After an appetizer in the form of the Kyrie Irving trade to Dallas, the trade deadline kicked off in earnest on Wednesday night with a three-team, eight-player blockbuster involving the Lakers, Timberwolves, and Jazz.
The trade brings D’Angelo Russell back to L.A., along with Jarred Vanderbilt and Malik Beasley, while the Timberwolves get Mike Conley Jr., Nickeil Alexander-Walker, and three future second round picks, and the Jazz get Russell Westbrook, Juan Toscano-Anderson, Damian Jones, and the Lakers’ 2027 first round pick (protected 1-4). Utah is expected to buyout Westbrook, with the Clippers and Bulls reportedly interested in his services on the buyout market once the deadline passes. Otherwise, the seven other players figure to stay in their new homes, and it’s a considerable shakeup to three teams in the middle-to-bottom of the West playoff hunt.
The trade won’t just impact those three squads, as there will be ripple effects sent throughout the West as part of this trade. For one, teams like the Blazers and others who were reportedly pursuing Vanderbilt will now have to shift their attention elsewhere on the market to try and find roster upgrades. The same goes for any teams that were looking into Russell or Conley as a backcourt addition, albeit we don’t have as much information on specific teams that were in the hunt for those two outside L.A. and Minnesota. Here, we’ll take a look at the three teams and the West playoff race as a whole to see what direction everyone is trending after the second big move of trade season.
On a large scale, the trade signals that Utah is bowing out of the playoff chase barring something unforeseen from the roster that remains. Moving Conley without getting a replacement should make the Jazz considerably worse, and while they currently hold down the 10-seed at 27-28, they are just two games up on the Lakers in 13th, who just got better in a few ways. In an extraordinarily crowded playoff and play-in race, there will be a bit of a sigh of relief from hopefuls (like the Lakers and Blazers) to see one team in the mix selling.
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From a team perspective, the Jazz accomplish their goal of acquiring their eighth future first round pick of this league year, having dealt Rudy Gobert for four picks and a swap, Donovan Mitchell for three picks and two swaps, and now Conley, Vanderbilt, and Beasley for an additional first. It’s an impressive restocking of the draft asset cupboard from Danny Ainge, who has managed to almost completely flip this roster in one year, while not having to strip the team down to the studs and bottom out completely. They will get worse without Conley, but that’s by design, as it gives them a chance to evaluate guys like Collin Sexton, Ochai Agbaji, and others in expanded minutes and roles down the stretch.
Given the job Will Hardy has done, I’m not prepared to count them completely out, but it would be fairly shocking (and an indictment of the teams below them) if they hold onto a play-in position.
LOS ANGELES LAKERS
The unquestioned winners of this trade are the Lakers, who managed to unload Westbrook and just one of their picks (while keeping top-4 protections) for three legitimate rotation players. I’m highly skeptical that this trade makes them a legitimate contender, but it undoubtedly makes them better and should give them enough firepower to get into the play-in in the West. That is really all they could hope for, as there was clearly not a trade to get a superstar out there for Westbrook and picks.
Russell’s homecoming will be a big story and may inflate expectations for what he’ll bring them. He has had a terrific last month in Minnesota and, if absolutely nothing else, he will be a massive upgrade in the three-point shooting department having knocked down 39.1 percent of his threes on the year. Russell seemed to grow more comfortable in an off-ball role next to Anthony Edwards over the last month, something that will serve him well slotting into a Lakers lineup alongside LeBron James. Turnovers can be an issue with Russell, so he won’t completely rid the Lakers of that issue they had with Westbrook, but he’s dynamic in a much different way and a more efficient scorer and theoretical fit alongside L.A.’s stars.
Beasley will also provide them with another shooter off the bench, which L.A. can certainly use, while Vanderbilt is an excellent rebounder and versatile defender, who figures to quickly become a favorite of head coach Darvin Ham as part of the Lakers rotation. All told, the Lakers added things they needed while giving up a player that was simply not a fit. For this season, that’s a home run. What that 2027 pick becomes and how much they improve will determine exactly how successful the trade is, but in the immediate, none of the teams involved upgraded more than L.A. — again, with the caveat that this upgrades them from 13th in the West to fighting for maybe a top-8 spot.
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The Timberwolves’ portion of this deal was the one that had some people scratching their heads, but for a team capped out and Russell clearly not happy with his role in Minnesota (even though he was enjoying some of the best ball of his Wolves tenure of late), this deal gets them some stability. Conley isn’t as explosive a scorer as Russell or as good of a shooter at this point, but he is a better defender and gives them a steadying hand at point guard who can settle the team down and get them into their offense late in games, something they desperately need. He also has a rapport with Rudy Gobert that could prove quite helpful for a Wolves team that hasn’t seemed to know quite how to work the big fella into the offense. On top of all of that, Conley is under contract for one more year (partially guaranteed), which at least gives them a two-year window to work with after going all-in on the group they have.
I think from a fit perspective, Conley makes a bit more sense than Russell for this particular Minnesota team. I’m not sure that translates to a considerable uptick in wins, particularly because this is a move made with an eye on a fully healthy roster. Once Towns is back, Conley’s skillset as a facilitator should help them even more, particularly given the leap Anthony Edwards has made as a scorer, which made Russell’s skills as a self-creator something of a redundancy. This isn’t a deal that vaults Minnesota into the top-6 conversation, but I do think it will help them solidify a play-in spot, with the hope that it improves some on-court chemistry, particularly in late-game situations.