As NBA trade season kicks off, several teams will have a close eye on the summer of 2021. That’s when 2018-19 MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo is expected to be a free agent.
Keep that in mind as teams posture their way through the Feb. 6 trade deadline.
Unofficially, transaction season began Dec. 15, when most of last offseason’s signings became trade-eligible. That's in the neighborhood of 110 players, or almost 25 percent of the league.
The trade market has been quiet since July 16, when the Thunder sent Russell Westbrook to the Houston Rockets for a package that included Chris Paul. Some league insiders expect the lack of activity to continue; others think it’s just a matter of time.
Complicating matters, three teams with losing records would be in the playoffs if the season ended now. That's a carrot for almost half of the league. Other squads could catch the Orlando Magic (12-14) in the Eastern Conference and the Sacramento Kings (12-14) and Oklahoma City Thunder (11-14) in the West.
"I don't think any of these teams [outside of the top eight] are scared," one former general manager said. "It's going to take longer for teams to lose confidence that they have a chance to fight for eighth."
Playoff viability will help determine which teams are buyers and sellers, but it’s too early to tell in mid-December.
"We'll see more separation [in the standings] closer to February," the former GM continued.
Still, the trade market is starting to take shape.
These 5 Teams Make the Most Sense for Kevin Love
Kevin Love will be one of the biggest names available. He's been linked to the Portland Trail Blazers (10-16) for years—in part because he played at Lake Oswego High School in Oregon.
"Sometimes the obvious happens," a former Western Conference executive said. "Something like [Hassan] Whiteside, Mario Hezonja, [Anfernee] Simons, Gary Trent and a first. You have to give something to get something."
But the former GM disagrees, noting Simons is a steal for the Blazers, one they won't give up. It’s possible the Blazers aren’t willing to invest in Love. He’s on an expensive four-year, $120.4 million contract that runs through 2022-23 and is owed $28.9 million this season.
To acquire Love, a team must send out roughly $23.1 million in salary. That's a nonstarter for some, and the length of Love’s deal overlaps with the summer of Giannis in 2021. That would take a team like the Toronto Raptors off the list, given the expectation they'll make a run at Antetokounmpo.
Does Portland want to pay over $92 million next season for just Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Love?
"No," the former GM said.
Instead, look to the Charlotte Hornets (12-17), who could offer a first-round pick with the contract of Nicolas Batum, who has a $27.1 million player option for 2020-21. Shedding two years off Love's deal for a first-rounder could appeal to Cleveland.
"The Atlanta Hawks may be a sneaky buyer," the former executive said. "They haven't gotten the results they expected so far this season."
The Hawks (6-21) have several large expiring contracts (Chandler Parsons, Evan Turner and Allen Crabbe) along with young players and draft picks they could offer. They’d be wise to appease second-year star Trae Young by providing him a more ready-to-win veteran in Love.
"Teams are going to look at Cleveland like they're doing them a favor taking Love's contract off their hands. Some may want compensation. Each team is going to have a different evaluation," the former GM said. "But the [Phoenix] Suns may be the best fit."
The Suns (11-14) have taken a significant step forward this season. Adding Love, who could be a strong complement to Deandre Ayton (nearing a return from a performance-enhancing drug suspension), may give Phoenix a stronger chance to return to the postseason for the first time since 2010.
"They might be willing to give up a first to get Love," he continued.
What about the Utah Jazz (15-11) for Bojan Bogdanovic and Dante Exum? They'll need to pay both Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell in 2021. It may not make sense to have Love on the books at $31.3 million.
Other franchises could pursue the veteran forward/center, but his sizable multiyear salary isn't an easy contract for most teams to absorb.
Surprise West Team Could Vie with LA Powers for Andre Iguodala
The Memphis Grizzlies (9-17) already told teams they will trade Iguodala before the deadline. They have no intention to buy him out if he isn’t dealt. "That's their position, at least for now," one Western Conference executive said.
Iguodala would be an important piece for any contender. Western Conference powers like the Los Angeles Lakers (24-3) or Clippers (20-8) are the obvious destinations. But the Lakers don't really have the $12.2 million in movable contracts to match Iguodala's $17.2 million expiring salary.
The Clippers could build a package around Maurice Harkless.
"The problem is, Harkless has been really good for the Clippers this season," the former GM said.
The Clippers don't have much to offer in draft considerations, and Jerome Robinson (the 13th overall pick in 2018) may not have shown enough to entice the Grizzlies.
