Predicting Biggest Movers and Shakers Before NBA Trade Deadline
Haters, well, they're gonna hate.
And NBA teams, well, a select few of them are gonna trade.
Some squads will let the Feb. 18 trade deadline come to pass without acknowledging its existence. Others will make tiny changes, pulling the trigger on a deal or two that ends up as a footnote. And then, as always, there is a small sector of the league that will light up the time between now and that 3 p.m. ET cutoff.
Our movers and shakers come from all walks of NBA life. They are fallen contenders trying to get back up. Fringe playoff hopefuls pursuing a midseason leap. Asset-rich outfits looking to consolidate their opulence. Surprisingly or predictably bad teams that need to hit reset.
Rumor-mill activity will help identify the squads to watch, but we won't dare limit ourselves exclusively to sourced speculation. This is more about educated guesswork.
These teams all have reasons, and enough assets, to act aggressively ahead of Feb. 18 and are, therefore, the buyers and sellers most likely to dominate headlines with splashy transactions.
Since the Brooklyn Nets owe this year's first-round pick, wherever it falls, to the Boston Celtics, they have every incentive to win as much as possible. And if they want to win, they'll need to make some upgrades—especially with Jarrett Jack done for the season (ACL) and rookie Rondae Hollis-Jefferson recovering from ankle surgery.
The problem? Unless the Nets are willing to deal Brook Lopez or Thaddeus Young, they don't have anyone or anything of real value to trade other than Bojan Bogdanovic and Joe Johnson's still-too-big-to-move expiring contract.
All is hunky-dory now that the Chicago Bulls are rolling, but their frontcourt logjam won't be going away.
Portis has become too important to bench, and that means Mirotic will continue logging heavy minutes at small forward to make room for Noah's return from a shoulder injury. But with Gasol (player option) and Noah approaching free agency and Mirotic best suited at the 4, Chicago has to at least entertain the possibility of a midseason overhaul.
Do you know of anyone looking to move a real, not-Jeff-Green-like stretch 4 in exchange for spare parts and contract fodder?
If so, please contact Memphis Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace.
Call this a hunch.
This side of the Jerry Colangelo hire, the Philadelphia 76ers have shown they'll take on impact players with the acquisition of MVP candidate Ish Smith. And they're not done.
"Though [Sam] Hinkie has stayed on as GM, Colangelo's opening moves make it seem the plan has surely changed now that [Josh] Harris' support has shifted," wrote ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst, referring to the team's principal owner. "Colangelo has built winning teams several times before and perhaps he's on his way to doing it again."
If the Sixers are truly done tanking, more moves are on the way. They could own as many as five first-round picks this summer, and the Joel Embiid-Nerlens Noel-Jahlil Okafor-Dario Saric logjam needs to be cleared up before Embiid and Saric actually make their NBA debuts.
Combine that with enough cap space to take on an expensive salary, and the Sixers have the tools necessary to not only make moves but dominate the trade deadline.
Well, whatya know, it is possible to have too many assets. Just ask Boston Celtics president Danny Ainge.
"Consolidating quantity for quality right now is sort of something that we're looking to do," he said on 98.5 The Sports Hub's Toucher & Rich show, per MassLive's Jay King. "But we like all of our players. We don't have to do anything by the trade deadline. But we're certainly busy trying to find something to upgrade our team."
It's only a matter of time before Ainge takes a stick of dynamite to this roster of odds and ends, up-and-comers and economically priced veterans. Shaking up the depth chart has, despite what Ainge might say, become a necessity.
Cue the bullet points:
- Certain players aren't getting enough playing time (Kelly Olynyk), others are falling entirely out of the rotation (David Lee), and the Celtics still lack that trademark superstar.
- Boston will most likely own three first-rounders leading into this year's draft, and there's no way Ainge uses all of them.
- Jared Sullinger and Tyler Zeller are approaching restricted free agency, and Olynyk will be eligible for an extension this summer. Not one of them is on the cusp of stardom, so it would be tough for the Celtics to invest in all three.
- Lee's expiring $15.5 million salary can anchor any big-time trade with a team lusting after financial flexibility.
- A second-ranked defense is complemented by a bottom-10 offense that needs another featured scorer aside from Isaiah Thomas.
The Celtics are right there. Basketball-Reference's Simple Rating System, which measures team performance by weighing point differential against strength of schedule, ranks them as the league's sixth-best team.
Landing a star simultaneously saves the Celtics' season and vaults them onto the fringes of the championship discussion. And with both the motive and means to make a splash ahead of the trade deadline, it would be irresponsible of them to stand pat.
Change is coming for the Houston Rockets. It has to be.
The Rockets have followed up a Western Conference Finals appearance with an absolute egg. They have managed to sneak back into the West's jaded playoff picture, but they remain under .500, have climbed above .500 just twice all season and are hovering around the bottom 10 in points allowed per 100 possessions.
Sources told ESPN.com's Calvin Watkins that Lawson is "fine" with his current role, but the diminutive point guard just doesn't make sense alongside James Harden. The Rockets are a defensive disaster and being outscored by nearly five points per 100 possessions when that duo shares the floor.
Verdicts also need to be reached on Terrence Jones and the sidelined Donatas Motiejunas. Each could command north of $10 million annually in restricted free agency, and the Rockets cannot justify keeping both so long as Clint Capela and Dwight Howard call Houston home.
