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Five NBA Teams That Need to Make a Deal Before the Deadline

It’s the perfect time for franchises to reload before the postseason—or to begin to tank in earnest. These teams have reasons to buy or sell, and they ought to do something.

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

With DeMarcus Cousins now in New Orleans and Serge Ibaka in Toronto, two of the biggest names on the market are off the board, and we still have two days left to go until the NBA’s trade deadline on Thursday. Given his impending free agency, and how disappointing Orlando had been this season with Serge as its lead option, Ibaka was always likely to be moved. Cousins’s departure from Sacramento, though, has generated shock waves throughout the league, particularly because of how relatively little the Pelicans had to give up to acquire him.

It’s hard to say whether or not the trade will open up the floodgates for player movement. The circumstances surrounding Cousins and the Kings were unique and may not set much of a precedent. The Kings-Pelicans trade doesn’t tell us much about whether or not teams will be willing to sign star players under the designated-player exception in the new CBA (which the Kings reportedly did not want to do), nor does it give us a clearer idea of a franchise player’s trade value in this season’s deadline market. The Pelicans now have two of the best big men in the league, but they are still on the playoff bubble. Odds are this trade hasn’t shifted the landscape of the league much, at least this season. The Cavs and the Warriors are still the odds-on favorites to reach their third consecutive NBA Finals, which may still chill the interest of other contenders to make franchise-altering deals.

However, those odds shouldn’t keep teams from trying to improve their own outlook. There are plenty of teams that would be better off making some sort of move in the next few days — some that are ready to win now and are sitting on a giant pile of assets, and others that have a glaring hole on their roster that needs to be addressed to make a postseason splash. There are others who should be thinking about rebuilding and improving their lottery odds in what should be a deep draft, or who have to get something of value from a player before he hits free agency in the offseason. Here are five teams that should have itchy trigger fingers, either as buyers or sellers.

Teams That Should Buy

Celtics

The most lopsided NBA stat in a season full of them is the ratio of trades the Celtics have been linked to and trades they’ve actually made. Whenever a star player is rumored to be available, the Celtics immediately become the top suitor, and for good reason. Boston has a glaring lack of star power next to Isaiah Thomas (and the Celtics offense craters when he is out of the game), and more future draft picks and young players than it can possibly use. The Celtics ended up with six players in last year’s draft and only two — Jaylen Brown and Demetrius Jackson — landed on their roster this season.

The two crown jewels in the Celtics portfolio are their rights to the Nets picks in 2017 (through a swap) and 2018 (outright, with no protections), both of which should wind up with extremely good lottery odds. Just by themselves, each is worth far more than the package the Pelicans gave up for Cousins, which makes you wonder whether the Celtics were ever seriously interested in him. Did they not think he would be a good fit in the locker room, would they rather just hold on to their picks and build for the future, or are they saving their powder for another move?

Jimmy Butler or Paul George would both make more sense in Boston than Cousins, and the Celtics have more than enough pieces to make a trade if either the Bulls or the Pacers decide to begin a rebuild. If they have to aim their sights lower, Danilo Gallinari would give them a legitimate second option who could play off Thomas while also carrying the second unit. No matter who they end up pursuing, the Celtics could have as many as seven first-round picks in the next three years, plus they still have the rights to 2016 first-round picks Guerschon Yabusele and Ante Zizic, currently playing overseas. Whether a blockbuster move is in the works or not, Boston has the flexibility to add some scoring punch to its roster without meaningfully affecting its future plans.

Wizards

The Wizards are one of several teams in the East in position to take advantage if Kevin Love’s injury ends up lingering through the postseason or LeBron James tweaks an ankle at the wrong time. After a disappointing start to the season, the Wizards have hit their stride over the past few months. They are now in third place in the conference and only two games behind the Celtics, with whom they share an identical point differential (plus-2.8). However, they are also only two games ahead of Toronto for fourth place, and the Ibaka trade should give them additional incentive to make a move.

Like the Celtics, the Wizards need to address an obvious issue at the deadline. Their starting five has been one of the most effective lineups in the league this season, but they’ve gotten very little from their bench all season, and only young swingmen Kelly Oubre Jr. and Tomas Satoransky have earned any amount of trust from the coaching staff. If free-agent acquisition Ian Mahinmi cannot regain his form when he returns from preseason knee surgery, the Wizards’ lack of depth upfront could be their undoing in the playoffs.