The obvious choice could be the Dallas Mavericks (17-8). Luka Doncic has turned them into one of the best teams in the West (although he’ll be sidelined for some time with an ankle injury). Using Courtney Lee as salary ballast along with either draft considerations or one or two of the Mavericks' younger players might entice Memphis.
"Look for Dallas to be active before the trade deadline," an Eastern Conference executive said.
Not only would Iguodala help the Mavericks' 14th-ranked defense, but he’d also serve as a secondary ball-handler to take pressure off Doncic. Plus, acquiring Iguodala would keep him from joining their L.A. rivals.
If Iguodala isn’t dealt, the Grizzlies would be persuaded to cut him before March to preserve his playoff eligibility. But one executive suggested he'd probably have to give up a sizable portion of the salary he's guaranteed to earn in Memphis.
"Iguodala would probably need to take a hit financially to join a contender if he isn't traded," the executive said.
‘No One Wants CP3’
Oklahoma City is a difficult read.
"I'm not certain they are sellers," one Eastern Conference executive said. "I think they try to make the playoffs."
A different executive in the East doesn't agree and is confident the Thunder are open to offers for both Chris Paul and Danilo Gallinari.
Gallinari would be relatively easy to move with his expiring $22.6 million. If the team falls out of the playoff mix, don't expect the franchise to buy him out. Instead, one executive close to the Thunder said OKC will look to sign-and-trade him in July if they don't find a deal.
Paul is a little more complicated, given his $38.6 million 2019-20 salary. Another $85.6 million remains over the following two seasons, though he can opt out of the final year. Steven Adams is also expensive at $53.4 million through next season.
"No one wants CP3. Adams' contract is terrible," the first executive said. "Gallo is the only one that can bring something back."
The Miami Heat “were totally unreasonable" when discussing Paul in trade talks before the season, according to a player agent. Now at 19-7, Miami might be looking for smaller moves to improve.
If the Thunder do look to make a playoff push, Andre Roberson's $10.7 million expiring contract could be valuable. They could package him with one of the several first-rounders they will get via the Paul George or Westbrook trades.
Will the Knicks Realize They Should Be Sellers?
The New York Knicks signed several veterans this past summer on friendly contracts that they could easily move at the deadline: Marcus Morris Sr., Bobby Portis, Wayne Ellington, Elfrid Payton and Julius Randle, to name a few. If the franchise wants to be a seller, it has the means to get deals done.
"Morris could be valuable to a contender. He's tough and can shoot, has playoff experience. Just don't expect the San Antonio Spurs to go after him," an Eastern Conference executive said, referencing how Morris reneged on a contract with the Spurs over the summer.
In November, Frank Isola of The Athletic warned the jobs of Knicks front-office executives Steve Mills and Scott Perry could be in jeopardy—with Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri as the target to bring into the fold (and by proxy, ultimately Antetokounmpo).
"What's their new focus, 2021?" the former general manager asked. "Their focus is coach, GM. ... You need a team to get Giannis. Masai alone isn't going to get Giannis."
Outside of the $6.4 million owed to Joakim Noah for the 2021-22 season (previously waived and stretched), New York has just $4 million in guaranteed salary dedicated to Julius Randle (whose $19.8 million is only partially guaranteed). The team also has options on young players like RJ Barrett, Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson and Ignas Brazdeikis.
With the potential for enough cap space to sign multiple stars, the Knicks may hesitate to add on any salary that goes beyond the 2020-21 season (which probably takes them out of the Love business).
The New Orleans Pelicans (6-21) have underperformed by anyone’s measure. Injuries have been a major factor. Zion Williamson’s absence due to meniscus surgery has taken plenty of wind out of their sails. JJ Redick (two years, $26.5 million) would make more sense on a contender.
The Minnesota Timberwolves (10-15) are believed to be shopping both Jeff Teague and Robert Covington, the former GM said. "They need to figure out their point guard situation."
Don't sleep on the Milwaukee Bucks (24-3) at the deadline, despite an 18-game winning streak. If the goal is to do far more than just finish with the best overall record, but advance to the NBA Finals, would the Bucks be willing to take on a player on a multiyear contract in a trade to bolster their chances, even if that means getting into the luxury tax?
San Antonio (10-15) may wait until the summer to see if there's a sign-and-trade market for DeMar DeRozan.
Several executives believe the Indiana Pacers (18-9) will eventually look to move Myles Turner, who isn't generally considered a great fit long-term with Domantas Sabonis.
Also, the expectation is that the Golden State Warriors (5-23) will listen closely to offers at the deadline for D'Angelo Russell.
Email Eric Pincus at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.