Surprise Trade Deadline Targets for NBA's Top Contenders

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJanuary 27, 2022

Surprise Trade Deadline Targets for NBA's Top Contenders

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    As we approach the NBA's February 10 trade deadline, names like Ben Simmons, Jerami Grant and a handful of Indiana Pacers are understandably generating the most headlines. But seemingly every year, the league has a way of surprising us.

    Something unexpected typically happens leading up to the trade deadline. So while there hasn't been much (if any) reporting on any of the team-target connections made below, never say never.

    No title contender is perfect. And each has a little ammunition to make a trade. But before we get into who they should target, a word on how "top contenders" were selected.

    If you sort every team in the league by the average of their ranks in FiveThirtyEight's championship projection system, ESPN's Playoff BPI, Basketball Reference's championship projection model and simple rating system, you get a ranking that passes the sniff test.

    The teams from sixth to 10th are the Memphis Grizzlies, Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers, Cleveland Cavaliers and Dallas Mavericks. The top five, as well as surprise trade targets they should pursue, are below.

5. Milwaukee Bucks: Christian Wood

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    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    A lot of things would have to break right for the Milwaukee Bucks to be able to pull Christian Wood off the tanking Houston Rockets.

    First, Houston would have to make Wood available, which may be unlikely.

    "The 26-year-old has been subject to interest around the league, and sources say Miami has been one of the more persistent teams in engaging with Houston on the versatile big man," Kelly Iko wrote for The Athletic. "But barring a blow-me-away offer, Wood should remain in Houston past the deadline."

    Still, Wood is on a slightly different developmental timeline than Jalen Green, Kevin Porter Jr. and whomever the Rockets get in the upcoming draft. And his presence on the roster could hurt Houston's lottery odds, too. Reports like the one above are sometimes an effort to drive up trade value.

    The other problem for the Bucks is that even if the Rockets do make him available, plenty of teams around the league might be able to beat whatever they could offer for him.

    Milwaukee spent an enormous amount of future draft capital to acquire Jrue Holiday last offseason. That paid off with a championship last year, but the Bucks can't offer a first-round pick in a trade as a result. They can offer multiple future second-rounders, but Houston would probably prefer any offer that includes a first.

    Going after Wood would also likely mean the departure of Brook Lopez, Milwaukee's longtime starting 5 who also contributed to last year's championship run. However, Lopez is seven years older than Wood and has played in only one game this season due to a back injury.

    If the Bucks could enter the Wood sweepstakes with Lopez's contract, a talented young(ish) wing in Donte DiVincenzo and multiple second-round picks, it might be worth it. In that scenario, Milwaukee would get a more athletic three-and-D option in Wood who's closer to Giannis Antetokounmpo's age and more equipped to defend after switches on the perimeter.

    Meanwhile, Houston would remove a productive veteran from its roster to help increase its lottery odds, add an intriguing wing/guard to play with Green and KPJ and bolster its stockpile of picks.

4. Miami Heat: Marcus Morris Sr.

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    In terms of future draft assets, the Miami Heat are in a similar situation to the Bucks (though not quite as depleted). They owe the Rockets a first-round pick swap in 2022 and owe the Oklahoma City Thunder their lottery-protected first-round pick in 2023. They also have second-rounders outgoing in each year from now until 2027.

    Still, if the injury-rocked Los Angeles Clippers were to become sellers ahead of the deadline, Miami might be able to entice them with a package that includes Duncan Robinson and a 2025 first-round pick.

    Moving Robinson shortly after his breakout might seem rash, but the emergence of Max Strus has opened that possibility. Robinson is on a very movable contract, and the Heat probably wouldn't mind another big-bodied forward to throw at Eastern Conference stars like Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

    In theory, Marcus' brother Markieff Morris is such a player, but he's been out for most of the season with a neck injury. P.J. Tucker will be 37 in May. And Jimmy Butler is already shouldering a heavy responsibility on offense. Another player in the Morris-Tucker mold would help, especially if Morris can continue to shoot the way he has the last three seasons (42.5 percent from three since the start of 2019-20).

    For the Clippers, this doesn't come close to recouping the cost of landing Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, but it at least gives them a bite at the draft apple in the coming years. And though Robinson's effective field-goal percentage has fallen off a few cliffs in each of the last two seasons, he's still shooting above 40 percent from three in his career.

    With his off-ball movement and the ability he showed to hit catch-and-shoot threes in 2019-20 and 2020-21, he might be an ideal complement to a healthy George and Leonard in 2022-23.

3. Utah Jazz: Marcus Smart

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    The distance between the Utah Jazz's league-high 117.3 points per 100 possessions and the second-place Atlanta Hawks is about the same as the gulf between the Hawks and the 17th-place Dallas Mavericks.

    As the Jazz free-fall down the Western Conference standings, it's clear that offense isn't the problem. That's why potential offense-for-defense trade ideas have popped up over the last few months, including Kevin O'Connor of The Ringer suggesting a potential Bojan Bogdanovic-Jerami Grant swap.

