1 Trade Every Fringe NBA Playoff Team Should Already Be Considering
Almost every NBA team is already chasing a trade.
That's how the business works. Squads are always looking to improve their immediate chances or, in some cases, sell off unwanted assets. Unless they're perfect, or play in the Bay Area, they have their ears to the ground, waiting or searching for that next advantageous opportunity.
Some teams need to be more proactive than others when it comes to working the phones—mainly fringe playoff squads. Small sample sizes aren't supposed to be cause for panic, but when your postseason seed isn't secure, you have ample reason to do something, anything, to strengthen your chances before being forced to bow out of the running.
The following deals all aim to address the needs of postseason hopefuls who cannot in good conscience believe they're guaranteed an invitation to the spring dance. A certain amount of projection is involved here since the standings are relatively tight this early in the season, and it'd be foolish to include everyone within close proximity of a top-eight finish.
Teams like the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers will get the shaft. They're inside striking distance of the postseason bracket now, but they're not expected to stay there. We care only about the squads that genuinely profile as playoff challengers into the halfway point and beyond.
And remember: The mission is, in most cases, to beef up these rosters, not plant a stick of dynamite within them.
Why: They're simply not postseason material.
Well, the Indiana Pacers' opening-season tear was fun while it lasted.
Yes, the Eastern Conference is a wide-open mess of mediocrity. But the Pacers offense is on the downswing, and they don't have the defensive personnel to parlay league-average scoring into a playoff cameo.
Equally important: Including both them and the Orlando Magic felt reachy. It had to be one or the other. And, well, the Magic look like the better candidates.
Why: They're not a fringe playoff team. They're a surefire playoff team.
Face it: Most of us were wrong about the Memphis Grizzlies. They are deeper than advertised, and Mike Conley and Marc Gasol are automatically worth 44-plus wins.
New York Knicks
Why: They're headed to the lottery.
Look, the early-season New York Knicks have been fun. But let's wait to see if Kristaps Porzingis is still scoring 30 points per game on career-high efficiency and a league-high usage rate in January.
If he is, then we'll talk—most likely about how the Knicks need to sell off some veterans to avoid stalling their rebuild with a low-end playoff berth.
Why: They're a postseason lock.
Correct: The Philadelphia 76ers are being penciled in for a playoff bid now, before the season reaches its quarter mark. Anyone who isn't comfortable with that needs to check themselves.
The Sixers continue to play like a dominant bunch when Joel Embiid is on the floor, but more importantly, they're starting to do cool stuff without him—like hand the Utah Jazz a loss in their own house as Ben Simmons strengthens his rookie-year All-Star case.
Charlotte Hornets Receive: PG Raul Neto
Utah Jazz Receive: Johnny O'Bryant III
Coming up with trade targets for the Charlotte Hornets is awkwardly difficult.
They have needs. Woo boy, do they have needs. But they don't have many expendable assets or quality salary-matching pieces.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marvin Williams and Cody Zeller are their best chips, and they're not being moved outside of a blockbuster. Jeremy Lamb has played himself beyond throw-in status. Some people still believe in Frank Kaminsky, but his $2.8 million salary isn't getting Charlotte anyone consequential, and it doesn't make sense to flip him for a cheap backup.
Scouring the market for a dispensable setup man is the Hornets' best play. They don't need to hit a home run. Singles are fine—particularly with Eric Bledsoe off the chopping block and the Hornets officially unable to appease yours truly with a package built around Lamb and a first-rounder.
Raul Neto's arrival won't make headlines, but he serves a purpose so long as the Hornets cannot function on offense without Kemba Walker. They go from scoring 112.8 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor to mustering just 84.3 with him on the bench—a 28.5-point nosedive that reads like a drunken typo (it's not).
Head coach Steve Clifford is committed to developing Malik Monk as a point guard, so he'll eventually be an adequate bridge between Walker's breathers. Eventually. He's a rookie, and directing offenses is foreign territory for him.
