The NBA playoff field is loaded with losers.
That’s not unique to the 2023 participants, or even a critique of them. It’s just the reality that 15 of the 16 championship-hopefuls who reach the postseason will go out on a loss.
Of course, some feel those defeats more than others.
Finding a postseason’s biggest losers is an inexact science and ultimately a subjective task. Still, some common threads run between them. Falling significantly short of expectations is a foolproof way of landing on this list. Letting an opportunity slip away in spectacular fashion can do the trick, too.
The following five teams land in that bucket for various reasons, but they’re all in obvious need of a fix so these failures don’t happen again. We’re firing up the trade machine to find those fixes.
Cleveland Cavaliers receive: Maxi Kleber, Reggie Bullock and No. 10 pick
Dallas Mavericks receive: Jarrett Allen and Isaac Okoro
While Cavaliers president of basketball operations Koby Altman told reporters “no sweeping changes” are on the offseason menu, Cleveland must be rethinking its approach after completely malfunctioning in the opening round.
The Cavs, who were ousted by the fifth-seeded New York Knicks in just five games, managed an anemic 94.2 points per game. For reference, the Miami Heat averaged the fewest points in the regular season with 109.5. This offensive collapse stemmed in no small part from the spacing issues that come with playing two non-shooting bigs (Allen and Evan Mobley) and a non-scoring threat at small forward (Okoro).
Reworking the formula wouldn’t come without risk. Allen was an All-Star last season and this season anchored the Association’s stingiest defense. Okoro, the No. 5 pick in 2020, is just 22 years old and would get interesting in a hurry if he could ever crank up the volume on his outside shot.
Still, the juice might be worth the squeeze. If the Cavs are comfortable shifting Evan Mobley to center full-time—he spent nearly half his minutes there this season—they could add a pair of two-way starters in Kleber and Bullock. Both are versatile defenders and reliable shooters. Both should be seamless fits alongside the ball-dominant backcourt combo of Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell.
Since Kleber and Bullock are 30-something non-stars, the Cavs also squeeze the No. 10 pick into this deal. Given all the draft assets they gave up for Mitchell, they need the selection, regardless whether they’d plan on keeping it for themselves or sending it out in a separate swap for more instant-impact talent.
The Mavs, meanwhile, are “expected to explore” trading this pick, per Yahoo Sports’ Jake Fischer, as they need to improve this roster around Luka Dončić. If they plan on bringing back Kyrie Irving—one source told B/R’s Eric Pincus a handshake deal was in place before Irving’s deadline deal to Dallas—that improvement needs to happen on the defensive end.
In this deal, it would. Allen is an elite paint protector, and Okoro is an on-ball pest. Slot Josh Green alongside these two, Irving and Dončić, and Dallas might have the two-way balance it needs to climb the Western Conference ladder.
Memphis Grizzlies receive: O.G. Anunoby
Toronto Raptors receive: Brandon Clarke, Ziaire Williams, David Roddy, 2024 first-round pick (top-four protected, via GSW) and 2027 first-round pick
The Grizzlies won 51 games this season and snagged the West’s No. 2 seed. Turns out, none of that mattered, as their playoff run spanned just six games before they were dispatched by the seventh-seeded Los Angeles Lakers.
Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins called the playoff flop “the ultimate wake-up call.” Grizzlies general manager Zach Kleiman said shortly thereafter the team would be “very aggressive” this offseason. Even with Ja Morant’s latest suspension for appearing to brandish a gun on Instagram Live hanging over the franchise’s head, the plan shouldn’t change.
The Grizzlies need an impact, two-way wing. And they know it. They pushed hard for both Anunoby and Mikal Bridges at the deadline but came up short. They can’t let that happen again.
Anunoby would be a godsend for the Grizzlies. He’s a lanky, disruptive, hyper-versatile defender with a three-ball (career 37.5 percent) and some ability to create his own shot. In a lot of ways, he’s essentially the finalized version of what Memphis envisioned when it spent the No. 10 pick of the 2021 draft on Williams.
A quartet of Morant, Anunoby, Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr. not only appears to be championship-quality right now, but it would have a chance to stay that way for much of the next decade, as the 25-year-old Anunoby would be its senior member. And should Memphis learn it still has holes to fill, it has other picks and prospects to shop around to close any gaps.
As for the Raptors, their ingredients are all in place for an offseason overhaul around last season’s Rookie of the Year, Scottie Barnes. They already moved on from coach Nick Nurse, and they could conceivably lose all three of Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr. and Jakob Poeltl to free agency. Should those subtractions come to light, then trades involving Anunoby and Pascal Siakam are probably in order.
If Toronto resets, this deal would undoubtedly brighten its future. The picks are the top prize, but Williams is a 21-year-old with a wealth of physical tools, and Roddy cracked the playoff rotation as a rookie. Clarke is still recovering from an Achilles tear suffered in March, but when healthy, the bouncy big man could fill a role on the Raptors’ frontcourt or be flipped for more long-term assets.
Milwaukee Bucks receive: Dorian Finney-Smith
Brooklyn Nets receive: Grayson Allen, MarJon Beauchamp and a 2029 first-round pick (top-four protected)
The passage of time has done nothing to lessen the stunning nature of Milwaukee’s first-round upset loss against the eighth-seeded Miami Heat. The Bucks were this season’s wins leader; the Heat lost a play-in game by double digits and trailed in the final three minutes of the one it won. This was only the sixth time a No. 8 seed knocked off a No. 1 seed since the league adopted a 16-team playoff format in 1984.
The Bucks already axed their coach, Mike Budenholzer. Theoretically, they could lose both Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez to free agency, though Marc Stein reported on Substack there is a “working assumption” both will stay. Getting them back might prevent a total collapse in Milwaukee, but clearly more work is needed with this roster.
