'Price Is Even Higher Now': All Eyes on NBA's Sparse Trade Deadline SellersMarch 24, 2021
The NBA trade winds are still swirling about the NBA landscape, but the breeze isn't quite as strong or blustery as we've seen and felt in past years.
There's still a good bit of speculation that'll keep the internet's trade simulators busy all the way up until Thursday's 3 p.m. ET deadline.
But league executives say the usual calm-before-the-storm vibe they get this time of year is different. And it's not just because of the socially distanced, COVID-19 world that we are all still living in.
It has more to do with the NBA's expanded playoff format, which league executives believe has had an unintended impact on tempering down the volatility we're accustomed to seeing at the trade deadline while allowing the smaller pool of sellers to push for even more trade assets than usual.
“The asking price is always high to a buyer trying to get a trade done,” said an Eastern Conference executive. “But with fewer sellers, that price is even higher now. It's supply-and-demand economics 101.”
The Houston Rockets were praised by rival executives in getting what they deemed tremendous value for P.J. Tucker after both team and player agreed to keep him off the court while figuring out a move.
Houston eventually dealt Tucker and Rodions Kurucs to Milwaukee along with a 2022 first-round pick (a pick that originally belonged to the Bucks), in return for a veteran scorer on a team-friendly contract (D.J. Augustin), a young big man (D.J. Wilson) still on his rookie contract, Milwaukee's 2023 first-round pick and the option to swap second-round picks in 2021 with the Bucks.
The Rockets have easily been the biggest sellers during the trade season, having already shipped out perennial All-Stars Russell Westbrook and James Harden to Washington and Brooklyn, respectively. And with Victor Oladipo, who was acquired in the Harden deal, league executives anticipate he may be on the move as well.
Houston's motivation was to get the best they could for players who wanted to leave. But there will be other sellers, like the Sacramento Kings, who are more concerned with their financial bottom line.
League executives anticipate the Kings will look to be sellers and focus on deals that will provide some salary-cap relief, despite having a team that's in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race.
Another seller that executives say to watch in the East is Toronto, with most of the attention being paid to Kyle Lowry. The 34-year-old Lowry, who turns 35 on Thursday, is a player several teams are looking at. His experience, veteran savvy and $30 million contract coming off the books this summer make him an attractive target for a number of teams needing to upgrade their backcourt. Philadelphia and Miami remain the front-runners for Lowry, but league sources maintain the Los Angeles Clippers will be “aggressively creative” in trying to figure out a way to bring him out West.
Executives anticipate the Orlando Magic making a significant move as well, considering they have been a borderline playoff team that has shown limited growth beyond being first-round fodder for one of the top seeds in the East.
There will be a variety of factors that will decide what teams do at the deadline, among them being the league's decision to extend the play-in format that was used during the league restart in the Orlando, Florida, bubble last year. Prior to the start of this season, the NBA governors agreed to an expanded playoff format that includes a first-ever Play-In Tournament.
In the past, teams that felt they were a player away from strengthening their hold on a top-eight playoff spot would have been more likely to stand pat knowing that a ninth- or 10th-place finish would still get them at least one postseason game with the potential for more.
“There's definitely more incentive to keep your team together as it is, with a couple more teams in the playoff mix now with the new format,” said an Eastern Conference executive. “Building a team doesn't happen overnight.”
Indeed, it takes time to build up a competitive squad.
The same holds true for fanbases who long to see their teams in the postseason, no matter how short the journey may be.
"You can call it a play-in game, but fans are going to still see it as their team being in the playoffs even if it's just the one play-in game," said a second Eastern Conference executive.
The expanded playoff format also affords teams a bit of a morale booster by having a game to play beyond the regular season and still be in the running for one of the top spots in the upcoming NBA draft.
Look at the Chicago Bulls, owners of the ninth-best record in the East, which would qualify them for a play-in home game against the 10th-place Indiana Pacers.
If the Bulls were to win that game and then knock off the loser of the No. 7-8 matchup between the Knicks and the Celtics, Chicago would go on to face the Eastern Conference's top-seeded team, which is currently the Philadelphia 76ers.
They would be heavy underdogs for sure.
But the experience of being a young team hosting a play-in game while still maintaining a slim but very real shot at the top overall pick in the upcoming NBA draft gives the Bulls, and most teams that are normally sellers during the trade season, a reason to pause and keep their team intact while bringing out more calmness to the usually blustery NBA trade winds.