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NBA Power Rankings: Buyers and Sellers at the Trade Deadline

Trade season is upon us. What kind of moves should every team explore as the deadline approaches?

The NBA’s trade season had a soft launch last week, when the Knicks acquired forward Cam Reddish from the Hawks for a protected first-round pick. The trade deadline is now only 24 days away, and with nearly every team at or beyond the halfway point of the schedule (sorry, Toronto), now seems like as good a time as any to decide which general managers should be buyers, sellers, or neither as the deadline approaches. So as we power rank the NBA, let’s also discuss what mindset each team’s front office should be in for the next three and a half weeks.

(Note: SI’s NBA staff is ranking every team from best to worst all season long, taking into account how each squad is currently playing.)

1. Phoenix Suns

Current record: 33-9

Previous ranking: 2

Casual buyers. Phoenix can and should browse around the market, but James Jones doesn’t need to make any splashy moves. The Suns are comfortably in first place in the NBA, though Jones does have some movable pieces in Jalen Smith and Dario Saric, whose salaries add up to a mid-priced veteran. Saric hasn’t played since tearing his ACL in last year’s Finals, and Smith has actually had some nice moments this season after the team curiously declined his option, which means he’s a free agent this summer. Trading Smith isn’t as obvious as it once was thanks to the potential he’s flashed with the starters, as well as Deandre Ayton’s own up-in-the-air contract situation. Still, if anyone can help Phoenix in a playoff series, Jones should be poking around for a bargain.

2. Memphis Grizzlies

Current record: 30-15

Previous ranking: 4

Very picky buyers. The Grizz are playing with house money this season. Memphis is way ahead of schedule and has no business being only a couple games out of second place. Ja Morant is a superstar and every role player fits in very nicely here. If I’m the Grizzlies, I’m only risking blowing this up if someone unexpected hits the market. Could Memphis somehow pry Jaylen Brown out of Boston? A player of his caliber is worth chasing. Tinkering for the sake of tinkering would be a bad idea.

3. Golden State Warriors

Current record: 31-12

Previous ranking: 1

Stand pat. Golden State’s name was en vogue in the trade market even before the season started, thanks to its collection of young players who could be dangled for a star. Instead, Jonathan Kuminga has looked great, James Wiseman still hasn’t played, and Andrew Wiggins (another name often popping up in those hypotheticals) has played at an All-Star level. With the task of incorporating Klay Thompson back into the rotation, I’m not sure it makes sense for the Dubs to rock the boat, even given the recent offensive struggles.

4. Utah Jazz

Current record: 29-14

Previous ranking: 5

Buyers. The Jazz don’t have quite the same vibes about them as last season, despite still succeeding at a fairly high level. Utah grinded out a much needed win against the Nuggets on Sunday, which ended a four-game losing streak that also saw Rudy Gobert possibly taking some shots at the defensive disposition of his guards. Utah could still use some help on the perimeter defensively. A shakeup on the wing could help reverse some of the Jazz’s recent playoff woes.

5. Miami Heat

Current record: 27-16

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Previous ranking: 7

Stand pat. The Heat have been one of the better teams in the league all season despite Bam Adebayo, Jimmy Butler, and Kyle Lowry not having played together since November. Erik Spoelstra keeps finding a way, and unheralded players like Max Strus, Gabe Vincent, and Omer Yurtseven have made a huge impact in the absence of stars. It doesn’t make sense for Miami to sacrifice that depth in the short or long term, as Spo still needs to figure out what combos will work best with the team’s top players. Victor Oladipo, still recovering from surgery, will ultimately have to suffice as the big addition.

6. Milwaukee Bucks

Current record: 27-18

Previous ranking: 8

Stand pat. Milwaukee has largely steamrolled teams when its big three has been healthy. (Giannis, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday have played only 19 games together, and the Bucks have a 9.3 net rating when the trio shares the floor.) The Bucks don’t need any major work, and they have a roster spot open for Brook Lopez insurance in case a center shakes free on the buyout market.

7. Brooklyn Nets

Current record: 27-15

Previous ranking: 6

Buy…out market. I don’t see the Nets moving Joe Harris, and after him there’s nobody really making enough money who could fetch something worthwhile in a trade. (And Patty Mills has become way too important, anyway.) Brooklyn’s best hope is to see if someone particularly good ends up getting bought out, the same way Blake Griffin was last year. The Nets are currently at full roster capacity, so this mystery player would have to be a definitive upgrade over the guys at the fringe of the rotation.