The Bucks don’t have the biggest trade budget, so they might only have one shot to get this right. Given their needs for defense and shooting on the perimeter, they should make a strong offer for Dorian Finney-Smith.
Now, he won’t be cheap. The Nets were reportedly offered two first-round picks for him ahead of the deadline, per HoopsHype’s Michael Scotto. If this trade package would suffice, though, Milwaukee should pounce.
Finney-Smith is a shape-shifting defender with the length, strength, smarts and effort needed to pester point-producers of nearly all sizes and styles. In Brooklyn’s first-round series, he held James Harden, Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris to a combined 4-of-19 shooting (21.1 percent).
The one major worry is the massive step back Finney-Smith took as a three-point shooter this season, as he converted just 33.7 percent of his long-range looks. Given his previous perimeter problems (30.3 percent his first three seasons), this recent cold spell can’t be entirely dismissed. Saying that, though, he was a 38.9 percent shooter on decent volume the previous three seasons, so the Bucks can feel relatively safe betting on a bounce-back.
The Nets, meanwhile, might be the only team in the modern NBA with more three-and-D wings than they need. If they pay a premium to keep restricted free agent Cameron Johnson, that might make Finney-Smith expendable. This would be a healthy haul for a 30-year-old role player, as Beauchamp boasts tons of potential, Allen is a plug-and-play shooter to keep or flip and who knows how Milwaukee will look when this pick would finally convey.
Philadelphia 76ers receive: Royce O’Neale
Brooklyn Nets receive: Furkan Korkmaz, Danuel House Jr., 2024 second-round pick (via NYK), 2027 second-round pick and 2029 second-round pick
This was going to be the Sixers’ breakthrough season—until it wasn’t.
Philadelphia saw Joel Embiid finally take home MVP honors. We watched perhaps the best playoff game of James Harden’s career. The 76ers built up a 3-2 lead on the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
But before Philly could even sneak out a sigh of relief, it all came crashing down.
The Sixers lost Games 6 and 7 by a combined 33 points. Coach Doc Rivers was let go a few days later, and it’s unclear if Harden will stick around. Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer reported league executives believe Harden will rejoin the Houston Rockets in free agency, though it’s possible those whispers are a leverage play to squeeze every penny out of the Sixers.
Regardless what happens with Harden, though, Philly will stay in win-now mode as long as Embiid is manning the middle. That could nudge the team toward seeking win-now talent on the trade market, but with limited funds, the Sixers can only dream so big.
Still, they have search a dearth of two-way wings that even a role player like Royce O’Neale would feel like a big get. Too often, Philly has been forced to choose between offensive specialists who hemorrhage points on defense or stoppers who don’t pose a scoring threat. O’Neale at least brings both a little of Column A and a little of Column B.
He isn’t a lockdown defender, but he competes on that end and usually holds his own. On offense, he’s a career 38.4 percent three-point shooter who just dished out a career-high 3.7 assists. There isn’t anything spectacular about his game, but in a three-and-D role, there doesn’t have to be.
The Nets will be heavily featured on the fake-trade circuit this summer, because it’s unclear how Brooklyn plans to script its next chapter. The Nets don’t have much incentive to tear down their team, since the Rockets control their picks for the foreseeable future, but Brooklyn could see value in swapping out replacement-level vets for draft picks.
The three second-rounders would do the heaviest lifting in this deal, but it’s possible the Nets would at least one of Korkmaz and House as either a short-term keeper or a potential sweetener (or salary-filler) for a future swap.
Phoenix Suns receive: Myles Turner and Buddy Hield
Indiana Pacers receive: Deandre Ayton, 2023 second-round pick, 2024 second-round pick and 2025 second-round pick
The Suns’ deadline deal for Kevin Durant was a championship-or-bust type of trade. Now, they’ll get more than one crack at this, as Durant and Devin Booker are both signed through at least 2025-26, but clearly the clock is ticking. Durant, who turns 35 this offseason, hasn’t made it through 60 games in a season since 2018-19.
Phoenix is operating with urgency, which is why coach Monty Williams, last season’s Coach of the Year, was ousted after a second consecutive exit in the conference semis. While the Suns showed some fight in holding a 2-2 tie with the top-seeded Denver Nuggets through four games, that evaporated in the final two outings, which they dropped by a combined 41 points.
Major moves might on the docket, starting with the polarizing Ayton. The No. 1 pick in 2018 has been inconsistent with his execution and aggression, and he may have already played his final game for the franchise. ESPN’s Tim MacMahon reported the Suns will “aggressively explore” Ayton’s trade market, and the big man “would be excited about a fresh start” elsewhere.
The Suns, who depleted their depth in the Durant deal, would be thrilled to turn Ayton into a pair of plug-and-play starters like Turner and Hield. The former is an elite shot-blocker who can stretch to the three-point line or finish at the rim on offense. The latter is one of the top outside threats in this league, having just averaged better than three triples per night for the fifth consecutive campaign.
If Phoenix held onto Chris Paul, he might complete the league’s best starting lineup. The Suns would still need to flesh out their roster with mostly bargain-bin finds, but top-heavy teams have taken the title before. This deal could give Durant and Booker a bit more breathing room, too, since each of Turner and Hield is a threat to score 20-plus any given night. Plus, having an impact paint protector like Turner would lighten Durant’s defensive load.
Indiana, meanwhile, liked Ayton enough to ink him to a four-year, max offer sheet last summer. The Pacers could still have interest bringing him onboard, since he’s a cleaner fit for their timeline and might have significant room for growth once he steps out of the shadows cast by Booker and Durant.
Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference and NBA.com.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.