Around this time last year, a sharp and unrelenting desperation took hold in Cleveland, virtually guaranteeing a noisy NBA trade deadline. LeBron James’s streak of consecutive NBA Finals appearances was on the line, his makeshift supporting cast wasn’t offering much help, and the Cavaliers were facing their last opportunity to placate James before he hit free agency. Once the dust settled, Cleveland had traded away six players and acquired four others in a total roster makeover that helped deliver the franchise’s fourth straight conference title.
As this season’s Feb. 7 trade deadline approaches, there is no team that resembles those frantic Cavaliers. James’s Los Angeles Lakers are on the playoff bubble, but their urge to pursue win-now deals is dampened by the Golden State Warriors’ severe talent advantage and the likelihood that New Orleans Pelicans star Anthony Davis won’t emerge as a viable trade target until this summer. Why take on salary or trade away young prospects if the title window isn’t open and if James’s dream sidekick isn’t available?
The relative calm isn’t just a matter of James’s Lakers biding their time, as three East contenders all got their work done early. In July, the Toronto Raptors traded for Kawhi Leonard, the best player in their franchise’s history. In November, the Philadelphia 76ers landed all-star wing Jimmy Butler, solidifying a big three with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Last month, the Milwaukee Bucks traded for veteran guard George Hill, fortifying their playoff rotation and dumping $18 million of future salary before core pieces Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez hit free agency this summer.
The Raptors, Sixers and Bucks are all hoping this is the year they get over the hump, but all three are unlikely to make bigger splashes than they’ve already made. Among the East’s top-shelf teams, the Indiana Pacers are in the best position to be buyers. All-NBA guard Victor Oladipo and Myles Turner are the organization’s only long-term investments of consequence, and Kevin Pritchard, the team’s president, is armed with more than $55 million worth of expiring contracts as he pursues a second star.
Out West, the Warriors need not seek a major acquisition, as they’ve risen to the top of the standings and welcomed back DeMarcus Cousins from injury on Friday. A leading challenger has yet to emerge, and even the top candidates — the Denver Nuggets, Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets — are hard-pressed to convince themselves they are one piece away from dethroning the back-to-back champs. That calculus would immediately change if Davis hit the deadline market, but New Orleans has been steadfast in its claims that he is untouchable.
Nevertheless, there will be opportunities for playoff hopefuls to pilfer useful pieces from bottom-dwellers and also-rans, just as the Washington Wizards lifted Trevor Ariza from the Phoenix Suns in mid-December. For teams looking to plug rotation holes, Robin Lopez (Chicago Bulls), Enes Kanter and Tim Hardaway Jr. (New York Knicks), J.R. Smith (Cavaliers), Dewayne Dedmon and Kent Bazemore (Atlanta Hawks), and Terrence Ross (Orlando Magic) could all be worthwhile trade or buyout targets. After a rash of injuries, the Utah Jazz could be motivated buyers. Ditto for the Portland Trail Blazers, whose weak wing corps needs upgrading.
The Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies are two potential sellers, as they have both begun to falter after surprising starts. Rookies Luka Doncic and Jaren Jackson Jr. are foundational pieces for their respective organizations, but both lack meaningful young help. Dallas and Memphis both owe protected first-round picks in previous trades, so they have real motivation to tank down the stretch so they can keep their picks and add to their cores.
Dallas’s second-year guard Dennis Smith Jr., a poor fit alongside Doncic, has already hit the rumor mill, while veteran center DeAndre Jordan and his $22.9 million expiring contract would make much more sense on a playoff team. Memphis, meanwhile, should explore its options with Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, whose sensational two-man game appears to have finally run its course.
Perhaps the best reason to closely track deadline deals this year is to begin forecasting how they might shift the offseason landscape, when Davis, Leonard, Butler, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker will all draw significant interest in trades or free agency. Big-market franchises such as the Lakers, Knicks and Los Angeles Clippers have spent months gearing up for this deep chase, and they could make financial maneuvers at the deadline to improve their recruiting positions. Remember: even if the deadline winds up being a dud, the explosive summer fireworks are just around the corner.
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