NBA Teams That Need a Trade to Save Their SeasonsDecember 12, 2021
NBA Teams That Need a Trade to Save Their Seasons
Mere days separate us from the unofficial start of NBA trade season, on Dec. 15, when nearly 85 percent of all players under contract will be eligible to get dealt. And while there is still plenty of time to go before the Feb. 10 deadline, a handful of teams need to be chasing moves with much greater urgency.
Because their seasons depend on it.
"Relative to expectations" will be the operable phrase on which we lean throughout this exercise. Inclusions are reserved for teams noticeably underachieving when compared to internal or external projections.
Some are wannabe title contenders who just aren't. Others are playoff hopefuls staring down the barrel of an organizational overhaul if the status quo doesn't change soon. All of them need to do something, anything, lest their seasons keep flirting with aimless mediocrity.
The Pacers are open to dealing just about anyone on their roster, according to The Athletic's Shams Charania and Bob Kravitz. Though the team provided some pushback to the initial report, Indiana has done nothing to altogether dismiss the possibility.
Really, it doesn't matter which way the Pacers lean. If they're interested in rebuilding, they need to capitalize on the value of players, such as Caris LeVert or Myles Turner, who may not fit the bigger picture. If they're intent on righting the ship this season, then they still need to shake things up, most likely by finding a higher-end point-of-attack scorer and streamlining, if not breaking up, the Turner-Domantas Sabonis fit.
Of course, the recent report protects the Pacers against full-on inclusion. This season is no longer as mission-critical if they're already eyeing the future. They have the talent on paper to dream bigger than 13th in the East—they're top 10 in net rating outside garbage time for crying out loud—but this presupposes they're irreversibly committed to winning now.
Demanding the Sixers make a big-time trade is tough. Joel Embiid, among others, has missed a bunch of time, and they're pummeling opponents during his minutes on the floor. They're much better than middling at full strength.
Except, well, they're never going to be at full strength if Ben Simmons isn't playing for them. And while trading him now will likely entail accepting a fraction of what they could've received for him in previous years, spending even a season of Embiid's prime outside the championship-contention clique borders on malpractice.
Philly might understand this sentiment, as it has reportedly accelerated Simmons trade negotiations, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski. But the team's limited sample with Embiid, Simmons' declining market value and not much alternative salary filler caps the urgency at which it should operate. For now, at least.
Expectations in Sacramento continue to be at war with those on the outside.
The Kings clearly think they're above play-in dalliances—otherwise they wouldn't have fired Luke Walton fewer than 20 games into the season. But the roster doesn't exactly scream "We're much better than this!" as currently constructed. They are, in fact, closer to an organization that should be turning over tear-it-down rocks than desperately prowling the blockbuster market.
Stubborn romantics will argue the Dallas Mavericks are headed for an inevitable uptick.
Luka Doncic will play his way into better shape. They won't hover around the bottom five in three-point accuracy forever. Reggie Bullock's minutes will get less turbulent. Ditto for Tim Hardaway Jr.'s court time. Kristaps Porzingis has already turned a corner. They're still jockeying for a top-four seed despite relative blahness!
Perhaps this is all true. But it pays to be skeptical. The Mavs are hovering around .500 with a bottom-nine offense and bottom-eight net rating, a red flag for any team piloted by Doncic. And more efficient scoring is not a given.
Dallas ranks 25th in average offensive possession time, according to Inpredictable, and dead last in the share of attempts coming at the rim. Tack on a non-commitment to getting out in transition, and the path to better opportunities isn't entirely clear. The Mavs are simultaneously working hard to get looks and not generating enough easy ones. They're around the bottom 10 in shot quality, an expected effective field-goal percentage model based on location and play context, according to PBP Stats.
Calling for them to acquire another primary creator has become a cliche. That doesn't make it incorrect. Some of their defensive concerns (rebounding, rim protection) can be addressed on the cheap by playing more complementary frontlines and even by making more shots at the other end. The dearth of on-ball hubs beyond Doncic and Jalen Brunson is, and has always been, more dire.
