With the NBA trade waters approaching high tide, now is hardly the time for flattering mirrors or yes-men staffs.
Brutally honest self-assessments need to be made for teams to determine if they should be buying, selling or simply standing pat.
Given the glowing reviews of the 2014 draft class, those valuations will be more harshly graded this season. The Tankapolypse may have been a non-story early on, but that plot line will thicken as more teams turn their attention beyond the 2013-14 campaign.
Six bottom-feeders have a winning percentage between .306 and .333. Once some of these hangers-on realize how close they are to a potential franchise centerpiece, the trade market will be littered with ready and willing buyers.
As for the sellers, well, they will always be a deep group as long as the market bears notable names. When the Indiana Pacers (league-best .792 winning percentage) are continuing to add pieces to their puzzle (Andrew Bynum), it's glaringly clear the quest to improve never ends.
What should these motivated buyers expect to find as they make their way through the rumor mill? At least these eight potential difference-makers to help strengthen their title hopes.
It's official. Arron Afflalo has nothing left to play for as a member of the Orlando Magic.
There was a decent chance the 28-year-old could turn his breakout season (20.0 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists) into the first (and probably only) All-Star selection of his career. Ultimately, his campaign was undone by Orlando's dismal record, along with the fact his stat sheet might have been a bit inflated by the lack of help around him.
That a solidly unspectacular veteran like Afflalo could grab Orlando's reins and statistically separate himself that much from his teammates shows how incredibly far the Magic are from contention. The seventh-year veteran is a strong supporting player but should not be starring in a featured role.
With that said, he has close to superstar status on the trade market. He's always been a plus defender, and if these offensive improvements hold up, he's a potential two-way force. Not bad for someone with a $7.5 million salary for this season and next, along with a player option for the same amount in 2015-16.
In mid-January, ESPN.com's Marc Stein reported the Magic were giving the "stiff-arm to teams" interested in Afflalo. Even then, Stein said some rival clubs weren't sure how strong that stance really was.
Orlando's likely holding out for a first-round pick. As soon as one comes across the negotiating table, some other team will be touting perhaps the prized pull of this trade season.
Let's hope, for his sake, that Jared Dudley wasn't getting too comfortable with the Los Angeles Clippers.
The "3-and-D" wing just joined the franchise last summer as part of the three-team deal that brought sharpshooter J.J. Redick to L.A. However, ESPN.com's Marc Stein said the Clippers are "itchy to make a deal," and Dudley could already be the odd man out.
Dudley lost his starting job to Matt Barnes on Jan. 20 and has only topped the 20-minute mark once in the nine games since. With Hedo Turkoglu and Sasha Vujacic having recently joined the Clippers' already crowded perimeter, Dudley might be lucky to simply hold onto the meager minutes he's getting.
He's pulling in a relatively modest $4.25 million salary for each of the next seasons, but he can opt out of his current deal after the 2014-15 campaign. A strong locker room presence and two-way contributor, he's the type of player who could significantly impact the playoff race.
"He's a best fit on a contending team on the way up who needs a veteran option to improve their depth and shooting," CBS Sports' Matt Moore wrote.
Depending on what the Clippers want in return, Dudley's list of suitors might not be long. Still, he's a veteran who could walk into a championship race and not be rattled—there's always a demand for a player like that.
When Pau Gasol hasn't been helping the Los Angeles Lakers compete for a championship, he's bided his time traversing treacherous trade waters.
Considering L.A.'s aiming for nothing other than a jackpot draft lottery prize, Gasol's tumultuous tenure with the Lakers finally appears to be coming to a close.
With an expiring contract and L.A.'s obvious need to rebuild repair its infrastructure, the big man could see the writing on the wall. Perhaps that explains his midseason recovery, posting January averages of 20.8 points and 11.9 rebounds—after managing just 15.1 and 9.2, respectively, in his first 29 games of the season—and essentially tossing his own life raft away from this sinking ship.
Players with his size (7'0"), skill, experience and intelligence don't come around often. Even with the uncertainty in his future, his on-court ability makes him well-worth the gamble.
The Lakers had reportedly been discussing a deal with the Phoenix Suns in recent days, but a source told Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times those talks broke off because the Suns felt the Lakers wanted too much in return. Gasol going down for two weeks with a groin injury, via ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin, only complicates a potential move.
Still, a lot can happen between now and the Feb. 20 trade deadline. If any team sees itself within striking distance of a ring, Gasol's the type of player who can push it over the top.
The Chicago Bulls have neither the players nor the coach to successfully tank their way up the draft board.
This team has been without former MVP Derrick Rose in each of the last two seasons, and both times the Bulls have adopted coach Tom Thibodeau's "we have enough" mantra and continued battling without their fallen leader.
Inspirational as it is, at some point it's detrimental to the front office's vision. That's why former All-Star Luol Deng was shipped out in a salary dump last month and why Taj Gibson could be the next domino to drop.
According to Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times, a source said the Bulls have already discussed Gibson with the Lakers, Washington Wizards and Charlotte Bobcats. While nothing has come from those talks, the 28-year-old's future is far from settled.
Gibson has a starter's contract (four years, $33 million), starter's ability (15.5 points and 8.2 rebounds per 36 minutes) and a reserve's workload (28.3 minutes per game). Even if Chicago decides to amnesty Carlos Boozer this summer, Gibson could still be locked out of a starter's spot if European star (and Chicago's 2011 first-round draft pick) Nikola Mirotic comes stateside this summer.
