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An Early Primer for NBA Trade Season

Most summer signees are now eligible to be traded; let the scuttlebutt begin! Here are the teams, players, contracts, and assets to keep an eye on as the deal-making starts to heat up.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

NBA executives were as shocked as you were on Friday night when a three-way trade collapsed over confusion about whether Dillon or MarShon Brooks was supposed to be included. Almost as shocking was the fact Trevor Ariza was sent to the Wizards, not the Lakers. Early in the week, NBA front-office executives expected the Lakers to land the veteran forward because of his desire to return to Los Angeles, where he played for a season and a half. But as ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported, Suns owner Robert Sarver was resistant to making a deal with the Lakers following the negative reaction to the buyout of center Tyson Chandler, who promptly signed with the Lakers.

The Suns were willing to dance with the Lakers, but only on their terms. After the first Ariza trade fell apart, the Lakers hopped back in by offering Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and a future second-round pick, league sources say. The Suns demanded a young player instead of the pick. That player is believed to be Josh Hart. The Lakers obviously refused; Hart is 10 years younger and has been better than Ariza this season.

The Suns instead struck a new deal with the Wizards, which included a young player in Kelly Oubre Jr. and a veteran in Austin Rivers. Ariza’s time in Phoenix has come to a close, and it leaves the NBA with one fewer 3-and-D player available in what many executives expect to be a quiet trade season. The market has many buyers, and the sellers don’t have much for sale. But whether there are fireworks or sparklers, there will always be trading action. Here’s the latest, and what to keep in mind between now and the February 7 trade deadline:

Does Jabari Parker Have a Jazz Phase Coming?

Parker was worth the risk when the Chicago Bulls signed him this past summer because the Bulls had nothing to lose. They needed to meet the minimum salary threshold, and it’s not often you can get a look at a 23-year-old former no. 2 pick with team control for a second season. It has just failed miserably.

Parker has remained a zero on defense who relies on the inefficient midrange to get his points. As a result, new Bulls head coach Jim Boylen is phasing Parker out of the rotation and the front office is looking to trade him, with “several teams” interested, as K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune reported last Friday. Parker makes $20 million this season and has a non-guaranteed deal for another $20 million next season. It’ll be difficult to find a suitor with the salaries and assets to make a deal that’s worth it for the Bulls, but there are options.

The Utah Jazz are one of the teams interested in Parker, according to multiple league sources. Derrick Favors is an awkward fit next to center Rudy Gobert, and his $16.9 million on the books for next season is non-guaranteed, meaning he could be one of the pieces involved. Favors can’t be traded until January 15, so Chicago would have to wait. Would it be worth it? The Bulls are loaded with young bigs, so it’s hard to see them taking back Favors unless additional assets are included. Utah has all of its future picks, except for a 2020 second-rounder going to the Cavaliers, and has two other seconds incoming.

Parker’s value has diminished, but the Jazz are desperate for offense. They rank 23rd in offensive rating this season, and last in offensive rating in the fourth quarter. Parker doesn’t care about playing defense, but the rest of the team does; if they can help him get stops, maybe he can help them buy a bucket.

The Trouble With Finding the Next Belinelli and Ilyasova

Joel Embiid’s production routinely drops in the second half of games and Ben Simmons has a dysfunctional jump shot, but those aren’t the two biggest problems facing the Philadelphia 76ers. Their most pressing issues are perimeter defense and depth.

The Jimmy Butler trade was a necessary gamble, but it further depleted the Sixers’ already weak bench. Philly allows only 102.5 points per 100 possessions when Butler, Embiid, and Simmons are on the floor—the same as the Celtics, who rank third in the NBA—but the trio can’t always play at the same time. The Sixers defense ranked third last season but has fallen to 14th because every rotation player aside from their top-heavy superstar trio is an average defender, at best. Even that might be generous—JJ Redick, Landry Shamet, and Furkan Korkmaz have been roasted all season long, and as hard-nosed as T.J. McConnell is, he still struggles to contain dribble penetration. Wilson Chandler remains inconsistent. Mike Muscala isn’t a rim protector, and Amir Johnson is cooked.

Teams can’t afford to have one major defensive liability on the floor in today’s NBA, never mind three or four, because teams use on- and off-ball screens to seek-and-destroy mismatches. Last postseason, the Heat and Celtics relentlessly attacked Philadelphia’s weaker defenders, especially Marco Belinelli. Now the 76ers have a bunch of Belinellis.

It won’t be easy for Sixers general manager Elton Brand to find reinforcements; talented defenders who can also shoot 3s well are as rare as holographic Charizard cards. A few names that come to mind from non-playoff and playoff bubble teams: Wesley Matthews (Mavericks), Kent Bazemore (Hawks), James Johnson and Wayne Ellington (Heat), Rodney Hood (Cavaliers), Courtney Lee (Knicks), and Reggie Bullock (Pistons). I reported in November that the Sixers had interest in Lakers wing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, but the Lakers are unwilling to take on any future salary, which makes Philly a tough match.

