The NBA trade market has been slow so far this season (what, the Noah Vonleh to the San Antonio Spurs didn't wow you?), but follow the money, and two smaller-market teams may play an important role before the February 9 trade deadline.
The Spurs and Indiana Pacers, two previously linked teams in negotiations with the Los Angeles Lakers, are under the NBA's minimum team salary line of $111.3 million. If they don't get to the salary floor, their players will receive bonuses for the shortfall, similar to the $22.7 million the Oklahoma City Thunder kicked back last season to guys like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Josh Giddey and Lu Dort.
A source close to the Spurs is optimistic the franchise has enough in the works with its ample cap space (approximately $28 million) to make up the nearly $15 million to get to the floor. That's $15 million they need to spend, no matter what. So there's a real motivation to add players, and shows why the Vonleh deal that brought in $1.5 million in cash from the Boston Celtics was an easy "yes" from San Antonio.
Should the Lakers get good news while breathlessly monitoring each minute step of Anthony Davis' recovery from a foot injury, the team may still look to swap out Russell Westbrook for better-fitting players around LeBron James.
With players like Jakob Poeltl, Doug McDermott and Josh Richardson available, Westbrook's $47.1 million salary would go a long way toward helping San Antonio increase its payroll (though it will only get credit for the number of days each player is on their roster—not the 3-4 months he earned in Los Angeles).
Per an NBA source, any Westbrook deal for the Lakers, league-wide, starts with a first-round pick. If the Lakers also wanted to add a valued player from the Spurs like Poeltl, the cost would be a second first "and then some," per an Eastern Conference executive.
The Spurs may be confident they can reach the floor via a series of Vonleh-like transactions, but it will take a larger salary to make a dent, and not many teams are actively looking to dump big money.
For the Pacers, who are also just about $15 million below the minimum team salary, their approach may differ from the Spurs. After shopping Myles Turner on the trade block for multiple years and giving Deandre Ayton an offer sheet (which the Phoenix Suns matched immediately), Indiana has looked into extending Turner.
He's one of the rare players who can restructure his contract with a team that can legally execute a renegotiation. The Pacers have the cap room to give him an immediate bonus for the current season, along with a multi-year extension.
"The Pacers could give him an extra $15 million this season and maybe add on like three years at his current salary [around $18 million on average]," one Eastern Conference executive suggested. "That would be like a $23 million per year extension."
Indiana could still look to make a trade, but the Pacers are focused on making the playoffs.
"They could still trade Buddy [Hield]; he's been available since they got him," a different Eastern Conference executive said, "But they're not looking to tank, and I hear they're trying to extend Myles."
The Lakers and Pacers had more serious talks before the season on a Westbrook/Turner/Hield swap, but that ultimately went nowhere, with Indiana requiring two first-round picks for any deal. If Turner isn't restructured and extended, the Lakers could still pursue Hield, but that would still cost L.A. a first to move off of Westbrook.
And that doesn't seem likely. The Lakers value Westbrook enough as a playmaker off the bench that the team won't sacrifice future firsts to get out of his salary. The return would have to bolster the team's chances at a deep playoff run, and that conversation can't begin until Davis is declared healthy (if he's declared healthy).
That's why a Westbrook trade to San Antonio or Indiana may only work in a multi-team deal with other valuable considerations moving the needle (from the Lakers' point of view), like if the Chicago Bulls were willing to move off DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vučević without taking on Westbrook.
"The Bulls are stuck in a box. Their moves over the last few years have blown up in their face," an NBA source said. "But I think they'll just be happy in the middle of the pack and play it out."
Instead, the Lakers (assuming Davis proves healthy before the deadline) could look to go after Bojan Bogdanović of the Detroit Pistons, with Patrick Beverley and Kendrick Nunn as the necessary matching salary. But the Pistons are asking for a first-round pick for teams eager to add the veteran shooter, and the Lakers are not the only suitor.
The Dallas Mavericks are on the list, but one source said the Pistons would demand the Mavericks' 2027 first-round pick (probably with a player like Davis Bertans, whose contract isn't pretty).
Given the absence of teams looking to sell, the Spurs expecting more than just a single first for the Poeltl and the Houston Rockets still asking for too much for Eric Gordon, it may take another few losing streaks for the trade market to pick up steam. Additionally, the Charlotte Hornets and Orlando Magic haven't shown aggressiveness yet to trade away veterans, per multiple sources.
"One of the unintended consequences of the play-in tournament is a chilling of the trade market," one Eastern Conference executive said. "When almost the whole league can make the playoffs [through the play-in], you just don't have as many sellers in December or January. End of the month, we'll see more action leading into February."
Further slowing the trade market—very few teams are actively positioning themselves for salary cap space in July.
"Nobody wants cap space this summer," one Western Conference executive said, "The really bad teams are so bad, they can keep their [quality veterans] too. There aren't any fire sales like we saw last year with [the] Portland [Trail Blazers], but [even] that was for the purpose of retooling."
Teams are looking for greater trade-market clarity, but that may not come until the end of the month. In the meantime, trade junkies may end up with a few more Vonleh-type money deals to keep them going until the February fireworks kick in.