Los Angeles Lakers
Top-end talent theoretically gives the Los Angeles Lakers turnaround potential. Russell Westbrook is playing better, LeBron James' energy has picked up since returning from his injury, and the team is a plus-10 points per 100 possessions when Anthony Davis mans center alongside his two co-stars.
Still, the Lakers' overarching performance is, in no uncertain terms, alarming.
Only four teams have played an easier schedule, but Los Angeles ranks 24th in offense and 24th in net rating, with a below-average defense to boot. Westbrook is posting the highest turnover rate of his career. People bemoan Davis' offense when they should be more concerned with how often he's getting pushed around on defense. The non-LeBron minutes remain an abject disaster.
Better lineup management from head coach Frank Vogel should help. It won't solve everything. The Lakers' roster is a mishmash of ill-fitting players. They need a stretch-5 who isn't LeBron. They need better perimeter players. They need more shooting. They need more players who register as net positives on both ends of the floor.
Altering the makeup of this team will be difficult. The Lakers' three highest-paid players are either off-limits (LeBron, AD) or non-assets (Russ). They can combine Talen Horton-Tucker (trade-eligible Jan. 15) and Kendrick Nunn to take back a player making around $18.2 million, but sweetening a package beyond them is tough. They can only deal a first-round pick in 2027 or 2028, offer swaps in 2023 and 2026 and dangle second-rounders. For their sake, they better be prepared to exhaust every asset available to them.
New York Knicks
Tinkering with the starting lineup and displacing Kemba Walker from the rotation has not rescued the New York Knicks from the middle of nowhere. Since beginning the season 5-1, they are 20th in offense and 22nd in defense and have, for now, fallen outside the Eastern Conference's play-in bubble.
Patience is not a virtue the Knicks can afford to enjoy. Not even the East's claustrophobic standings are cause for much hope. New York is just a couple of victories away from claiming a top-four spot, but the roster wants for the diversified upside it's supposed to provide.
Alec Burks is a bright spot, and the Knicks still have some killer bench mobs. More consistent play from Julius Randle and RJ Barrett are reasonable expectations. Obi Toppin is pure adrenaline. Head coach Tom Thibodeau should indulge more Toppin-Randle lineups or even one-big combinations. New York is not without internal runway.
That's different from unrealized possibility. The Knicks, at their very best, need a high-impact injection in the middle (better defensive rebounding) and on the wings. More two-way players in general would be nice, but even the acquisition of someone, anyone, who is really, ridiculously good at one thing would go a long way. They shouldn't say no to higher-end point-of-attack offense, either.
Spotting the move to make is impossible. The Knicks at once are not without talent and need more than a singular upgrade. Simply acquiring a Myles Turner doesn't guarantee a turnaround, but that's no excuse to do nothing.
Portland Trail Blazers
File the Portland Trail Blazers under "On the Fence Cases" if you think they're tilting toward starting over. They're not.
"The organization wants to win," interim general manager Joe Cronin told The Athletic's Jason Quick. "There are times when you have to take a step back in order to make a step forward, and we are not convinced that this is that time yet. Our approach today is not a retool or a rebuild. It's an enhance. We haven't discussed one time about taking a step back."
Maybe this stance changes. It will have to if the Blazers don't. Their offense has admirably weathered injuries to—and underdelivering from—Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, but the defense ranks 28th in points allowed per possession and includes scant few bright spots.
Jusuf Nurkic is barely recognizable on a game-to-game basis. Opponents are shooting 70.2 percent against him at the rim, the league's highest mark among anyone who has defended at least 100 point-blank looks.
He's not the only culprit. The Blazers need better individual defenders. Acquiring both Robert Covington (having a season to forget) and Larry Nance Jr. were smart moves, but they're not point-of-attack stoppers.
Ben Simmons' name will get bandied about, but the Blazers don't have the juice to get him unless they surrender Lillard or Philly changes its stance on McCollum. They still need to do something if they want to salvage this season. They have mid-end contracts to move and some mildly intriguing kids, and no one aside from Dame should be untouchable.
Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass and accurate entering Friday's games. Salary information via Spotrac.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by NBA Math's Adam Fromal.