Washington doesn’t have the same treasure trove of assets as Boston, but it does have the rights to all of its future first-round picks — and GM Ernie Grunfeld has shown no compunction in selling picks in the past, using them to acquire his current starting frontcourt of Marcin Gortat and Markieff Morris. Lou Williams would give them a reserve who could take over a game on offense, while a guy like Terrence Jones — now expendable in New Orleans — would offer a significant upgrade to the bench without costing much of anything. The Wizards don’t need to make a huge move in the next few days, but they do need to figure out a way to acquire more NBA-caliber players who can round out their rotation.

Teams That Should Sell

76ers

Bryan Colangelo probably regrets playing hardball with the Pelicans in the Jahlil Okafor trade talks, as there weren’t many other suitors out there for his young big man to begin with. Philly’s would-be trade partner in New Orleans wound up acquiring an infinitely more valuable center without adding much to the package. The only difference between the deal the Pelicans offered the 76ers for Okafor and the one they gave the Kings was the addition of Buddy Hield, who has been one of the most disappointing players among a lackluster rookie class — although that wasn’t enough to throw Vivek Ranadivé off his scent.

Either way, the problem of clearing out the 76ers’ logjam at the center position remains the biggest issue on Colangelo’s plate. Resolving the status of Okafor — who has been linked in trade rumors almost since the day he was drafted in Philadelphia and whom the team held out of games last week in preparation of a deal — may not even the most pressing concern. Nerlens Noel has played well in Joel Embiid’s absence, and he could be in line for a big contract as a restricted free agent in the offseason, one that will be difficult for the 76ers to match.

Embiid’s injury history makes moving on from Noel difficult, but it’s hard to see the 76ers shelling out huge money to a guy to back up Embiid and Ben Simmons, and it’s even harder to see Noel being happy in that role considering how much he has complained to the media about his playing time this season. Any interest in Okafor around the league, meanwhile, will dwindle to nothing if his playing time shrinks further next season. Colangelo doesn’t have a lot of easy decisions, but he has to do something, and time is running out on him to make a move.

Knicks

When Phil Jackson looks back on his tenure in New York, nothing will haunt him more than his decision to give Carmelo Anthony a no-trade clause in 2014. Carmelo clearly wanted to stay with the Knicks, and Phil probably could have gotten away with offering him a contract without it. If Carmelo had walked, Phil was still early enough in his tenure as the team president to skate in the court of public perception, and losing his star player for nothing would have allowed him to begin a rebuilding effort the franchise desperately needed.

Instead, Phil has been passive-aggressively criticizing Carmelo and leaking trade proposals in the media as part of an ineffective attempt to get him to agree to a deal. As is so often the case with the Knicks, it’s a situation anticipated by an episode of Seinfeld. The Knicks should be taking a page out of the book of Play Now enterprises, because following the Charles Oakley fiasco, it’s not like they have anything left to lose when it comes to their reputation.

If the Knicks could somehow move on from the Carmelo era, they could start positioning themselves to find a long-term partner for Kristaps Porzingis in this year’s draft, which could feature as many as six different point guards. Derrick Rose, who is set to be a free agent in the offseason, is not the answer at the position, and the Knicks aren’t good enough to make the playoffs, let alone make any noise once they get there. They should be selling off anything they can, and maybe telling Carmelo they are planning on tanking would be enough to force his hand.

Mavericks

The Mavs’ unlikely resurgence over the past month has been fueled by moving Dirk Nowitzki to center and the addition of rookie sensation Yogi Ferrell off the scrap heap, two decisions that don’t leave much of a place in their rotation for Andrew Bogut and Deron Williams. The two veterans will be free agents in the offseason, and they could help any number of playoff teams. Bogut still has some value as a rim protector, and Williams’s ability to shoot would allow him to fit almost anywhere.

Moving Bogut will be easier than Williams, who has a no-trade clause due to an obscure section in the CBA which gives veterans who have signed consecutive one-year deals with the same team the right to block a trade that forces them to waive their Bird Rights. Bogut, on the other hand, has been vocal about wanting out of Dallas, as his inability to be effective when playing with Dirk has caused his playing time to shrink over the past few months. After sitting out the past two weeks, Bogut played 18 minutes in the Mavs’ final game before the All-Star break, a clear attempt to show the rest of the league that he’s still healthy.

The Mavs’ recent hot streak has them thinking about sneaking into the playoffs as the no. 8 seed, a task which the Cousins trade will make much more difficult. However, no matter what they end up doing the rest of the season, this is a franchise that has to be thinking about the future, and giving significant playing time to guys in their 30s at the expense of their younger talent doesn’t make a lot of sense. The team has been winning games without Bogut and Williams — at this point, what’s the harm in flipping them for second-round picks?