10 Story Lines to Watch Before the NBA Trade Deadline

Which players will be on the move ahead of the deadline? Here is the latest buzz and intel from around the league.
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Welcome to the Morning Shootaround, where every weekday you’ll get a fresh, topical column from one of SI.com’s NBA writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.

It’s March, which in previous seasons would be among the NBA’s quieter months, with the trade deadline come and gone and many of the top buyout candidates already signed on with other teams. But this is a new season, a pandemic season, and with the league’s trade deadline moved back to March 25—and the buyout deadline pushed to April 6—there is plenty of maneuvering to be done before the playoffs. Based on conversations with league and team officials, here are 10 story lines to watch as we approach the NBA’s transaction periods.

What impact will the play-in tournament have on transactions?

A significant one. The NBA’s decision to extend the play-in tournament to include 10 teams has changed the calculus in front offices across the league. In the Eastern Conference, 13 teams are in the mix, with Toronto, Cleveland and Washington within 3 ½ games of the 10th spot, with New Orleans, Oklahoma City and Sacramento all within four games of tenth in the West. The possibility of a playoff berth has prevented any real traction on trades up until this point.

Where will LaMarcus Aldridge land?

The Spurs have canvassed the league looking for a trade partner for Aldridge, after Aldridge and the Spurs mutually agreed to part ways last week. Trading Aldridge is tricky—the 35-year-old big man has a $24 million cap number this season, and San Antonio, which will have clean books this summer, isn’t looking to take on a significant long-term salary. Boston isn’t interested in an Aldridge deal (more on that below) and Miami is unlikely to put together the package of players needed to make one work. Barring something unforeseen, league sources see it as more likely that Aldridge is bought out after the deadline.

Will Boston use its trade exception?

Stop me if you have heard this before: The Celtics are in a great position to make a deal. Boston doesn’t have the cache of picks it once had, but it does have its own complement of future picks—and a $28.5 million trade exception to make virtually any contract fit. The Celtics have been focused on Kings forward Harrison Barnes in recent weeks, with Detroit sending signals that it has no interest in trading rising forward—and GM Troy Weaver free-agent signing—Jerami Grant. Boston won’t force a deal, with team officials seeing value in holding onto the exception into free agency. But expect the Celtics to pursue Barnes right up until the deadline.

Is Orlando open for business? 

Rival executives say yes, with only Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz considered untouchable. Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier are available, as is All-Star center Nikola Vucevic. The Magic have been looking for point guard help, kicking the tires on Ricky Rubio recently. Celtics guard Kemba Walker remains a favorite of Magic coach Steve Clifford, but it’s unlikely Boston, without much depth behind Walker, will part with him at this point.

Is Toronto nearing a breakup with Kyle Lowry?

Kyle Lowry’s time in Toronto appears to be nearing an end, with the All-Star playmaker in the final year of his contract and the Raptors poised to begin to rebuild in earnest around Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam. There is strong interest in Lowry, 34, who is having another steady season. But Lowry’s salary ($30 million) makes him difficult to deal. Rival executives have linked Lowry to the Clippers (who are searching for point guard help) and Philadelphia (Lowry’s hometown, where the 76ers see Lowry as a piece to a championship puzzle). Finding a deal will be difficult; however, and with the Raptors still in the playoff picture, it’s unlikely Lowry will get bought out after the deadline.

Will the Clippers add a point guard?

As noted above, the Clippers are not so quietly shopping for point guard help. Patrick Beverley is solid while Lou Williams continues to provide scoring off the bench. But neither Williams (3.6 assists) nor Beverley (career-low 2.1) is much of a playmaker, and L.A. needs one to take pressure off Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. There continues to be strong internal interest in Terry Rozier, who is having a breakout season in Charlotte. Rubio and Oklahoma City’s George Hill are in play, too. An obvious issue: L.A. has limited draft capital to sweeten any deal.

How big will the fire sale be in Houston? 

The Rockets are in a free fall, winless since early February—a 16-game losing streak, all without Christian Wood. PJ Tucker, whose numbers have dipped precipitously this season, is expected to be traded, with rival executives pointing to Miami as the favorite. Victor Oladipo rejected a two-year, $45 million contract extension last month, and while that’s not necessarily an indicator that Oladipo wants out (Oladipo can and will secure a longer-term deal as a free agent), Houston may not roll the dice on losing Oladipo for nothing next summer. Miami, again, is a projected suitor for Oladipo.

Is there a market for Al Horford? 

Oklahoma City absorbed Horford’s contract last summer in an offseason deal that netted the Thunder a first-round pick. Horford has revived his career in Oklahoma City, rediscovering a consistent three-point shot (37.6%) and emerging as a stabilizing presence in the locker room. 

The Thunder will listen to offers for Horford, but OKC has been satisfied with how Horford has played alongside Shai Gilgeous-Alexander—seeing how SGA would fit alongside a stretch-five was a key selling point in the deal for the Thunder—and with a paltry payroll Oklahoma City has no need to get off Horford’s contract.

In short: OKC isn’t looking to just give him away. The Thunder are expected to offload Trevor Ariza, who has reported to Oklahoma City this season after being acquired in an offseason deal. Ariza, however, has not played since last March, opting out of the NBA bubble and it’s fair to wonder just how much the 35-year-old swingman can offer at this point.

Will the Knicks be buyers?

New York has been a terrific story, and there’s a belief that with the team in the thick of the playoff race, team president Leon Rose will look to add pieces to the mix for the stretch run. As The Athletic reported, New York has an interest in Andre Drummond should he be bought out after the trade deadline. Tom Thibodeau has urged the front office to be active—Thibs was a driving force behind the Knicks reacquiring Derrick Rose last month—but thus far New York has shown little interest in dealing any of its top young players or absorbing a long-term salary.

Is Michael Porter Jr. untouchable?

Probably. The Nuggets are active, with the usual suspects—Gary Harris, Will Barton, Bol Bol, etc.—available for a deal that would bring back a reliable third option to play alongside Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray, with Gordon among the players in the mix. Denver isn’t shopping Porter Jr., who has been on an offensive tear since mid-February. But several rival execs have wondered if Denver would look to sell high on the dynamic second-year forward. Still, it would take something big for the Nuggets to part with Porter Jr., and that deal may not be out there this month.

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