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The NBA’s Midseason Arms Race Is Upon Us

With so many teams vying for a postseason spot, the league’s trade market has expanded considerably. The Kyle Korver move may be just the beginning. But deadline deals aren’t always smart moves — which teams should actually pull the trigger?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The NBA playoffs arms race began when the Cavaliers acquired Kyle Korver from the Hawks last week. Korver will be 36 years old by the time Cleveland plays its first playoff game in April, but trading for the aging forward was a decisive power move by general manager David Griffin. Korver’s historically great shooting ability alone could be the differentiator in a series. Every edge counts in the playoffs; even if Korver never hits one of his trademark go-ahead 3-pointers for the Cavs, the spacing he provides and effort he forces defenders to commit to him will be enough to open more lanes for LeBron James and Kyrie Irving.

The Korver trade is just the beginning. With so many teams fighting for playoff contention, the trade market should be active. The Hawks, currently the 4-seed, just dealt their best shooter to the top team in the East, and there are a number of playoff-bubble teams fawning over Atlanta’s other big name on the block, Paul Millsap.

From conversations I’ve had in recent weeks, it seems like it’ll be a busy trading season, though it’s unlikely any superstars like Paul George, Jimmy Butler, or DeMarcus Cousins are moved (unless things drastically change over the next month). That means Millsap might be the biggest name involved in relevant rumors leading up to the deadline, but there could be plenty of available rotation players who offer specialized tools that can elevate a team on the cusp. Here are a few names and trade ideas to keep in mind as the deadline approaches:

Will the Blazers Think Big or Small?

Portland’s high-powered offense keeps the team in the race for the 8-seed, but the Blazers were a playoff lock in the eyes of many evaluators prior to the season. They’re on the bubble due to their defense: The Blazers’ 109.8 defensive rating ranks 28th in the NBA, placing them smack among the Nuggets, Lakers, and Nets (three of the seven worst teams in basketball).

The Blazers’ lack of rim protection gets a lot of press; luckily, it’s a skill possessed by plenty of potential targets on the market, like Dallas’s Andrew Bogut, Phoenix’s Tyson Chandler, and Philadelphia’s Nerlens Noel. Bogut and Chandler don’t move the needle far enough in the direction Portland needs it to go. Bogut’s expiring contract is appealing, but the Aussie is severely injury prone and the assets surrendered might not be worth it if he fails to stay healthy. Chandler can still solidly protect the rim and throw down lobs, but he’s 34 and signed through 2019, and his skills have clearly degraded since winning the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2012. There’s a risk that Chandler’s contract quickly turns into an albatross (if it isn’t already), which would waste years of Damian Lillard’s and C.J. McCollum’s primes.

Noel makes a ton of sense; he is a gifted shot blocker who’s also capable of switching onto the perimeter, and he’s only 22 years old. Plus, Noel is a restricted free agent this summer, so the Blazers would have the ability to match any offer sheet he’s given. It’s easy to think of potential deals, too. A reasonable offer could include guard Allen Crabbe and a first-round pick for Noel. That’d be a smart deal for the Blazers, but I’d decline if I were the Sixers. There’s nothing stopping them from holding onto Noel; he’s reentered the rotation and excelled over the last five games at the expense of Jahlil Okafor, who has been benched for the last two games due to coach’s decision. Conventional thinking suggest the Sixers are showcasing Noel for a trade, but maybe they’re actually seeing what they have in him; the promise of having both Joel Embiid and Noel to enforce the paint for all 48 minutes must be intoxicating. The Sixers shouldn’t deal Noel unless they get back a player who can shoot the lights out (like Crabbe) and run some point. There’s no rush to fill this role since the draft is filled with point guards, but they need to think about the type of point guard that will be an ideal fit next to Ben Simmons, and it’s probably a lot easier to find players like Crabbe to fill a sharpshooting role.

Even if Chandler or Bogut drank from the fountain of youth, or Noel were acquired for a fair price, none of the three bigs would solve Portland’s most prominent issue: their disastrous backcourt defense. As dynamic as the Damian Lillard–C.J. McCollum duo is offensively, they’re anemic on the other side of the ball because of leaky perimeter play like this:

An elite rim protector would help, but he can’t patch up every breakdown. The best defenses are a collection of five players all working as one. A single weak link — never mind two — can ruin it all. That’s proved true for the Blazers, as both Lillard and McCollum have been revolving doors against even average opponents, let alone elite players. Defense is important. Only one of the NBA’s last 20 champions finished with a defensive rating outside the top 10 (the 2000–01 Lakers). But when a team has one of the worst defenses in the league, championship aspirations can be thrown out the window. The Blazers are limping into the postseason, and that’s about the most one could possibly expect from a team that plays no defense.

