What Every Fringe Playoff Team Should Do at NBA Trade Deadline
Decision time is upon us.
NBA teams will be largely locked into their chosen course after Thursday's trade deadline passes, with only the buyout market to peruse for talent infusions. Before then, they have to make a crucial choice.
Are they buyers, intent on adding more talent for a playoff push or a championship chase? Are they sellers, ready to slough off present pieces to help their long-term prospects? Are they content to stand pat and engage in zero movement during this inevitably hectic weak?
Here, we aren't worried about what will happen so much as what should for each of the 10 fringe postseason teams—defined as those with between a 5 and 70 percent chance of making the playoffs, per FiveThirtyEight's CARMELO model.*
Diving into their motivations, roster constructions, future plans and more, we're just here to give advice. Whether they follow it is up to them.
*The Golden State Warriors (99 percent), Milwaukee Bucks (99 percent), Boston Celtics (99 percent), Denver Nuggets (99 percent), Toronto Raptors (99 percent), Indiana Pacers (99 percent), Philadelphia 76ers (99 percent), Oklahoma City Thunder (99 percent), Houston Rockets (99 percent), Utah Jazz (99 percent), Portland Trail Blazers (96 percent), San Antonio Spurs (85 percent) and Brooklyn Nets (80 percent) have odds too promising to qualify as "fringe."
Charlotte Hornets: Either Way Works
The Charlotte Hornets are uniquely positioned to function as either buyers or sellers.
If they want to go the latter route, they could easily find takers for Jeremy Lamb and Frank Kaminsky. That would pave the way toward a true rebuilding season that strengthens their draft-day positioning and makes it increasingly likely they can acquire more talent for the next portion of the Kemba Walker era. You know, assuming the All-Star floor general decides to re-sign with them this offseason rather than fleeing for a new location that would allow him to escape perpetual mediocrity.
But that doesn't seem to be what the Hornets are doing.
As Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium reported Tuesday, the Queen City outfit is moving closer to acquiring Marc Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies. That would be an unequivocal example of functioning as a buyer. Gasol and Walker would form a devastating pick-and-roll/pop duo capable of terrorizing the Eastern Conference. Assuming both remain healthy, they might even move into "playoff lock" territory.
Such a move isn't devoid of risk, though.
What if Walker leaves this offseason while Gasol picks up his $25.6 million player option for 2019-20? That's a lot to pay a 34-year-old center when he'd be functioning as a declining centerpiece of a lackluster roster.
If Walker and Gasol stick together for multiple seasons, it'd be tough to complain about the Hornets' direction. Just remember that it would by no means be a guarantee.
Detroit Pistons: Sell
Despite rumors linking them with Mike Conley, per James L. Edwards III of The Athletic, the Detroit Pistons would be better off serving as sellers at the deadline. Even with Blake Griffin in the midst of a career year, this squad doesn't have enough talent to keep pace with the top teams in the Eastern Conference.
That's particularly true after they agreed to trade a fully developed shooter (Reggie Bullock) to the Los Angeles Lakers for one still in development (Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk), as Brad Turner of the Los Angeles Times reported Tuesday.
The Pistons could still play the part of buyers, even if that would conflict with their first pre-deadline move. They'd close the gap between themselves and the conference favorites with a reliable floor general who would push Reggie Jackson—assuming he isn't moved in a deal—into a smaller role. But they'd still be fighting an uphill battle to challenge the Toronto Raptors, Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers.
Instead, the Pistons should next consider shopping Stanley Johnson, whose lack of offensive improvement makes him a resounding disappointment. He's also set to become a restricted free agent this offseason, which could tempt Detroit into ponying up to retain him even though its net rating drops 7.1 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor.
Even if Johnson (or Bullock) isn't the headliner at the deadline, the Pistons are still better off trying to get second-round picks for Jon Leuer, Zaza Pachulia and Ish Smith than making an ill-advised play at loftier positioning in the East standings.
Los Angeles Clippers: Keep Selling
As tempting as it may be for the Los Angeles Clippers to seek out an infusion of talent at the deadline or shop around veterans buried on the...wait, hold on. That's a Woj bomb!
