As the calendar moves closer to the Feb. 20 NBA trade deadline, a common theme is emerging behind the cloud of smoke screens.
This is a buyer's market, as long as those buyers are willing to spend.
ESPN Insider Chad Ford (subscription required) predicted this would be an "epic trade deadline." His reason behind the prediction? There's a crowded group of basketball bottom-feeders and franchise centerpiece prizes potentially awaiting the worst of the worst (via the overstocked 2014 draft class).
When it's good to be bad, it's smart to shed talent.
That's exactly what these five teams are prepared to do, darken an already gloomy present in pursuit of a brighter future. They're all loaded with trade bullets, although some pack heavier artillery than others.
If this deadline becomes more talk than action, a possibility sources told Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix is growing stronger, it won't be for a lack of prominent trade pieces. There are players capable of shaping playoff pictures or even sparking championship conversations—and five tank-friendly teams all too eager to let them go.
Tireless denials of Rajon Rondo's availability by Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge have done nothing to extinguish this trade smoke. Short of seeing Feb. 21 on the calendar, it's hard to imagine anything will at this point.
The latest murmurings out of Beantown, courtesy of Mannix during an appearance on WEEI 93.7 FM's Dennis & Callahan show (via WEEI.com), are that Rondo isn't quite "untradeable," but it would take "a huge, All-Star level Kevin Garnett or Ray Allen type of offer" to pull off the heist.
Ainge's wish list probably starts and stops with draft picks, making a Rondo move seem almost impossible. The teams holding picks that Ainge would want a) aren't letting them go and b) aren't close enough to a title to justify paying a king's ransom for a win-now talent like Rondo.
That said, the four-time All-Star isn't Boston's only trade chip.
Jeff Green's a proven scorer (16.4 points per game) with some positional versatility. Brandon Bass can fill either frontcourt spot, battles on the glass (career 7.6 rebounds per 36 minutes) and is comfortable firing from mid-range. Avery Bradley's a defensive pest enjoying a career year at the opposite end (14.3 points). Kris Humphries has a massive expiring deal ($12 million) and an underrated skill set (career 13.3 points, 11.0 rebounds per 36 minutes).
The going rate for these players is steep. According to Mannix, Ainge hopes to bring back a first-round pick for either Green or Bradley.
If someone is willing to meet Ainge's demands or at least bring him down to a middle ground, there's talent to be had here.
The Los Angeles Lakers never had intentions of tanking and may not even consider their 18-34 season as such.
High on medical concerns and low on talent, the Lakers may be more unfortunate than anything else. Of course, that doesn't change the fact L.A. needs to treat this deadline like a yard sale and hope general manager Mitch Kupchak can haggle his way to a few decent returns.
With three guaranteed contracts on the books for 2014-15, the Lakers have only half-season rentals to offer.
Teams won't typically pay a premium when a flight risk is attached to the transaction. Then again, having a player like four-time All-Star and two-time NBA champion Pau Gasol on the trade market is even more of a rarity. That's a gamble worth making.
The 7-footer's been sitting since Jan. 31 with a strained groin, throwing a bit of a wrench into this trade chatter. Still, Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News reports Gasol remains a possibility for the Phoenix Suns, a surprise contender loaded with future assets.
Beyond Gasol, Kupchak doesn't have many cards worth playing. Anyone interested in L.A.'s other pieces would be better off waiting to sign them outright over the summer.
Gasol's the kind of player who raises a team's ceiling. If he winds up leaving, it could be a deal we're still discussing in June.
The Milwaukee Bucks are so good at this tanking business, they don't even have to try.
Seriously. This team spent last summer chasing veteran pieces and building the kind of one-and-done playoff dreams this franchise seems to view as a best-case scenario.
Luckily, the basketball gods intervened, finally tearing through the worn-out track of Milwaukee's mediocrity treadmill. Those vets have been ineffective (O.J. Mayo, Gary Neal), injured (Carlos Delfino) or a combination of the two (Caron Butler).
