The NBA trade deadline means different things for different teams.
For most, the buildup to the Feb. 20 trade deadline trumps the actual date itself. Trade winds swirl uncontrollably, but nothing comes out of them. It's the storm before the calm.
For others, though, this period can reshape an entire franchise.
The buyers are fueled by different motivations, but all are searching for a short-term splash. That could be the missing piece of a championship puzzle or simply a player who improves a team's playoff odds. Whatever the reason, the teams recognize an area of weakness and actively try to fill that void.
Those holes are plugged courtesy of the sellers, a group of teams already thinking about the future. Some figured to be in this predicament all along, while others were forced into this role by nearly three months of underwhelming performances. No matter what brought them this far, these teams are all here now and officially open for business.
Some teams still don't know where they stand. The Toronto Raptors (23-21) have caught fire since trading Rudy Gay, but they're reportedly considering moving Kyle Lowry before the possible All-Star hits free agency. Even a team in position to win now can't forget about the future.
The teams on this list have a better idea of where they're at. At least, they should by now.
On Dec. 18, the Detroit Pistons sat one game below .500 (13-14) and had already claimed victories over the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers.
They have dropped 13 of their 18 games since, falling completely out of an Eastern Conference playoff race that hands out postseason berths like participation grades. The East is bad, but the Pistons appear to be worse.
General manager Joe Dumars—who's working under both an expiring contract and a playoff edict from his boss—can't afford to waive the white flag. But any player he moves will likely go at a sale price.
Vincent Goodwill of the Detroit News gave the team a "better than 75 percent" chance of making a trade.
Restricted free-agent-to-be Greg Monroe is Detroit's biggest trade chip, but the combination of declining production (14.2 points on 50.7 percent shooting) and his uncertain future could lower any potential return. Rodney Stuckey and Charlie Villanueva each have expiring $8.5 million deals, but teams might not pay a high price for expiring deals if they're convinced the free-agent class' biggest fish (Miami's Big Three, Carmelo Anthony) will all stay put.
The Pistons will be active and probably seeking short-term help. Eventually, though, they'll realize just how far away this group is and they'll take back what they can get for their expendable pieces.
The Cleveland Cavaliers shouldn't be buying anything. Every move this franchise makes seems to fall apart.
Clearly, they gambled and guessed wrong taking Anthony Bennett (2.8 points on 27.9 percent shooting) with the No. 1 pick. Andrew Bynum was a bust during his floor time (8.4 points, 41.9 percent shooting). While the Cavs managed to flip Bynum for two-time All-Star Luol Deng, they also parted with three future draft picks in the process.
Oh, and Cleveland is 4-6 with Deng in the lineup—and 16-29 on the season (11th in the East).
Yet, the Cavs are still putting themselves in the buyers market.
"History tells us the Cavs will be active at the trading deadline, especially if the team doesn't show some significant improvement soon," Mary Schmitt Boyer of the Plain Dealer wrote.
That should be the start of a fire sale. It's not.
Rather than working to improve their already promising financial books or climbing up the draft board, the Cavs are on the hunt for a quick-fix option. The type of player who doesn't really exist, but a savvy executive will be able to convince Cleveland otherwise.
The Los Angeles Lakers are like the "Free" section on Craigslist. If other teams supply the moving trucks, they're pretty much cleared to take whatever they want (outside of Kobe Bryant, of course).
OK, maybe it's not quite that easy. But a draft pick or a prospect should be enough to pry just about anything out of LA.
The only question is whether teams are even willing to pay that discounted price.
Despite constant contact from the Lakers' side, "there just is not a lot of desire or value surrounding what the Lakers have," Basketball Insiders' Steve Kyler wrote.
LA isn't entirely devoid of marketable pieces. Nearly the entire roster is working on expiring contracts, and several of those players can walk into the specialist's role that teams often try to fill at the deadline: scorer (Nick Young, Jodie Meeks), perimeter defender (Wesley Johnson), garbage man (Jordan Hill).
Pau Gasol's spent almost his entire Lakers career on the rumor mill, and this season has been no exception. If the free-agent-to-be is not in LA's future plans, he's the type of talent who could push a championship hopeful over the top—and send a substantial return to Hollywood.
When is it wise to invest heavily in a playoff run that might not even last beyond the first round? Never, mediocrity is the worst possible fate in the NBA.
But when might it be understandable? When a franchise has one postseason appearance in its nine-year existence, a .189 winning percentage to show for the last two seasons and a draft debt that needs to be paid off soon.
The Charlotte Bobcats are tired of losing. That's why they bit the bullet on a three-year, $40.5 million contract for Al Jefferson. Or why they attempted to think short term on draft night, opting for the reportedly NBA-ready Cody Zeller over higher-upside players.
With Jefferson (18.9 points, 10.5 rebounds) and Kemba Walker (18.7 points, 5.0 assists) quietly posting All-Star numbers, the Bobcats (19-27) have taken advantage of a weakened conference and grabbed hold of the East's No. 8 seed.