Lamb can run some pick-and-rolls and sends defenses into a tizzy once he drives inside the arc, courtesy of a deadly mid-range game. But he needs all spot-up hands on deck to maximize his dribble penetration, including Walker—which, ya know, defeats the purpose of using him to spell the All-Star point man.
Charlotte's offense, not surprisingly, suffers substantive dips whenever Lamb or Monk runs without Walker. Nicolas Batum's return will help the cause, but he didn't excel in the solo role last year. And if anyone believes Michael Carter-Williams is the answer, keep it to yourself. That take isn't one you want to publicly put your name on.
Neto isn't an untapped goldmine who solves everything. The Jazz offense is Hornets-without-Walker bad when he's in the game. But head coach Quin Snyder hasn't played him much since 2015-16, his rookie season, through which he shot 39.5 percent from deep and piloted a so-so offense.
Detroit Pistons Receive: SF/PF Luke Babbitt and SG/SF Marco Belinelli
Atlanta Hawks Receive: PF/C Jon Leuer and 2018 lottery-protected first-round pick
Two spot-up assassins and a way out from under the final three years (including this one) and $30 million on Jon Leuer's contract? Yes please.
Detroit Pistons head coach and president Stan Van Gundy doesn't like forking over first-round picks—what executive does?—but he has to consider biting the bullet here. Leuer's contract hasn't looked good since the first half of last season. It looks even worse now, with him recovering from an ankle injury and Anthony Tolliver, relative to people named Anthony Tolliver, absolutely balling.
Few teams will absorb Leuer's salary without demanding a steep ransom. Count the Atlanta Hawks as one of them. They're slow-playing their rebuild and probably hitting the peace-out button on both Marco Belinelli and Luke Babbitt after this season.
Plus, they have Dewayne Dedmond shooting threes. They might actually extract real value from Leuer over the next couple of years. And, on top of that, they'll have six first-round picks (including their own) between now and 2019, perfectly positioning them to pull the trigger on a blockbuster deal if they so please.
The Pistons have to consider this even if the incoming players aren't particularly useful. They'll be paying Avery Bradley a lot of money after this season, and shedding Leuer's eight-figure salary gives them more wiggle room under the luxury-tax threshold.
That both Babbitt and Belinelli actually help the Pistons is a huge win. Neither is hitting under 39.5 percent of their catch-and-shoot threes, an area in which Detroit remains unsound. Babbitt also unlocks some legitimately terrifying four-out lineups.
Place him next to Bradley, Tobias Harris and Stanley Johnson, with Andre Drummond in the middle, and the Pistons should sing. Sub in Belinelli for Drummond, with Harris drifting to the 5, and Detroit will enjoy a nice "Death Lineup" feel.
Los Angeles Clippers
Los Angeles Clippers Receive: SG/SF Garrett Temple
Sacramento Kings Receive: PF Sam Dekker, SF/PF Wesley Johnson, 2020 second-round pick
Rest in pace, Los Angeles Clippers defense. We barely knew ye.
After holding opponents to a league-best 91.9 points per 100 possessions over their first four games, the Clippers have fallen—crashed, head first, really—back down to Earth. They're 28th in that same category over their past six tilts, through which they're 1-5.
DeAndre Jordan exists, so the Clippers do a nice job limiting the number of looks rival offenses get at the rim. Unfriendlies are, however, shooting 60 percent against him at the iron. Chalk this up to him abandoning his post with uncomfortable frequency, because Los Angeles doesn't do a good enough job closing out on jump shooters.
Only the Cleveland Cavaliers are allowing more points per spot-up possession—hardly surprising when you look at the Clippers' primary wings. They're not very switchy. Danilo Gallinari has been more impressive than almost anyone in that department, which is both awesome and beyond troubling. Sindarius Thornwell is feisty, and head coach Doc Rivers is starting to give him meaningful minutes, but he's still a rookie.
Targeting cross-position perimeter defenders would be a no-brainer move if the Clippers owned any real trade assets. Their pick situation isn't great, and they don't have a bundle of enticing contracts on the ledger.
