By Ben Golliver
Let's separate fact from fiction as we close in on Thursday's NBA's trade deadline.
1. The Clippers can win an NBA title as currently constructed.
Fact. It's possible, but it will be very tough. They struggled when Chris Paul was injured, but his return for a romp over the Lakers and then his shining all-around performance as MVP of the All-Star Game should have served as a reminder that they shouldn't be left for dead just yet. Even with February's lull, the Clippers are No. 3 in net rating, trailing just the Thunder and Spurs, and ahead of the Heat. Most experts would probably consider them a solid fourth behind those three teams and Basketball-Reference.com's forecast gives them the fourth-best odds at a title (9.2 percent). Though playing in the stacked West will make for a marathon postseason.
The Clippers' positioning relative to the undisputed favorites has fueled recent trade rumors, as they are the quintessential example of a team that could significantly improve its championship chances by making one move. There aren't too many other examples around the league this season. Miami's dominance over the East and its ability to flip the switch squashes (or at least strongly dims) the championship hopes for most of its conference competitors, while the Grizzlies, Nuggets and others seem more than one move away from truly mounting an attack on the Thunder and Spurs.
With depth and quality at a number of positions, and insufficient playing time available for the up-and-coming Eric Bledsoe, a consolidation trade like the recent Kevin Garnett rumor makes all the sense in the world. While the Clippers have done well this season going small and have coaxed some usefulness out of Lamar Odom, an extra big man off the bench could be helpful after the losses of Reggie Evans and Kenyon Martin during the offseason.
Fiction. There's a wide gap between "very valuable asset" and "untouchable," and Shumpert doesn't approach the latter billing. Can any player really be "untouchable" if he doesn't even play 20 minutes a game? League sources told SI.com that the Knicks' reported interest in Suns wing Jared Dudley was legitimate, but that talks hit a wall quickly when Phoenix asked for Shumpert and a future first-round pick. New York's front office is fully aware of Shumpert's value, even if his season started late after rehabilitation from knee surgery and if his numbers and playing time haven't yet approached his very promising rookie season.
Shumpert's balance-sheet impact is of greater importance than his on-court impact: Consider that he's the only player in New York's rotation on a rookie contract and that the Knicks will almost certainly be over the luxury-tax line in 2012-13, 2013-14 and 2014-15 and will need to expend further capital if they want to retain J.R. Smith this summer after getting him on a bargain deal last summer. Shumpert will likely play an important role for the Knicks over the final two years of his rookie contract and it's difficult to obtain a player of similar skill in a one-for-one deal; indeed, New York would have had to include additional salaries to make a Dudley deal work. (More Shumpert trade talk here.)
Fact. Quick reminder: The Hawks finished as the No. 5 seed last year, traded All-Star guard Joe Johnson for Jordan Farmar, Johan Petro, Anthony Morrow, Jordan Williams, DeShawn Stevenson, a lottery-protected first-round pick and a future second-round pick, and are currently a half-game out of the No. 5 seed in the East. That's the case despite a recent season-ending injury to Lou Williams. The point here is that trading a "star" player like Johnson or Smith isn't necessarily a trajectory-altering move and it doesn't require a "star" in return, unless I missed the part where Petro blossomed this year. Nope, doesn't look like it; he hasn't even played 100 minutes.
Expecting a star player in return for Smith is particularly unrealistic given his contract status. A monster return on a player who has publicly expressed a desire for a max contract just months before he will hit free agency isn't going to materialize. As with the Johnson trade, the flexible play is the best play: expiring contracts, draft picks and veterans on low-salary deals (if necessary) should be the desired return package. Trading him now and moving on should make all the sense in the world to Hawks GM Danny Ferry. (More Smith trade talk here.)
4. The Lakers should trade Dwight Howard.
Fiction. Absolutely not. Why? Because Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak recently stated, unequivocally and on the record, that Howard isn't going anywhere. The NBA trade deadline can be a complicated time full of deception, but saying one thing so clearly and doing the opposite would carry only negative repercussions. More important than the fallout from such a move is the logic that went into Kupchak's declaration: The Lakers reached the right conclusion in deciding to ride out a turbulent season and deal with Howard once the summer comes. The Lakers are the last team in the league that needs more change at this point, and Howard's value, given his injuries and contract status, is not sufficient to bring a franchise-changer in exchange at the deadline.
They've talked themselves into a corner and their hands are tied by Howard's unwillingness to commit; one shudders to think about the return value on a package at this point. The best course remains hanging tight and hoping the rehabilitation of Howard's game and image eventually come to fruition. (More Howard trade talk here.)
Fact. They should, but they aren't hard-pressed. Nothing that's happened over the last two months has meaningfully changed things for Milwaukee since The Point Forward examined the long-term possibilities of the Jennings/Ellis pair back in December. The logic in parting with one of the two outweighs the logic in keeping both and, if one should go, the logic for keeping Jennings outweighs the logic for keeping Ellis. Recent reports on the thinking from Milwaukee's management and rumors that have trickled out over the last week have bared out both of those conclusions. The Bucks seem poised to retain Jennings when he becomes a restricted free agent this summer, and Ellis' name has regularly surfaced in talks around the league.
