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Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press
The NBA landscape shifted at the 2021 trade deadline.
The Chicago Bulls found an All-Star center in Nikola Vucevic. The Denver Nuggets snagged a stopper in Aaron Gordon. The Boston Celtics picked up a perimeter scorer in Evan Fournier. And the Orlando Magic made all of that happen by finally embracing a top-to-bottom rebuild and clearing out everyone—well, everyone other than new captain Terrence Ross.
It was a busy day for basketball’s news-breakers, but it could have been busier. For reasons both selfish and hoops-related, we’re here to argue it should have been busier.
The following four moves needed to be made but weren’t.
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Garett Fisbeck/Associated Press
This idea was less the result of trade buzz and more about connecting the dots. What better way for Boston to fill its Al Horford-sized hole in the middle than with a rejuvenated Horford himself?
Freed from the Philadelphia 76ers’ frontcourt congestion and back at his natural 5 spot, the former Shamrock had been giving the Oklahoma City Thunder the exact kind of stability the Celtics have lacked in their supporting cast. Horford isn’t putting up blow-you-away numbers (he hasn’t for quite a while), but his quick reads, on-time deliveries and on-the-money outside shots could all have greased the gears of Boston’s 12th-ranked offense.
The Thunder couldn’t have been asking for much. The 34-year-old obviously isn’t in their long-term plans, and he’s still set to collect $27 million next year with an eight-figure partial guarantee on his 2022-23 salary. Plus, getting him out of the Sooner State would increase the opportunities (and ideally accelerate the developmental processes) of young bigs Moses Brown and Isaiah Roby.
But the Celtics put their trade attention elsewhere, landing Fournier and Moritz Wagner in separate deals. That should increase Boston’s firepower, but neither one moves the needle.
Reuniting with Horford would’ve been the kind of two-way jolt that might have snapped the Celtics out of their funk and helped them make another run at the Eastern Conference crown.
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Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press
It was quite the deadline debut for the Chicago Bulls’ new decision-makers, Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley. They added the top overall player who changed teams in Vucevic, snagged a pair of plug-and-play veterans in Al-Farouq Aminu and Daniel Theis and even found a long-term developmental project in 2018’s No. 15 pick, Troy Brown Jr.
That’s a really good day at the office. But one more addition would’ve made it a great one: Lonzo Ball.
They were hot on his trail, per NBC Chicago’s K.C. Johnson, as they should have been. This roster has some interesting parts—headlined, of course, by the Vucevic-Zach LaVine tandem—but it needs a real floor general to bring it together. Ball would’ve scratched that itch.
The Bulls should’ve been able to get the New Orleans Pelicans’ attention, too, since Lauri Markkanen would’ve made for such an intriguing frontcourt partner with Zion Williamson. He alone wasn’t getting Ball, per Johnson. But that should’ve been a starting spot, and maybe one more asset would have done the trick.
Chicago has some serious scoring punch but not enough ball-movers and defenders. Ball lives to set the table and get after it defensively, but his scoring comes and goes. This would have been a round-peg, round-hole fit for both parties, and while they could still join forces in restricted free agency, the Bulls will be bidding against other suitors and operating without the right of first refusal.
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Nick Wass/Associated Press
We’re free to dream, aren’t we?
Look, all the writing on the wall—and a lot of actual words coming out of Washington—said Bradley Beal was staying with the Washington Wizards. The Golden State Warriors’ recent youth-focused changes to the rotation and Stephen Curry‘s tailbone injury probably dashed whatever chances there were of the club making a win-now move.
The idea of Curry, Beal, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green all together in a Steve Kerr-coached offense next season is too intriguing to ignore. And if Golden State put both James Wiseman and the top-three-protected pick coming from the Minnesota Timberwolves on the table, that’s the best offer the Wizards could have gotten for Beal.
But Washington only made a marginal move at the deadline, bringing Daniel Gafford and Chandler Hutchison to the District. Otherwise, Beal is saddled with the same supporting cast that has sputtered amid a dismal 2-9 stretch over the past two weeks.
Golden State similarly did nothing beyond lowering its tax bill by jettisoning Brad Wanamaker and Marquese Chriss in separate swaps. That means the Warriors will spend the rest of this season fighting tooth-and-nail for a ticket to the play-in tournament, then pin whatever 2022 championship dreams they have on the return of a 31-year-old Klay Thompson from a two-year absence with a torn ACL and torn Achilles.
Curry and Beal are two of the brightest stars in basketball and two of the most potent offensive weapons in the business. Both belong in the championship race. Instead of pursuing a title together, Beal will be left out of the proceedings entirely while Curry and the Warriors might loom as if-everything-breaks-exactly-right long shots.
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Chris O’Meara/Associated Press
When Kyle Lowry chucked deuces after Wednesday’s win over the Denver Nuggets, it felt like the end of an era for him and the Toronto Raptors. Between the team’s struggles and the 35-year-old’s impending free agency, all arrows seemingly pointed toward a deadline divorce.
“It was kind of weird tonight not knowing what the next step would be,” Lowry said afterward, per Mark Medina of USA Today. “Just with understanding there are things that could possibly be done on the front of me and the other guys on our team and the organization.”
The Raptors were active at the deadline. They traded away Norman Powell, Terence Davis and Matt Thomas. They “seriously engaged” the Miami Heat, Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers in Lowry trade talks, per The Athletic’s Shams Charania, and the Los Angeles Clippers joined the pursuit at one point, per Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald.
But nothing ever came to pass, which feels like a lost opportunity for everyone, but maybe the Lakers more than anyone. The defending champs are literally hurting with both LeBron James (ankle) and Anthony Davis (calf) stuck on the sidelines. They haven’t received the expected lifts from offseason imports Dennis Schroder and Montrezl Harrell, and their supporting cast as a whole has lacked consistency.
Lowry could’ve provided that stability, plus championship experience, shot-creation, floor spacing and tenacious defense. He would’ve hit the ground running as L.A.’s third star and perhaps cemented this club as the team to beat. It’s unclear what the trade would’ve cost the Lakers, but they were reportedly reluctant to move Talen Horton-Tucker, per Charania.
Horton-Tucker is an intriguing 20-year-old with a bright future in front of him. He’s not someone who should’ve prevented L.A. from getting a Lowry deal done, especially since he’s about to enter restricted free agency and may not make it back to the Lakers.
While no one won the Lowry sweepstakes, the other suitors all pivoted in different directions. The Heat added Victor Oladipo. The Sixers picked up George Hill. The Clippers brought in Rajon Rondo. The Lakers did nothing.
To go from possibly adding an All-Star who fills some of your biggest needs to adding no one is a big-time letdown. For Toronto, another few months with Lowry might be good for #TheFeelz, but the split could come this summer and see the Raptors losing an icon for nothing.
Both clubs would’ve been much better off had they brokered a Lowry blockbuster.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.