Before the wee-hours-of-the-night revelation from ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski, we would've advised this playoff threat in the Western Conference to hold tight, refusing to sell or buy but rather letting the chips fall where they may with a team set up to boast plenty of cap space this summer but still remain competitive for the remainder of the current campaign.
That doesn't play so well now that Los Angeles has traded Tobias Harris (previously the best player on the roster), Boban Marjanovic and Mike Scott to the Philadelphia 76ers for Wilson Chandler, Mike Muscala, Landry Shamet, two first-round picks and two second-round selections.
Now, the path forward is far more obvious: Just keep selling.
The Clippers don't have quite as much money coming off the books now, as they were set to head into the offseason with just $60.3 million under contract for the 2019-20 season. But even if Shamet is signed beyond this season, which stands in stark contrast to the three outgoing contributors, that's hardly a big change since Chandler and Muscala are both on expiring deals. Including the guaranteed salary of the sharp-shooting rookie, who was already playing significant minutes in the City of Brother Love, the Clippers are now on the hook for $62.3 million.
More importantly, the team is clearly stockpiling assets. Making further moves that bring home returns for Danilo Gallinari (possible), Avery Bradley (unlikely), Milos Teodosic (minimal), Patrick Beverley (possible) and Luc Mbah a Moute (possible) would be in line with the new plan. It would set the stage for a massive offer that lets the Clippers add a star via trade after signing one via free agency, or even getting them into the last-minute Anthony Davis sweepstakes.
Positioning for the future is all that matters after losing the up-and-coming standout who hit a game-winner against the Charlotte Hornets mere hours before he was dealt away.
Los Angeles Lakers: Buy
The Los Angeles Lakers' pursuit of Anthony Davis remains in constant flux, but they shouldn't hesitate to make reasonable offers. Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart may have plenty of untapped potential, but their stocks have declined during the 2018-19 campaign, thereby making any combination of purple-and-gold prospects a movable one.
It's only when the team starts mortgaging the future in the form of future first-round picks that things get tricky, as dealing away four such choices—as the Pelicans have reportedly requested, per ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski—can have unexpected detrimental consequences down the road. Thus far, the offers haven't crept up quite that high.
"The Lakers are currently offering the Pelicans a package that includes forwards Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma, guard Lonzo Ball and two first-round picks, as well as a willingness to absorb the remaining $12.7 million on Solomon Hill's contract in the 2019-20 season," Wojnarowski reported.
Offering that package is fine. Giving up another two first-rounders is not.
Even if the Lakers fail to acquire Davis, they should remain buyers and go after other top players on the market, adding to their roster just as they did when they acquired a sharpshooter (Reggie Bullock) from the Detroit Pistons. Nikola Vucevic is a perfect example, since his floor-spacing ability and offensive acumen at the 5 would mean a lot to L.A. during the season's stretch run.
When you have LeBron James on your roster, you must play to win now. It's as simple as that.
Miami Heat: Sell
Having too much depth can allow a competitive squad to sell even while working toward a playoff berth. The Miami Heat are the league's leading example after constructing a roster brimming with overpaid rotation players who both limit the team's ceiling and raise the floor high enough to avoid surefire lottery finishes.
Would Miami really miss Wayne Ellington if it offloads him to a contender in dire need of bench shooting?
The 2-guard is only one year removed from shooting 39.2 percent on 7.5 three-point attempts per game, but his role has shrunk in 2018-19. Playing only 21.3 minutes per game in his 25 appearances, the 31-year-old would be more useful to Miami if he turns into a draft pick or a young contributor with upside.
Similarly, Kelly Olynyk could draw interest for his offensive prowess. With Hassan Whiteside and Bam Adebayo on the roster and playing more minutes at the 5, the Gonzaga product is receiving only 20.2 minutes per contest. Derrick Jones Jr. could also fall into this category, although he's younger and still full of high-flying upside if he ever gets a chance to produce with a regular rotation role.