The Lillard-McCollum core can be great, but it may never be great enough. The Blazers should learn from history: If the goal is a title or multiple titles, then tough, possibly unpopular decisions will need to be made to facilitate that leap. The most underrated move the Warriors ever made was swapping Monta Ellis for Bogut. McCollum is better than Ellis ever was, but trading him as part of a deal for a rim protector should still be a potential option. Dealing your second-best player is tough for any team, especially when Portland just signed McCollum to a long-term extension. The optics of a move now (before the extension even kicks in!) would suggest they’re an organization without a clear plan. Plus, a trade is almost technically impossible this season because of the poison pill provision in his contract. The Sixers are one of the few teams that could even make it work financially (along with the Nets and Nuggets), and perhaps the only compatible team in terms of assets (sorry, Brooklyn).

If Bryan Colangelo is finally ready to cash in on Sam Hinkie’s assets, trading for McCollum would make sense. Here’s an idea to mull over: The Blazers send McCollum to the Sixers for Noel, the Sixers’ unprotected 2017 first, the Kings’ unprotected 2019 first, and multiple second-round picks. There would be financial kinks to work out because of the poison pill, but that would be the base offer. If you’re a Blazers fan, your first reaction is probably to click out of this article, but wait! A trade of this magnitude accomplishes two big things: In Noel they would have a young, elite rim protector who fits on both ends, and it would provide Portland general manager Neil Olshey with the flexibility to retool in a way more conducive to title hunting. The Blazers would probably say goodbye to the playoffs — as bad as Lillard and McCollum are together on D, the Blazers are even worse on defense when Lillard is on the floor without McCollum — but that’s kind of the point here. With three first-round picks in a stellar 2017 draft, Olshey would have tons of ammo to put them in the conversation for superstar trades. If they kept those picks, they could find players that are better fits alongside Lillard, like Washington combo-guard Markelle Fultz or Duke forward Jayson Tatum.

It would be a difficult deal for Philly to make, but McCollum is exactly what the Sixers should look for to pair with Simmons, who will be the de facto point guard, anyway. McCollum is an outstanding shooter, hitting over 40 percent of his spot-up 3s for four consecutive seasons, per SportVU. When the ball is in his hands, his fast-twitch movements allow him to create space for his lethal pull-up jumper. Plus, when Lillard is out, he’s capable of much more as a lead creator. In 11 games without Lillard, McCollum averages 28.4 points, 5.6 assists, and 4.9 rebounds, which are pretty rare numbers (via StatMuse). A core of McCollum, Embiid, Simmons, and Dario Saric would set them up for a long run of potential success with four dynamic players all 25 or younger. With cap space and assets, Philadelphia would soon become a free-agent destination, too. Transactions involving stars are always the most difficult to make, but sometimes they can be the right one.

Who Will Win the Bidding War for Millsap?

Paul Millsap was a consensus top-25 player this preseason after three straight All-Star appearances, so it’s not a surprise with his name reportedly on the trading block that teams are lining up for a shot at his services. The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Shams Charania reported the Raptors, Nuggets, and Kings were among teams interested in Millsap. (The Pelicans and Sixers were originally included, but were later removed from the report’s short list.)

Add the Magic to that list. Orlando general manager Rob Hennigan has a long-standing infatuation with the star power forward: The team tried trading for Paul Millsap before the 2012–13 season, according to the Orlando Sentinel’s Josh Robbins. Then, they offered him the max in 2015, and Millsap said he was their “first priority.” A league source familiar with the matter told me the Magic made another trade push for Millsap last summer (these talks happened before the Victor Oladipo trade for Serge Ibaka on draft night, according to the source). Instead, the Magic landed Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo, two all-in moves made with the hopes of making the playoffs this season. It’s led to a current record of 16–23, but they’re still only 3.5 games back from the 8-seed. The Orlando Sentinel reported in November that the pressure to win means Hennigan’s seat “couldn’t be any hotter,” which aligns with what I’ve recently heard: The team is desperate to make the playoffs, and with pressure mounting on Hennigan, it seems reasonable that he could try, yet again, to cash-in some of his younger assets for a proven star like Millsap.

ESPN’s Marc Stein said the Hawks are seeking “at least one quality [first-round pick] to headline a Millsap deal,” which makes sense because most of the known interested teams are on the outside looking in of the playoff race and currently have picks in the mid-lottery range. They view Millsap as the player who can propel them into the postseason; as a versatile defensive big who is a dynamic threat from all levels of the floor, he would certainly help.

