The Clippers still need another piece to become a contender.
Certain teams are currently unquestionable contenders. Oklahoma City, Miami, Chicago (despite continued injuries to Rip Hamilton) and even veteran-laden San Antonio (if everyone stays healthy) are poised to hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy in June. Their assembled cores are capable of accomplishing this feat.
But, who are the teams on the bubble of championship contention? Who are the squads that are just a wise trade away from situating themselves alongside the league's elite?
As the trade deadline nears, it's time to analyze who must make a move to loft themselves into the championship-contender category.
Who will make a bold trade-deadline deal and go "all in" in 2012?
Dwight Howard definitely needs some help in Orlando.
The Magic have more weighty decisions to make in the coming weeks than any other team.
While there have been indications that Dwight Howard—who's a free agent come the offseason—would like to remain with the Magic beyond 2012, it's still apparent that the likelihood of this happening is contingent upon Orlando acquiring help to play alongside Dwight.
The problem? The Magic lack desirable trade bait.
Twenty-three-year-old Ryan Anderson (averaging 16.3 points per game) is their prime trade asset, but the Magic would hate to trade him now if Dwight's going to walk away after the season. If Howard leaves, Anderson's their lone bright spot for the future.
So, what should they do? They could certainly trade Howard in a blockbuster deal, of which there is much speculation. They would undoubtedly receive some talented young players in return for Superman.
But, the Magic appear to be holding out hope that Dwight decides to remain in Orlando for years to come. So what deals could elevate the 25-15 Magic—who just lost to the lowly Charlotte Bobcats—into championship contention?
The position of need is point guard. Steve Nash would be a great fit, as would Rajon Rondo or Deron Williams, but the asking prices for Rondo and Williams are most likely too high.
If Phoenix does put Nash on the trading block, a plausible deal could look like this:
Magic receive: Steve Nash, Channing Frye
Suns receive: Ryan Anderson, J.J. Redick, Jameer Nelson
If landing Nash isn't feasible, then the Magic better get busy searching elsewhere if they long to go "all in" in 2012. Warriors guard Monta Ellis or Rockets guard Kevin Martin are other options to consider.
Most importantly, the Magic better soon get busy if the supreme hope is to keep Dwight in Orlando, which will only happen if quality supporting pieces are promptly added.
Is it time for the Lakers to trade Pau Gasol?
Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol are still championship-caliber players, but their roster is suspect beyond them. Matt Barnes is their fourth-leading scorer, and he's a guy who's known more for his defense.
Plus, the loss of Lamar Odom stings, and veterans Metta World Peace and Derek Fisher are shells of the players they once were.
The Lakers need to add a versatile weapon to their core—someone with youth and the ability to provide punch on offense.
The problem: Who are the Lakers going to give up?
Their bench is stashed with washed-up veterans like Luke Walton, Steve Blake and Troy Murphy, none of whom are desirable. Plus, their few young players haven't shown much promise.
Therefore, the Lakers will have to be willing to give up Gasol or Bynum if they want to improve their roster. The 31-year-old Gasol is much more likely to be dealt, and teams are certainly interested.
Houston has shown intrigue in Gasol, and a deal that would involve the Lakers receiving point guard Kyle Lowry is worth considering.
Minnesota small forward Michael Beasley is another name worth speculation, but giving up Gasol for Beasley is not a wise deal for L.A. The Lakers would need more in return than just Beasley.
For months, there have also been rumors about Dwight Howard coming to the Lakers, but that would involve Bynum and remains a long shot.
The likelihood of the Lakers bringing in a marquee player is bleak, but they must consider secondary options if they're going to contend.
Perhaps even guys like Kirk Hinrich, Ramon Sessions or Raymond Felton are worth acquiring, but while such players may help, would they really make the Lakers contenders?
No matter what, the 23-15 record of the Lakers is nothing to write home about, and this current squad may even struggle to escape the first round if they don't make a deadline deal.
Should the Pacers pursue O.J. Mayo?
The Pacers have made major strides this season, but it's far too premature to consider them contenders.
A trade for point guard Rajon Rondo would quickly make them an elite team in the Eastern Conference. If Boston does decide to dangle Rondo's name in trade speculation, Indiana should inquire immediately. They have the assets to acquire Rondo, and adding him to their core would make them a scary, young team.
But don't count on Rondo in Indy. The Pacers will most likely have to search elsewhere. What are their other options?
There has been speculation about Eric Gordon, a native of Indianapolis, joining the Pacers. But, while the 23-year-old has loads of upside, he's injury prone and would most likely not make a substantial difference this season. He is, however, set to be a restricted free agent come this offseason, and you can expect the Pacers to make a play for him.
More realistic trade options include O.J. Mayo or Michael Beasley to provide offensive pop off the bench, or Chris Kaman to bolster their frontcourt.
Indiana has some pieces on their bench whom they're most likely willing to trade, such as Louis Amundson, Tyler Hansbrough, A.J. Price and Lance Stephenson. They would be wise to package a couple of these players to land an upgrade in Mayo, Beasley or Kaman.
