It’s been an unsettling, difficult week around the NBA, with the loss of Kobe Bryant weighing heavily on everyone’s minds, and business as usual proving tricky on the floor. But the calendar stops for nobody, and conversations between front offices will pick up in earnest with the trade deadline now just one week away. The market has been relatively quiet so far, with Jeff Teague going from the Timberwolves to the Hawks and Willie Cauley Stein from the Warriors to the Mavericks over the past week. Suffice it to say not many franchise changing-talents are available. A bearish 2020 free agent class has in many cases devalued expiring contracts, and what’s viewed as a poor 2020 draft class has devalued 2020 first-round picks while also making them much more available, in some cases. All that and the fact so many teams remain in playoff contention has muddled the market.
As the deadline nears, and with the clock quite literally ticking for teams to make tough decisions, here are five to keep an eye on.
There’s a sense around the league that the Sixers, who have fallen back into a murky Eastern Conference pack, have to try something. Any and all potential Ben Simmons trades still feel more like fantasy than reality. Josh Richardson is sidelined with a hamstring issue and Joel Embiid just returned. There’s not much depth to speak of on the roster. So it’s more likely we see Philly operate around the margins, with whatever move they make leading to further activity on the buyout market, and working toward a more viable eight or nine guys they can lean on in the playoffs.
After their high-stakes summer, the Sixers are rolling with Embiid, Simmons, Al Horford, Richardson, Tobias Harris, and whatever else they can cobble together from a bench standpoint—although that said, it’s not inconceivable that Horford or Harris could move if there’s a better fit to be had. They’ve struggled enough as a group that there’s at least some incentive to try something. Rookie Matisse Thybulle’s defensive impact makes him a candidate for continued important minutes. Furkan Korkmaz has at least become a viable spot shooter. But expect Philly to explore all available avenues to fill out its rotation with more experience, and preferably playoff-tested role guys. As far as trade ammo goes, the Sixers can theoretically combine the salaries of Mike Scott, Zhaire Smith (whose perceived value as a prospect is down across the league) and others to create a mid-level salary slot.
If Philly is willing to attach a first-rounder in some form, or even just a combination of the four 2020 second-rounders it owns, it could conceivably add a viable player or two. The Sixers have the Thunder’s top-20 protected first-rounder this year, which will turn into two seconds if it doesn’t convey (which, if the standings hold, it won’t). If they really want to raise the stakes, they could dangle a protected 2021 or 2022 first instead. Regardless, reinforcements are certainly in order, and this is not a front office that’s been content to stand pat.
A stunning, near-perfect first half has the Bucks unexpectedly chasing history. Perhaps more importantly, there’s now a greater impetus than ever for Milwaukee to deliver and make the Finals. To say nothing of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s long-term intentions and avoid speculating as such, it has to be noted that the reigning MVP will be a free agent next summer. It feels like the franchise is peaking at the right time, and if there’s ever a time to pull out all the stops, this should be it. The Bucks are armed with a tradable 2020 first-round pick that belongs to the Pacers, and at this point, they’d be remiss not to cash in that chip.
As constituted, the Bucks have the luxury of depth across the board, but there may be an opportunity for Milwaukee to upgrade its talent. Other than Giannis, Khris Middleton and to a lesser extent, Brook Lopez, nothing on the roster is untouchable. Conceivably, combining Eric Bledsoe with excess salaries and the Indiana first could net a substantial upgrade, and perhaps even more shooting to pair with Giannis Antetokounmpo. Danilo Gallinari is thought to be available. Kevin Love could also be a sneaky fit here. Keep an eye on the Bucks to try and upgrade. At any rate, staying put would be a mistake.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder remain a mystery team, in the sense that they can go full poker face all the way to the deadline. OKC has a significant lead in hand for the seventh playoff seed, and can choose to stand pat, make a run and let their younger guys taste the postseason. They can also choose to sell off pieces as necessary, with the aforementioned Gallinari on an expiring deal looking like one of the better intersections of availability and value, and one of the key players to watch over the next couple weeks. His versatility on offense as a floor-spacing option and as someone who can help carry a second unit offensively makes him immensely useful to a playoff team, and the kind of target who can potentially push a team over the top. As far as gettable, next-tier starters go, Gallinari seems a reasonable bet to move by this time next week.
Chris Paul and Steven Adams will be tough to flip at their price tags, and both players are obviously also key if OKC wants to make a go of things in the playoffs. The Thunder do have a good deal of flexibility here, and a wealth of future Clippers and Rockets draft assets already in hand. If they find the right deal, it makes sense to move with a long view. Between Gallinari, Nerlens Noel (who has no-trade rights) and Andre Roberson’s expiring deal, the Thunder have a few venues to selling off parts and adding future value while still remaining competitive enough to crack the playoffs. They can also choose to take on longer-term salary and add even more draft picks, if they want. Expect the phones to stay busy in Oklahoma City, where Sam Presti has built a reputation as one of the more creative, opportunistic executives in the league.
It’s well known at this point that Kevin Love wants out of Cleveland; the market for a hefty, multi-year contract and a player perceived by some as high-maintenance is less welcoming. It’s still possible he moves, as the veteran star can provide immediate help and experience to most any starting lineup. In theory, Love holds the most value for competitive mid-market teams, who would have a more difficult time landing a player of his caliber by trying to utilize cap room in free agency. But given he’s already unhappy, the high price tag and the fact that Cleveland will surely have to flip him eventually, opposing teams could also choose to wait the Cavs out until the summer, or potentially beyond.
Tristan Thompson and his expiring $18 million salary should be much easier for the Cavaliers to flip, although getting much more than a second rounder and contractual filler might prove difficult for Cleveland. At this point, whatever they can get for him should be enough to pull the trigger on a deal. The Cavs have done a good job accumulating draft assets in exchange for taking on other teams’ bad contracts over the past couple years, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see them do the same this time around to extract maximum value. Brandon Knight, John Henson and Matthew Dellavedova are also all on expiring deals, but the value in adding either player to a playoff rotation at their prices may be somewhat nebulous at this point. Still, the Cavaliers have to find players to pay next season, and the deadline could be a proactive way to address their various roster holes, as well.
After flipping Jeff Teague to Atlanta, expect Minnesota to stay active, and after losing 10 straight going into this weekend, the Wolves are all but gone from the playoff fringes. Their most attractive trade target is Robert Covington, a proven, valuable two-way wing defender playing on an affordable contract through 2021-22 and one of the more desirable, available players on the market. Whether or not Minnesota views Covington as a long-term piece, the Wolves at least have to listen to offers, but given how appealing his salary situation is, they should be in no rush unless a playoff team blows them away with draft capital. If the market heats up, it could take more than just a first-round pick for opposing teams to get a deal done.
Minnesota can also dangle veterans including Shabazz Napier, Gorgui Dieng and the newly acquired Allen Crabbe as means of adding second-rounders. At this point, the Wolves have to keep selling as they try and reorient the franchise around Karl-Anthony Towns. They’re known to have long had interest in D’Angelo Russell, but making that type of deal work mid-season could be tricky, as it behooves Golden State to wait things out. The Teague trade is indicative that there’s more to come, whether at the deadline or around the draft.
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