The trade deadline is nearly upon us. There will be calls. There will be deals. There will be news.
But will any disrupt the pecking order in either conference, produce a strong favorite for a championship, involve a major star or — especially this year, given the stakes in the 2023 Draft — secure a good seat in the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes?
All that potential spice and drama awaits as the league tends to the annual mid-season order of business, where teams take stock of where they are, have honest discussions about where they’re going and then react accordingly.
Keep in mind that, in some instances, teams would rather wait until summer before making deals. Summer is preferred because the Draft order is known (or the Draft is even over by then, depending on the deal). There is also a better understanding of free agency and the salary cap, and rosters (and expectations) are being reset.
Making deals at the deadline means bringing players to a new team and hoping they’ll adjust on the fly. There are so many variables at stake but, if a team believes a deadline trade enhances them one way or another, consider it done.
So what is there to expect at this deadline?
The usual scuttlebutt involving rumored players and teams will certainly come into play. Will the Atlanta Hawks move on John Collins? What will the Minnesota Timberwolves do with D’Angelo Russell? How about the Phoenix Suns and Jae Crowder or the Los Angeles Lakers and Russell Westbrook?
What about the title contenders: do they try to upgrade the middle of the rotation to gain an edge? How about the Milwaukee Bucks, who need an additional shooter as insurance, given the slow comeback of Khris Middleton?
The moments before the deadline will unlock the mysteries, once and for all. Until then, here are five teams who can influence what can happen, with the clock ticking.
A sense of stagnation settled in with this franchise not long after the season began, and months later, nothing has changed. Toronto is disappointing if only because the Raptors have no good excuse for being this far under .500. They didn’t suffer a major, prolonged injury to any of their best players, but find themselves a lot closer to the lottery than the top five in the East.
That’s the bad news. The encouraging news is that, despite being underwhelming, the Raptors — who should be sellers — possess a handful of players with very good market value, which of course sounds contradictory.
O.G. Anunoby is right at the front of the line, because of his reasonable salary and also his ability to blend his skills into almost any system. He does multiple things well, doesn’t dominate the ball and plays defense. He can be used at multiple positions and he’s only 25.
Another is Fred VanVleet, the combo guard with championship composure. And Gary Trent Jr., who is a decent scorer. Both players have contractual options for next season, so that’s a factor for any interested team.
Then there’s the nuclear option: Pascal Siakam, coming off an All-NBA season and who could potentially be awarded with that honor again.
It’s all about what the Raptors are demanding, and what’s realistic. Multiple picks and young players should do the trick, but how much, and for whom?
San Antonio Spurs
A team with the league’s worst defense, no star or savior and a creaky neck from staring up at almost everyone else in the West probably needs to redefine its priorities. For the Spurs, it means time to pull the plug on 2022-23 and prepare for next season. They represent a handful of teams that realistically are looking at a high lottery pick, and might be best served by guaranteeing as much.
If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. In the 1996-97 season, the Spurs essentially surrendered after David Robinson suffered an injury and the team free-fell into the lottery. It should be noted that in the 1997 Draft lottery, Boston (and not San Antonio) had the best odds at Tim Duncan and, well, we know how that turned out.
Unlike that Duncan year, the bottom three teams all hold equal odds for the top pick, so the trick is to be among those three. And right now, the Spurs are in the mix.
Their best tradable assets are center Jakob Poeltl and swingman Doug McDermott, a pair of serviceable rotational players who can help a contender. Poeltl is a solid rebounder (9.0 rpg), while McDermott brings shooting range (41.5% on 3-pointers). Poeltl’s contract expires this summer, while McDermott has another year, but the remaining money on his deal is reasonable.
The Spurs can clear the payroll enough to add players in the offseason through trades and free agency because, for them, it’s all about the future.
Much like the Spurs, Charlotte is staring at a lost season. The Hornets can use this time to start over, and absolutely nobody in their fan base will object. Perhaps more than any other team, they desperately need the Draft to pluck a potential superstar. Since Michael Jordan became owner in 2010, the Hornets have never had one.
Who on Charlotte’s roster is available in what is surely a sell situation? How about anybody but LaMelo Ball? Yep, that about covers it. Most realistically, the Hornets would probably see a decent market for Mason Plumlee, Terry Rozier, Kelly Oubre and maybe Gordon Hayward (although his injury history and steep contract mean he won’t fetch much in return).
One player who’s noticeably missing is restricted free agent Miles Bridges because, technically, he doesn’t belong to the Hornets, who haven’t extended him a contract. Those matters will be settled this summer and Bridges will almost certainly face a suspension after being charged with three counts of felony domestic violence last summer.
The Hornets are squarely in contention for the No. 1 pick even if they don’t drop assets overboard. They could guarantee a seat at the table and be active at the trade deadline anyway.
Should they be buyers or sellers — or will they be both? The Suns, two years removed from reaching the NBA Finals, find themselves in a peculiar situation now.
On one hand: When Devin Booker returns, this team should rise. A healthy Suns team would be very good in the playoffs and, under the right conditions, could go on a deep postseason run.
On the other hand: Their championship window probably slammed shut last season, and now would be the time to readjust and sell high.
Other than Crowder (who has sat home all season while waiting to be traded), the Suns could pull a somewhat major surprise and trade Chris Paul. Before the season began, this would be unthinkable.
Paul has struggled to find consistency, raising the belief that his decline as a middle-aged player is starting to accelerate. Phoenix could trade him now, assuming someone can cope with the final two years and $60.8 million on his contract, and look for its next point guard. Not sure what the Lakers could offer, but if they toss in a Draft sweetener with Westbrook, the Suns might bite and Paul, who keeps a home in LA, would be thrilled to link with his buddy LeBron James (since Paul and Russ were swapped previously, have any players been traded for each other twice in NBA history?).
Deandre Ayton and the Suns have a weird relationship and it wouldn’t be a shocker if the player and team mutually agree he should be somewhere else, if not by the trade deadline, then this summer.
Introducing the L.A. team that, potentially, could be the biggest buyers on the market. Yes, it’s the other team in Los Angeles (sorry, Lakers) that’s positioned and best equipped to make a few deals and undergo an upgrade.
The difference here is the Clippers have assets (not Draft capital, since the Thunder own roughly all the Clippers’ picks through the year 2088 from the Paul George trade). The Clippers are deep and therefore can cull from the herd and reshape the club, based on what they believe will be positions of need.
In no particular order, the Clippers can shop Reggie Jackson, John Wall, Robert Covington, Marcus Morris and/or Luke Kennard. All have very tradable contracts and all would have some value to other teams. If the Clippers like what they hear, they might even dangle Terance Mann (although, because of his youth and reasonable contract, might feel he’s better to keep in the mix).
The Clippers are looking to perhaps bring in a disgruntled/devalued star regardless of his salary (owner Steve Ballmer can handle it) and push the chips toward the middle of the table with Kawhi Leonard and George. Both players can opt into free agency in 2024-25, so time is of the essence here, especially given their injury histories.
Kyle Lowry, John Collins, Mike Conley, VanVleet and Hayward are just a few names the Clippers could target, and they ideally would like to upgrade their center and point guard positions.
Of course, the Clippers could just stay put and take their chances. But there might not be a better time and situation for a contender to get help without sacrificing much. Plenty of teams would love to own the cards the Clippers have now.
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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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