While such upgrades may not lead to a championship, they would certainly place Indiana in a much better position to battle Miami and Chicago.
The Clippers would be wise to pursue veteran Ray Allen.
Chris Paul and Blake Griffin pose a scary playoff matchup for anybody, but recently assembled teams usually don't capture a title in their inaugural season together. Look at last year's Miami Heat, who were arguably more talented than this year's Clippers and still came up short.
Therefore, this Clippers bunch is on the verge of contending for a title, but don't expect it to happen this year.
However, they could speed up this process if they make a bold move. Losing Chauncey Billups for the season to injury hurts a great deal, and a veteran presence to replace him is needed.
The Clippers should target expiring contracts of veteran players, particularly Ray Allen. If Boston decides to clean house, Allen will most likely be the first to go. The sharp-shooting Allen would fit in perfectly with the Clippers, as he would provide a proven long-range weapon to space the floor for CP3 and Griffin.
Here's a potential scenario:
Celtics receive: SG Randy Foye, SF Ryan Gomes, PG Eric Bledsoe
Clippers receive: SG Ray Allen, SG Avery Bradley
Now, if the Celtics decide to keep Allen, the Clippers could then set their sights on veteran Leandro Barbosa, who's currently with Toronto. Barbosa possesses playoff experience, as well as an expiring contract.
The Clippers' roster would be wildly enhanced by the presence of a savvy veteran like Allen or even Barbosa. Allen, quite frankly, could be the final piece to an NBA Finals run.
Imagine a lineup of Paul, Allen, Caron Butler, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. That's a team capable of doing major damage.
Nash is leading the league in assists per game at the age of 38.
The defending-champion Mavericks don't have the same core this year as they had last year. They're continually aging, and the losses of Tyson Chandler and J.J. Barea certainly hurt.
The Mavs will surely make the playoffs, but if the playoffs were to start today, they would play the youthful Clippers. Can you really picture the foundering Mavs knocking off a team like the Clippers, who possess a great deal of firepower?
The only way the Mavs will make another deep playoff run is if they make a bold move.
Steve Nash, anybody?
If Phoenix makes Nash available, teams will definitely call. Orlando was previously mentioned as a perfect suitor for the 38-year old All-Star point guard.
But Dallas could quickly join the conversation if they propose a deal like this:
Suns receive: SF Shawn Marion, G Rodrigue Beaubois, C Ian Mahinmi
Mavs receives: PG Steve Nash
If Nash and Nowitzki were reunited in Dallas, they could surely make noise in the postseason. But, is Dallas willing to part ways with quality young players like Beaubois and Mahinmi to land a 38-year-old? That's the question they must consider.
Moreover, the Mavs may essentially "concede" this season because Dallas native Deron Williams and Dwight Howard are going to be free agents in the offseason. Dallas may decide to set their sights on landing one—or even both—of these superstars in the summer, thus overlooking ways they can upgrade in the next couple of weeks.
But if the Mavs desire to repeat as champions, a move (or two) is needed, and Steve Nash coming back to Big D could prove pivotal come playoff time.
How will Boston GM Danny Ainge handle the trade deadline?
If the Celtics decide not to blow their team up and give it one more crack at a title run, could they shock the world and win it all?
It's possible, as their "core four" (Rondo, Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett) are still producing at an impressive rate.
But, they need upgrades elsewhere, namely at the center position and on the bench.
However, similar to the Lakers, they also lack desirable trade bait.
Therefore, they need to get creative and explore a handful of scenarios.
As far as big men, Thunder center Cole Aldrich is an option to pursue, as he's receiving marginal minutes and has become expendable.
Players like Pistons bruiser Jason Maxiell, the Rockets' Samuel Dalembert, the Grizzlies' Marreese Speights, the Hornets' Chris Kaman and the Kings' J.J. Hickson are also names worth considering in a trade.
The question is how much these teams desire in return. Is rookie JaJuan Johnson and young guard Avery Bradley enough to pull off a deal for one of these players? If so, one of these options should be examined.
As far as their bench, they need someone to carry the load when the "core four" head to the sidelines. If veteran Stephen Jackson is bought out or released by Milwaukee in the coming weeks, the Celtics should strongly consider nabbing him. He would be a helpful addition, especially since he boasts a great deal of playoff experience.
If the Celtics are going to go "all in," they need to get busy and make a couple of moves because their core is aging, and their current supporting cast doesn't have the ability to pick up the slack.
'Melo and the Knicks have made moves but they're still not contenders.
Certain teams went intentionally unnamed in this slideshow, such as the New York Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers, Atlanta Hawks, Memphis Grizzlies and Denver Nuggets.
This is because such teams still have much work to do before they can contend. They aren't just a wise trade away from making a deep playoff run, but simply need more time together or have gaping holes that can't be filled prior to the deadline.
On the other hand, the teams mentioned in this slideshow could position themselves for a deep playoff run if they decide to make a bold move or two. These teams could even oust elite teams like Oklahoma City, Miami, Chicago or San Antonio if they add the right pieces.
Who will go "all in" for the 2012 stretch run? We will soon find out, and whichever team headlines the trade deadline could be seen playing into late May and early June.