber meets the road, I suspect they’ll make a competitive offer, because 22-year-olds who can put up a nightly 20-and-10 on 56/36/80 shooting don’t grow on trees. The ability to space the floor means they can run him alongside Capela, even if Collins has proven most effective as a bouncy pick-and-roll partner for Young. How the Capela/Collins pairing jells, and how much head coach Lloyd Pierce decides to stagger the two big men over the remainder of this season, will be interesting subplots to monitor.

This is a better Hawks team than it was before the trade. The addition of a legitimate rim protector gives them a chance to be slightly less of a defensive dumpster fire. Sure, cashing in a first-round pick is a little dicey, but to get a premium asset on a rock solid long-term contract? You make that deal.

Denver Nuggets: The Nuggets’ portion of the trade feels like a stepping stone to something (perhaps) bigger, but it’s hard to knock the value. They picked up a first-round pick for jettisoning three guys who they basically weren’t using anyway, two of whom will be restricted free agents to whom they presumably don’t want to commit big money. Vanderbilt has some potential as an energy big, but he’s still too far away for a title contender with no rotation minutes to give him.

Beyond the pick, the return is a mixed bag. Green is likely out for the year and will almost certainly be waived. Noah Vonleh is salary flotsam. He isn’t going to take minutes from Paul Millsap, Jerami Grant, or Michael Porter, Jr. Keita Bates-Diop (a guy I notably said last week could use more minutes) and Shabazz Napier are rotation-quality players, but whose minutes are they taking? Denver didn’t have court time for Beasley or Hernangomez on the wing, so why would KBD be different? Hopefully a change of scenery will launch his career in the way I laid out, but I’m not sure this is the exact change he needed. Napier has proven he can produce when given opportunities, but with Jamal Murray and Monte Morris ahead of him on the depth chart, he may be reduced to mop-up duty, unless he gets re-routed elsewhere.

Speaking of, it’s possible this deal was the undercard for whatever they do on Thursday, but finding a workable trade which actually improves their team is going to be a challenge. Porter is probably untouchable short of an offer which begins with a top-25 player in the league. However, the combination of Gary Harris’s contract (a shade under $40M remaining over the next two years), Napier, and a couple firsts (perhaps including the one they just picked up from Houston for essentially facilitating this deal) could get them in the neighborhood of a difference-making player. With the amount of theoretical window this roster still has ahead of it, GM Tim Connelly may be hesitant to do anything with too much of a win-now odor to it. In the meantime, collecting real assets in exchange for ones you won’t miss long-term is a winning strategy.

Minnesota Timberwolves: I get why all the other teams did this trade. It’s not necessarily a home run for any of them, but the respective rationales all make sense. I don’t know if I feel the same about Minnesota’s end of the deal. All of the chatter leading up to it indicated Minnesota was still aggressively pursuing D’Angelo Russell from Golden State, but the Warriors didn’t think the offer was sufficient. From a human psychology standpoint, maybe the Wolves felt like the bro at the bar who got turned down by the hot girl right before last call, and then had to scramble to save face by taking home the sloppy girl who’d been spilling drinks and yelling “Fuck men!” for the last hour. Due to the somewhat barren seller market, it’s fair to conclude Covington has become a bit overrated in this process (as discussed earlier), but even so: why was he burning a hole in the Wolves’ pocket? He’s a solid, versatile player on a team-friendly contract, and it really doesn’t seem like they maximized their return for such a good asset. Are they rebuilding now? If so, how does Karl-Anthony Towns feel about this course of action? [Update: they are, and not great, Bob.]

Look, it’s not all bad, so long as what comes next logically follows. Turner has an $18.6M expiring contract, so letting him walk after the season will give them some cap relief. What matters is how they use it. I advocated for a rebuilding team to trade for Beasley and/or Hernangomez, using the right to match in restricted free agency as a de facto free agency signing. Cool. But again, what’s unclear is why RoCo had to be the centerpiece of such a deal. Even inasmuch as Beasley had become a forgotten man in Denver, with the dearth of quality free agents coming up this summer, he figures to draw quite a bit of interest from teams with cap space. Perhaps his acquisition by Minny throws everyone off the scent to a degree (as one suspects they’ll protect their investment by matching any offer sheet), but if not, to how much did the Wolves just pot-commit themselves? Will Beasley get a bigger offer than what Covington is already making? I don’t know, but I’m just saying they may not have bought themselves quite as much flexibility as they think.

I like taking a flier on Vanderbilt, and a steady diet of minutes could get Juancho back on track. Additionally, rumors are GM Gersson Rosas is still engaging Golden State on the possibility of a D’Angelo Russell-for-Andrew Wiggins (plus picks) swap. It seems far-fetched because I don’t know why the Warriors would want to do such a thing, unless deep down, in their light-years-ahead hearts, they truly think they can bring the best out of the former no. 1 pick. Maybe I’m a cynic, but it feels unlikely. In any case, the Wolves moved their most desirable trade asset, and they don’t appear to be all that much better off for it.

Stay tuned for more trade deadline analysis once the dust settles. As always, thanks for reading!

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