Howard's contract poses another problem. He has the option of exploring unrestricted free agency this summer, forcing the Rockets to make a decision on his future now. Capela is nearly 10 years Howard's junior, and his defensive splits are better. So yes, there is something to think about here.
Meanwhile, general manager Daryl Morey isn't one for selling off bargain-bin talent, but he may have no choice. Pairing KJ McDaniels, Jones or Motiejunas with Corey Brewer's contract is a good way to clear cap space in anticipation of free agency.
And that's what this is all about.
Houston is dedicated to poaching talent in free agency and immediately chasing championships. The current team is nowhere near good enough to win anything meaningful and must be accordingly tweaked, if not mercifully gutted, to better reflect the Rockets' aspirations.
This Phoenix Suns team, as currently constructed, won't make it to February's trade deadline.
Eric Bledsoe is out for the season after having surgery on a torn left meniscus; Markieff Morris has fallen out of the rotation; Jeff Hornacek has the job security of a freelance house-sitter; owner Robert Sarver is, shall we say, openly displeased; and Ben Simmons Suns jerseys are about to become a thing.
In other words: Fire up the trade machine!
Morris needs to go. He should already be gone. His value as a scorer and playmaker means almost nothing against his quick plunge to rock-bottom.
As Steve Kyler of Basketball Insiders wrote: "I was told by one team linked to him that it was more likely I make their team than 'Kieff. He is not coveted." If selling low on Morris is what it takes, then that's what it takes. He isn't worth the rumor-rife atmosphere he creates to an organization that must involuntarily change course.
To that point, Tyson Chandler is fast becoming useless. Phoenix signed him to be the defensive anchor for a potential playoff contender. He is now losing minutes to Alex Len and Jon Leuer, and the Suns couldn't be further away from postseason contention unless they were the Los Angeles Lakers.
Devin Booker's rise through the rotation yet again leaves the team with some tough backcourt questions. One of Bledsoe and Brandon Knight is expendable long-term if Phoenix buys Booker's per-36-minute explosion.
That pleasantly surprising, ultimately damning 48-win campaign in 2013-14 has ruled the Suns' direction long enough. They have tried their hand at a balancing act, attempting to deploy a playoff-caliber contingent while rebuilding. It isn't working.
Stockpiling picks and prospects should now be the primary goal, and with that shift in focus comes the potential for a thorough, pre-trade deadline teardown.
New Orleans Pelicans
Remember that one time the New Orleans Pelicans wasted a season of prime Anthony Davis by rushing their attempts to capitalize on his immediacy?
For once, the Western Conference is forgiving, offering leniency to teams that started slow and are hoping to recover in time for a last-ditch playoff berth. The Pelicans, owners of the West's second-worst record, aren't even out of contention.
Less than four games separate them from the No. 8 seed, and there is still more than half a season left to play. They could, theoretically, get hot, erase the difference and earn a second consecutive postseason appearance.
Which would mean what? Another first-round exit at the hands of the Golden State Warriors? Maybe at the pleasure of the San Antonio Spurs?
Serial mediocrity is what drove Chris Paul out of New Orleans, Kevin Love out of Minnesota, Carmelo Anthony out of Denver and so on. The Pelicans have Davis under lock and key through at least 2019-20 (player option for 2020-21), but it's not too early to take his career ambitions into account.
Unloading impact players for picks, prospects, financial flexibility and the right to better challenge the Sixers, Lakers and—laughs out loud at the Nets' expense—Celtics for Ben Simmons is a more promising course.
Free-agent-to-be Ryan Anderson has frequented the rumor mill in recent weeks and is a good place to start. Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry kind-of-sort-of denied that the power forward was available, according to the New Orleans Advocate's Brett Dawson, but he's due for a hefty raise over the offseason.
Using one of Anderson, Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday as a buffer for an Omer Asik salary dump is the ideal play. He is owed more than $50 million through 2019-20 and doesn't fit Gentry's intended offensive style, and the subsequent cap space would be particularly valuable.
Davis, remember, makes the Pelicans a prime free-agent destination. So if they can assure themselves of a top-five pick and clean financial bill leading into this summer, their stay outside the West's playoff bubble won't last long.
Are gut feelings allowed? Because I'm going to assume they're allowed.
This is not another DeMarcus Cousins shakedown. That ship hasn't exactly sailed, but Cousins is back to dominating like an All-Star, and there are few, if any, teams outside of Boston that can propose a trade worth mulling.
Rather than starting over, the Sacramento Kings are, by Sacramento Kings standards, in position to go all-in on this season. The Western Conference is a firestorm of underachievement, and they're just a half-game back of the playoff bracket.
Rajon Rondo is statistically improving his team's offense for the first time since 2011-12, and Sacramento ranks 10th overall in points scored per 100 possessions. Though the defense is borderline hopeless, showing signs of struggles both when protecting the paint and guarding the three-point line, the Kings have enough juice to make some noise out West.
That juice's name is DeMarcus Cousins.
When he's on the floor, the Kings outscore opponents by 2.5 points per 100 possessions, a net rating that would rank fifth in the Western Conference. If there was ever a time for Sacramento to double down on its march toward the middle, it's now.
Thin on desirable assets aside from Cousins, though, the Kings could stand pat or make only marginal noise. After all, their best package, within reason, will be headlined by Ben McLemore.
Still, it's the Kings, champions of doing the opposite of what others expect. And those same Kings pulled out all the offseason stops to get here, on the brink of playoff contention.
Predict that they'll remain idle past the trade deadline at your own peril.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @danfavale.