The NBA Playoffs are usually fairly predictable.
If there is one problem perhaps the league has is that it feels like their champion is easy to spot long before the Finals. It is usually clear before the season starts which four or five teams have a real shot at winning the title and who else is along for the ride or setting themselves up for future title runs.
That is one of the things that made this year’s postseason unique and exciting (the TV ratings back that up).
The Miami Heat shocked everyone by losing their initial Play-In Tournament game and riding momentum all the way to the NBA Finals as an 8-seed, becoming just the second 8-seed to reach the Finals.
The Los Angeles Lakers too shocked everyone, advancing out of the Play-In Tournament and then toppling the Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors on their way to the Western Conference Finals (where they lost to the eventual champion Denver Nuggets).
These two teams are obviously different and not your typical teams that get caught in the Play-In Tournament. The Heat went to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2022 and were always going to be a dangerous team when the postseason began regardless of their regular season. The Lakers have LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Their star power was always going to be dangerous.
There was something more to it though. It is that simple but it also is not that simple. The Lakers had to make significant changes to their roster and reshape themselves at the trade deadline.
The Los Angeles Lakers were heading nowhere even with the star power on their roster. A series of trade deadline moves saved their season and set up an incredible run to the Western Conference Finals.
It is fair to say that the team that played before the deadline was quite different than the one that played in the postseason. Those moves proved key to their success.
It shows that a team can always be tinkering. And when something is not working, especially when a team has a fixer like James on the roster, a team has to be able to pivot.
The Lakers may be their own universe with players always seemingly interested in playing for the purple and gold. Still, there is something to learn from how they quickly remade their roster. It is a reminder that there are opportunities to change teams and take advantage of the trade market to make the team better.
It does come at a cost. But that cost was clearly worth it for a team like the Lakers. And it got them to the Western Conference Finals and put them in a better spot for a stronger season in 2023.
It is worth noting then how different the Lakers were from before and after the trade deadline.
From the start of the season to the trade deadline on Feb. 9, the Lakers were 20th in the league in defensive rating at 114.3 points allowed per 100 possessions and 19th in offensive rating at 113.2 points per 100 possessions. They sat at 25-30, 13th in the Western Conference.
The Lakers needed to make a move. And so at the deadline, they made a series of moves to try to salvage their season.
It really started in late January when the Los Angeles Lakers traded the injured Kendrick Nunn and two second-round picks to the Washington Wizards for Rui Hachimura. That traded away someone who was not playing for a rotation-level forward who contributed tons to the team.
The real work came on trade deadline day.
In a three-team trade, the Los Angeles Lakers traded Russell Westbrook, Damion Jones and Juan Toscano-Anderson a future first-round and second-round pick to the Utah Jazz, a second-round pick to the Minnesota Timberwolves for D’Angelo Russell, Jarred Vanderbilt and Malik Beasley. This added three rotation players to the Lakers’ roster and seemingly freed up room for others to contribute regularly.
Then in a four-team trade, the Los Angeles Lakers dealt Patrick Beverley (to the Orlando Magic) and Thomas Bryant (to the Denver Nuggets) for Mo Bamba, Davon Reed and two future second-round picks. That one did not help them a ton. But the Lakers had their bases covered.
Whatever you think of those trades specifically, it seemed to work.
After the trade deadline, the Lakers went 18-9 with a 115.3/110.9 offensive/defensive rating split. Considering they had LeBron James and Anthony Davis, their potential to improve from their terrible start was considerable.
Still, it would have been hard to see the Lakers suddenly becoming a juggernaut on both ends after so many changes. And maybe the Lakers would not have needed to make so many changes if they had not made so many questionable roster additions that did not seem to fit their team.
Either way, the Lakers gave up minimal assets for role players who helped them reach the Western Conference Finals and should have the team competitive in the title race again this year.
The Magic probably are not going to be in as desperate of a situation as the Lakers were at last year’s trade deadline. The team is not fighting a dwindling championship window. The Magic are just hoping to reach the Play-In for the first time and get their team pressure game experience.
If Orlando is struggling at the trade deadline, the team is not likely going to push a bunch of chips into the middle or re-arrange their copious assets to try and “salvage” the season. They may start looking to move expiring contracts they are prepared to let go in the offseason to recoup some value, but the Magic are not wholly invested in this in that way.
Still, the key thing to know is the trade deadline is still an opportunity to make significant improvements to the roster. It is a place where a team can buy its way into a better team.
Considering the depth the Magic have this year and the amount of draft assets, the Magic should be looking to act like buyers more and more. Especially as this team continues to come together and improve.
At the trade deadline for the last several years, Orlando has been positioned more as a seller. The team was unsure of what it truly had and unwilling to part with future assets — like players on rookie contracts or draft picks — and so the team sat on its hands selling only what it was already ready to depart with.
The Magic could very well be in a position to be more aggressive when this year’s trade deadline comes around. And that aggression could very well determine whether the Magic make the postseason this year.
In all likelihood, Orlando will save its aggression for the offseason though. The team is more likely to use this season as a full evaluation of its roster and then use it to determine what moves the team needs to make to make another step up for the 2025 season. The Magic certainly have the cap room and flexibility to do just about anything.
If the Lakers showed the league anything, it is that a team can indeed remake itself and improve at the deadline. And having James and Davis helps a ton to fill in the rest.