The February trade deadline — which closes on Feb. 10 at 3 p.m. ET — has become an unofficial NBA holiday, a day that’s eagerly anticipated and somewhat celebrated and when it’s over, everyone is ready to get back to work.
This year is no different, with a handful of teams and players looking for change and in some cases, might actually get it.
While most players who change teams are rotational types who patch up weaknesses on their new teams, there’s also the occasional big name in the mix. In these situations, such players are “distressed stars” who, for various reasons, have reached the end of the line. These are players who can be game-changers in the right situation.
In the recent past, they were: Anthony Davis, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Kawhi Leonard, Kemba Walker and Kristaps Porzingis.
This time? Perhaps Ben Simmons.
While all 30 teams engage in trade talk — after all, that’s the GM’s job to do so — only a handful actually make it happen. There are lots of restrictions in place, mainly salary cap and luxury tax reasons, or interference from ownership, or the pending free agency of a certain player, or a team just gets cold feet at the 11th hour and would rather wait until the days leading up to the 2022 NBA Draft in June.
Here are six teams most likely to be active next month.
1. Philadelphia 76ers
All roads and phone calls lead to the Sixers because … well, you know. Simmons is a distressed All-Star and available for the right price. The catch: Philly isn’t giving him away, not now at least. The Sixers are holding firm to their demand for equal value in return, or close enough. There’s no sign of panic within GM Daryl Morey mainly because ownership isn’t pressing him to make a deal out of haste. The Sixers seem unified in their quest to either convince Simmons to return, or if he doesn’t, hold out as long as possible for the right deal.
In a sense, that’s understandable and wise. A poor trade won’t help this team get Joel Embiid any closer to a championship; all it does is appease Simmons and whatever team steals him away for pennies on the dollar. The Sixers are better off playing the waiting game, because of the 29 other teams, all it takes is one to pull the trigger. Also: Circumstances change quickly in this league. So Morey will sit tight and wait until summer if necessary, or even next season. By then if not before, maybe Simmons has a change of heart, or gets restless, or another team produces an offer the Sixers can’t refuse.
2. Atlanta Hawks
Travis Schlenk, the general manager, recently expressed to an Atlanta radio station his disappointment in the performance of the slumping Hawks this season and raised the very real possibility of trades. Actually, even if the Hawks, who reached the conference finals last season, had a winning record at this point, they’d still be a prime candidate for deals if only because of a surplus of young talent and an obvious trade chip: Danilo Gallinari.
Gallo’s contract is only guaranteed for $5 million next season, making him all but gone from the Hawks by the deadline. Atlanta can package him with a young rotational player — Cam Reddish is most likely — and maybe a future first-rounder to perhaps get a solid veteran in return or a distressed star. The Hawks have other assets, too, including Bogdan Bogdanovic. Basically, the only untouchable on the roster is Trae Young, and while John Collins is seemingly a keeper, there’s the impression he can be had for the right player in return.
The Hawks should have their eye on Simmons, who can relieve Young of the ball-handling load; Bradley Beal if the Wizards are unwilling to max him out; or a defensive-minded backcourt player. With ample trade bait, all of their future first-round picks and a reasonable salary cap, the Hawks can be major players at the deadline if they choose.
3. Boston Celtics
Do the Celtics dare trade one of their star wing players, or hold tight with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown? There is ample noise among the frustrated fan base in Boston that something must be done to reverse the tailspin of a team that should own a winning record. Tatum and Brown have the most trade value and would find plenty of suitors on the market. And certainly, the Celtics have had discussions — again, no harm in doing that. But would dealing either player actually make Boston substantially better in the short and long term?
Most likely, the Celtics are searching for a creative point guard — someone like the Mavericks’ Jalen Brunson? — and could dangle Marcus Smart instead. Too often in the fourth quarter, the Celtics lack direction and leadership on the floor. That’s why they’ve blown a number of big leads. Previous experiments with Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker fizzled, and now, the search for a pass-first point guard continues.
Smart has value because he’s a top defensive guard; any team with a craving need for what he brings will make offers. Other than Tatum, Brown and Smart, the Celtics don’t have any players with great trade value, so if Boston is active by the deadline and wants big changes, one of those three will be moved.
4. Indiana Pacers
Clearly, something must be done in Indiana, home of the most disappointing team in the NBA. After hiring Rick Carlisle last summer, the Pacers expected better results than last year when they collapsed. Well: This season is a bigger headache. The Pacers need a shakeup if only because their nucleus seems mismatched. How much longer are they willing to go with Domantas Sabonis, Caris LeVert, Malcolm Brogdon and Myles Turner? Taken individually, those players have talent. Collectively, though, they’ve tapped out.
The good news for Indiana: All four have reasonable contracts and can be easily swapped. Sabonis holds the most value, and while the game has drifted away from low-post big men, he’s one of the few who makes an impact. The Blazers would love to bring him back home to Portland. That said, of the four players, he’s the one the Pacers would love to keep.
On the opposite end is Turner, by far the most likely trade candidate. Even Turner probably wonders about being in another system, though he hasn’t publicly asked for a trade. He’s a big man who stretches the floor and is among the best shot-blockers in the NBA. But he’s also an average rebounder who suffers from the mid-range and in the post offensively — though Turner might show better big-man potential if he leaves the shadow of Sabonis. He’d fit well in Charlotte, which needs defensive help.
The Pacers, lurking near the bottom of the East, might decide this is the right time for a roster reset and a new personality built around different players.
5. Sacramento Kings
Much like the Pacers, the Kings apparently have gone as far as this current group can take them — which isn’t very far, given that Sacramento hasn’t made the playoffs in 15 years. Sacramento is the unquestioned Kings Of Rebuilding, and this latest attempt to find a core seems destined to reach the same fate as all the others.
So: Who gets jettisoned, Buddy Hield, De’Aaron Fox, Harrison Barnes? Those are the most likely suspects; Tyrese Haliburton, their No. 1 pick two years ago, appears safe.
And then there’s Marvin Bagley III, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2018 Draft. Buried to the bench to start the season, Bagley received a reprieve from interim coach Alvin Gentry, and wisely so, since the Kings desperately need to play him and gauge his value to decide if he’s better off keeping or trading. Bagley probably needs a scenery change if only because the longer he stays in Sacramento, the more he’ll always be the player drafted ahead of Luka Doncic. Besides, there’s a team somewhere that thinks it can put him in a position to flourish. Problem is, he’ll be a restricted free agent this summer and any new team must make a big financial decision on a small sample size.
6. Portland Trail Blazers
A sixth team would be the Trail Blazers, a perennial playoff team currently in a free-fall in the West standings. But the Blazers currently don’t have a firm GM replacement for Neil Olshey, who was ousted weeks ago; Joe Cronin is serving as the interim. In such situations, teams usually wait until a replacement is hired and this probably won’t happen in Portland until the offseason. For example, it would be a surprise if the Blazers executed a major deal involving Damian Lillard without a permanent GM in place.
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