They've also taken themselves out of the draft lottery, which is where they need to stay. Charlotte owes the Chicago Bulls a first-round pick that carries top-10 protection in 2014 and top-eight protection in 2015. If the pick hasn't changed hands by then, it becomes an unprotected first rounder in 2016.
Everything's going to plan for Charlotte now, but this team is far from breathing easily.
According to Basketball Insiders' Alex Kennedy (via Sulia.com), the Bobcats are buying in hopes of solidifying that postseason spot. They're using Ben Gordon's expiring $13.2 million deal as the bait to help them land that missing piece.
If anyone is looking to get involved in the 2014 free-agent frenzy, snagging Gordon's deal would be a major move in that direction.
The Orlando Magic have some tough calls to make over the next few weeks.
Figuring out if they're buying or selling isn't one of them. They're clearly doing the latter, but they'll need to decide which players they're comfortable cutting loose.
Arron Afflalo will be at the top of potential trade partners' wish lists. The 28-year-old has dazzled during his second season in Orlando, posting career highs in points (20.3), rebounds (4.3), assists (3.7) and player efficiency rating (17.8).
But if the Magic don't think this is an anomaly, they could see Afflalo as part of their future. If his production holds up, he's a relative bargain with a $7.5 million salary for this season and next (and a player option for the same amount in 2015-16).
Two players who could be on the move are veterans Jameer Nelson and Glen Davis. Chris Sheridan of SheridanHoops.com put both on his list of the most likely players to be traded at the deadline.
Magic general manager Rob Hennigan doesn't have to move either, which will help keep the bargaining power in his corner. Nelson will be an easy sell for his experience and partially guaranteed contract for next season. If he can be packaged with Davis, who's due $6.6 million for 2014-15, Hennigan will take what he can get.
The Houston Rockets are sitting inside the championship picture, but they're not exactly entrenched in it.
That's an issue, since their offseason plan has largely come to fruition.
Both James Harden (23.7 points, 5.5 assists) and Dwight Howard (18.1 points, 12.6 rebounds) have produced at All-Star levels. Chandler Parsons has emerged as a productive No. 3 option (17.1 points, .497/.397/.729 shooting slash). Terrence Jones has even transformed the power forward spot from a liability into an asset (11.7 points, 7.6 rebounds).
But the Rockets are just 30-17, sitting a good-but-not-great fifth in the fully loaded Western Conference. Something is still missing. And general manager Daryl Morey hopes to find it.
"We feel like, while maybe not the favorite, we have a legit chance to win the title this year," Morey told a group of season-ticket holders (via Ben DuBose of ClutchFans.net). "So if an opportunity presents itself to get a lot better this year, we'll do it. We'll give up some future for now."
That future would seem to be draft picks, since Morey has largely extinguished the trade fires that have erupted around his players (Omer Asik, Jeremy Lin, Donatas Motiejunas). Considering there's only one regular, Francisco Garcia, older than 30, the Rockets can afford to part with a pick or two for the right piece.
It's hard to think of a better scenario for the Philadelphia 76ers than the way this season has played out.
The team has shown signs of life (and hope for the future) without disrupting its chances to pull a high draft pick. Rookie Michael Carter-Williams and first-year coach Brett Brown look like superstar finds. Fellow rookie Nerlens Noel is getting the hands-on developmental time his game needs to reach its full potential.
And the players that the Sixers would love to sell have all been playing out of their minds.
Evan Turner looks like a former No. 2 pick (18.5 points, 6.1 rebounds, 3.7 assists). Thaddeus Young has been a two-way force (17.3 points on 48.0 percent shooting, 6.4 rebounds, 2.1 steals) at the always coveted stretch forward spot. Spencer Hawes, all 7'0" and 245 pounds of him, has converted 41.2 percent of his long-range looks.
Philadelphia has potential game-changing players for fringe contenders and a willingness to move them. A team that's already well stocked for the future—young talent, potentially two lottery picks in 2014 and loads of cap space this offseason—has even brighter days ahead.
The Phoenix Suns weren't supposed to be this good this quickly, but the franchise seems more than comfortable adapting to its changing reality.
Not only are the Suns (26-18) shattering expectations, they're looking to get even stronger for an unexpected, but potentially lengthy, postseason run.
Phoenix holds some of the strongest trade cards at the table. As Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports noted, an insurance policy just kicked in paying 80 percent of what's left of injured big man Emeka Okafor's expiring $14.4 million contract.
Whichever team trades for the 31-year-old will be looking at roughly a $141,000 insurance payment per game, Wojnarowski wrote.
In terms of trade chips, it's hard to get much sweeter than that. But that might not even be the Suns' biggest play. Remember, they're holding as many as six first-round picks over the next two seasons. With one of the league's youngest rotations already in place, Phoenix doesn't need (or want) to make that many selections.
It's hard to figure out where the biggest name of this trade market will surface. It isn't difficult determining where the player's team will come looking for assets.