    But the asking price and Grant's desire to keep hoisting up shots like he has in Detroit may scare Utah off.

    "For any team to sign off on a trade for Grant, they'll need assurances of his plans to re-sign this offseason, just like [Aaron] Gordon did in Denver," Bleacher Report's Jake Fischer wrote earlier this month. "Grant also has little interest in joining a new situation where he doesn't feature as a primary offensive option, sources said."

    Danny Ainge, now the alternate governor and CEO of the Jazz, should set his sights on a longtime role player from his former team instead.

    Marcus Smart has never experienced the life of a "primary offensive option" in the NBA. He's spent his career taking on difficult defensive assignments, moving the ball and taking threes. Given his career 31.9 three-point percentage, some of those shots feel wildly ill-advised, but Smart brings enough intangibles to make up for that.

    And if he's replacing Jordan Clarkson, whose own penchant for taking wild shots is legendary, the difference in offense might not be as severe as what Utah would experience if Grant was suddenly in Bogdanovic's role.

    For Boston, some kind of shakeup almost feels necessary, but it's still too early to give up on the Jayson Tatum-Jaylen Brown pairing. That means smaller moves to support those two may be in order. And with an offense that ranks 21st in the NBA, the ideal acquisition is someone who can help on that end.

    Clarkson's three-point percentage is down to a woeful 32.2 this season, and the Jazz have been worse with him on the floor, but he's one year removed from winning Sixth Man of the Year. And he's shown an ability to swing games in the right direction with hot shooting streaks off the bench.

    If Boston needed a little more incentive to do the deal, the Jazz could include rookie Jared Butler, but each team has something the other needs here.

T1. Golden State Warriors: John Collins

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    Despite a recent slide that includes losses to the New Orleans Pelicans, Minnesota Timberwolves and Indiana Pacers, the Golden State Warriors could probably justify sitting tight at the trade deadline.

    At times, they've looked like title favorites this season. They've more than survived the worst shooting season of Stephen Curry's career. And they still haven't had a chance to play with all three of Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green on the floor.

    But a big, win-now trade could be available, which is why the Warriors have been connected to Ben Simmons, Domantas Sabonis and others over the last several months.

    With James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga and other rookie-scale contracts, Golden State can piece together enough salary and young talent to land a star. And while adding another hefty contract to these books might break the calculators of salary-cap and luxury-tax experts, taking advantage of what may be Curry's final title window has to be considered.

    John Collins himself has refuted the report, but The Athletic and Stadium's Shams Charania wrote earlier this month that Collins "has grown increasingly frustrated over his role" with the Atlanta Hawks. If there's any truth to that, Golden State should consider packaging its young core of talent for the 24-year-old Collins.

    Wiseman, Kuminga and Kevon Looney combine for enough salary to make the deal work. Although Kuminga has shown some upside this season and Looney is a big part of the team's defensive identity, Collins would be a monumental offensive upgrade. Right now, the Warriors are 16th in points per 100 possessions.

    Meanwhile, Atlanta might be taking a short-term step back with a deal like this, but there's a lot of potential in both Wiseman and Kuminga. And after making the Eastern Conference Finals in 2021, this season has been the kind of disappointment that often leads to a trade.

T1. Phoenix Suns

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    The Phoenix Suns are in cruise control right now. While concerns are popping up for seemingly every other title contender, they just keep adding wins to what is already the best record in the NBA.

    But no team is perfect. And if the Suns were able to add another rangy defender who can hit threes to Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson and Jae Crowder, they'd have a terrifying three-and-D platoon to surround Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton.

    The contract of Dario Saric, who's missed the entire season to this point with a torn ACL, could help them do that.

    Any team willing to take on Saric and the $9.7 million he's owed next season is likely punting on this season (and probably pivoting to a rebuild). The Portland Trail Blazers might not be there yet, but the longer they play without Damian Lillard, the more possible that seems.

    The Suns' only outgoing first-round pick is headed to the Oklahoma City Thunder this offseason, so they could get aggressive in negotiating for Robert Covington. It would depend on what other teams are willing to offer, but Portland might have to consider something along the lines of Covington for Saric, Jalen Smith and a future first-round pick.

    For Portland, this would be a loss in the short term. Saric probably isn't going to play this season. But losses on and off the court are part of the opening phase of a rebuild. Suffering through them often means a better shot at winning later.

    You never know what can happen with a first-round pick, which is probably the biggest prize of a deal like this. And a brief look at a 21-year-old big like Smith could give the Blazers a better idea of whether they'd want to re-sign him this summer.

    Phoenix not picking up the option on Smith's rookie contract muddles that a bit, but these are the kind of forward-looking moves Portland should probably be looking for this season.


    Rankings current as of January 21, 2022.

    Unless otherwise noted, all stats courtesy of Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass.