By Rob Mahoney
The NBA trade deadline is Thursday at 3 p.m. ET. What should the contenders target and how badly do they need to make a move? Let's start by examining the Eastern Conference teams in playoff position stand (in order from No. 1 to No. 8).
On the list: A cost-effective rebounder
Urgency: Very low
The problems are few for the Heat, who are in position to win their second consecutive title if all goes according to plan. And in all likelihood, Miami will fall back on that expectation and enjoy a relatively quiet trade deadline. Pat Riley won't skirt his due diligence in seeing what's available, but the Heat's salary structure (with three stars, a few mid-level deals and some bargain-bin contracts) has never allowed for all that many tradable assets.
But if we're pinpointing even minor flaws to shore up with a deadline deal, an affordable rebounder would likely be the most prominent item on the Heat's wish list. Miami's rebounding troubles have been more of a story than a legitimate issue, created in part because of the Heat's drama-free season. But both offensive and defensive rebounding remain one of the few areas in which Miami doesn't rank in the top 10, even if it rates only slightly below average in both categories. Rebounding won't doom Miami's season, but it wouldn't hurt to have a decent glass-cleaner on the bench on an affordable deal. Chris Andersen has been rather effective in that regard already, but what else can you get for the team that has everything?
NEW YORK KNICKS
On the list: Perimeter players who can stay in front of their man
Urgency: Medium, though it hardly matters
The Knicks are not good enough to beat the Heat in a playoff series, and yet they're saddled with a far too similar salary structure. At the top of its cap sheet, New York owes the trio of Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler and Amar'e Stoudemire more than $54 million this year, and that figure will only increase over the next two seasons. Beyond that, the rest of the players on the roster are either 1) more valuable to the Knicks than they would be to other teams, 2) paid too much to make for realistic trade bait or 3) essential given the team's makeup. Sure, the Knicks could trade Iman Shumpert or J.R. Smith because of their cap-friendly deals, but the team is already lacking capable perimeter defenders and banks on Smith's shot creation consistently, making neither option all that plausible.
Perimeter defense is a consistent and legitimate issue for New York, as all of its defensive versatility has yet to pay off with lineups that can actually cut off penetration from the perimeter. Guards Jason Kidd and Raymond Felton are big enough to handle switches and cross-match effectively, but at some point New York will need to figure out how to thwart opponents at the top of the floor rather than rely on Chandler to so consistently clean up the mess.
The offense is fine, and on many nights terrific. But what the Knicks essentially need are more Shumperts, or at least more players who can move their feet to keep up with perimeter threats without serving as an offensive liability, a la Ronnie Brewer. Acquiring Magic guard J.J. Redick (as has been rumored) would be nice, but if the cost is the team's one reliable perimeter defender (Shumpert), the impact of the acquisition will be greatly mitigated.
On the list: Bench help
The Pacers are a better offensive team than their No. 24 ranking in points per possession would suggest, but they still could use another bench scorer. The starting lineup -- which should have Danny Granger back soon in place of Lance Stephenson -- is just fine, and enjoys a fun, symbiotic chemistry that benefits all involved. But a Stephenson-infused bench won't get it done for the Pacers, who are a piece or two away from posing any real threat within the conference.
But, save trading Granger -- whose value is likely deflated in light of a pretty serious knee injury -- the Pacers don't have all that much to offer. They'd likely have to package future draft picks with the expiring deals of either Tyler Hansbrough ($3.1 million) or D.J. Augustin ($3.5 million) to get anything of immediate value, and even then they'd need an optimal trade partner looking to unload a role player on its way to the lottery.
There aren't a lot of perfect fits for Indiana's situation, but one potential target that comes to mind is Minnesota's Luke Ridnour. Marc Stein of ESPN.com noted that Ridnour is on the block as the Timberwolves continue to slide, and he would represent a serious upgrade over Augustin as a second-unit shot creator.
On the list: A balanced big, reserve wings
The Nets are on a stricter schedule than most teams because their cap flexibility is quickly evaporating. General manager Billy King and owner Mikhail Prokhorov made a hard commitment to Deron Williams, Brook Lopez, Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace last summer, introducing gridlock to their efforts to upgrade via trade and free agency. The avenues for Brooklyn to improve will be limited from here on out, with its trading chips consisting of the pricey, soon-to-be-expiring deal of Kris Humphries and whatever remains of MarShon Brooks' trade value.
The sheer size of Humphries' salary ($12 million annually, for this season and next) makes him likely to be involved in all kinds of pipe-dream trade rumors, but he's an exceptionally well-paid rebounding specialist who can't even offer teams immediate salary relief. As much as the Nets might want to flip his deal into a better-fitting piece, I'd be surprised if Humphries generated much of a market.
