Ranking the Most Undervalued Targets on the 2016 NBA Trade Market

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 15, 2016

Ranking the Most Undervalued Targets on the 2016 NBA Trade Market

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    With the NBA's Feb. 18 trade deadline on the horizon, everyone should be moving out of self-assessment mode and into target identification. For the savviest of squads, that means not only spotting weaknesses, but also scanning for cost-effective ways to address them.

    For starters, we've scanned the market to see what's up for sale. No one appearing here comes without a connection to the rumor mill.

    From there, we've pinpointed which players are most likely to be undervalued and by how much. There are a few different ways for players to earn that label: They could be underpaid, under-priced on the trade market or simply underappreciated for their skills.

    Consider this a circular for the upcoming trade season with all the best sales gathered in one place.

Honorable Mention

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    DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings

    DeMarcus Cousins' name has spent enough time in the trade-rumor mill it needs to be mentioned in every transaction piece—even as the Sacramento Kings continue to shoot down those talks at every opportunity.

    Cousins shouldn't be remotely close to available. He's 25 years old, he might be the NBA's most talented center and his uber-reasonable contract runs two more seasons after this one. The Kings would be crazy to move him, and if they did, they'd probably want a couple arms, a few legs and maybe a torso in return.

    But as an in-prime, full-fledged superstar, he'd still grade out as undervalued if that ever happened.

    Ty Lawson, Houston Rockets

    Last season, Ty Lawson was jostling for the league lead in assists and finished third behind Chris Paul and John Wall. This year, Lawson lost his starting gig after only 11 games and has since seen most of his numbers tumble to personal worsts. If his on-court struggles weren't enough, he's also navigating some off-court issues.

    This has created a situation where "there's no market" for the Houston Rockets to trade Lawson, as an Eastern Conference executive told CBS Sports' Ken Berger.

    But isn't that the best time to buy? Maybe he never finds his way out of this mess—that wouldn't be disastrous, since his $13.2 million salary for next season isn't guaranteed. But if he does turn the corner, some point guard-starved team would have stumbled into a wildly productive, bargain-priced 28-year-old floor general.

    Kevin Martin, Minnesota Timberwolves

    Considering where the Minnesota Timberwolves are in the rebuilding process, their backcourt of the future should be presently getting as many minutes as possible. In other words, the Wolves don't have a need for 32-year-old scorer Kevin Martin, whom they reportedly started shopping last month, a source told Jon Krawczynski of the Associated Press.

    Martin could jolt any scoring-deprived win-now team. He puts up points in any situation—this year, he's drifted in and out of Minnesota's rotation and still tallied 17.8 points per 36 minutes. His three ball (career 38.5 percent) would also allow him to fit in a long-range specialist's role.

    A trade for Martin would likely involve limited risk and a fairly promising reward, but his $7.3 million player option for next season is burdensome enough to keep him off our actual rankings.

7. Timofey Mozgov, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    The Cleveland Cavaliers aren't publicly shopping Timofey Mozgov, but sources told Yahoo Sports' Marc J. Spears that several teams are inquiring about the 7'1", 275-pound bruiser.

    Mozgov's minutes per game have declined each month this season, from 21.3 in October to 15.1 in January. His 50.3 field-goal percentage is the second worst of his career, as is his 13.5 rebounding percentage. The Cavs have been 7.1 points better per 100 possessions without him, which explains why his old starting spot now belongs to Tristan Thompson.

    So it makes sense for Cleveland to field these proposals—and for the offers to be low-ball.

    The Cavs are having a hard time finding reasons to keep Mozgov on the floor. They'll have a tougher time finding the motivation to pay him once he reaches unrestricted free agency this summer, especially with upward of $108 million already potentially on the books.

    It took a pair of future first-round picks for Cleveland to grab Mozgov near this same point last season. His price tag should be deeply discounted this time around.

    For a pennies-on-the-dollar rental rate, someone could get essentially the same player. His per-36-minute marks when the Cavs acquired him were 12 points, 10.9 rebounds and 1.6 blocks; he's currently tallying 12.2, 8.6 and 1.6, respectively, per 36.

6. Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls

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    First-year Chicago Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg has no fewer than five options for two interior post positions: Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol, Taj Gibson, Nikola Mirotic and rookie Bobby Portis. Noah has often been the one squeezed most for playing time, a decision he's made easier by hitting a career-worst 38.2 percent from the field.