There’s more to consider though: Millsap will be a 32-year-old free agent this summer, so there’s no guarantee that he’d be anything more than a high-level rental. The team he finishes this season with will have his Bird rights, so he would be eligible for the full max at 35 percent of the cap for five years and roughly $207 million. That’s the new market for top-25 players, but teams should pay for what a player will become, not what he was. Millsap lacks the same burst and athleticism he had in his earlier seasons with the Hawks, and he’s posting a career-worst effective field goal percentage and shot-attempt rate inside the restricted area. It’s possible the nonsurgical knee procedure Millsap underwent prior to the season could be the cause of his slight downturn.

It’s easy to get caught up in the chase for a star like Millsap, but interested teams should be cautious about tumbling into a bidding war. Is unloading valuable assets for a 32-year-old free-agent-to-be with the hopes of just sneaking into the playoffs really the best idea? Probably not, but it’s a risk general managers (like Hennigan) might feel inclined to take if their job is on the line.

The Hawks should do everything they can to pit teams against each other with the hopes of driving up the price. Most of the interested parties have enough young talent to assemble an appealing package: Denver can offer Juancho Hernangomez, Jusuf Nurkic, or Malik Beasley; Orlando can dangle Mario Hezonja or Nikola Vucevic; Sacramento has a glut of athletic big men in Skal Labissiere and Willie Cauley-Stein. A lottery pick or a mid-first packaged with one or more young players would put the Hawks on the rebuilding fast track.

How Might the East’s Not-Quite-Elite Improve?

The Raptors and Celtics are right behind the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference, and both teams could look to make a push. The Raptors’ case for Millsap is particularly intriguing. If playoff-bubble teams don’t overpay the Hawks for Millsap, the Raptors are a perfect fallback plan. They have two 2017 late-first-round picks and a mix of young talent they could package together (like Terrence Ross and Jared Sullinger, along with one or both firsts). Ross is signed for a measly $10.5 million annually through 2019, and Sullinger should get a chance to prove himself in an elevated role once he returns from injury (the Raptors were optimistic on Sullinger as their starting power forward before undergoing foot surgery before the season).

Even with all the concerns regarding Millsap’s future production, the Raptors should go all in on adding him to their core. Trading for Millsap wouldn’t put them ahead of Cleveland, but it would close the gap while allowing the Raptors to fully separate themselves from the Celtics and the rest of what has become a homogeneous cluster of teams in the East vying for a playoff spot. The Raptors are one of the best teams in the league, but their starting lineup is being outscored by 6.1 points per 100 possessions, largely due to its porous defense. Rookie power forward Pascal Siakam is a ball of energy, but he’s not sharp with his rotations, which will become more problematic in the playoffs. Millsap’s versatility would solve that problem while adding a new dimension of lineup flexibility. The Raptors are so close, and this is as good an opportunity as any to pounce.

Celtics general manager Danny Ainge is armed with the assets to acquire a true superstar, but without a franchise cornerstone on the market he should consider aiming for lower-cost impact players that allow him to retain his big-gun assets for the summer. Boston is 15–5 in games in which their starting five is healthy, but its rebounding and rim-protection issues could leave it prone to another pounding in the playoffs. The Celtics were reportedly interested in Noel last summer and have the assets to dangle in a trade. There’s also human vacuum cleaner Bogut, who’s posted a defensive rebounding percentage above 24 for nine consecutive seasons. Assuming good health, Bogut would be an absolute upgrade over Amir Johnson, who has done little to help the team’s paltry rebounding rate. The Mavs probably won’t get much for Bogut considering his injury history and age, so perhaps the Celtics could offer Tyler Zeller (whose contract is nonguaranteed next season) and the Wolves’ second-round pick to acquire him. With both Bogut and Johnson, the Celtics would have options if one player needed a DNP-CD to rest their aging legs.

The Celtics also need shooting; while they’re seventh in 3-point percentage, that number’s sustainability is questionable. Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley are combining to hit 41.9 percent of their 3s; Crowder has never finished a season shooting better than 33.6 percent from behind the arc, and Bradley has only once finished a season shooting at least 40 percent from 3, back when he was hardly taking any 3s at all. Jaylen Brown and Gerald Green are inconsistent contributors off the bench, and James Young is nursing an ankle injury (he’s also not good), so finding a wing or forward who can knock down shots should be a priority. The problem is that now that Korver is off the market, there aren’t a lot of shooters are out there. Maybe the Hawks will look to flip Mike Dunleavy after acquiring him from the Cavs (if they don’t buy him out), or perhaps the Nets would give up Bojan Bogdanovic if it meant getting back an asset. And there’s always Omri Casspi, the Kings forward who was reportedly interested the Celtics in November. Nuggets wing Will Barton isn’t a sharpshooter, per se, but he could fill the Swiss-army-knife role left unfilled after Evan Turner’s departure. If they’re unable to land a veteran, Blazers wing Pat Connaughton could be a solid no-risk target (the Celtics worked him out prior to the 2015 draft).

