2017 NBA Trade Deadline: 10 Early Predictions
Never let anyone tell you it's too early to dream about the intrigue and bedlam that await at the NBA's trade deadline.
More than a month stands between us and the league's Feb. 23 cutoff. A lot can and will change that zero hour. New rumors will arise. Unreported trades will go down. Injuries could incite unexpected selling and buying.
We already know enough to take an educated stab at what will unfold in the coming weeks.
Established rumors will be our guide, but gut feelings are allowed. Specific deals will be proposed wherever applicable, and predictions are limited to realistic scenarios.
Hawks Hold a Fire Sale
Sources informed The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski that the Atlanta Hawks have removed Paul Millsap from the trade market. Head coach Mike Budenholzer said Atlanta "feels strongly" about the current mix of players, per ESPN.com's Ohm Youngmisuk.
All of this feels like posturing—an attempt to drive up the price on soon-to-be free agents, including Millsap.
Marc Stein and Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com first reported that the Hawks were listening to offers for Kyle Korver, Thabo Sefolosha and Millsap. Korver was shipped to the Cleveland Cavaliers less than a week later. Zach Lowe (also of ESPN.com) then said on a Jan. 6 episode of The Lowe Post podcast that Atlanta was looking to deal Tim Hardaway Jr.
It's hard to put faith in a sudden about-face after all this noise.
Hardaway (restricted) and Sefolosha will be due lucrative raises over the summer, and then-32-year-old Millsap (player option) will be eligible for a salary worth 35 percent of a $100-plus million cap in the first year of his next deal.
The Hawks have seized control of the Eastern Conference's No. 4 seed, but the talent gap between them and the Cavaliers is enormous. That chasm isn't going away anytime soon—not with this core.
There is no way Atlanta can justifiably re-invest in a nucleus that's already hit its ceiling. Capitalizing on the remaining value of flight risks makes more sense—a scenario the team has clearly considered and, under the circumstances, cannot have totally abandoned.
Denver, Portland or Toronto Trade for Paul Millsap
Offers won't stop rolling in for Millsap simply because Atlanta is publicly rebuffing overtures. That's a power play—just another way the Hawks are telling interested teams, "Hey! Up the ante!"
Some suitor is going to push the envelope on a previous or new package. The prospect of giving Millsap max or near-max money in free agency will still factor in, but buyers get more desperate around the deadline.
Three courtiers to watch: the Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers and Toronto Raptors.
Millsap, at 31, isn't on the Nuggets' timeline, but they're interested anyway, per Wojnarowski and Shams Charania. They have logjams at basically every position and need to consolidate talent into a legit star. Denver should get Atlanta's attention by pairing any one of its many prospects not named Nikola Jokic with a Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari or Kenneth Faried.
According to Basketball Insiders' Steve Kyler, the Blazers were also "sniffing around" the Millsap front—which is no surprise. They need defensive versatility from a player who, like Millsap, doesn't always have the ball in his hands on offense. Dangling some combination of Al-Farouq Aminu, Meyers Leonard, Maurice Harkless and Allen Crabbe, plus Cleveland's 2017 first-rounder, could get the Hawks' ear.
Not only were the Raptors among the latest list of Millsap enthusiasts, per Wojnarowski, but Brian Windhorst revealed on a recent episode of ESPN's TrueHoop podcast that they had a deal in place to acquire the combo forward over the summer.
General manager Masai Ujiri won't give up as much in a midseason package. And the idea of paying an over-30 Kyle Lowry and Millsap a combined $70 million annually after this year won't sit well. But with the Golden State Warriors and Cavaliers running rampant, the Raptors' window to contend is now.
Millsap helps them make the most of it—provided he doesn't cost more than Terrence Ross, a pick and filler.
Mavericks Also Hold (Non-Dirk) Fire Sale
Assuming the Dallas Mavericks check the standings, this should finally be the year they begin a more conventional, calculated rebuild.
No team in the Western Conference has a lower winning percentage. Just five games separate Dallas from the No. 8 seed, but that's an insurmountable gap when seven other squads are vying for the same slot.
While appearing on The Lowe Post, Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN.com said the Mavericks were "listening" to offers for Wesley Matthews (h/t HoopsHype). ESPN.com's Marc Stein refuted this report but wrote there's a "very real" chance Andrew Bogut's expiring contract gets moved.
In addition to Dirk Nowitzki, there are only a handful of players Dallas should consider untouchable—neither Bogut nor Matthews is one of them.
Hell, Harrison Barnes shouldn't even be one of them.
The Mavericks can restock a (relatively bare) cupboard of picks and prospects by flipping their own impact veterans. While they shouldn't haphazardly seek new digs for their most experienced assets, they owe it to their future to explore the market on just about everyone.