Milwaukee's forecast is blindingly bright between the developments of third-year point guard Brandon Knight, sophomore forward John Henson and rookie wing Giannis Antetokounmpo. Move past those three, though, and this roster is a mess of initially misguided and ultimately broken dreams.
Ersan Ilyasova seems in dire need of a scenery change (10.2 points, career-low 37.5 percent shooting). He's reportedly on the Houston Rockets' radar, via Steve Kyler of BasketballInsiders.com, as his size (6'9") and spacing ability (career 37.0 three-point percentage) could work well alongside Dwight Howard.
Neal's been a major disappointment (10.2 points on 38.9 percent shooting), and ESPN.com's Marc Stein reported the Bucks are doing "everything they can" to find him a new home. Neal's market might not be rich, but he had shown himself to be an effective sparkplug scorer for the San Antonio Spurs in the previous three seasons.
The Bucks won't be bring back any difference-makers, but if the ceilings for Henson and Antetokounmpo are as high as we think, Milwaukee already has its building blocks in place.
Arron Afflalo hasn't played his way in to the Orlando Magic's future, but he hasn't necessarily played his way out of their present.
The 28-year-old had enjoyed some fine seasons in his past, but nothing quite like his 2013-14 campaign. He's set career highs in points (19.4), rebounds (4.1), assists (3.7) and player efficiency rating (17.3) all while shooting 46.3 percent from the field and 42.5 percent from distance.
He's a borderline All-Star—that ticket may be punched yet if Dwyane Wade's foot injury keeps him out of the contest—on a working man's (relatively speaking) pay rate: $7.5 million for next season, $7.5 million player option the following season.
He battles at both ends of the floor and has five playoff trips in his past. He's not quite a 10, but think of him as a solid seven in a pool of threes and fours. He hasn't been turning heads his whole career, but in this moment he "might be one of the best trade chips on the market," as ESPN Insider Chad Ford noted.
Kyler said the Magic "continue to turn away incoming offers" on Afflalo, but general manager Rob Hennigan could just be proceeding with caution. The speed of Orlando's rebuilding project could be determined by this deal.
If teams don't have enough to land Afflalo, the Magic could help fortify some reserve ranks. Jameer Nelson, who has only $2 million in guaranteed salary next season, would add locker-room leadership and some part-time point guard play. Glen Davis is an aggressive rebounder (career 7.5 rebounds per 36 minutes) and moderately effective scorer (13.9 points per 36 minutes), but his contract ($6.6 million) is as heavy as he is.
Afflalo's the one bringing potential trade partners to Orlando, but those suitors might wind up leaving with some other piece of their championship puzzle.
The Philadelphia 76ers are preparing for a fire sale, but this is not a door-busting, going-out-of-business giveaway.
There are no clearance stickers to be seen. In fact, word is the Sixers might actually be overpricing their goods.
"The Sixers, sources say, continue to hold out hope that they can acquire a future first-round pick for either forward Evan Turner or center Spencer Hawes," ESPN.com's Marc Stein reported. "Both players become free agents in July."
The second part of that quote is key. I'm not sure if anyone would sacrifice a first-round selection at any point for Hawes or Turner, but it's hard to imagine them doing it with just months left on their contracts.
Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie is going to get that message. Philly is reeling after eight straight losses and this roster seems to be waiting for those dominoes to start dropping.
These two players in particular seem to be pressing. Turner has a 38.3 field-goal percentage and a 16.7 percent mark from three over his last 12 games. Hawes is nine of 34 (26.5 percent) in his last three outings.
When they're not playing with a trade gun on their backs, though, both can be significant contributors. Turner can create for himself or for teammates, and Hawes has the body for the interior (7'0", 245 pounds) and the soft touch for the perimeter (40.3 three-point percentage).
Veteran forward Thaddeus Young, who has a versatile offensive portfolio and a disruptive set of defensive skills, could be had for that price. Anyone without the name Michael Carter-Williams or Nerlens Noel probably fits that bill.
The Sixers could have the biggest impact on this season's playoff race, as long as Hinkie sets more reasonable rates on his numerous assets.