How Might the Wild Cards Out West Improve?

The Warriors aren’t (so far) the unstoppable superteam many fans and pundits thought they would be, but they’re still the favorites out West, with the Rockets, Spurs, Clippers, and Jazz serving as wild cards. San Antonio’s roster seems relatively fixed, but the Rockets could make some tweaks to their depth. After Clint Capela suffered a fractured left fibula, the Rockets were reportedly in the market for a rim protector, but they’ve performed remarkably well with Montrezl Harrell and Nene in elevated roles.

The real weak spot on Houston’s roster is the backup wing/forward spot. Corey Brewer is serviceable, but can easily be upgraded; and while Sam Dekker has shown flashes, he’s not yet the knockdown shooter he needs to be to ensure playing time in a Mike D’Antoni offense. The Rockets were reportedly interested in Rudy Gay prior to the season; Gay would provide versatile scoring off the bench, but Houston might be better off targeting a specialist like Jared Dudley. The latter had some of the best years of his career playing for Alvin Gentry’s Suns, whose offense was a continuation of D’Antoni’s vision. There has been no indication the Suns plan to move Dudley, but clearing space on their roster to free up playing time for rookies Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender ought to be their biggest priority.

A Rockets midseason trade would be one final thruster in their incredible rise up the standings. For the Clippers, a trade might be necessary to keep them from falling out of the contention conversation. The Clippers have areas of weakness, like backup forward, that they should address. They expressed interest in Gay prior to last year’s deadline (and had talks over the summer, too, according to a source), but they likely lack the tradable assets to find a deal. Their 2021 pick is the earliest first-rounder they can deal, and their most appealing young talents are rookie centers Brice Johnson, who hasn’t played this season due to injury, and Diamond Stone, an interior-focused relic of the past. The chances of either player netting anything valuable is slim.

That’s why Blake Griffin will remain the focus of any trade rumors involving the Clippers. They simply don’t have many other options for a trade unless it involves an impactful player. Last month on The Ringer, I detailed the reasons why the Clippers should consider moving Griffin:

Since Griffin underwent what’s been described as minor surgery on his right knee, the Clippers have gone 6–6, but in those games, they’re 4–1 when Chris Paul plays. This is consistent with their numbers since the 2013–14 season: The Clippers are 18–17 in games that Paul misses, compared to 48–30 when Griffin is sidelined. Over that same time frame, the Clippers outscore teams by 10.4 points per 100 possessions when Paul is on the floor without Griffin, per NBA Wowy, but are getting outscored by 3.1 points per 100 possessions when Griffin is on the floor without Paul. The Clippers are still a 50-win-caliber team with CP3 as their only superstar, but they’re pedestrian without him. This results-oriented look doesn’t necessarily prove anything, but it does suggest what many have theorized over the years: Maybe they are better off without Griffin. It may also hint at what the future looks like for the Clippers if Griffin, Paul, and/or J.J. Redick bounce to another city in free agency this summer.

Even if Doc Rivers concludes that dealing Griffin is in the franchise’s best interest, it’s probably too late. Griffin is hurt and has a long, scary list of leg injuries, and he’s tough to fit into modern team constructs considering his lack of a 3-point jumper and rim-protection abilities. Griffin is a superstar, but it’s hard to imagine a team paying the price considering the circumstances.

Rivers should have dealt Griffin last summer. The Celtics were hot for Griffin, and other teams like the Magic or Nuggets could have offered the assets to drive up the price. The Clippers could’ve gotten a package that cured all their weaknesses and gave them more financial flexibility to make other moves. Health and continuity are the hallmarks of all champions, but the writing was on the wall that this core wasn’t great enough to make the Finals, never mind win it. However, Doc was reluctant to make wholesale changes. He wanted to give it another go with his current core; having talents like Paul and Griffin on your team will do that. They steamrolled teams to start the season, and the bench was playing better than ever, but they’ve since faded for the same reasons that have plagued them in the past. Now they’re stuck a notch or two or — maybe three — down below the league’s elites, with no possible way of making the leap.

Teams on the bubble need to be careful about getting desperate, because no matter what they choose to do as the February 23 trade deadline approaches, they’re still going to be at least one step behind the Warriors and Cavaliers. On the other hand, standing pat and sitting on what you have can end up being a mistake. Team-building isn’t easy and trades are inherently full of risks, but being on the verge can make you do crazy things. If the Dubs or Cavs slip in the playoffs, it could all be worth it.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Philadelphia owned the rights to Sacramento’s 2018 first-round pick; Philadelphia owns the rights to Sacramento’s 2019 first-round pick.