NBA Trade Deadline: Buyers, sellers and teams that should stand pat
The NBA trade wire remains frozen with less than a week left before the Feb. 9 deadline.
League executives say it’s because the majority of teams are still debating whether they should add talent, trade it away for future assets, or maintain the status quo.
I’m here to help with this identity crisis.
Here are the top three teams that need to make a win-now move, three who should begin deconstruction for a remodel, and three who should ride out the season as they are.
Golden State Warriors
The defending champs have been a perfectly mediocre team. Their record says it (26-25), their defensive rating (15th) says it, and their offensive rating (16th) does as well. As of Thursday morning, they were even averaging giving up as many points, 118, as they score, according to Basketball Reference.
The only category in which they are superior is pace — they lead the league. Woohoo! The top five teams in pace last season were the Timberwolves, Rockets, Grizzlies, Lakers and Hornets. Takeaway: Being a pacesetter doesn’t mean anything as far as chasing a title or postseason success. Having a strong bench does, though, and that’s where the Warriors need help — size, rim protection, perimeter defense, you name it. There are a couple of rebuilding teams that might be willing to move a vet — Jordan Clarkson, say, or Jakob Poeltl — for a young player with potential (James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga and/or Moses Moody).
Having Steph Curry means something, too — it means you have a chance at another ring. He’s shooting and playmaking as well as he ever has. You know who else is for the Warriors? No one. Which is why there can’t be any sacred cows. The Warriors need to move whoever might deliver an upgrade — Draymond Green, Jordan Poole, and certainly any of the young, unproven talent. Steph won’t demand they do something, which is all the more reason they should do it. Reward the man for being a good, loyal, patient soldier.
Los Angeles Clippers
Yes, they already have a loaded, expensive roster. Yes, coach Tyronn Lue will face a challenge paring down his rotation if or when the entire roster is healthy. But as deep and talented as they are, they are short of a leader — specifically a playmaker — with championship experience. Kawhi Leonard has championship experience, but he’s not a leader. Paul George is a playmaker, but he doesn’t have championship experience and his decision-making in big moments remains troubling.
Fortunately for owner Steve Ballmer, there are players reportedly available who fit the bill, namely Kyle Lowry with the Miami Heat and Fred Van Vleet with the Toronto Raptors. Added bonus: They were part of a championship-winning formula with Leonard. Van Vleet would be the first choice, but if the Raptors are willing to move him they’d most likely want draft picks and young talent, and the Clippers don’t have a surplus of either one. Lowry could be the easier get because team president Pat Riley is always looking to remain competitive; some combination of Norm Powell, Robert Covington, John Wall and/or Reggie Jackson would have to be enticing in light of how much Lowry has underachieved in Miami.
The Bucks are Golden State-ish, in that their superstar, Giannis Antetokounmpo, is not approaching his expiration date the way Curry is — but a lot of the pieces around him are, including Brook Lopez, Wes Mathews, George Hill and Joe Ingles. Each will be 35 or older when the playoffs start. Jrue Holiday turns 33 in June and Khris Middleton will be 32 in August. Whatever prime Giannis’ supporting cast has, it’s now. Hoping that Middleton being healthy for the postseason will cure their 22nd-ranked offense is capricious. The Bucks’ reportedly have interest in Jae Crowder, but he doesn’t fill the need for another bucket-getter the way Clarkson or Bojan Bogdanovic would. Exploring Houston’s interest in moving one of their young scorers would be wise, as well.
P. S. For anyone wondering why the Dallas Mavericks aren’t mentioned here: They’re not close enough to make one deal at the trade deadline that is going to make them a title contender. Christian Wood and Dwight Powell are presumptive free agents this summer, but there are no indications Dallas won’t be able to re-sign them if they so choose. Which means there’s nothing compelling them to make a move. And, as is, they should make the postseason.
Fresh-out-of-the-box GM Landry Fields has two choices: Remake the current team around Trae Young or deal his 24-year-old point guard. There’s no in between. This roster has too much familiarity, talent and athleticism to be a .500 team, which is why I’m willing to believe the rumblings that there is a disconnect between Young and the rest of the roster.
If the Hawks are going to build around Trae, then they’re going to need players able and willing to cover for his defensive deficiencies and content to let him dominate the ball. It’s pretty clear the current crew isn’t about that. It’s hard to blame them, considering that there are only four players in the league with higher usage rates — Giannis, Luka Doncic, Joel Embiid and Ja Morant — all of whom are in the top 15 of VORP (value over replacement). Young is 27th. Translation: Young’s production is nowhere near commensurate with the amount he has the ball. Another reason for Atlanta to put out a for-sale sign: They have players that presumably would be attractive to teams both with title hopes and looking to rebuild — John Collins, Clint Capela, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Dejounte Murray are all under 30 with reasonable contracts.
They came so close. The addition of Chris Paul did exactly what the Suns hoped: It galvanized a team long on talent but short on leadership and mental toughness. Paul’s arrival put a perennial lottery team on the express elevator to the Finals. But they are now on that same elevator, and it has nowhere to go but down. No team that had reason to believe it had a championship-caliber squad wants to admit they were wrong or that the window has closed, so let me do it for them. They weren’t wrong; winning the 2021 Western Conference title was proof. But that was so two years ago. All the signs are there that the window has closed, starting first and foremost with Paul. He’s still one of the smartest, toughest, clever players in the league, but at 37, his ability to defend is not nearly the same and his availability is more precarious than ever.
