Tank Talk: NBA Teams That Should Already Be Sellers on the Trade Market
Let there be trades!
Exciting times await the NBA with Dec. 15 on the horizon. Most of the free agents who signed contracts over the summer will soon become trade-eligible, opening up a wider range of possibilities for teams looking to wheel and deal.
This benchmark is especially huge for the sellers trying to cash in on the most sought-after assets.
Not only are additional sources of salary-matching at their disposal, but the auction-holders will have the ability to get out from under recently signed pacts they no longer want or that don't fit their timelines. They're also encountering a generally larger market for the talent they're peddling. Potential suitors and contenders are deep enough into their schedules to know who they are and what they need, and they'll be extra aggressive to acquire it.
Of course, there needs to be a nice bundle of sellers for this to matter. And while buyers are itching to pull the trigger, throwing in the towel before this season's midway point isn't as easy. But it does happen.
And for some, it needs to happen yesterday, irrespective of whether they're ready to admit it.
These must-act-now sellers will be presented in order of increasing urgency. They're facing rebuilds, slogging through too many injuries, whiffing on initial expectations or traveling down the rabbit hole to nowhere. Their motivations for working the phones in search of talent dumps are different, but they all need to act swiftly if they're going to properly capitalize on the draft-lottery picture and improve their overall direction.
Not Quite Sellers, but Tracking in That Direction
The Atlanta Hawks will eventually belong on the meat of this list. They'll lose their way to premier lottery odds no matter what, but they have too many nifty placeholders to hold their current pose.
Marco Bellinelli's expiring contract and 38.1 percent shooting from downtown.
Luke Babbitt's minimum salary, 47 percent clip on threes and power forward chops.
Dewayne Dedmon's reasonable salary ($6.3 million player option for 2018-19) and low-key switchability.
Mike Muscala's stretch-5-who-also-protects-the-rim ceiling.
Atlanta should be taking calls on all these guys...soon. Babbitt and Dedmon cannot be dealt until after Dec. 14, while Muscala's restriction lifts after Jan. 14. All three are also nursing injuries, which commits the Hawks to more of a holding pattern.
Fast-forward a few weeks, and the Charlotte Hornets could be cast as an active seller. They have the third-worst record in the Eastern Conference, and the injuries are pilling up.
Cody Zeller is out indefinitely after having surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee. Nicolas Batum's elbow injury is cropping up again. Head coach Steve Clifford isn't even with the team as he deals with undisclosed health issues.
From the looks of things, the Hornets will have to beat out two of the Detroit Pistons, Miami Heat and New York Knicks to clinch a postseason bid. And they remain too Kemba Walker-dependent for that to be feasible. They're at plus-7.2 points per 100 possessions when he plays, compared to a minus-17.4 with him on the bench, per NBA.com—a 24.6-point swing in the wrong direction.
Enough will have to be enough at some point. If the Hornets haven't played their way back into the playoff picture by the turn of the calendar, they'll be faced with a decision: double down on this roster by seeking help at all costs or join the seller's ranks, considering any and all angles—including a trade for Walker in advance of his 2019 free agency.
Sending Eric Bledsoe to the Milwaukee Bucks should wind up being the extent of the Phoenix Suns' foray into seller's mode—not because they don't have the incentive to drive down their win total, but because they don't have much worth purchasing.
Hawking a 35-year-old Tyson Chandler who's owed $13.6 million next year isn't generating a ton of callbacks. Greg Monroe's $17.9 million salary is a nifty chip, but expiring contracts are usually dangled to reel in win-now talent—a la what Milwaukee did to nab Bledsoe. Brandon Knight is immovable.
Short of giving up on one of their youngsters, the Suns don't have the curb appeal to attract buyers. Fortunately for them, they'll remain in the hunt for favorable lottery odds anyway. After all, as they showed last season, they're not against stacking the deck with midseason furloughs.
7. Sacramento Kings
Expected Record (via Cleaning The Glass): 17-65
Untouchable Players: Bogdan Bogdanovic, Willie Cauley-Stein, De'Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Skal Labissiere, Frank Mason III
Notable Trade Assets: George Hill, Kosta Koufos, Malachi Richardson, Garrett Temple
Any Sacramento Kings fire sale won't be rooted in lottery odds. They're playing like the league's worst squad, despite what their record implies. No team is being outscored by more points per 100 possessions—not even the Chicago Bulls.
Wins over the Oklahoma City Thunder (Nov. 7), Philadelphia 76ers (Nov. 9), Golden State Warriors (Nov. 27) and New Orleans Pelicans (Dec. 8) were flukes. Oklahoma City won't be a mass of tactical dysfunction forever. Golden State won't give Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant a rest night every time Sacramento is on tap. The Kings can only catch an out-of-sorts Anthony Davis so many times.
And hey! One-off blips aren't a bad thing. The Kings have a year to tank their hearts out before sending next season's first-round pick to Boston or Philly. They can stand pat, let the rest of 2017-18 unfold and saunter into the draft lottery with top-three odds.
Except, their minutes distribution is too weird for idleness. George Hill apparently thought he signed on to pursue a playoff push, according to the Salt Lake Tribune's Tony Jones, not surrender minutes to De'Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield and Frank Mason III. Mistaking this team for a postseason contender is on him, but as Haley O'Shaughnessy unpacked for The Ringer, the Kings aren't exactly rebuilding like they mean it:
"If the Kings’ plan is to prioritize development, it’s been hard to tell. Watching Fox chuck shots every game has meaning — though not much to George Hill — for a team focused on the future. But with part of the team still stuck in the present, the Kings’ approach to their future is only a half measure. Perry is gone, and his dreams of contention went along with him. But at least he seemed to have direction. The Kings aren’t winning and aren’t committing to a starting lineup but aren’t willing to give up on the season, either, and give the full green light to their rookies and young players."
None of the Kings' top trade assets will command the moon. But Garrett Temple is an under-the-radar jack of all trades on a reasonable contract ($8 million player option for 2018-19), and Kosta Koufos is a serviceable backup big. Just $1 million of Hill's salary is guaranteed in his contract's final year (2019-20), so some buyer should be willing to attach a mid-end pick or prospect—particularly if Sacramento includes Malachi Richardson or, maybe, Justin Jackson as ancillary sweeteners.
Then again, the Kings needn't get caught up in extracting bountiful returns. The focus is on uclogging the pipeline and getting more run for the kids. Youngsters like Jackson and Skal Labissiere shouldn't be bouncing in and out of the G-League just so Sacramento can squeeze Koufos, Temple, Vince Carter and Zach Randolph into the rotation.
6. Chicago Bulls
Expected Record: 20-62
Untouchable Players: Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen
Notable Trade Assets: Justin Holiday, Robin Lopez, Nikola Mirotic (after Jan. 14)
Like the Kings, the Bulls aren't in serious danger of ruining their lottery odds. They have a bottom-three record as currently constructed and won't tack on too many wins by holding serve. But sitting tight doesn't do them any favors either.
Nikola Mirotic has emerged from his dustup with Bobby Portis better for wear, while Kris Dunn (38.5 percent shooting from three!) and Robin Lopez (just generally awesome) are piecing together quality campaigns. If Lauri Markkanen returns to early-November form, Denzel Valentine continues swishing pull-up threes and a healthy Zach LaVine shoots the team out of last place in offensive efficiency, these Bulls could find themselves on the right side of 20 wins.
Or, for their purposes, the wrong side of 20 wins.
Sensing this, the Bulls front office is doing the right thing for a change and gauging interest in Lopez and Mirotic (who can't be traded until Jan. 15), according to the Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson. Neither will yield a king's ransom, but as The Athletic's Stephen Noh wrote, they'll still be worth something:
"The Bulls should be able to get more for Lopez and Mirotic than the Nets got for Booker. Lopez and Mirotic are both better assets. The bar should be set at the bare minimum of a second-round pick and some reclamation projects. They are also in an enviable position of being able to still take on up to $16 million in salary if they renounce their trade exceptions and waive Kay Felder before his Jan. 10 guarantee date."