Hoping against hope the Sacramento Kings are willing to sell low on Garrett Temple is their best bet. He can match up with shooting guards and small forwards, in addition to some point guards. And he's quality at low-directing pick-and-rolls in a pinch.
Sacramento admittedly isn't getting a lot for Temple's services. Sam Dekker is the highlight of its return, but while he's a first-round prospect, he's yet to flash Chandler Parsons 1.5 potential. But Temple is 31 with a player option for next season. The Kings aren't getting much for a flight risk who doesn't fit their timeline. Eating the slightly cheaper Wesley Johnson, who still shows something on defense every so often, for a flyer on Dekker and a down-the-line second-rounder might be worthwhile to them.
Acquiring Temple cannot be the hard-capped Clippers' final move if they're looking to duck the luxury tax. The $300,000 in salary they add with this deal triggers the repeater penalty. They'll need to find a new home for Brice Johnson, try brokering a buyout with him or explore stretch-provision options at their disposal—hoops they should happily jump through if it means securing Temple.
Miami Heat Receive: SG/SF Rashad Vaughn
Milwaukee Bucks Receive: C A.J. Hammons
Consider the Miami Heat an extension of the Hornets. Their makeup isn't conducive to making moderate moves. They can use their bigger names and, inevitably, free-agent signings as anchors for bigger splashes or go searching for under-the-radar pickups.
Under-the-radar pickups it is.
Dangling Justise Winslow with Wayne Ellington's expiring deal and another bigger salary might appeal to the Heat later on in the season—like in mid-December, when James Johnson, Kelly Olynyk and James Johnson are all trade eligible. But they don't have a large enough sample under their belt to start plumbing the blockbuster market. They'll need to give this core 20 or so games at least before pivoting from the makeup responsible for last season's 31-10 tear.
Endorsing a decision to play it safe is problematic for our purposes. They don't have the cap space to swallow unwanted contracts. This year's first-round pick is headed to the Phoenix Suns. Ditto for their 2021 selection. And team president Pat Riley, apparently, doesn't believe in holstering second-rounders.
Miami needs someone making peanuts who has overstayed his welcome with his current digs. And that brings us to Rashad Vaughn.
The Milwaukee Bucks didn't pick up his fourth-year option, rendering him an expiring contract, and he's more expendable than ever following the arrival of Eric Bledsoe. They've made it crystal clear he's not part of their short- or long-term agenda.
"Was I surprised? No, not really," Vaughn said of Milwaukee declining his team option, per the Racine Journal Times' Gery Woelfel. "They just want to go in a different direction."
That different direction included, at one time, hocking a second-round pick so another team would take on Vaughn, per ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin and Adrian Wojnarowski. The Bucks won't be as desperate to move him now with the Bledsoe trade all wrapped up, but they are down one big after jettisoning Greg Monroe. And given the frequency with which head coach Jason Kidd rotates Milwaukee's towers in and out of his doghouse, it wouldn't hurt to have A.J. Hammons. He's cheap, stands 7'0" and sometimes shoots threes.
Vaughn has actual value to the Heat. He can defend some bigger players, not unlike the injured Rodney McGruder, and has shown glimpses of being a competent outside shooter. They should absolutely give head coach Erik Spoelstra a shot at turning him into a McGruder-Luke Babbitt hybrid.
New Orleans Pelicans
New Orleans Pelicans Receive: SG/SF Joe Harris
Brooklyn Nets Receive: C Cheick Diallo
Cheick Diallo is a fringe first-round prospect with plenty of bounce to his name. He profiles as a strong rebounder, solid shot-blocker and reliable rim-runner at his peak.
Using a 21-year-old with his ceiling to nab Joe Harris' expiring contract doesn't sit right. But the New Orleans Pelicans don't have much else to offer. Many of their contracts are immovable without sweeteners—including the injured Solomon Hill's deal—and players with curb appeal, like E'Twaun Moore, are too valuable for them to trade.