The Heat could also choose to sell even more prominent pieces, counting on backups to fill the vacated roles. Whiteside, Goran Dragic, Tyler Johnson and others shouldn't be off the table entirely, but acquiring them would take a return of increased significance.
Either way, Miami is in prime position to take advantage of a roster that needs to be thinned out.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Sell
As Jace Frederick wrote for the Pioneer Press, the Minnesota Timberwolves have the ammunition to become sellers, but they're likely to remain inactive and continue trying to stay competitive in the Western Conference:
"The Wolves could likely field returns for the likes of Derrick Rose, Anthony Tolliver and Taj Gibson, all of whom will enter free agency this summer. Better to get something for a player who can leave for nothing in the offseason, particularly if this season isn’t going anywhere, right? Jeff Teague has a player option this summer, and even if he exercises that, he’ll have only one year left on his deal.
"Besides, moving veterans for draft picks or other young, likely project players would open more opportunities for the Wolves to see what they have in younger players. Sending off veteran point guards would free up even more playing time for Tyus Jones ahead of his return from a sprained ankle. More minutes for the fourth-year guard would give Minnesota a better idea of what it has leading into Jones’ restricted free agency. Fans have been pining for minutes for rookie second-round pick Keita Bates-Diop."
On the flip side, Minneapolis-based broadcaster Darren Wolfson reported on Twitter: "Heard from a couple teams: [general manager Scott] Layden has been much more communicative than in the past. Expirings, Teague, [Gorgui] Dieng = all available. Issue is what other teams want the #Twolves to take back. 48 hours to go, and zero sense that anything is close."
Remember: This is about what teams should do at the deadline, not what they will do.
For the 25-28 Timberwolves, who boast the league's 17th-best net rating and have a 13 percent chance at making the playoffs, per FiveThirtyEight's CARMELO model, selling makes far more sense than anything else. Those aforementioned pieces hold no utility beyond the 2018-19 season, especially now that the team has axed Tom Thibodeau and no longer has significant connections between player and (ex) coach.
Sell, sell, sell. Then sell some more.
New Orleans Pelicans: Hold Tight
As tempting as it may be to trade Anthony Davis and pull off some secondary moves that bring in new talent for Jrue Holiday, the New Orleans Pelicans would be better off exercising patience.
Perhaps the Los Angeles Lakers won't be willing to offer quite as much this summer. Other franchises will.
And in this case, "other" includes the Boston Celtics. Due to the stipulations of Rose Rule contract extensions, the C's currently can't make a move for the All-NBA big man without including Kyrie Irving. Why not wait for Celtics team president Danny Ainge to get involved, even if he's swindled plenty of opposing general managers in the past and might not make the coveted godfather offer that includes Jayson Tatum?
But this is about more than maximizing the return for Davis by getting all of the potential offers on the table. New Orleans has been shockingly competitive, currently boasting a not-quite-out-of-it 14 percent chance to make the playoffs, per FiveThirtyEight.com's CARMELO model, even while Davis continues to miss time recovering from his finger injury.
The 23-31 Pelicans have underachieved dramatically. Their Pythagorean record, which is based solely on points scored and allowed, pegs them as a 29-25 team, which would put them a half-game behind the Los Angeles Clippers for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference. Basketball Reference's simple rating system, which factors in margin of victory and strength of schedule, places New Orleans as the No. 8 team in the West, just ahead of those pesky Clippers.
With a healthy Davis and Holiday leading the charge, the Pelicans may be able to squeeze out one more playoff appearance before starting the franchise's new era with an offseason deal. Everything just has to go right in the second half, flipping the season's luck around 180 degrees.
Orlando Magic: Sell
As Zach Buckley wrote for Bleacher Report during a deadline prediction collaboration, the Orlando Magic are in prime position to sell some of their most prominent talents:
"The Magic need more talent. And assets. And a cleaner cap picture. And a floor general of the future.
"They could scratch several of these itches by aggressively selling at the deadline. If [Anthony] Davis stays put, [Nikola] Vucevic, a fiery scorer from the paint to the perimeter, might be the best player available. Terrence Ross, a long-range sniper with hops, would appeal to the all the teams looking to strengthen their wings, which is essentially everyone in a positionless league.