    Everything about Noah as a possible trade target screams "proceed with caution."

    He's on the wrong side of 30 and has battled both knee and shoulder injuries. His player efficiency rating (14.3) has never been lower, and neither have his true shooting percentage (40.6), offensive rating (97) and points per game (4.3). He'll be an unrestricted free agent when summer hits, so there's no guarantee his next team would have him for long.

    But he's one of three bigs, along with Gasol and Gibson, Chicago has shopped, league sources told Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher. And, despite the red flags, Noah could prove worth the investment for the right team.

    He was an All-Star just two seasons back, and while he's clearly regressed since, certain areas of his game remain special. Few players possess his combination of rebounding (14.5 per 36 minutes) and distributing (6.2 assists per 36). He's also still a pesky competitor and, more importantly, an effective defender, slicing three percentage points off his opponents' average field-goal rate.

    If there's a team that can live with his shooting struggles, Noah would have a ton to offer and should be marked down to a deeply discounted rate.

5. Markieff Morris, Phoenix Suns

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    Markieff Morris moved himself to the rumor mill over the summer, shortly after the Phoenix Suns traded away his twin brother, Marcus. The problem is Markieff has subsequently torpedoed his own trade value.

    He's never done less with his floor time. He has career-worst shooting numbers from two of three levels: 37.5 from the field, 30.9 from deep and 69.8 at the stripe (second-worst). His PER has plummeted to 8.9, just over half of what it was last season (15.8) and down almost 10 points from two years ago (18.4).

    And playing is far from Markieff's only problem. He picked up a two-game suspension for throwing a towel at Suns skipper Jeff Hornacek. Both Morris twins also have felony assault charges hanging over their heads from a January 2015 incident.

    It's possible all of the above hasn't scared off every possible suitor. Because somewhere in the middle of this mess is the opportunity to snag a talented, cost-controlled ($24 million over the next three seasons), versatile 26-year-old with an intriguing skill set, as Zach Lowe wrote for Grantland in September:

    Teams should be looking at Morris and talking about what he could become.

    Lots of power forwards can do two of these three things on offense: post up (particularly against switches and small-ball mismatches), shoot threes and make productive passes off the dribble. Very few can do all three, and those who can are lethal. They can play in any lineup and help against any opponent.

    Morris can already post and pass ("He's an excellent passer," Hornacek says), and he hit 31.8 percent from deep last season—just three percentage points below the league average.

    The Suns aren't desperate enough to pay someone to take Morris out of the desert. Their list of acceptable offers, however, may be growing by the day. He's not worth the headaches he's caused Phoenix, but he could be a sneaky-good steal if he doesn't cause them for his next employer.

4. Taj Gibson, Chicago Bulls

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    If you're shopping for Chicago Bulls' bigs, Pau Gasol is the biggest name, Joakim Noah is the fiery leader, but Taj Gibson is the player you really want.

    "He's under contract for a reasonable $8.9 million next season, and he can bring rim protection, rebounds and some efficient scoring," NBC Sports' Kurt Helin wrote of Gibson. "A lot of teams trying to move up to contender status—or just ensure they make the playoffs—could use what he brings."

    Chicago won't be robbed if it chooses to move Gibson, but the reward could still greatly outweigh the risk.

    He's a young 30 years old, as he's averaged fewer than 25 minutes per contest during his 473 career games. His lengthy track record makes him trustworthy, but the fact he's always filled a support role (he's made only 51 starts in the last four-plus seasons) could mean there's more to his game than first meets the eye.

    Even if his ceiling doesn't rise, his basement won't lower an inch during this contract. 

    He plays an efficient, low-maintenance style at the offensive end. He's a comfortable, competent shooter out to the mid-range and a willing passer, so he won't disrupt flow. When the ball doesn't come his way, he can free teammates with a screen or wreak havoc on the offensive glass.

    At the other end, he'll provide rim protection, rebounding and enough lateral quickness to hold his own through a perimeter switch. He can ace his assignment and help teammates pass theirs.

    He's not a star, nor will he grow into that role. But for the right club, he could be the perfect glue guy to hold it together through two playoff runs.

3. Terrence Jones, Houston Rockets

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    The Houston Rockets have shown some signs of life, but they don't look like a title team. That should be motivation enough for general manager Daryl Morey to kick off his annual tinkering.

