Trade deadline season is unlike any stretch of the NBA calendar. The NBA draft, at minimum, brings changes in the work force and has the wheel-greasing benefit of teams flipping draft rights outside the salary cap. Free agency positions a pool of wanted players opposite teams desperate to spend. All that’s to be determined is who lands where and for how much. The deadline has that same broad appeal—every franchise will be participating in some capacity, if only to hear out minor offers—but guarantees only commotion. Rumors fly, the trade machine whirs, and fans clamor for deals that won’t likely happen. Smoke surrounds the league based on a hundred tiny fires, most of which are snuffed out just moments after they’re sparked.
This, inevitably, creates more questions than it does answers. Let’s kick around a few in anticipation of Thursday’s deadline:
Just how gettable is Jimmy Butler?
This is a monumental question that seems to have varying answers even within the Bulls organization. Every mediocre team with a single great player is forced to confront the realities of their timeline. No team wants to give up a player as talented and productive as Butler. Yet in the case of the Bulls, Butler’s singular value has to be weighed against the plausibility of the team actually making the most of his play and/or constructing a roster that would encourage his eventual re-signing. It’s a matter that can be tabled to a point, but trade offers are not static. Whatever Chicago is offered in a potential deal now could well depreciate as Butler inches toward the end of his contract and the circumstances of his suitors change.
Trading the best thing a franchise has going for it is a bold choice but, in some instances, the right one. Chicago’s present course would have them moving forward with little guaranteed in terms of draft pick value or reliable players under contract. It’s not quite starting from scratch when a top-10-ish player is locked in on one of the best deals in the league, but enough would be in flux to make the Bulls think long and hard about what a potential deal for Butler might yield.
What’s in store for the East’s second tier?
Washington wants depth and Boston craves another star. The needs here are obvious but everything else is left to be negotiated and prioritized, bandied about at the deadline as every team weighs its competing offers. The Celtics, based on their particular ask, appear to be at the mercy of the process. Chicago and Indiana have every reason to wait out what they consider to be the best possible offers on Butler and Paul George, and both franchises could very understandably pass on the prospect of dealing their stars entirely. That leaves Boston in a precarious position—holding draft picks that will decline steeply in value the moment they become actual selections, storing contracts which have value in their short-term expiration, and in need of some roster consolidation. There are no absolutes with the Celtics. They don’t HAVE to make a deal or HAVE to make an offer a team like the Bulls couldn’t refuse. Yet the pressure builds the closer Boston gets to the draft with the Nets’ treasured first-rounder still in hand.
The Wizards’ issues are more pressing. Washington needs viable bench players in a bad way, and especially those who could play alongside both John Wall in Bradley Beal in hybrid starter-reserve lineups. That limits the field a bit, making the best kind of fit—a rangy, reliable wing—just the sort of player that is coveted league-wide. Considering how few of those players are rumored to be available, something may have to give.
Are any teams in the West ready to swing big?
Relative to their conference counterparts, the East seems to have both more teams in soul-searching mode and more teams ready to make a play for some clear rotation upgrades. Where does that leave the West? The clearest of the reported chatter has focused on: the Clippers’ interest in getting something—anything!—in exchange for Austin Rivers, Jamal Crawford, and a pick; Denver’s openness to dealing either Wilson Chandler or Danilo Gallinari for the right draft picks; whether Dallas intends to stand pat or shuffle some of its veterans; and the usual churn of will-they-or-won’t-they Ricky Rubio trade rumors. A lot can change between now and the deadline, though it would take some pretty significant movement to get any of the West’s other teams in line for a grand overture.
Will Carmelo Anthony dig in his heels and refuse to waive his no-trade clause?
Although the Knicks have been one-upped in the league-wide race for franchise dysfunction, this is still a team at odds with its highest–paid player. New York hopes to go one way and Melo another. Anthony, however, holds all the power by way of the no-trade clause Phil Jackson gifted into his contract in the first place. Jackson can take all the veiled shots he wants, but the only opinion that really matters on the subject is Anthony’s. So long as he prefers to be a Knick, he will be. If the team can ever present him with an alternative he finds palatable—a long shot with the chances of a deal with the Clippers or Cavs so remote—then they might finally be able to move on as intended. The real question is: How little is Jackson willing to accept in return on a potential Melo deal just to get his way?
How much will Jahlil Okafor ultimately cost?
Where Okafor ends up is certainly a topic of interest, but his going rate in a potential deal could be even more telling. Talent evaluators around the league are forced to negotiate all kinds of competing forces in making sense of Okafor: Belief in the talent of a clearly skilled young player; league dynamics that make it challenging to rely on a player of Okafor’s particular weaknesses; a flooded market for centers in general; and the self-imposed trap Philadelphia locked itself into by basically removing Okafor from the team in-season. I’m not sure we know anything all that damaging about Okafor’s game now that we didn’t know when he was drafted No. 3 overall in 2015. His limitations were all above board. Yet a lottery pick seems to be out of the question and a good first of any kind could be a tough sell.
Which players on the trade block can net a first-round pick?
Lou Williams—now a member of the Rockets by way of a trade from the Lakers—already did. As usual, this matter tends to be settled by aligning the particular needs of playoff teams looking for depth and the available contributors on the market. This time around, there may be more sellers than buyers. Teams like the Cavs and Clippers might be content to play the buyout market. The Rockets already made their move. The Raptors just made a consolidation move in acquiring Serge Ibaka. The Celtics don’t have all that much need for another merely solid contributor. The Spurs don’t have any glaring gaps in their rotation. All of this isn’t to say that those teams wouldn’t be interested in a potential deal—rather that the like of P.J. Tucker, Taj Gibson, Nikola Mirotic, Andrew Bogut, Deron Williams, Darren Collison, Jeff Green, and Kosta Koufos might not move them to part with a first-round pick.