Latest NBA Trade Intel: Vaccine Status Key at Deadline, CJ-to-NOLA Smoke, MoreJanuary 31, 2022
An NBA trade can take months to come together. A front office has to sort through short- and long-term goals, salary-cap minutia, player evaluation and team chemistry while negotiating with 29 other teams with their own agendas. Now, a new factor must be considered heading into the Feb. 10 trade deadline: vaccination status.
While most players are vaccinated (perhaps 99 percent, per union president CJ McCollum to Tania Ganguli of the New York Times), not everyone is. For the franchises in cities or states with more restrictive rules such as the New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets and the many California teams, their front offices need to check if a player is anti-vax before negotiating any potential deals.
For instance, the Nets can only play Kyrie Irving on the road, an issue that could all but eradicate a chance at home-court advantage for the franchise this postseason. Which players would prove similarly problematic?
Per James Boyd of the Indianapolis Star, Justin Holiday has no plans to get vaccinated despite missing five games in the league's health and safety protocols. "Right now I don't," Holiday said. "I don't see how me getting [COVID-19] changes that."
Holiday is one of the many players the Pacers are believed to be shopping in trade, but his vaccination status could make a team (such as the Los Angeles Lakers) less inclined to make an offer.
One league source on a top-10 team guessed that Holiday might get vaccinated if he had a chance to join a contender. But a source close to Holiday acknowledged that vaccination status could be an impediment.
An NBA championship may or may not hinge on the 32-year-old Holiday, but he's the perfect example of the added stress on front offices to do their due diligence. Beyond availability, non-vaccinated players have to go through extra steps through the various protocols.
"I don't track it via a spreadsheet," one front-office member said. "But it's generally brought up briefly, and you move on [from that player]."
Notable players who are believed to remain unvaccinated include Michael Porter Jr. of the Denver Nuggets, Jonathan Isaac of the Orlando Magic, Irving and Holiday. While a team can break down a player's stats from a central database to gauge their value, there's no such official anti-vax list.
"I don't even know if Ben Simmons is vaccinated," one Western Conference executive said.
Teams tend to be notoriously risk-averse. Add this item to the list of reasons why a deal may not get done.
Pelicans May Focus on McCollum
As Jake Fischer recently wrote, the emergence of Anfernee Simons could lead the Portland Trail Blazers to trade veteran CJ McCollum. He also noted the New Orleans Pelicans are "the destination most often linked to McCollum."
According to sources close to the Pelicans, the team is heading into the deadline as a buyer focusing on the 2022-23 campaign. Zion Williamson, who has yet to play this year with a foot injury, is eligible for an extension this offseason. The team apparently views McCollum as the potentially ideal veteran scorer and leader to play alongside Brandon Ingram and Williamson.
The Pelicans aren't near the NBA's $136.6 million luxury-tax line, have a $17.1 million trade exception for Steven Adams and several first-round draft picks to offer, including two apiece from the Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks.
Several executives view McCollum as a negative asset based on his salary ($100 million through 2023-24), size (6'3") and age (30). But that may be an opportunity for the Pelicans to add one of the league's best professional scorers at a diminished price. If so, New Orleans would be required to send out at least $24.6 million in outgoing salary.
Tomas Satoransky ($10 million) and Jaxson Hayes ($5.3 million) would get them some of the way there. Still, the Pelicans likely need to include at least one of Jonas Valanciunas, Josh Hart or Devonte' Graham.
If the Blazers can get a first-rounder and some prospects such as Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Naji Marshall or Hayes for McCollum, that could be a win. It's unclear which of the higher-salaried veterans would work for the Blazers (or Pelicans). Portland is also believed to be shopping Robert Covington and Jusuf Nurkic.
Hart is well-liked by the Pelicans' coaching staff. Valanciunas has yet to take the court with Williamson. The Pelicans gave up a 2022 first-rounder to get Graham, although protections will likely turn that obligation to a pair of second-rounders in 2022 and 2024. New Orleans signed Valanciunas to an extension in October, but they also flipped Adams after a year with the franchise following a similar extension.
Whatever the result, expect the Blazers to trim some salary before the deadline to get under the luxury tax. The Adams exception could come into play, as it's large enough for the Pelicans to absorb Covington or Nurkic's salary outright.
Kings Really "Out" On Simmons?
Per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, the Sacramento Kings "have ended their pursuit of a deal with the [Philadelphia] 76ers and turned elsewhere in trade talks."
While Wojnarowski's sourcing is impeccable, and the intel likely accurate, are the Kings really out of the running for Simmons? Other executives around the league aren't so sure.
"The Kings needed to walk away because the 76ers were unreasonable in their demands," an Eastern Conference executive said. "If Philly backs off some, perhaps Sacramento could still make a run at [Simmons]."
But will the Sixers relent? Many around the league think they won't. The chance at landing a player such as James Harden, Bradley Beal, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jaylen Brown or Damian Lillard after the season may bump the Simmons debacle to the summer.