That financial plasticity and Mirotic are the Bulls' best assets. Cap space comes at a premium these days, and teams hoping to become players in free agency are, as we've seen with the Lakers, willing to fork over first-round picks and prospects to grease the wheels of salary a dump.
Mirotic's $12.5 million team option for next season is perfect for squads seeking immediate help minus any long-term commitment. Lopez comes off the books in 2019 after making a digestible $14.4 million and could hold similar value for buyers trying to lop off deals that don't expire until 2020.
Chicago should not be above swallowing any player—from the Matthew Dellavedovas and Jon Leuers, all the way up to the Omer Asiks and Evan Turners—if it means reloading the picks-and-prospects cupboard and further detracting from this year's win total.
5. Memphis Grizzlies
Expected Record: 29-53
Untouchable Players: Dillon Brooks
Notable Trade Assets: James Ennis, Tyreke Evans (after Dec. 14), Marc Gasol, JaMychal Green (after Jan. 14)
Pretty much everyone on the Memphis Grizzlies should be up for grabs—including Mike Conley and Marc Gasol.
This season is too far gone for a rescue mission. The Grizzlies are deeper than advertised at full strength, but they're not at full strength. And there won't be anything meaningful left to salvage when, if ever, the entire cast is ready to rock.
Maybe, by some stroke of luck, Memphis plays its way into the race for seventh or eighth place on the Western Conference's playoff ladder. But what happens then? A first-round sweep at the hands of the Houston Rockets or Golden State Warriors? No thanks.
Leaning into a nosedive and the high-end pick it promises sounds much better. And the Grizzlies don't have to fully tank for it to work. They can keep Conley and Gasol.
Conley isn't an asset on his deal anyway (notice his absence up top), and his Achilles injury gives Memphis a built-in excuse to sit him. Gasol doesn't seem happy at the moment and might fetch a hefty return on the chopping block, but the Grizzlies are losing enough while playing him. They're 3-18 over their past 21 games, with the league's third-worst net rating.
Plus, general manager Chris Wallace ruled out trading either of his stars after canning head coach David Fizdale, per ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon.
Hardline stances change quickly in the NBA, but the Grizzlies have the option of keeping Conley and Gasol, granting them early vacations in mid-February and losing en masse after selling off anyone else of value.
Tyreke Evans is by far their best bargaining chip. He doesn't come with Bird rights, so his looming foray into free agency will scare off certain suitors. But his best-player-on-the-Grizzlies breakout should coax a contender into coughing up a pick or prospect. JaMychal Green could do the same after his trade restriction lifts. He's in the first season of a two-year, $17 million agreement and fit for small-ball-5 duty on spacey contenders (sup, Boston, Cleveland and Milwaukee?).
4. Dallas Mavericks
Expected Record: 33-49
Untouchable Players: Dorian Finney-Smith, Dirk Nowitzki, Dennis Smith Jr.
Notable Trade Assets: J.J. Barea, Harrison Barnes, Yogi Ferrell, Devin Harris, Wesley Matthews, Nerlens Noel
It doesn't seem like the Dallas Mavericks need to be caught up in a March of the Sellers at first glance. They own the Western Conference's worst record, and head coach Rick Carlisle has gifted the keys of his offense to rookie Dennis Smith Jr.—a foolproof tanking measure.
And yet, the Mavericks, as reiterated ad nauseam, don't live up to their place in the standings. They're more comparable to the Heat or Lakers than the Bulls or Kings when removing garbage time from the equation, according to Cleaning The Glass.
Playing out the rest of this season without divesting veteran assets may not end in 30-something wins and a one-way ticket to basketball purgatory. But it could. The Mavericks should get out in front of their middle-rung projections and shop anyone short of potential cornerstones and franchise-lifers.
J.J. Barea, Devin Harris and Wesley Matthews stand out as the most pressing bait. None of them will get the Mavericks a substantive return; Barea only ever seems to work in Dallas, and Matthews is owed $18.6 million next season (player option). But they all threaten to elevate the Mavericks' ceiling—especially Barea and Harris, who are a plus-51 and plus-83, respectively, over the team's past 15 games.
