Trade Analysis: Four-team mega-deal sends Robert Covington to Houston and Clint Capela to Atlanta

A quiet deadline got loud in a big way on Tuesday, when word broke of Minnesota circling Golden State’s D’Angelo Russell. Those talks broke down in the evening, but the Timberwolves wasted no time, pivoting into what became a four-team deal with the Houston Rockets, Atlanta Hawks, and Denver Nuggets that became the most players moved in one trade in nearly two decades.

The terms of the deal, as of Tuesday night into Wednesday morning:

Houston receives Robert Covington, Jordan Bell, and Golden State’s 2024 second-round pick.
Atlanta receives Clint Capela and Nene.
Minnesota receives Evan Turner, Juancho Hernangomez, Malik Beasley, Jarred Vanderbilt, and Brooklyn’s 2020 first-round pick (lottery-protected through 2022, then two seconds).
Denver receives Noah Vonleh, Shabazz Napier, Gerald Green, Keita Bates-Diop, and Houston’s 2020 first-round pick.

Twelve players. Three picks. And we might not be done yet, as the Rockets will push back the consummation of this trade as late as possible in order to find a fifth team to fold into the proceedings. They have the wiggle room with the trade math to take on another player making as much as $12.6 million, though even that number can go up if they’re willing to include extra outgoing salary in the deal.

Let’s start with the Rockets, who picked up the best player in the deal in Covington. He’ll play a major role on a team that wants to close with PJ Tucker at the 5 but lacked a fourth high-end perimeter player to make that a viable plan in the later rounds of the playoffs. Covington slides right into that closing lineup, allowing them to roll out James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Eric Gordon alongside Covington and Tucker. The Rockets are going to put a lot of pressure on teams on both ends of the floor with that five-man unit, provided everybody can stay healthy.

Covington is a wonderful team defender who is nearly always in the right position on that end of the floor – there may not be a better help defender in the league right now. In isolation against the biggest forwards in the league, he doesn’t hold up quite as well, as he doesn’t have true forward size to bang against LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard in a Western Conference playoff series. That particular shortcoming may show up more often in the Rockets’ switch-heavy defensive scheme, but he’ll still bring plenty of positive value to the court for Houston.

He’s not a bomber from distance, but he’ll hit a respectable percentage of his threes on decent volume. Covington won’t have to create shots for himself or his teammates in the Rockets’ offense, which has grown more isolation-heavy in the last two years. As long as he can hit spot-up jumpers consistently, Harden will find him.

Covington’s contract might be the best non-max, non-rookie scale deal in the league. Owed just 25.1 million over two years after this one, his 3-and-D skillset far outstrips what it’ll cost Houston to have him on their squad. Of course, they paid a premium for this big contract, essentially moving two first-round picks for him, as they “got” the Brooklyn pick from Atlanta for Capela before “moving” it to Minnesota for Covington. In reality, that pick just goes straight to Minnesota, but that’s how both Houston and Minnesota will be thinking about the value proposition for Covington’s move to the Rockets.

Bell will give them something as a guy who can switch defensively, but he’s likely outside of their final playoff rotation, particularly if they can get a center by expanding this trade in the next 33 hours.

UPDATE 05 February 2020, 10:30pm Eastern:
The trade will go through as is, with no extra player(s) or team(s) folded in. The following paragraphs were written before that news arose on Wednesday.

For now, they’re generating a trio of small trade exceptions, but if they can find the right move, they can aggregate Capela, Nene, and Green and take back up to $23.95 million in salary. Covington takes up $11.30 million of that amount, but that still gives them significant “spending power”. They’ll have to move very quickly, but there are a number of centers on the trade market who would really help them.

Houston’s two primary targets should be Dewayne Dedmon and Aron Baynes.

Dedmon makes $13.33 million and would require Houston to fold Tyson Chandler into the trade for salary matching purposes, but he would also come cheap – that 2024 second-rounder the Rockets picked up from Atlanta might be enough to entice the Kings to let go of Dedmon, who publicly asked for a trade earlier this season. He can protect the paint, switch a bit defensively, and if he can rediscover the jumper he had the last two years with the Hawks, he’d be a fantastic fit in Houston’s offense.