"Their values have never been higher, and their futures are uncertain with unrestricted free agency awaiting them. Dealing them for forward-focused pieces capable of complementing the 23-and-under trio of Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac and Mohamed Bamba should be a no-brainer."
On one hand, the Magic could look to keep Nikola Vucevic, even while shopping Terrence Ross to teams in need of more three-point marksmanship. He's an All-Star this year and could be viewed as a franchise centerpiece capable of carrying this team to greater heights when surrounded by more talent. He's currently dragging a lackluster roster to a rotation-best 1.5 net rating when he's on the floor.
But that would be an ill-advised view.
As talented as Vucevic may be, he's a 28-year-old center who isn't compatible with a rebuilding timetable that hinges on the growth of Aaron Gordon (23), Jonathan Isaac (21) and Mohamed Bamba (20). He's also on an expiring contract, which means that keeping him past the deadline forces the Magic to assume the risk of him leaving this summer without them recouping any value.
Getting something is usually better than getting nothing.
Sacramento Kings: Buy
The Sacramento Kings have officially arrived as true playoff threats.
Currently sitting in the Western Conference's No. 9 seed with a 28-25 record, they've already bested their win total from last season (27). In fact, they could go 6-23 over the rest of the season and still finish with the franchise's best record since 2007-08.
Led by breakout point guard De'Aaron Fox and plenty of other young talents (Bogdan Bogdanovic, Buddy Hield, Marvin Bagley III, Willie Cauley-Stein, Justin Jackson), the Kings can afford to take on more long-term salary and make a splash at the deadline. They might not have the expendable pieces necessary to land a big fish, but acquiring a useful veteran or two—ideally a wing upgrade—could go a long way for a team that's entering uncharted territory.
As The Ringer's Dan Devine explained, this squad is uniquely positioned as an obvious buyer:
"Sacramento is also better positioned than any other team to take a big swing. The Kings still have a little more than $11 million in salary cap space, as well as four expiring contracts—Zach Randolph's $11.7 million, Iman Shumpert's $11 million, Kosta Koufos's $8.7 million, and Ben McLemore's $5.5 million—plus the smaller nonguaranteed 2019-20 contracts of Ferrell and reserve guard Frank Mason. They can use all that cap room and all that disappearing money to offer a get-out-of-financial-jail-free card to a franchise with luxury tax troubles … in exchange for a good player who could both improve this season's team and fit into the Kings' structure for the future."
Devine goes on to mention Otto Porter Jr., who would be a perfect fit if the Washington Wizards choose to make him available. But even if the Kings have to aim a bit lower, they can afford to move any of those expiring deals for a lesser piece.
Anything helps in the uber-competitive race for Western Conference playoff berths, and making an upgrade at the deadline would go a long way toward imbuing this organization with confidence as it moves further into its prolonged rebuild.
Washington Wizards: Anything but Buy
Please, Washington Wizards. We're begging you.
Even though they've already made a pair of in-season moves, including shipping Kelly Oubre Jr. and Austin Rivers to the Phoenix Suns for Trevor Ariza in a swap that firmly established them as an organization looking to buy, the Wizards can't possibly continue down that road. Mortgaging the future is ill-advised for a squad that will be without John Wall for the next year as he recovers from an Achilles tear but still has to pay him nearly $170 million over the next four seasons.
The Wizards have been more competitive as of late. But they've still gone only 7-8 with a 0.7 net rating over their past 15 outings, which is hardly indicative of a team that should be swinging for the fences just to work its way back into the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
If Washington wants to keep riding Bradley Beal, who's playing inspired basketball while operating as a solo star, that's fine. Maybe he's enough to push them into the No. 8 seed, where they'll likely serve as first-round fodder against the Milwaukee Bucks or Toronto Raptors.
If they want to sell off pieces, that's fine as well. Whether they deal Ariza to a more competitive organization or shop a bigger piece (see: Porter Jr., Otto), they'd be justified in doing so.
Just don't function as buyers. Please.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @fromal09.