That the Nets' rotation lacks glaring holes only makes it that much more difficult to address the team's solid-but-not-great offense and perfectly mediocre defense. The problem, aside from a lack of elite talent (in light of Williams' apparent basketball amnesia), appears to be one of fit; the most prominent pieces work together well enough, but the supporting parts don't facilitate optimal lineup constructions. Brooklyn could use a big man with a more even skill set to put alongside Lopez and/or a wing shooter more versatile than Keith Bogans who can shift Wallace to power forward for stretches. There isn't a ton that can be done with the pieces at King's disposal, but in a deadline setting that's where I'd start.
On the list: A taker for Carlos Boozer
Urgency: Very low
The Bulls are managing the absence of Derrick Rose about as well as one could reasonably expect, putting them in position to bide their time. Given what we know of the Bulls' relationship with the luxury tax, it's safe to assume that a decision on Boozer is due at some point in the near future. (Boozer, who makes $15 million, is owed $15.3 million next season and $16.8 million in 2014-15.) But there's no explicit motivation to move Boozer now rather than later, particularly when the summer market may offer more intriguing opportunities for talent acquisition and salary relief.
Otherwise, Chicago's looking good: Two defensive big men, a solid point guard rotation and some good wing complements are already on the books, though perhaps the Bulls could use one sharpshooter to really round out their rotation. Still, this is a good place to be for a patient front office.
On the list: Building blocks, low-cost assets
Reports across the board indicate that the Hawks have no intention of committing to Josh Smith as a free agent this summer, leaving them to engage in a number of discussions with potential trade partners. Though letting Smith walk in July would wipe a sizable cap hold off Atlanta's books, GM Danny Ferry would likely prefer some long-term pieces or cheap assets given the already expected roster turnover. Al Horford, Lou Williams and John Jenkins are the only Hawks with guaranteed contracts next season, giving Ferry ample flexibility but few hard assets to build around. Jeff Teague's potential return could add another roster fixture (the 24-year-old point guard is set to become a restricted free agent), but right now Ferry is undoubtedly in the market for some quality pieces that can add to the Hawks' reconstruction without clogging up too much cap room.
The trick in that scenario is to find another, lesser expiring contract to tether to draft picks or a quality player on a rookie-scale deal. Smith's expiring status makes it impossible to deal him for equivalent basketball value, but that shouldn't stop the Hawks from playing with their options, agreeing to take on salary for next season for the sake of picking up an even better prospect and making the most out of Smith's departure.
On the list: Redeeming value
Urgency: Fairly high
Kevin Garnett's pesky no-trade clause makes any full rebuilding effort a bit of a lost cause, but the Celtics need to start looking forward -- and moving on -- as soon as possible. The Celtics did go on a 8-1 run after Rajon Rondo went down with a season-ending knee injury, but that loss and injuries to Jared Sullinger and Leandro Barbosa have made it all too clear that this season is sunk.
Boston, then, is working against a ticking clock. Every passing month brings its two most valuable trade assets closer to the twilight of their respective careers, while also negating one of the most attractive qualities of Paul Pierce's current contract. Part of the allure with Pierce is the option he gives his team going into next season, as only $4 million of his $15.3 million 2013-14 salary is guaranteed. That leaves open the possibility of a team acquiring him for an immediate boost while benefiting from the cap maneuverability thereafter. That option is on the table for potential suitors now, but a Pierce trade won't hold the same appeal a few months down the line.
That puts Boston in a difficult position of weighing Pierce-inspired sentimentality against a slow rebuild with no immediate payoffs, particularly when Garnett may never consent to be moved. Tearing this roster down completely may never be a realistic possibility, but I see Pierce as having far more value now than he will later, and trading him would provide a vehicle for Boston to potentially unload with him at least one of the mid-level deals (Brandon Bass, Courtney Lee, Jason Terry) that would come to weigh down its rebuilding efforts.
On the list: A taker for Monta Ellis
Urgency: High Monta Ellis is Josh Smith without the defense or cachet, as Ellis is expected to opt out and become a free agent this summer. I covered the Ellis angle from a Bucks perspective on Monday and fully endorse the notion of letting him move on. That said, the most definitive way to cut ties is to deal him, thereby scoring the Bucks a parting gift and sending Ellis on his merry way. I'm not sure what the Bucks can realistically get for the 27-year-old guard because of the limited market for him and the challenge of matching salaries in a trade of his $11 million contract, but Milwaukee should be among the deadline sellers and prioritize moving Ellis above all else.