If the Kings would take in Tobias Harris' contract and include De'Aaron Fox, that might change the equation for Philadelphia. Sacramento won't, but some aren't sure the Sixers even want Fox given his contract. Tyrese Maxey has been tremendous for the 76ers at a much lower price.
And the Kings don't appear willing to take on Harris with Simmons, even while keeping Fox, with too significant an investment into three players who may not be enough to turn the franchise around. The dead end feels real, but no one is truly out until the deadline has elapsed.
Meanwhile, other teams are concerned that Sixers executive Daryl Morey is tampering with Harden like they believed he did in his run with the Houston Rockets to acquire Chris Paul. Paul had a player option heading into the 2017-18 offseason with the Los Angeles Clippers. The team had hoped to re-sign the All-Star guard long term. Instead, he apparently gave the Clippers an ultimatum: trade me to the Rockets, or I'll opt out and leave outright as a free agent.
Similarly, Harden has a $47.4 million player option with the Brooklyn Nets next season. Some fear Morey and Harden will try to follow the Paul game plan. What's a little different this offseason is that very few teams project to have cap room. Would Harden be able to bluff the Nets into a deal, with the threat of signing with the Detroit Pistons (the only team even close to the kind of cap room to give the veteran guard a max contract)? Or perhaps Harden can just opt in for one final year with the Nets, making it clear he will leave the following year when more teams have cap room.
In opting out, Harden would be able to join the Sixers via sign-and-trade, provided the Nets were willing to send him there. If so, Philadephia would have a hard cap, with a spending limit of about $151.6 million. While complex, Philadelphia could make that work by getting out of contracts for Furkan Korkmaz, Danny Green (whose salary isn't guaranteed) and Simmons.
Harden is the most likely target given his previous relationship with Morey. There's no sense yet that Beal will leave the Washington Wizards or that the Oklahoma City Thunder or Boston Celtics will deal Gilgeous-Alexander or Brown. Most teams expect the Trail Blazers to extend Lillard for another couple of seasons at roughly $100 million, but if that goes south, the New York Knicks may be his next destination over the Sixers.
When Talen Horton-Tucker signed as the No. 46 pick, he was the only second-rounder of his draft class to sign a regular NBA contract for just two years. The Lakers briefly had the cap room necessary to sign him to a longer contract but did not choose to do so. Two years later, instead of earning $1.8 million this season, like fellow second-rounders Nicolas Claxton, KZ Okpala, Cody Martin, Daniel Gafford and many others, Horton-Tucker is in the first season of a three-year, $30.8 million contract.
Now that the Lakers are looking to improve their roster ahead of the trade deadline, Horton-Tucker is viewed by other teams as a marginal asset. He's still a developing prospect, but he's about $7.7 million more expensive this season than his contemporaries. But the bigger issue for the Lakers, above his salary, is the 21-year-old guard's player option before the 2023-24 season.
This wouldn't be a concern if the Lakers signed him to a three-year deal. For example, the Nets aren't looking to move Claxton but have explored the possibility. Unlike Horton-Tucker, Claxton will be a restricted free agent this offseason, giving any acquiring team the leverage to re-sign him.
The same level of team control won't come in a Horton-Tucker trade. He can hit unrestricted free agency in 2023. Away from ball-dominant stars LeBron James and Russell Westbrook, if he blossoms, the leverage will be in the hands of Rich Paul and Klutch Sports, not the acquiring team.
And if a team doesn't think Horton-Tucker has the goods to deliver, why would it trade for him? That's why the market may push Pelinka into giving up a first-round pick in addition to Horton-Tucker to make a deal (provided the team can find one that will increase its chances of winning this season). Those hopes may depend on James, who has missed the team's last three games with a swollen knee.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are believed to be offering their 2022 first-round pick (projected to be in the 18-22 range) for the best combo guard they can get. That might be Eric Gordon of the Houston Rockets or Caris LeVert of the Indiana Pacers, among other candidates. Injured point guard Ricky Rubio is expected to represent the outgoing salary from Cleveland.
Scouts have been eying Zach Collins' performance with the Austin Spurs on a rehab assignment in the G League from the San Antonio Spurs. Collins has struggled to stay healthy through the years, undergoing multiple ankle surgeries with the Trail Blazers. San Antonio took a gamble on the forward/center, signing him to a favorable three-year, $22.1 million contract, of which only $3.7 million is guaranteed beyond the current season. The Spurs may decide to hold on to Collins beyond the deadline, but he may prove to be a minor asset should the team make a deal.
The Utah Jazz may have suffered a serious blow with Joe Ingles injuring his knee against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Sunday. Utah has looked to improve via trade but has little to offer in draft compensation. Most of the team's players are older, under multiyear contracts or have yet to show out this season (Jared Butler, Udoka Azubuike, etc.). Losing Ingles as a player or as the team's best trade chip at an expiring $13 million could be devastating for Utah's chances this year in the West.
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