Not a single team is chasing losses this season, so the Mavericks have the chance to drum up the value of this year's draft pick while hauling in some other picks and projects. And they should absolutely pounce on it.
Sixers Hold onto Nerlens Noel
Keeping Nerlens Noel doesn't mean the Philadelphia 76ers will have resolved their frontcourt pileup. The logjam will, in all likelihood, live on.
Jahlil Okafor and Richaun Holmes have fallen out of head coach Brett Brown's rotation for the time being. And Okafor's not happy about it, per Philly.com's Keith Pompey.
So why would the Sixers hold onto Noel? When ESPN.com's Marc Stein wrote in November that we should "count on" them to "accommodate" his desire to relocate? When there's no chance they get as much in return for Okafor, who doesn't excel on defense or space the floor? And when Noel is barreling toward a raise in restricted free agency?
"Because I have some type of relationship with him, I think I'm going to get him going, especially on the defensive end," Embiid said in December of playing with Noel, per Liberty Ballers' Shamus Clancy. "Being aggressive, blitzing every pick-and-roll, just flying all over the place, I think we can really do that while we're on the court. Then offensively, I'm sure we're going to figure that out."
Noel complements Embiid better than Okafor ever will.
The two have only played eight minutes together thus far, but Noel's range on defense and ceiling as a screen-and-roller on offense make him more of a natural fit. Philly's long-term plan could be to stagger the minutes of its primary bigs, and it's too early to draw any meaningful returns from this partnership. But that's the point.
The Sixers need to see what they have in this tandem and won't be able to do that by Feb. 23. It will cost a ton of money to re-sign Noel in July, but he can be dealt later if things don't pan out—for a larger return than his rookie-scale deal and impending payday will command now.
Rudy Gay Gets to Oklahoma City
This prediction should surprise no one.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have been trying to poach Rudy Gay from the Sacramento Kings for a while—since July, according to Bleacher Report's Jon Hamm. Cameron Payne is the Thunder's primary bait, per The Vertical's Chris Mannix. He alone may be enough to get a deal done if Oklahoma City renounces its Ersan Ilyasova trade exception.
Darren Collison and Ty Lawson are Sacramento's primary point guards, with a little bit of Garrett Temple sprinkled in; the Kings could use a prospect with more upside.
Gay has a player option for next season that he's expected to decline. Mortgaging part of the future for what amounts to a rental isn't Oklahoma City's style. Handing a fat contract to a wing on the back end of his prime isn't in general manager Sam Presti's repertoire, either.
Add Gay's ability to play on or off the ball, and Oklahoma City boosts its offensive appeal with Westbrook, while giving itself a chance to generate scoring without him.
Giving up Payne is a reasonable price to pay for necessary depth. The Thunder already have a franchise floor general in Westbrook, and the Designated Player Exception in the new collective bargaining agreement makes it unlikely he'll leave Oklahoma City anytime soon.
Brandon Knight Gets Dealt to Sacramento or Philly
Brandon Knight's days with the Phoenix Suns are dwindling in number.
His demotion to bench duty at the start of the season was an ominous one, and he's now losing minutes to rookie Tyler Ulis. Stir in career-low effective field-goal and assist percentages, and all signs, as ESPN.com's Marc Stein acknowledged, point to Knight finishing the season somewhere else.
Finding a realistic fit is tough: Knight owns the NBA's worst plus-minus by a mile and has yet to be the full-time pilot for a top-tier offense. He should be surrounded by other playmakers and used as an off-ball guard.
Enter Philadelphia and Sacramento.
Both squads need an upgrade at point guard but also employ complementary playmakers who allow the 25-year-old to see time as a spot-up sniper.
Getting Knight to the Kings probably takes a third team. A Gay-for-Knight swap works financially, but the rebuilding Suns shouldn't take on veteran flights risks without getting a first-round pick. If Phoenix has any interest in Alex Abrines, Jerami Grant or Payne, Oklahoma City's dalliance with Gay makes it a natural facilitator.
Putting Knight on the Sixers isn't nearly as complicated; They have the cap space to absorb his deal without sending back any players. Sending the Suns a cheap filler and a future first or smattering of seconds probably gets a deal done.
Nets Don't Trade Brook Lopez
Timofey Mozgov netted two first-round picks in 2015, and Lopez is worlds better. But Mozgov was traded to the Cavaliers, a championship favorite with best-player-in-the-world LeBron James and the unique luxury of viewing future firsts as disposable assets.
That type of contender isn't out there right now—in large part because the title discussion is so damn exclusive. There are the Cavaliers and Warriors, and then there's everyone else.
Good luck convincing general managers to part with two first-round choices in a deal that won't make a dent in the championship landscape. Teams who own outside draft commitments—like Cleveland in 2015—might acquiesce to the Nets' wishes, but even that's a stretch.
Brooklyn can always lower its price tag as Feb. 23 nears. Lopez is 28 and will be a free agent in 2018. He looks out of place on a roster that's in the early stages of an extensive rebuild.
At the same time, the Nets don't have a real incentive to settle for less. Lopez's three-point range and improved passing give him unicorn appeal. Any packages available now should be there over the summer when he's still a year away from free agency.
Flipping Lopez during the offseason might be easier anyway. Teams generally have more cap flexibility, so the Nets wouldn't have to take back as much salary in return.
Celtics Stand Pat
The Celtics are armed with more trade fodder than any NBA team outside Denver. They control the Nets' next two first-rounders, both of which will probably be top-five selections. They also have all their own firsts, plus the Los Angeles Clippers' and Memphis Grizzlies' 2019 choices.
Shouldn't they, in turn, be obligated to broker a monster move to counter the Cavaliers' acquisition of Korver?
Not exactly. As Michael Pina wrote for RealGM ahead of the season:
Why give up assets and key contributors who were good enough to win 48 games—before adding Horford—in a climate of constant player movement? Numerous star-caliber players will hit the market every summer for the foreseeable future, and Boston has enough cap flexibility to afford anyone they want.
The Golden State Warriors are the Golden State Warriors. LeBron is LeBron. Why needlessly accelerate towards a brick wall, then watch as teams with bright futures and a plethora of assets zoom on by?
Acquiring high-end free agents is more difficult this side of the new CBA, but the Celtics' cap space remains a huge asset when attached to a ready-made fringe contender. And this is admittedly the last year they have wait-and-see mode as leverage.
Avery Bradley and Isaiah Thomas are slated for free agency in 2018, at which time their raises from below-market deals will eat up most of the team's cap space. Boston will have to approach next season's deadline with more aggression if it doesn't want to wait on developing draft picks.
For now, the Celtics get to sit tight and see whether they can add talent without dipping into their treasure trove of assets.
Heat Trade Goran Dragic
Everyone on the Miami Heat roster is up for grabs, as Zach Lowe relayed during an episode of The Lowe Post podcast—including Hassan Whiteside.
And especially Goran Dragic.
Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald refuted Lowe's report, but the thinking tracks. The Heat are rebuilding, and Dragic will be well past his prime by the time they're contending again. Trading him now can bring back picks and prospects that better fit the team's timeline.
Franchise maestro Pat Riley forked over two first-rounders to get Dragic, so he needs to get at least the equivalent of that in return—hence ESPN.com's Marc Stein reporting the Heat's asking price is "too high to encourage any serious trade discussions."
Still, at least one suitor should eventually bend. Dragic is that good.
Mike Conley is the only other player matching his three-point (40.8) and assists (33.0) percentages. Despite defenses brazenly packing the paint against a clunky offense, Miami's point man is hitting almost 60 percent of his shots around the basket.
Best of all: Dragic is in the second season of a five-year pact that was signed before the salary-cap boom. The $54.3 million he's owed between 2017-18 and 2019-20 (player option) is a steal in the new financial climate.
Dragic's value won't climb any higher than it is now. Waiting for the offseason is even a risk, because the team is removing midseason offers from desperate wannabe contenders (sup, Chicago Bulls?) from the equation.
No Superstar Under 30 Gets Traded
Fans of trade-deadline chaos love to see superstars in the front end of their primes get dealt—so long as their favorite team isn't the seller. But that type of 11th-hour disorder isn't in the cards this year.
Teams with under-30 All-Stars nearing the end of their second contract are no longer painted into a corner thanks to the Designated Player Exception. They can offer lucrative five-year extensions to players before they reach free agency, provided said player meets the following requirements outlined by The Washington Post's Tim Bontemps:
1. He makes one of the three all-NBA teams or is named either defensive player of the year or most valuable player the previous season.
2. He has made one of the three all-NBA teams or has been named defensive player of the year in two of the prior three seasons or the league’s most valuable player in one of the three prior seasons.
And this crucial stipulation: He has to be on the team that drafted him or has to have been traded on his rookie deal to another team.
Popular trade-machine subject DeMarcus Cousins (free agent in 2018) is the perfect case study. According to CSN Bay Area's James Ham, he "intends to sign a massive, max-money extension, estimated at roughly $207 million during the offseason that will keep the big man in a Kings uniform long-term."
You really think Sacramento is going to trade him now?
Paul George (player option for 2018-19) and John Wall (free agent in 2019) will both be eligible for similar extensions if they make another All-NBA team. Think the Indiana Pacers and Washington Wizards, respectively, are going to shop them with the DPE still in play?
Young superstars seldom hit the chopping block in the first place, and now that already shallow pool lacks even more depth.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @danfavale.