Diallo's sub-$1.5 million isn't netting the Pelicans special a return anyway. They must tether him to another player who is the right combination of expensive and desirable—an asset they, again, don't have in their possession.
Having DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis on the roster only complicates matters. Diallo will hardly ever play if Cousins comes back next season, leaving the Pelicans with zero leverage. They'll be lucky to turn a big into a sweet-shooting wing who boosts their shoddy spacing.
Harris does the trick. He's shooting over 39 percent from downtown and 40 percent on catch-and-shoot treys. He won't do anything to help the Pelicans defense, but their 27th-ranked accuracy rate (33 percent) from beyond the arc is the more pressing concern.
Convincing the Nets to part with Harris could be a difficult venture. He's been Kyle Korver-esque this year. But he's 26 and speeding toward free agency next summer. They won't want to pay him market value over the long haul when they have so many other wings on the docket—two of which, DeMarre Carroll and Allen Crabbe, are pretty pricey.
Brooklyn is also one of the scant few teams who can use a big moving forward. Watching Timofey Mozgov hoist threes is fun, but he doesn't figure into an effective rotation. Trevor Brooker will hit free agency in July and could leave. Tyler Zeller's 2018-19 salary is non-guaranteed.
Jarrett Allen is the lone potential building block at the 5, so the Nets have room to experiment with Diallo through next year.
Orlando Magic Receive: SG Sean Kilpatrick
Brooklyn Nets Receive: Mario Hezonja
Mario Hezonja and the Magic are not long for one another. Like Rashad Vaughn, his fourth-year option was declined, ticketing him for unrestricted free agency this summer.
"I'm here to play and I didn't come from home to here to watch," Hezonja said on the matter, per Magic.com's John Denton. "The goal for me is to play. I'll do what Coach asks me to do, but I want to play. … I wish I had been playing in these three years so that this (contract extension) could be judged by my playing time."
Sending the No. 5 overall pick from 2015 to Brooklyn for the undrafted Sean Kilpatrick is bizarre on the surface. But the Magic aren't treating Hezonja like a top-five prospect. We shouldn't either.
Orlando tried dealing him ahead of the deadline to exercise his team option, according to Basketball Insiders' Michael Scotto. That nothing ever materialized says a whole lot about how much his value has tanked. Shopping him as an expiring contract doesn't do much, if anything, to help.
But the Nets have turned into a hub for reinvention and rejuvenation as they slog through the pick-less stages of their rebuild. Hezonja can be their next project—at least for the rest of this season. He'll have a greener light in head coach Kenny Atkinson's fast-paced offensive system, and Brooklyn will continue testing out how his 6'8" frame holds up versus power forwards.
The Magic, for their part, could use another combo guard given the rash of injuries that have thus far swept through their backcourt. Both D.J. Augustin and Elfrid Payton are on the shelf with hamstring issues, and Orlando is already starting to see the limitations of a committee offense captained by Evan Fournier, Shelvin Mack and Jonathon Simmons.
Kilpatrick finds himself lost amid the Nets' thicket of guards following a solid 2016-17 campaign. Even with Jeremy Lin out, the emergence of the longer Spencer Dinwiddie doesn't bode well for his spot in the rotation. Brooklyn experimented with him running pick-and-rolls last season, and he's a nifty attacker. He shot 47 percent on drives in 2016-17 and works as a spot-up marksman when given enough room.
Landing him isn't even necessarily a short-term play for the Magic. He could be a cheaper long-term solution in the backcourt should Payton price himself out of town in restricted free agency.
Portland Trail Blazers
Portland Trail Blazers Receive (after Jan. 14): SG/SF Justin Holiday and PF Nikola Mirotic
Chicago Bulls Receive: SF Jake Layman, PF/C Meyers Leonard, PF Noah Vonleh, 2018 lottery-protected first-round pick and 2021 second-round pick
The Chicago Bulls will have the Portland Trail Blazers at "Yes, we'll take Meyers Leonard."
