Ever watched one of those wildlife channels where a big tuna or a giant tortoise or a slick-skinned dolphin struggles mightily trying to escape some sort of entanglement? That's what it's like observing NBA general managers during the in-season trade market these days.
The deal-tightening combination of a punitive luxury tax and owners eyeing the bottom line has only been somewhat relieved by the promise of future wiggle room thanks to the upcoming TV money surplus. The looming 2016 free-agent bonanza still has most teams wary about taking on long-term deals.
Trades reported while still gestating hasn't helped, either; general managers are more inclined than ever to make deals with fellow executives they've dealt with before and trust. Often those are former colleagues (e.g., Boston Celtics president Danny Ainge and Houston Rockets GM/former Celtics VP Daryl Morey, or Morey and Philadelphia 76ers GM/former Rockets VP Sam Hinkie).
The upshot is that, while there are several teams motivated to improve their rosters, and several more deals will be made before February 19's deadline, one Eastern Conference VP said this week's two trades were "a blip" inspired by the Cavaliers wanting to assure potential free-agents-to-be LeBron James and Kevin Love that they are aggressively looking to build a contender now.
The Cavs took on at least $7 million worth of salary-cap tax in making their latest deals, which is a hefty price tag when it still doesn't assure them, in several executives' eyes, of getting beyond the second round of the playoffs.
In canvassing GMs around the league, it became clear the Cavaliers' Dion Waiters, who went to Oklahoma City in Monday's trade (that brought J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert to Cleveland), and Timofey Mozgov, who went to Cleveland on Wednesday (in return for a pair of future first-round draft picks), were two on the list of names described as "available."
Others include: the Boston Celtics' Jeff Green and Brandan Wright; the Brooklyn Nets' Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez; just about anyone on the Denver Nuggets, led by free-agent-to-be Arron Afflalo; Lance Stephenson of the Charlotte Hornets; Detroit Pistons Greg Monroe and Brandon Jennings; the Phoenix Suns' Goran Dragic; and the Sacramento Kings' Nik Stauskas, Ben McLemore and Jason Thompson.
Connecting the dots between teams expected to follow the Cavs' aggressive lead, the specific needs of those teams and available players is relatively easy. The Rockets and Clippers are both looking to bolster their title-contending prospects, have riverboat GMs and have players on the market who would fit their needs.
The Rockets need a point guard, and both Dragic and Williams stand as potential targets. For the Clippers, it's a scoring swingman, with the Celtics' Green and several candidates in Denver (Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Afflalo) making sense.
This is where fins and flippers get snared. If there's a team more loaded with tweener forwards than the Suns, it's the Rockets, so other than a first-round pick (from the Pelicans), Houston doesn't have anything of obvious value to the Suns nor the cap room to take in Dragic for simply a pick. Williams' $19 million salary, meanwhile, would have to be matched, and the Rockets don't have one big disposable expiring contract to make it work.
The Clippers are in a similar bind. J.J. Redick could fit into a lot of teams and is reasonably priced with a $6.8 million per year salary, but why would the Nuggets want to add salary by acquiring him for Chandler, Gallinari or Afflalo, all of whom have shorter deals?
More than a sign of trades to come, the Cavaliers' boldness is being interpreted as genuine concern that Love and James, hard as the latter is to imagine, are sending signals that they might bolt if upgrades aren't made. No one else, at present, is under the same gun held by a franchise player, which is perhaps why no team feels compelled to match Cleveland's activity.
"Cleveland has overinflated the market by egregiously overpaying for Mozgov," said one NBA executive. "It may take time for it to come back to reality."
Around the League
• Taking the interim tag off Tyrone Corbin as head coach of the Sacramento Kings was a momentary victory for the team's basketball operations over owner Vivek Ranadive, whom sources say was hot and bothered about making a splashy hire to replace Mike Malone, hence the speculation about Mark Jackson or George Karl being hired.