    Houston's top exec has pulled off four trades and a coaching chance since Dec. 2014, and he's reportedly mulled even more moves. Sources told ESPN.com's Marc Stein in late December that the Rockets had discussed sending Terrence Jones and Corey Brewer to the Phoenix Suns for Markieff Morris.

    Jones just turned 24 and is already an across-the-board contributor. He's one of only eight qualified players averaging at least 15 points, seven rebounds, one block and one three per 36 minutes, and this is actually the least efficient season of his four-year career (by PER).

    His three-point percentage has improved during every campaign, from 26.3 as a rookie to 35.9 now. He's also averaged nearly two blocks per 36 minutes for his career, meaning he could possess the ultra-rare combination of floor-spacing and shot-blocking abilities.

    Why would the Rockets consider letting him go for less than top dollar? For starters, they might not be able to keep him around for the long haul. He'll be a restricted free agent at season's end, as will Donatas Motiejunas. Houston almost certainly can't afford both, plus it may need to cough up enough coin to cover a new deal for Dwight Howard if he declines his $23.2 million player option.

    Jones also hasn't been the most consistent contributor, though that shouldn't bother buyers. Growing pains affect most fourth-year players, particularly ones with changing roles and injury issues. Jones has shifted in and out of the starting lineup, and he's lost 55 games since the start of last season to a variety of ailments.

    Give him stability and a clean bill of health, and it's anyone's guess how high his ceiling might climb. 

2. Thaddeus Young, Brooklyn Nets

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    "Our approach helped us reach the playoffs three seasons in a row, but we have failed [to win a title], and it's important for us to go [further]," Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov said, per ESPN.com's Mike Mazzeo. "That's why we need a small reset for this year, and I hope we will be back as a playoff team and as a championship contender. It's my only goal."

    Prokhorov is on the right path, but the words "small reset" should really be "complete overhaul."

    Everything must go in Brooklyn. This core isn't close to contending, and the Nets lack both free-agent clout and draft tools needed to make that happen. They're down two of their next three first-round picks (and may have to swap the other), so any method of transforming present players into future assets must be explored.

    In other words, Thaddeus Young should be available, even if Brooklyn won't say he is. And any playoff/championship hopeful with a question mark at the 4 spot should give him a long look.

    His price tag shouldn't be cheap—though the Nets acquired him for an aging Kevin Garnett, so who knows?—but he could still be a terrific value.

    Perception lags behind the player Young has become. He's never mentioned as a star, but his marks since the start of 2012-13 (15.6 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.8 steals) have been matched by only one player: Paul George.

    Even better, Young's employer doesn't have to pay him like the unique specimen he is. The 27-year-old is in the first season of a four-year, $50 million deal that could look comically low once the salary cap spikes.

1. Brandon Jennings, Detroit Pistons

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    Despite having two viable floor generals, the Detroit Pistons have already decided with whom they're moving forward. Reggie Jackson received a five-year, $80 million contract to stick around the Motor City last summer. Brandon Jennings' deal is down to its final months.

    "Our plan right now is that Brandon can help us make a playoff push," Pistons president of basketball operations and head coach Stan Van Gundy said, per Keith Langlois of the team's official website. "That's our plan right now. If something changes in the next five weeks, then we'll look at it."

    That's a long-winded way of saying Detroit won't give him away. But Jennings' price should still fall several stories below his production.

    The Pistons deemed Jackson worthy of an $80 million investment after watching him tally 17.6 points on 43.6 percent shooting (33.7 from three) and 9.2 assists (against 3.5 turnovers) over the final 27 games of 2014-15. During the 18 outings before Jennings suffered a torn Achilles last January, he might have been better: 19.2 points on 43.2 percent shooting (39.1 from deep) and 7.2 assists (against 2.1 turnovers).

    But Jennings' suitors won't have to pay for that player. The one they'll bid on is only eight games into his recovery and filling a part-time role (17.6 minutes per night). The fact he doesn't have a contract beyond this season should drop the cost even further.

    He's a 26-year-old former lottery pick who hasn't disappointed over his first six-plus seasons (career 16.3 points and 6.1 assists per game). It's usually hard enough to land a player like this at all, let alone doing it at a clearance rate. But Detroit made him expendable, which is great news for the savvy suitor that takes advantage.

    Unless otherwise noted, statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com and current through games played Jan. 16. Salary information obtained via Basketball Insiders.