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What the Sabonis and McCollum trades mean for the Spurs

Two direct competitors for the play-in spots got better, but they had to pay a steep price to do so.

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Portland Trail Blazers Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

Trade season is heating up as the deadline approaches. On Tuesday, two major deals were made. First, the Pelicans acquired C.J. McCollum and then the Kings landed Domantas Sabonis.

There are a lot of other moving parts in those trades, which make them extremely interesting on their own. They also involved three Western Conference teams, so they have a direct effect on the Spurs. Let’s take a look at what the two deals mean for San Antonio.

The price for a serious upgrade is steep

It’s not surprising to see McCollum and Sabonis command a good return, but considering that the rumors about the Pacers wanting to move on from the All-Star big have been going on for months and that the writing was on the wall for McCollum when the Trail Blazers decided to trade two starters for spare parts, it wasn’t crazy to expect the leverage their teams had to take a hit. That didn’t happen.

The Blazers, which also sent out Larry Nance Jr. and Tony Snell on the deal, got back a first round pick, two second round picks and two young players in Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Didi Louzada for a 30-year-old borderline All-Star. That’s a great haul for a team that is clearly trying to tank this year and rebuild around Damian Lillard next season. They also get to clear their books of two big contracts. The Pelicans weren’t fleeced, since they got the best player in the trade and will get to make a push for the playoffs even if Zion Williamson remains out, but they did pay a steep price for an upgrade that doesn’t really gets them close to contention.

As for the Pacers, their haul was arguably more impressive. Indiana didn’t get a first rounder, but did get former 12th overall pick Tyrese Haliburton, who has showed flashes of star potential in his time in Sacramento and is still on his rookie deal. They also landed Buddy Hield, who they can try to flip before the deadline or slot next to Haliburton and Myles Turner on what could be a fun team. They had to send out two solid role players like Jeremy Lamb and Justin Holiday, as well as a 2027 second rounder, to get the deal done, but it was clearly worth it. The trade makes sense for the Kings as well, since they had too many guards and needed an infusion of frontcourt talent, but giving up a prospect like Haliburton has to be painful.

While the Spurs were never reportedly interested in McCollum, they were rumored to be in the run to acquire Sabonis. It’s safe to say that San Antonio simply didn’t have the assets to make it work without including several picks or young players, now that we know what the Kings had to give up.

As it turns out, even when teams are openly willing to trade really good players, it’s going to take a lot to get them. That means Jakob Poeltl should get a good return if he is indeed moved, and that it’s probably unlikely the Spurs will make a big addition before the deadline.

The race for the play-in spot got tougher

Before these two big trades, the Clippers, which currently sit at eighth in the West, acquired two really good role players in Robert Covington and Norman Powell. Now the Pelicans, which currently have the 10th best record in the conference, and the Kings, which sit at 12, have made their big moves. The Spurs’ chances of getting to the play-in have really taken a hit.

It remains to be seen how it all plays out on the court, but on paper both the Pelicans and Kings got significantly better. Haliburton was great, but Sabonis is better now and fits a need for a team that had a glut of guards. Whether the big man plays next to Richaun Holmes or turns him into the best backup center in the league, the upgrade in the front court is significant. As for the Pelicans, they get much-needed shot creation, which should boost their 25th ranked offense. McCollum could be an issue on the other end, but if he shares the court with Herb Jones and Brandon Ingram, he could be hidden. If the upgrades prove to be as consequential as they can potentially be, it’s hard to see the Spurs keeping up.

Now, the Trail Blazers are clearly tanking, so that eliminates one team from the competition, and perhaps the addition of Zach Collins to the rotation proves to help San Antonio more than anticipated. It’s possible the teams that made those big trades will have chemistry issues while the Spurs ride their good vibes up the standings. They were also reportedly interested in Sabonis, so it’s impossible to fully rule out a trade that brings in someone who can help San Antonio push for the play-in. The dream isn’t over. But there is a case to be made for Gregg Popovich to continue to give his best players the occasional night off and play Josh Primo a lot, since the Silver and Black’s direct competitors are going all in on this season while the Spurs should be fine with waiting a little longer before returning to the playoffs.

The bottom half of the West has been a disaster. While it hasn’t gotten better to the point of making the play-in an unattainable goal for San Antonio, the trades that we’ve seen recently definitely make it harder for them to get a top-10 record. It will certainly be interesting to see how Spurs react.