Trading for Dedmon does have its downsides, particularly financially – adding him to the team would put them back over the tax, which has been something of a no-fly zone in the time since Tilman Fertitta bought the team. Dedmon’s contract would also put them into the tax for the 2021-22 season, though there is still plenty of time for them to work their way out of that.

Baynes comes much cheaper than Dedmon at just $5.45 million for this season. Crucially, the Rockets sit $5.84 million from the luxury tax threshold, which means that acquiring Baynes wouldn’t put them over that dreaded mark. The downside is that Baynes is more expensive than Dedmon to obtain; Phoenix probably wants a first-rounder for his services and Houston doesn’t have a lot of those floating around. After moving their 2020 pick to Denver in this deal and their 2024 and 2026 picks to Oklahoma City in the Russell Westbrook-Chris Paul trade last summer, they only have their own 2022 pick to send. That pick could be protected, but would have to immediately convert to something other than a future first-rounder, due to the Stepien Rule. They have a pair of unimpacted seconds in 2023 and 2024 that could be folded into the protections on that pick, should Phoenix be amenable to that.

There are players further down the pecking order at the 5 who may be good additions for a Rockets team nearly entirely bereft of rotation-level play at that position. Tucker can play the 5 for large stretches, but they have to add someone, if only to soak up regular season minutes so the soon-to-be 35-year-old Tucker doesn’t fall apart before the games that really matter. There are number of players across the league who fit the bill financially for Houston, but Kevon Looney and Khem Birch are my favorite options for the Rockets, as neither would put them in the tax and both might even bring something to the table in the playoffs.

Looking forward, Houston is projected to have just $10.10 million in space below the luxury tax for 2020-21, which includes nothing for Austin Rivers and Jordan Bell. Should they make another move for a player under contract going forward, that tax space gets squeezed even further.

We’ll see how the Rockets are able to expand the trade, but even if they’re unable to do so, this was a very good move for them. They got their man in Covington and got out of the tax for this year. Their five-man closing lineup is set and while they could definitely use a true center, there should be plenty available, either via trade or on the buyout market. Tristan Thompson would be a name to watch for them, should he be bought out by the Cavaliers – the Rockets have been very publicly monitoring him for a couple weeks now and it’s not exactly a surprise that Thompson and his people have reversed their stance from wanting an extension to wanting out of Cleveland altogether.

While Capela wasn’t exactly what Houston wanted for their title contention hopes, he is just what the doctor ordered for Atlanta. The Hawks have been downright abysmal defensively this season and had perhaps the worst center rotation in the league before making this move. They were rumored to be in the mix for Andre Drummond and Steven Adams before pulling the trigger on Capela, who has to be the most valuable of the three due his contract situation. He’s locked up through the 2022-23 season on a very reasonable $17.1 million average pay per year, though an extra $2 million per season in bonuses could bump him up. Houston may have soured on him, but that very specific situation is not reflective of his league-wide value, as evidenced by the price Atlanta had to pay to get him (a first-rounder projected to land at No. 15 this year and a future second). He is still very much a positive player on his contract and will serve Atlanta well as long as he’s there.

The frontcourt fit next to John Collins will draw a lot of interest as soon as Capela returns from the plantar fasciitis issue that has kept him out recently. Defensively, these two should be in sync nearly immediately – Collins is much, much better as a 4 defensively and struggled mightily whenever he was asked to man the middle for Atlanta. He was constantly out of position in pick-and-roll coverage and lacks the size and wingspan to be a difference maker at the rim in a drop scheme. When he’s at the 4, he can use his athleticism to be a weak-side rim protector and quick feet to rotate from the corner to the paint and back. Capela will also greatly help with Atlanta’s defensive rebounding issues – he ranks No. 38 out of 761 players in 3-Year Real Adjusted Defensive Rebound Rate, per

On the other end of the floor, the fit next to Collins will be somewhat more difficult, as Collins has been used as the primary roll threat in pick-and-roll actions with Trae Young over the last two seasons. Atlanta did really well to have Dedmon and Alex Len spacing the floor at the 5 last year and created a ton of room in the middle for Collins, but Capela will do none of that – he’s a horrible free throw shooter and has never even shown a modicum of touch outside of the immediate basket area. It’ll be up to Collins to adapt his game, as he’ll be spending a lot more time on the perimeter. He’s a growing three-point threat and the Hawks want to put the ball in his hands more often, though that is true of nearly all of their young players. Unlike Houston, Atlanta runs a ton of pick-and-roll, so Capela will be right at home setting screens for and catching lobs from Trae Young.