8. Philadelphia 76ers

Current record: 25-17

Previous ranking: 9

Buy!!!!!!!!! Joel Embiid is simply too good for the Sixers to waste this season by holding on to Ben Simmons until the summer. Is Simmons really going to magically fetch a superstar by then? I don’t understand who is going to want to acquire him in such a deal after he hasn’t played for a full year, especially with the league’s obsession du jour being draft picks. Embiid has been performing at an MVP level of late, and I firmly believe he doesn’t need a traditional superstar teammate to be the engine of a championship team. Nobody in the league has an answer for a healthy Embiid, particularly when his jump shot is going. (Seriously, who can guard him one-on-one? And who can guard him without mucking up your offense?) I really think Simmons has to be moved. It shouldn’t be that hard to find a significant upgrade over somebody who is literally not even playing.

9. Cleveland Cavaliers

Current record: 26-18

Previous ranking: 11

Enjoy the ride. Unless some contender makes a desperate offer for Kevin Love, there’s no need for the Cavs to mess with the karma of what’s been one of the best stories in the league this season.

10. Dallas Mavericks

Current record: 24-19

Previous ranking: 10

Couldn’t hurt to look. Dallas has improved after an enigmatic start to the season, surprisingly thanks in large part to a defense that now sits fifth overall in efficiency. Still, it feels as if the Mavs are lagging behind the Suns, Warriors, Jazz, and Grizzlies in the West (their recent win over Memphis notwithstanding.) Even if you put Dallas in that group, one thing is for sure: The team hasn’t changed the roster much after two straight years of Luka Dončić one-man shows in the playoffs.

11. Chicago Bulls

Current record: 27-14

Previous ranking: 3

Buyers. As my colleague Chris Herring told me on last Friday’s episode of the Open Floor podcast (subscribe!), if you find yourself in first place in the East, you should probably be all-in on trying to win a title. Chicago could use some reinforcements, particularly at the power forward/four spot, where the Bulls have been hit hard with injuries. Chicago doesn’t have a ton of flexibility here because of their contract situation. That still shouldn’t stop Arturas Karnisovas from working the phones and trying to find someone who at least stands a chance defensively against Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo in the playoffs.

12. Toronto Raptors

Current record: 21-19

Previous ranking: 12

Stand pat. I know Pascal Siakam’s name always pops up in rumors or trade machine renderings, but Toronto has been a feisty bunch after a slow start, and with only one lineup that’s played over 100 minutes together, I think Nick Nurse should have some more time to experiment with this group. As much as Masai Ujiri loves wheeling and dealing, there’s no rush to make a move here. One concern: The Siakam-Fred VanVleet-OG Anunoby-Scottie Barnes foursome only has a 0.6 net rating in 144 minutes of play. I’m sure the Raptors would like to see those guys figure out how to best work with each other.

13. Charlotte Hornets

Current record: 23-20

Previous ranking: 14

Buy with a purpose. The Hornets should have a shopping list and stick to it. This team is a little crowded on the perimeter and a little thin in the frontcourt. Charlotte needs a rim protector or someone who could act as the backline of the defense. With Kelly Oubre Jr. on a pseudo-expiring deal (the next year of his contract is partially guaranteed), he seems like a logical player who could be attractive for a team trying to part with a big. (Myles Turner, perhaps?)

14. Denver Nuggets

Current record: 22-20

Previous ranking: 13

Buy. If only to help Nikola Jokić, who is in the 100th percentile of on/off splits according to Cleaning the Glass. Banking on Jamal Murray’s return alone to solve all the lineup issues feels a little dicey, even if Denver doesn’t have many great options to swing deals. Realistically, I’m not even sure how this team buys. (Who do you move? JaMychal Green? Not Will Barton?) Jokić is just in comical need of some help as he watches the bench blow leads almost every single night.

15. New York Knicks

Current record: 22-21

Previous ranking: 20

Keep bargain hunting. The Reddish trade was a great low-risk move for the Knicks. That’s the space New York needs to stay in as the deadline approaches. Take swings on young talent that can grow around guys like R.J. Barrett (playing his best ball of the season the last couple weeks), Obi Toppin, and Immanuel Quickley. Even if missing the playoffs would be a bummer after last year’s thrilling ride, the Knicks should remain focused on properly building a sustainable winner.

16. Boston Celtics

Current record: 22-22

Previous ranking: 18

Both. On one hand, the Celts could probably use a little injection of energy on the roster, and finding a point guard who can settle the team down late in games would be great. (That’s obviously easier said than done.) On the other hand, Dennis Schroder almost definitely has to be traded because it will be very difficult to retain him this summer. So short and long term planning should be in effect here.

17. Washington Wizards

Current record: 22-21

Previous ranking: 19

Answer calls. The Wizards have cooled after a hot start to the season, and now they’re one of about six-ish teams fighting for the play-in tournament in the East. I still like what Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Montrezl Harrell bring to this team, even if Wes Unseld Jr. is still figuring out the right combinations. I’m less bullish on Spencer Dinwiddie’s fit here. Is anyone clamoring for him, though?