If Paul’s attrition were the only issue, I could see standing pat and dealing him after the season, but before June 28, when his guaranteed salary next season jumps from $15 million to $30 million. But it’s not. Head coach Monty Williams and young center DeAndre Ayton are clearly not on the same page and a league source says the majority of the locker room believes Williams is to blame for the relationship souring. Several executives also believe GM James Jones made a mistake by allowing Williams to tell Crowder before the season he would not be a starter, and send him home when he became upset about the demotion. No one questioned Williams’ coaching acumen, but when it comes to those two particular players, the belief is he mishandled them.
All of which is ample reason for the Suns to get busy reworking the roster now.
Much like the Hawks, the Bulls’ record should be considerably better in light of the talent on the roster. Not having their starting point guard, Lonzo Ball, the entire season thanks to a mysterious knee injury deprived them of caulking, but his absence only exposed a painful truth: The core pieces just don’t fit. Nikola Vucevic is a borderline All-Star, but taking full advantage of his size and scoring in the paint means taking away the driving lanes for Zach LaVine. Getting the most out of the third piece of the core, DeMar DeRozan, requires putting the ball in his hands — but the same could be said for getting LaVine’s best. If the two could trade off playing pick and roll with Vucevic, it might still be workable, but Vucevic is far more adept at picking and popping than picking and rolling.
Whatever they do, moving Alex Caruso — who also has missed considerable time this season and is the name I’ve seen thrown around the most — is NOT the answer. At $9 million, he is an absolute bargain and vital to creating the selfless culture the Bulls presumably want to create. A culture, I should add, they were on their way to creating before the injuries to Ball and Caruso. There are teams with title hopes looking for size (Brooklyn) and scoring (Dallas), and with a paucity of sellers, the Bulls might get a better return now than if they waited until the summer.
Rival scouts and GMs have suggested that the Celtics could use more size with Al Horford, Robert Williams and Grant Williams, all of whom are listed as 6-foot-9 or under, constituting their big-man rotation. Of course, they could, but at what cost? One of the biggest reasons the Celtics are leading the Eastern Conference and look so formidable is their chemistry, borne in part from collectively falling short against the Warriors last June. As with real chemistry, there’s no telling what will happen when a new element is added to an established formula. They didn’t have any trouble beating Embiid and the 76ers opening night and that was with Williams still on the mend. As the old mantra goes: They have enough, they do enough, they are enough.
New Orleans Pelicans
Considering all the assets they have, it would be tempting to bolster their roster with a proven postseason vet or dynamic scorer like Clarkson — especially in light of their 17th-ranked offense — and they have the picks and expiring contracts to do it. It would also be shortsighted. Until they know that Zion Williamson can play more than 61 games in a season, they need to approach their roster building cautiously. If missing large chunks of every season is Zion’s fate, their seven first-round picks over the next three years will come in handy shaping the team around Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum, or putting together a package to pick off talent from teams looking to hit the reset button this summer.
Los Angeles Lakers
Saved this one for last so that the howl of Lakers’ fans wouldn’t be a distraction. But here’s the reality: It is practically impossible for the Lakers to make a deal that guarantees them improvement, much less the talent leap necessary to be a title contender. Even if they were willing to spend the much-discussed 2027 and 2029 first-round picks — and every GM and scout I’ve talked to has used the exact same word to describe team vice president Rob Pelinka doing that: “irresponsible” — they’re going to have to attach a player to them to match the incoming salaries. That player since the start of the season has been Russell Westbrook and his $47 million expiring contract. In case you haven’t noticed, Westbrook has been their best playmaker and flirting with triple-doubles on a semi-regular basis since he started coming off the bench. Getting the Lakers into the postseason would require not just adding enough talent to replace his production, but to exceed it. As of now, there isn’t even the hint of a deal that would do that.
P.S. So, about the report that Kyrie Irving has informed the Nets he wants to be traded before the Feb. 9 deadline. A league source says that request came after the Nets showed no interest in entering discussions on a max-level contract extension. Moving Kyrie presumably means moving Kevin Durant as well, since they came as a package deal and Durant indicated last summer that if the Nets are not committed to Kyrie, then he’s not committed to them. That amounts to a complete Brooklyn rebuild.
Franchise makeovers are not six-day undertakings, at least not good ones. The Nets have to extricate as much value out of moving KD as they can, and they’re not likely to do that before Thursday. Or put it this way: Any deal available now for KD will be there after the season. Short of being presented a replacement superstar in the next few days, it makes no sense for the Nets to do anything other than ignore Kyrie’s demand and maintain the status quo. For those worried Kyrie will go AWOL or dial down his effort, his desire to talk contract is a tell. Clearly, he’s worried about getting paid beyond this season. Well, if that’s what he wants, from the Nets or anyone else, he has no choice but to continue doing what he’s been doing, which is playing some of his best basketball in recent memory.
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