Atlanta acquired both Capela and Nene with cap space and actually have more room under the cap than when they woke up on Tuesday morning. Taking in two players for one outgoing in Turner means the Hawks have to find a way to open a roster spot before the trade can be made official, but they’ll have time to make that decision while Houston scours the league for a fifth team to fold into this trade. Leading candidates to be cut include Chandler Parsons, Damian Jones, and Treveon Graham, but they could also find a trade for Len or DeAndre’ Bembry to clear that roster spot.

Once the deal is complete, they’ll cut Nene with haste – if he’s on the roster through February 15, then his 2020-21 base salary fully guarantees and there’s absolutely no reason the Hawks will want to light $2.7 million on fire like that. Still, they have to create the roster spot to trade for Nene before cutting him and opening that spot up once again.

Capela’s $16 million for next season puts a dent in the Hawks’ 2020 cap space, but they already had more money than they were going to know what to do with. As things stand, they’ll move into the summer with $56.05 million in cap space, assuming a $115 million cap, their own first-round pick slotting in at No. 5 overall, and retaining Jabari Parker on his $6.50 million player option. In a way, this trade was Atlanta pre-spending a portion of their room, as the 2020 free agency class is rather thin on high-end talent.

This deal makes a ton of sense for a Hawks team that was clearly looking for a center to put next to Collins and their other young players. Capela is young enough to continue to grow with this Hawks team, is under cost control for another three years at a good price, and didn’t cost them all that much – they’ll save a bit of cash for the rest of this season and send out a pick that they may not have actually wanted all that much. Atlanta already has so many young players that adding two more first-round picks in a down draft couldn’t have been all that inspiring to Travis Schlenk and their front office. This way, they turn that pick into three years of Capela, which balances out their roster and puts them closer to contending in the near-term future than the No. 15 pick in the 2020 draft would have. If there’s one nitpick, it’s that they had to include Golden State’s 2024 second-rounder; given that they were taking on Nene’s contract as well, it seems like that pick didn’t need to be in there to make the value work. That’s an immensely small nit to pick, but it stands out in what was otherwise a very good move for Atlanta.

For Minnesota, this isn’t the D’Angelo Russell trade they wanted to make happen, but they were able to get the very positive return for Covington they desired. Essentially, they picked up two first-rounders for him, even though they moved one of those on to Denver for Beasley and Hernangomez in the final version of the four-team trade. Covington was a strong piece for them both on and off the court, but the writing was on the wall for him in Minnesota, as he represented their best opportunity to pick up the assets to eventually trade for Russell. They were (and maybe still are!) hoping that Russell would come in this trade, but adding Brooklyn’s first-round pick to all of their own as well as a handful of interesting young players, Minnesota is still well-stocked with assets to chase that particular dragon. It’s worth seriously wondering why they would want to trade as much as it would take to nab Russell, but the concerns over his play at the highest levels likely aren’t a concern for a Wolves team that would just like to make the playoffs consistently.

One point of contention with this move is that the Wolves had to send out a whole bunch of their own guys to match salary on the incoming Turner. The Hawks could have made this deal without Turner by cobbling together lesser-paid, more valuable players, particularly since matching salary on Turner became an accounting issue for the Wolves and necessitated the Nuggets’ inclusion in the deal.

Along with the Brooklyn pick, Beasley and Hernangomez are the primary targets in this move for Minnesota. Both hit restricted free agency at the end of this season, so the value in getting both of those guys for a first-round pick is somewhat suspect. In particular, Beasley may have some suitors among the teams with cap space this summer, which could drive his price out of the range in which Gersson Rosas and the Wolves are comfortable matching. Hernangomez will likely come much cheaper than Beasley, though his inconsistent health and play leaves many wondering whether he can be an NBA-level rotation player.