Harrison Barnes shouldn't be off the table just because he's 25. If a fringe playoff team is desperate enough for shot creation (hiya, Utah), Dallas should pounce at the opportunity to shed the $49.2 million he's owed through 2018-19 and 2019-20 (player option).
Moving either him or Matthews without taking back massive long-term commitments will offer the Mavericks an effortless path to max cap space. Dumping Dwight Powell and some smaller deals gets them close as well, but that may take a sweetener.
A full-tilt trade frenzy isn't necessary. The Mavericks can get away with keeping Barnes if they're sold on him as a building block. But with Smith already in tow, they should be all-draft-pick-everything. And they're not there yet—nor will they ever be without a small-time garage sale.
3. Los Angeles Clippers
Expected Record: 34-48
Untouchable Players: Blake Griffin
Notable Trade Assets: Patrick Beverley (injured), DeAndre Jordan, Milos Teodosic (after Dec. 14), Lou Williams
Could the Los Angeles Clippers wait for Danilo Gallinari (glute) and Blake Griffin (sprained MCL) to get fully healthy, like Milos Teodosic, and try wedging their back into the playoff picture? Absolutely.
Should they? Absolutely not.
The temptation to hold out is understandable. The Clippers outscored opponents by 39 points in the 203 minutes Gallinari, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan played together so far. And they're an intriguing plus-15 in the 32 minutes that trio has spent with Teodosic. Their best combinations deserve the chance to expand upon these samples.
At what gain, though? The potential to maybe, quite possibly, if they're absurdly lucky, become a ceremonial first-round steppingstone for the Rockets, Warriors or San Antonio Spurs? The Clippers have to want more. They need to plan for more.
Bottoming out this season arms them with a first-rate prospect and, when the offseason rolls around, an extensive opportunity for self-reflection. They can partner a top-seven pick with what's left of the core to attempt an insta-turnaround, or they can pivot into a wholesale rebuild by parlaying Gallinari's and Griffin's hopefully cleaner health bills into tidy trade packages. (For the record, Griffin wouldn't be considered untouchable if his market value weren't depressed by injury.)
Either way, the Clippers don't have any business competing this season. Griffin isn't due back until late January at the earliest, and even if things pan out upon his return, they'll have to pay Jordan (player option) and Lou Williams in free agency just to keep a fringe-playoff squad intact.
Auctioning off their top assets is smarter. That starts with Jordan, who turns 30 in July. The Clippers are fielding trade offers for him but haven't started making their own inquiries, per USA Today's Sam Amick. That needs to change.
Jordan's contract situation shouldn't prevent them from brokering a return built around at least one first-round pick or prospect. And they can always marry him to Teodosic, Williams or even Patrick Beverley's non-guaranteed salary for next season if that draws more robust offers.
Stomaching an unsavory contract as part of the blockbuster does the same. More importantly, it puts the Clippers in line to erase the two-game gap currently standing between them and the top-five lottery odds on which their eyes should be trained.
2. New York Knicks
Expected Record: 40-42
Untouchable Players: Frank Ntilikina, Kristaps Porzingis
Notable Trade Assets: Willy Hernangomez, Courtney Lee, Doug McDermott, Kyle O'Quinn, Lance Thomas
The Knicks are over .500! They'd almost be in the postseason if it started today! They have a top-five net rating in crunch time! Tim Hardaway Jr. didn't look like a total bust before suffering a left leg injury!
Both Doug McDermott and rookie Frank Ntilikina saw stretch-run spin in their Dec. 12 victory over the Lakers! Which means the kids are playing! Enes Kanter is having the best defensive season of his career! Courtney Lee is a three-and-D dream!
If Kristaps Porzingis is good enough to ferry this foundation within striking distance of a playoff cameo now, why should't the Knicks try sneaking in? Because the long-term repercussions aren't worth it.