More than that, though, moving Gibson now could allow Chicago to make a run at a maximum-contract free agent this offseason. If the Bulls think they have a shot at one of 2014's biggest fish (cough, Carmelo Anthony, cough), then their trade partner could add an impactful big for the stretch run in Gibson.
In a season where no on-paper tank artist could get that embrace of the loss column just right, the hapless Milwaukee Bucks did it without even trying.
The Bucks, who spurned the youth movement hoop heads wanted them to make in favor of veteran free agents last offseason, didn't plan on being this bad (9-39, 30th in offensive rating, tied for 28th at the opposite end). Luckily, they bottomed out at just the right time and now must do whatever they can to stay down there.
As bright as Milwaukee's future appears, it takes a telescope to see that potential. Among coach Larry Drew's top-10 rotation pieces, only four players are under the age of 25. There are plenty of holes that need filling.
The Bucks don't have to do anything before the deadline—they've unintentionally painted a masterpiece season—but Basketball Insiders' Joel Brigham said he thinks if Milwaukee moves anyone, it will be Ersan Ilyasova.
The 26-year-old could really use a change of address. He's stumbling through the worst shooting season of his career (38.0 percent from the field, 29.5 percent from deep) and posting his lowest rebounding percentage (11.9) since his rookie year.
Still, he could shine in the right system. With good length (6'9") and a better shooting stroke than he's shown (.475/.448/.788 slash over the last two seasons), Ilyasova could show just how important having the right fit really is.
This could be the rare trade that grades out as a win-win without even knowing any of the other participants. Anything that ends this doomed marriage between Greg Monroe and the Detroit Pistons would only benefit all parties involved.
Monroe needs to play near the basket. Not only is he a non-factor from anywhere outside of 10 feet (27.8 percent), he's also getting torched by opposing 4s (19.1 player efficiency rating allowed) while limiting the production of opposing 5s (15.5), via 82games.com.
The Pistons aren't going to limit blossoming big man Andre Drummond, and sitting one of the two takes one of Detroit's best players off the floor. Josh Smith has proven he can't play small forward (.409/.235/.568 slash), and with his contract (four years, $54 million), he's almost impossible to move.
Detroit's pieces don't fit, and Monroe, a restricted free agent at season's end, is the most logical one to go.
So, is it likely we'll see that divorce before the deadline? Not necessarily.
Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press said the Pistons would only consider moving the Moose for a "high-level player like Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo." If someone only offers a player who addresses an obvious need (perimeter shooting), Ellis said it's "highly unlikely" Monroe would be dealt.
Still, Detroit's price might come down closer to the deadline. I'm not sure which fate is worse—risking him walking for nothing this summer or overpaying to keep him around alongside these ill-fitting pieces.
The Pistons have reasons to move him, and Monroe has enough talent to command a respectable return.
If a superstar moves at this trade deadline, it will be Boston Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo.
Yes, even after Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge's insistence he's not interested in dealing Rondo. Yes, even after Ainge reportedly opened contract extension talks with the mercurial point guard.
And yes, even with Rondo saying he "wouldn't mind staying" in Boston for the rest of his career, via Baxter Holmes of the Boston Globe.
Really, what else did you expect to hear from either party so far? If Ainge has even the slightest inkling he might move Rondo, there's no incentive for him to share that news. Making that public would only drive down the value, and if Ainge takes that drastic of a step, it needs to net a home run package.
Rondo's still suiting up for the Celtics, so what sense would it make to start burning any bridges now?
These could be genuine sentiments, or they might be the calculated words of two businessmen who understand the game they're playing. Either way, it's tough to rule out the possibility of a trade.
"After he played in 92 playoff games in his first six full seasons in the league, sitting through a rebuild during the prime of his career can't appeal to Rondo," ESPN.com's J.A. Adande wrote. "Spending $13 million next year for a player with an 11-point career scoring average and no All-Stars to pass to can't appeal to the Celtics."
Snagging a transcendent talent off the trade market has to appeal to Rondo's suitors. The level of that interest—i.e., the value of what they're willing to give up to get him—is what will really determine his fate.
If you're surprised to see Evan Turner here, well, you probably wrote off the Philadelphia 76ers quicker than the Las Vegas oddsmakers did.
The only thing shocking about Turner is the fact he's still donning Philly's red-white-and-blue threads. Remember, he pointed out first-year Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie was "not my GM" after failing to secure an extension on his rookie contract at the start of the season, via USA Today's Jason Wolf.
The Sixers have been slightly better than advertised since then, but Turner hasn't come any closer to being part of the franchise's future. Sources told Sean Deveney of Sporting News the Sixers "have been stepping up their efforts to make a move before the trade deadline" with Turner at the heart of those talks.
Turner is pouring in a career-best 17.9 points this season to go along with 6.0 rebounds and 3.8 assists. That kind of across-the-board production should treat the former No. 2 pick well when he enters restricted free agency this offseason.
Given his lack of security, teams may be hesitant to part with the draft pick Philadelphia is reportedly seeking in return. If paired with fellow free-agent-to-be Spencer Hawes or veteran swingman Thaddeus Young, though, Turner could net the Sixers another valuable piece (or two or three) for their future.
A deft playmaker and competent secondary scorer, Turner could instantly lift the ceiling of whichever team he joins. He could have a similar impact on the one he'll be leaving behind, assuming his overdue exit is finally coming around.