The Wolves will keep barking up the Russell tree to see if they can wear down Golden State’s asking price. They’re now armed with that Brooklyn pick and may acquiesce to the Warriors’ demands of unprotected future picks, particularly if Karl-Anthony Towns becomes more unhappy with their progress.

For now, Minnesota has $36.22 million separating their 2020-21 salaries from the luxury tax, which should give them enough room to re-sign Beasley and Hernangomez. Beasley’s had a disappointing campaign so far this year, but if he flashes enough shotmaking over the last third of this season, he may well end up in the $10+ million range annually.

If they felt like they absolutely had to move Covington for value in order to take a shot at Russell, then getting two firsts is very good for the Wolves, but I’d balk at the absolute necessity of this move for Minnesota. Covington wasn’t going anywhere on his contract and he was going to be just as valuable in the summer. Perhaps it’s hard to turn down two first-rounders for a player who is very good in his role but doesn’t necessarily scale into a larger role with the ball in his hands and isn’t a primary forward stopper at the highest levels, but the Timberwolves aren’t exactly in a position to move on from their second-best player when their best player is already showing signs of unhappiness with the constant losing.

Denver is where Minnesota wants to be – they have a star offensive center surrounded by guys who play extremely well off of him and a great coach to tie it all together. The Nuggets played out the string nearly all the way on Beasley and Hernangomez, but those guys weren’t fitting into their short- or long-term plans, particularly with the emergence of Michael Porter Jr. in recent weeks. Denver has lofty ambitions and those guys weren’t likely to ever be good enough to play at the highest levels of the playoffs, so it made sense to move on for a first-round pick.

While Mason Plumlee is sidelined with an injury, Vonleh will play for the Nuggets. Plumlee may even be on the way out as matching salary in a trade, opening up the backup center job for Vonleh on a full-time basis as the playoffs approach. It’s not a perfect solution, but he’s a capable player has the quick feet on the perimeter to play in Denver’s aggressive defensive scheme. Napier’s value is perhaps lost in Denver, as they already have Jamal Murray and Monte Morris eating up the vast majority of the point guard minutes. Perhaps he can be moved to another team in a subsequent deal, though he cannot be aggregated with pre-trade players on the roster in order to match salary on a bigger player.

Financially, this deal fits Denver’s future plans very well. Murray’s max extension kicks in on July 1 and the Nuggets were staring down the barrel at some difficult financial decisions this summer. Moving on from Beasley and Hernangomez for the cost-controlled certainty of a first-round draft pick makes a ton of sense for a Denver team that has balked at spending significantly on the team in the past. I project them to go into the summer with $38.15 million to spend below the tax, which includes Houston’s first-round pick, retaining Morris and the newly-acquired Keita Bates-Diop, and Jerami Grant forgoing his option and hitting free agency. They’ll have to contend with new contracts for Grant, Paul Millsap, and Torrey Craig, as well as look to use their non-taxpayer mid-level to help fill out their roster – that was going to be difficult if they had to pay one or both of Beasley and Hernangomez as well.

The question for Denver is where they go from here this year – adding Houston’s pick to their collection puts them in position to go after some bigger fish, with Jrue Holiday likely at the top of their shopping list. Doing so would make them more expensive in the short- and long-term, but Holiday would put them over the top into true title contention with his mix of scoring, shot creation, and high-level defense on the perimeter. Getting to the matching salary on Holiday isn’t all that difficult for the Nuggets – Gary Harris’s $17.84 million would get them most of the way there. Throw in Plumlee and the Nuggets are actually saving money this year, which could become important if they win multiple playoff series and have to pay out extra bonuses to their existing players.

It’s not often you see a four-team, 12-player megadeal, and we’re likely not done there. By the time this thing is made official with the league, we could see it stretched to five or six teams and somewhere between 13 and 17 players, depending on what Houston and Atlanta want to do. Of the four teams included in this deal so far, only Atlanta is happy with their position – Houston is working the phones to expand the trade, Minnesota wants to move for Russell, and Denver has another trade up their sleeve to improve themselves for this year and moving forward. Hopefully, that will make for more fireworks over the next 33 hours until the deadline.