New York isn't looking at real cap space if Kanter (duh), Ron Baker (double duh) and Kyle O'Quinn (it could go either way) opt into their deals. A new contract for the sweet-shooting, hard-cutting, tries-on-defense McDermott eats into whatever flexibility the team carves out.
Jump ahead to 2019, and the outlook improves, but not by much. If Porzingis hasn't signed a max extension by then, the Knicks will be carrying his $17.1 million restricted free-agent hold. So, in the cheapest scenario possible, they'll have $73.2 million committed to his pre-contract hit, Hardaway, Lee, Ntilikina, Joakim Noah and Lance Thomas' $1 million guarantee.
Account for the the Knicks' next two draft picks, and this projection will blow past $90 million if they re-sign McDermott and keep Thomas. That doesn't position them to make a splash in free agency until 2020. They can fudge the forecast by stretching Noah or attaching picks to his deal in a salary dump, but both scenarios verge on reckless.
Drumming up the value of this year's draft pick before the lottery changes take effect in 2019 has to be the Knicks' top priority. It represents their best shot at acquiring a marquee talent over the next couple of years. They should be willing to deal away short-term assets to safeguard their bigger picture.
Teams are already asking the Knicks about Lee, according to ESPN.com's Ian Begley. His 43.2 percent success rate on threes, 58.5 percent shooting on drives and defensive work ethic should net a first-round pick or prospect—assets more in line with New York's window.
Thomas won't do the same, but he can be a viable defender at the 4 in the right situation. O'Quinn is an underrated passer and spacer. Willy Hernangomez, who remains buried on the Knicks bench, will be worth something to someone—an additive, perhaps, they tether to another bit asset for a low-end first-round choice or prospect.
No, the Knicks shouldn't make trades for activity's sake. But they're supposed to be rebuilding, not trapping themselves in the throes of mediocrity before Porzingis' second contract. And they need to start acting like it.
1. Orlando Magic
Expected Record: 30-52
Untouchable Players: Jonathan Isaac
Notable Trade Assets: Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton, Terrence Ross (injured), Jonathon Simmons (after Dec. 14), Nikola Vucevic
The Orlando Magic need to give up on ending their five-year playoff drought. That ship has sailed. They're 3-13 with the NBA's worst defense since beginning the season 8-4, and injuries, both minor and more serious, are ripping their way through the roster.
They have to blow it up.
There wouldn't be so much merit to this call for demolition if the Magic employed a surefire cornerstone or owned a palatable cap sheet. They enjoy neither of those things.
Carrying restricted free-agent holds for Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton will leave them with more than $95 million committed to next year's books—and that assumes they waive Shelvin Mack. Gordon, meanwhile, is the closest they come to a rebuilding linchpin, and this season marks the first time his production matches the part. Are the Magic prepared to pay him what should amount to near-max money based predominantly off one year?
Shelling out whatever it takes to keep him falls short of egregious, but they've already saddled themselves with iffy-to-immovable deals for Bismack Biyombo and Evan Fournier. Another above-market pact would be a bank-breaking future crusher.
With the exception of the cost-controlled Jonathan Isaac, last June's No. 6 pick, no one on this roster should be untouchable. And that includes Gordon. The Magic will need a monster return they might not get to move him, but if such an offer rolls in, they'll have to weigh it. They need to be in the cornerstone business. Footing the bill for Gordon's next contract won't necessarily qualify.
Failing the drastic, Orlando should at least be looking to trim salary while distancing itself from ultradreaded 30-win territory. If there were ever a time to find a taker for the three years and $51 million left on Fournier's agreement after this one, it would be now—or rather, once his right ankle is good to go.
The right contender might be open to flipping picks, prospects and fodder for some combination of Payton, Ross, Simmons and Vucevic. Would snagging Simmons and Vucevic lure Milwaukee into Malcolm Brogdon, Mirza Teletovic, D.J. Wilson and filler? Should Orlando offer to take Matthew Dellavedova instead of Teletovic to make it work? Or maybe both while sending out Mack (after Dec. 14)?
Relative to where they are, that deal or something similar is right up the Magic's alley. It would consolidate immediate contributors into flyers for the future and an escape from the middle of the lottery.