18. Minnesota Timberwolves

Current record: 21-22

Previous ranking: 16

Buy on the margins. Get this: Of all three-man lineups who’ve played at least 300 minutes together, D’Angelo Russell, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Anthony Edwards are fourth in net rating, behind the Bulls’ DeRozan-Caruso-Ball trio…and two other Timberwolves combinations. Russell, Town, and Edwards are first in efficiency among three-man groups who’ve played at least 400 minutes together. That means something between the young core has clicked. Minnesota could still use some help in the frontcourt defensively, but with the most important players making strides, I wouldn’t attempt anything crazy.

19. Los Angeles Clippers

Current record: 21-23

Previous ranking: 17

A small sell. While the Clips don’t need to blow it up, injuries to Kawhi Leonard and now Paul George have changed their season. A gap period did wonder for the Warriors, and it could for the Clippers as well. The problem? They don’t own their first-round pick because of the PG trade. Looking to trade some of the older vets, maybe Serge Ibaka or Marcus Morris, for a first could help the front office extend their window once both superstars are at full strength.

20. Los Angeles Lakers

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (6) dribbles the ball in the second half against the Denver Nuggets at Ball Arena.

Current record: 21-22

Previous ranking: 15

Please do something. The Lakers may be the most desperate team at the deadline. This roster obviously needs a change, and if Frank Vogel can’t risk benching Russell Westbrook at the end of games, some more help for LeBron would be nice. The issue? Los Angeles doesn’t have much to offer outside of Talen Horton-Tucker and perhaps Kendrick Nunn. Are those two bringing back an impact piece? Is anyone in the world trading for Russ? As unsure as I am about how the Lakers get better, I’m sure they need to before the playoffs.

21. Sacramento Kings

Current record: 18-28

Previous ranking: 24

Sell. I just don’t know if it’s ever going to happen for a De’Aaron Fox-led team in Sacramento. Entering MLK Day the Kings, in a weak West, are once again on the outside looking in at the play-in, let alone the playoffs. Buddy Hield, Harrison Barnes, and maybe even Fox or Marvin Bagley could fetch some really good returns. And Tyrese Halliburton could still be retained as the hopeful star for the next iteration.

22. Portland Trail Blazers

Current record: 17-25

Previous ranking: 26

Garage sale, make your best offer. With Damian Lilard’s return this season looking questionable, C.J. McCollum’s own injury troubles, and a 17–25 record, Portland clearly needs to be looking to retool. The Dame-CJ pair hit its ceiling a while ago, and perhaps no roster is in bigger need of a reset. The Blazers don’t have to give up on Lillard or on contending with him. Moving basically all the vets (Jusuf Nurkic and Robert Covington are on trade-friendly expiring deals) and executing a one-year tank could reload this team very quickly in time for as early as next season. At the very least, give Lillard a fresh start with a new cast next year instead of letting him hit his head against the wall with the current group.

23. San Antonio Spurs

Current record: 16-27

Previous ranking: 22

Buy. I will never support giving up on Gregg Popovich.

24. Atlanta Hawks

Current record: 17-25

Previous ranking: 21

Assess for this summer. The Reddish trade was already a little risky for Atlanta, moving on from someone the front office believes has All-Star potential. For now, Travis Schlenk should probably let who is left finish out the season to find out who best complements Trae Young moving forward. It’s still too early to give up on some of the surrounding pieces, and while Reddish was struggling this season, it’s not a good habit to sell low on high-potential players.

25. New Orleans Pelicans

Current record: 16-27

Previous ranking: 25

Buy. You don’t want Zion Williamson coming back—if he does actually come back—to a trainwreck, do you?

26. Indiana Pacers

Current record: 15-28

Previous ranking: 23

Sell. Indiana lost too many close games to have the privilege of being a buyer. And there’s no way Myles Turner is happy about sitting out during the stretch of some of those losses.

27. Oklahoma City Thunder

Current record: 14-28

Previous ranking: 27

First-round pick season. Sam Presti lives for these next few weeks. This is where bad contracts will be dumped, and everyone knows the cost of doing that business is.

28. Houston Rockets

Current record: 13-32

Previous ranking: 28

Sell. Eric Gordon’s sweet jumper belongs in the playoffs.

29. Detroit Pistons

Current record: 10-32

Previous ranking: 29

Sell. This is a seller’s market. With so many teams vying for playoff spots, and some desperate fringe contenders, will moving Jerami Grant ever make more sense?

30. Orlando Magic

Current record: 8-36

Previous ranking: 30

Sell. To borrow a saying from Michael Malone, Terrence Ross and Gary Harris may not be sexy to anybody but their partners, but they could have an impact for someone in the postseason. 

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