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Rival Execs Expect Fringe Contenders to Make These Moves at NBA Trade Deadline

A. Sherrod BlakelyContributor IMarch 11, 2021

Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo drives on Houston Rockets' P.J. Tucker during an NBA basketball game Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Mike Ehrmann/Pool Photo via AP)
Mike Ehrmann/Associated Press

Blake Griffin being in demand is nothing new.

The six-time All-Star has spent the bulk of his career among NBA royalty.

But a series of injuries have diminished his impact, resulting in a buyout of the 31-year-old's contract (he'll be 32 years old on Tuesday) by the Detroit Pistons and his leaving $13.3 million on the table.

Unsurprisingly, Griffin wanted to join a title contender, which speaks to his intent as an aging veteran.

By pursuing him, title hopefuls such as the Brooklyn Nets—the team he eventually signed with for the rest of the season—recognized that despite their regular-season success and talent, they were probably one or two moves away from solidifying their status as a bona fide championship threat.

In addition to the Nets and defending NBA champion Lakers, teams built for a title run include the Utah Jazz and Philadelphia 76ers.

But a handful of other teams are just on the outside of that circle and are potentially one or two moves away from joining them.

So who are they and what do they need to do ahead of the March 25 trade deadline?

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We spoke with a handful of NBA executives and scouts to get their takes. 

      

Milwaukee Bucks: A Quick Defensive Fix

Mike Ehrmann/Associated Press

The Bucks have had the best record in the Eastern Conference each of the last two seasons, only to fail to get to the NBA Finals. They addressed many of their biggest concerns in the offseason, notably upgrading at point guard, with Jrue Holiday in and Eric Bledsoe shipped to New Orleans.

What few anticipated from the Bucks was a noticeable dip at the defensive end.

They have had the league's best defensive rating each of the last two seasons but this year have fallen to 12th.

That's why league executives see Houston's P.J. Tucker strengthening the Bucks in the one area where they appear most vulnerable.

Tucker is a gritty, versatile defender whose experience in Houston's small-ball system bodes well for his being a positive addition to just about any defensive scheme.

His 108.9 defensive rating during the 2019-20 season ranked in the 93rd percentile among forwards who appeared in at least 30 games but still wasn't good enough to land him a spot on any of the NBA's All-Defensive teams.

For Houston, trading Tucker would bring back assets (most likely a draft pick) for a player who will be a free agent after this season and will likely sign elsewhere. Meanwhile, Tucker would strengthen Milwaukee's weak defense.

      

Denver Nuggets: 2 Players Offering Front-Court Versatility

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Like the Bucks, league executives think the Nuggets are in the market for frontcourt versatility, with Tucker and Sacramento's Nemanja Bjelica as two options.

Both provide scoring, with Tucker bringing an added defensive presence thanks to his above-average ability to switch and match up with players at most positions.

The 6'10" Bjelica has been in and out of the Kings rotation, but his size and shooting touch of late (he's shooting 56.0 percent from the field in his last four games, 48.3 percent this season) make him an attractive target for several teams. 

      

Boston Celtics: Can They Finally Get Their Guy?

Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

Trade-deadline chatter is the norm for the Celtics, but it rarely results in completed deals. 

Boston hasn't made a significant trade near the deadline since it acquired Isaiah Thomas from the Phoenix Suns on Feb. 19, 2015. 

But some league executives expect that to change.

"I won't truly believe it until it happens," said an Eastern Conference exec. "But the smoke we're used to seeing around [the Celtics] this time of year seems a little thicker than usual now."

League executives confirmed the Celtics' strong interest in a handful of players, led by Sacramento's Harrison Barnes, who has been on Boston's radar dating back to his time with the Golden State Warriors. 

"He's their kind of player, on and off the court," said a Western Conference executive. "That's the good news. The bad news for Boston? [Sacramento] knows this, and they're not going to move him unless they get an offer that moves them."

At 6'8", Barnes has the size, versatility and basketball smarts that Celtics head coach Brad Stevens loves in all his players. Barnes would immediately fill the void that Boston never adequately addressed when Gordon Hayward left for Charlotte in the offseason. 

        

Los Angeles Clippers: Who Can Stabilize in the Clutch?

Charles Krupa/Associated Press

While the Clippers have the fourth-best record in the West, closing out games has been a major problem. 

The Clippers have 11 "clutch losses," with the Minnesota Timberwolves the only team in the West with more (13).

A late-game organizer is what the Clippers need, which is why league executives believe Toronto's Kyle Lowry is the guy they're focused on acquiring. 

Swinging a deal for the veteran floor general, who is due $30 million this season, will be tricky for the Clippers and will likely need a third team involved to facilitate. But Lowry would provide the kind of battle-tested leadership the Clippers need. And maybe just as important, the team's best player, Kawhi Leonard, is familiar with Lowry, having won a title in Toronto with him in 2019.

The Raptors love Lowry, but as they continue to fade to the back of the playoff picture, allowing the 34-year-old to catch on with another team better positioned to win a championship becomes more of a possibility. 

        

Phoenix Suns: Andre Drummond FTW

Matt York/Associated Press

Phoenix has been one of the NBA's most surprising teams, but league executives believe the Suns are a big man away from being a legit threat in the West.

That's why they anticipate the Suns will make a run at Cleveland's Andre Drummond.

The Cavs left no doubt about Drummond's availability when they shut him down in mid-February until a trade or buyout can be agreed upon. Drummond's double-double potential is a no-brainer as to why many teams covet him. But it is his defensive presence and its impact on the team as a whole that appeal to the Suns. 

Even though the Cavs (14-22) have the fifth-worst record in the NBA, Drummond's play is among the biggest reasons they limit teams to a league-low 59.1 percent shooting in the restricted area.

The addition of Drummond would be the one move that would strike fear in most if not all of the NBA's top-shelf teams. Adding him means he would have picked the Suns over the Lakers in a buyout scenario. The value in that can't be understated. It also gives Phoenix the kind of defensive interior presence that will cause problems for the better teams in the West. 

And while Drummond is not a stretch big, the Suns have 7-footer Frank Kaminsky (41.9 percent from three-point range) and Sixth Man of the Year candidate Dario Saric (37.7 percent on threes this season) to fill that role. Phoenix needs an additional banger in paint, a role Drummond fills, which would only continue the real-time rise of the Phoenix Suns.

Statistics via NBA.com unless otherwise noted.

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