While there were doubts if Malone was the long-term answer for the franchise, most of the organization was happy with the Kings' direction and felt the team, overall, was overachieving this season. Ranadive, however, was unhappy that Malone wouldn't answer or incorporate his texted ideas about how the team should be run, sources say, and made the unilateral decision to fire him.
Ranadive's adviser, Chris Mullin, has long been close with Jackson, and Ranadive, one league source said, would love to tweak the Warriors by having Jackson lead his team back to prominence as he did Golden State. But it's hard to imagine either side believing that joining forces in midseason makes a lot of sense.
As for Karl, it's not clear if Ranadive was convinced he wouldn't take any more kindly to his suggestions than Malone did or if he simply agreed to stand down for the time being on the coaching front. Mullin, sources said, never seriously considered moving to the bench, at least not as far as this season is concerned.
In any case, executives around the league don't expect Ranadive or the Kings to stay quiet for too long, whether it be making roster moves or finding a headline-grabbing head coach.
• The love for all things Louisiana by Pelicans owner Tom Benson and his wife, Gayle, is well-known. That could be why the hot rumor circulating around the league right now is that if Benson decides the team is not meeting expectations and makes changes, he will bring in two Louisiana natives as replacements—former Detroit Pistons GM Joe Dumars and former Nets/Mavericks head coach Avery Johnson.
Dumars has been traveling overseas and making observational visits to various NBA teams since stepping down from the Pistons last spring after a 14-year run that included six Eastern Conference Finals appearances, two Finals appearances and a championship in 2004. He was born in Shreveport and is a McNeese State alumnus.
Johnson has been working as a television analyst since being fired by the Nets midway through the 2012-13 season. He was born in New Orleans and finished up his college career at Southern University in Baton Rouge.
There is no confirmation from Pelicans sources that any definitive dissatisfaction with either GM Dell Demps or head coach Monty Williams exists, or that Dumars or Johnson have been contacted about their interest in returning to their native state.
• As well as the Warriors are playing, the belief in the locker room is that they have yet to play anywhere near their best. "We don't even have our rotations set," said one player, referring to starter David Lee's long absence, the growing role of Justin Holiday and both Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli being in and out of the lineup. "Wait until we've actually had everybody playing together for a while."
The One-Question Interview
Draymond Green was asked about his first NBA career triple-double, accomplished in a 126-105 win over the Toronto Raptors January 2:
"It's my first in the NBA, but I had three in college. I'm not sure, but I think I'm one of three players to ever have two triple-doubles in the NCAA tournament. Me, Magic and George Gervin. [Ed. Note: Green, Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson are the only players to register two triple-doubles in NCAA tournament history; there have been a total of seven in all.] But I'm not one of those guys who has stats or cares about them. I'm the same guy I've always been.
"Now, I'm not going to lie, coming into the league I didn't really know where I stood or what I was capable of. To get a triple-double means a lot as far as that is concerned. I've shown I can score and rebound, and with all the ball movement in our offense now, I get a chance to find a lot of guys (for assists).
"Teams are trapping Steph [Curry] and Klay [Thompson], and that's where it starts—those guys are getting it to me without turning the ball over. Now it's four-on-three, and it's up to me to find the open man, and with a four-on-three I should be able to do that. Then it's about other guys knocking down shots, and everybody seems to be doing that right now."
An NBA scout analyzes why the Pistons are surging after waiving Josh Smith:
"[Coach] Stan [Van Gundy] is a creature of habit. He's not going to change his offense or the way he plays. It's just created more harmony and relaxed everyone.
"Everybody has players they don't get along with, but it's a matter of production. You find a way to get along because they're worth it. The production just wasn't there with Josh. Stan was giving him chances, he ran plays for him. He just didn't like Stan. It's personalities. Stan is a grinder. He's going to do it his way, and he's not going to make concessions.
"I'm not surprised at them winning. You always get a bounce from a change like that. Even though they've played mostly lottery teams, it's still an accomplishment. They're not going to maintain this. They'll go back to losing because they're a lottery team, too. They've got a long, long way to go before they turn the corner. They're just not talented enough to win consistently in this league."
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.