If the Bucks don't move Ellis, the back-up plan is to try to play an unlikely spoiler in the East. If they do move him, it will likely be for assets that are more helpful down the road rather than in the short-term. Ellis' value isn't great because he can opt out this summer (well, also because he's a 40 percent shooter with no range and limited effectiveness on defense). Getting something now is better than getting nothing later, but expectations should be tempered. The most important eventuality for the Bucks to avoid is a commitment of major dollars to both Jennings and Ellis this summer.
Fiction. Utah took its shot with its veteran-stacked roster and didn't meaningfully improve over last season's results. They face a hard ceiling in a Western Conference that has at least five teams clearly better than them, suggesting it's time to break up the current mix and live to fight another day. The good news: talented young big men Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter have both put up nice per-minute production and should make a solid duo for years to come.
The Jefferson/Millsap dilemma is similar to the Ellis/Jennings situation in Milwaukee. Keeping (and paying) both makes little sense and the more versatile Millsap seems like a better fit than Jefferson alongside Favors and Kanter. Jefferson's proven low-post scoring and steady rebounding numbers could make him useful as a rental to a contender; his $15 million salary, though, could make it tricky to construct a deal that makes financial sense for the Jazz, who won't be eager to receive any dead weight future salary commitments in return. (More Jazz trade thoughts here.)
Fact. Without any question. Redick is shooting 40 percent from deep for the third time in four seasons and he's a consummate teammate and pro who has handled endless trade rumors and a tough rebuilding situation as well as anyone could expect. He's also played in the playoffs the last six years, even if his shooting in the last two postseasons left a lot to be desired. His contract ends this season so he makes sense as both a rental or a rent-to-own for a contender.
Gordon shoots the ball at a comparable rate to Redick but needs the ball to be most effective, reportedly had a recent run-in with coach Mike Dunlap and hasn't appeared in the playoffs since 2009. The real dealbreaker, though, is his contract, which has a $13.2 million player option on it for next season. Constructing a trade for Redick's $6.2 million contract is significantly easier than making salaries match the $12.4 million owed to Gordon this season. The Magic and Bobcats are both in rebuilding cycles and have no reason to take back ugly deals in return, and contenders won't want to part with a key rotation player simply to land Gordon. Redick's comparative attractiveness could push Orlando's asking price quite high.
Fiction. Is it ever truly wise to possess junk? Is it wise to hold on to worthless currency after a financial collapse? The Raptors' situation with Bargnani could actually be worse than both of those hypotheticals: collecting junk could land you 15 minutes of fame on Hoarders, and worthless deutsche marks, pesos or rubles could always be used as kindling for a fire.
What upside does Bargnani offer the Raptors this summer? Can he really be expected to turn things around down the stretch to re-inflate a trade value that totally collapsed after a disastrous start to his season? Please. The Raptors need to dump him as soon as possible in any trade that reduces their future salary commitment, regardless of the player(s) coming back. Their trade for Rudy Gay -- and his max salary -- only makes that need all the more pressing. (More Bargnani trade talk here.)
9. The Nuggets need to make a deal to propel themselves into the West's upper echelon.
Fact. Everyone besides the Thunder, Spurs and Clippers is playing catch-up in the West. Nuggets GM Masai Ujiri is one of the league's best poker players: His deals are usually thoughtful, logical and come from totally out of left field. That combination makes Denver one of the most difficult teams to read this time of year.
One question facing Denver is whether this is the time to go all-in. A push to the Western Conference finals isn't totally out of the realm of possibility for a Nuggets team that takes care of its home court better than everyone except the Spurs in the West, but that would seem to be their ceiling this season. Another question: Aside from reserve center Timofey Mozgov, who is on an expiring contract, which Nuggets are both available and enticing to trade partners? The fact that coach George Karl goes so deep into his bench makes it even more difficult to read which pieces might be considered expendable.
Fiction. Kevin Garnett has put the kibosh on any talks that involve him, saying clearly that he has no plans to waive his no-trade clause. If Garnett doesn't move, it's not particularly easy or prudent to pursue a blow-up. Boston lacks other appealing trade parts which it can afford to part with and it is positioned to have a chance at winning a first-round series if the matchups break favorably. Not too shabby after everything they've endured this season. That said, they need a guard. Whether that comes from a trade or signing someone off of the free-agent pile, season-ending injuries to Rajon Rondo and Leandro Barbosa necessitate some form of replacement, preferably someone who can handle the ball. Signing swingman Terrence Williams to a 10-day contract isn't enough, but pursuing a course-shifting move like the 2011 trade of Kendrick Perkins would be too drastic with the Heat so entrenched as Eastern Conference favorites this year. There's still enough cause for the Celtics to give it their best shot in the postseason and doing so will require more than three able-bodied guards. (More Celtics trade thoughts here.)