Moving the $31.8 million he's owed through 2019-20 must be classified as a godsend. His shooting percentages have cratered following standout performances in 2014-15 and 2015-16, and he's currently dealing with a lateral sprain in his right ankle.
Scroll through the Blazers' assortment of forwards and bigs, and you won't find a place for Leonard unless he regains his hyperefficient form. And they don't have the time for him to work through his warts as they chase a playoff spot in the unfairly deep Western Conference.
Bringing in Justin Holiday and Nikola Mirotic does so much more for the Blazers' postseason ambitions. Holiday costs under $5 million this season and next, and his 32.9 percent three-point clip will skyrocket when he's not being treated as a featured option. His defense looks a whole lot better when pestering backup wings as well.
Mirotic hasn't played this year after suffering facial fractures and a concussion during an altercation with teammate Bobby Portis, but the Blazers could use a power forward with some off-the-dribble juice. His fluctuating three-point splits should also even out, settling in somewhere above the league average, when catching passes from Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.
If things don't work out, his team option allows the Blazers to move on after this year. And conveniently enough for them, Mirotic doesn't seem like someone who wants to be in Chicago anymore. As the Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson wrote:
"Meanwhile, though he is free of his concussion symptoms, Nikola Mirotic remains weeks away from returning from the two facial fractures that Portis caused with a punch to the face during an Oct. 17 altercation between the forwards in practice. Mirotic remains upset enough over the disparity in time of absences that he has had little contact with teammates, and his camp has made clear to management that, for now, it doesn’t see a way the two forwards can coexist."
Chicago cannot expect to get much for Mirotic's services unless he returns well before the trade deadline and puts up career numbers. Snagging a first-round pick and a partial-season flyer on Noah Vonleh before he reaches restricted free agency should get them to think about pulling the trigger—especially if Mirotic hasn't done anything to increase his value by the time his trade restriction expires.
Utah Jazz Receive: SF/PF Harrison Barnes
Dallas Mavericks Receive: SG Alec Burks, PF/C Derrick Favors and 2018 top-10 protected first round pick
The Jazz badly need help on offense. They rank 27th in points scored per 100 possessions, and they don't have a bona fide go-to buckets-getter.
Ricky Rubio leads them in scoring, which, wow. Rookie combo guard Donovan Mitchell entered the NBA on a heat check, and the Jazz's offense has at times approached respectability with him on the court. But they cannot expect a first-year player to ferry an above-average attack at all, let alone for an entire season.
Rodney Hood isn't first-option material. He's best served in a No. 2 or No. 3 capacity. That much is now clear. Derrick Favors' offensive game is about five years too late to the alpha-scorer party. And 28-year-old Joe Johnson isn't walking through that door.
Utah has to look outside its own house for a possible solution. Contacting the Dallas Mavericks is a good place to start. They're in the early stages of a rebuild, and rookie Dennis Smith Jr. now commands a lion's share of the offense.
Sponging up Alec Burks' deal isn't the greatest outcome, but they save $12.6 million in 2018-19 by paying him instead of Barnes and then another $25.1 million in 2019-20 when the former comes off the books. Tack on a first-round pick, along with the chance to try out Favors down low, and the Mavericks at least have to think about this offer.
Likewise, the Jazz should think about making it.
Brokering midseason blockbusters is uncharacteristic of general manager Dennis Lindsey, but Barnes is worth the gamble—even at his lofty price point ($72.3 million through 2019-20). The Jazz need a shot creator, and he's exactly that.
Although his efficiency has imploded this season, Barnes wrapped 2016-17 shooting 45.7 percent in isolation—the third-best mark among players to chew through 200 or more one-on-one touches. And nearly 18 percent of his total field-goal attempts came late in the shot clock—the highest share among 365 players to appear in at least 10 games.
Give him the freedom to run some pick-and-rolls with Rudy Gobert, along with the option of spotting up behind Rubio drives, and he should be closer career-best form than not. And while he had an iffy relationship with on-off splits during his debut season in Dallas, the Jazz could use that version of him now.