Without Jerryd Bayless’s expiring $8.6 million salary, which was used in the Butler blockbuster, it’ll be tougher to build a deal. Bayless was plastered on the bench, so it was easy to part with him. But now, the Sixers are left with only future pieces (Markelle Fultz and Zhaire Smith), smaller contracts (Korkmaz and Patton), and current rotation players (Chandler and Muscala). There aren’t a lot of options for them. But why should Philadelphia settle for any of the low-impact options available anyway, most of which would compromise its cap space this summer? For example, a recent Liberty Ballers report suggested that the Pistons have “demonstrated interested” in Fultz. Here’s what a theoretical trade could look like:

Sixers get: Reggie Bullock, Stanley Johnson, Khyri Thomas, and a top-10 protected 2019 first-round pick. (They would also have to waive Patton.)

Pistons get: Markelle Fultz.

None of the incoming players move the needle for Philly. While Fultz’s value has nearly evaporated, he still offers more upside than any asset the Pistons—or any other team, for that matter—would offer. If the Sixers sell low on Fultz, and then he goes on to overcome his issues and become a star on his new team, it would be a terrible look for the reshuffled Sixers front office.

Unless the Sixers can acquire a proven difference-maker, I don’t see the point in making a trade. All of the realistic trade options feel like trying to plug a huge hole in a tire when it really needs to be replaced. The Sixers can re-sign Butler, who can opt out of his current deal after this season, and still create around $20 million in cap space this summer. That money is their ticket to adding the appropriate surrounding pieces, and then they can reassess what to do with existing assets like Fultz and Smith.

The Sixers probably aren’t winning the NBA Finals this season anyway, but they can win future championships if they play their cards right. For now, they are likely better off scavenging the buyout market (like they did last season, adding Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova) while praying that Fultz makes a miraculous recovery. Retaining cap space and assets are the keys to sustainable success, not short-sighted thinking and panic moves.

Atlanta Hawks v Cleveland Cavaliers
Kevin Love
Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Somebody to Love

Kevin Love becomes trade-eligible on January 24 since he signed his four-year, $120 million extension this July. He’s also not due to return to the court until around then, following left toe surgery. The Cavaliers won’t trade Love unless they get “blown away by an offer,” and they intend to keep him around for the long haul,’s Chris Fedor reported earlier this month. Those same things were said by the Clippers about Blake Griffin—then, suddenly, he was a Piston. The difference is there may not be a suitor for Love any time soon.

Front-office executives don’t expect Love to garner any strong offers until he actually gets back on the court and shows he can live up to his salary by being a featured scorer. Love is 30 and didn’t score efficiently through his first four games this season before suffering his toe injury. Love shot only 11-for-23 on shots inside the restricted area, 3-for-18 from midrange, and 7-for-24 from 3—totaling just a measly 0.86 points per possession.

It’s a small sample, to be fair. Love flashed brilliant scoring and talented playmaking ability just last season, and remains an elite rebounder. But teams are right to be cautious. Love has a long injury history that includes concussions, knee and foot surgeries, and back problems, and he has an average annual salary of $30 million until he’s 34 years old. If you plug all that into Google Translate, it’ll answer with albatross contract.

The Last Step Before the Knicks’ Star Chase Begins

The Knicks still have some work to do in order to pursue a superstar next summer. With a projected salary cap of $109 million for the 2019-20 season, it will require about $33 million to sign a max free agent with seven to nine years of experience, like Kyrie Irving, or about $38 million to sign one with at least 10 years of experience, like Kevin Durant. The Knicks can create about $29 million in cap space by renouncing the rights to all of their free agents except for Kristaps Porzingis (a restricted free agent), Trey Burke, and Noah Vonleh. (Enes Kanter’s $27.9 million cap hold will have to be renounced, so I wonder whether the Knicks will consider trading him ahead of the deadline.) Depending on where they draft in the first round, they might not even have enough to sign Irving.

The way to free up enough money to sign a superstar is to trade Courtney Lee (owed $12.8 million in 2019-20) or Tim Hardaway Jr. (owed up to $19 million through 2020-21 with a 15 percent trade kicker), but that might not be easy given their diminished values.

Hardaway is averaging 21 points, but his scoring efficiency is subpar and he’s being paid too much for the limited role he should be playing. Lee has missed 25 games with a neck injury and hasn’t looked himself when he’s been available. Neither player is large enough to defend bigger wings effectively. Contending teams might pass on both given the salary commitment. Front-office sources expect that the Knicks will have to attach an asset to dump Hardaway or Lee. The trouble will be finding a team willing to aid their cause.

The Big List of Intriguing Expirings

The Bucks had to give up a protected future first-round pick and a second-rounder to dump the contracts of John Henson and Matthew Dellavedova on the Cavaliers. That set a precedent for the Knicks and other teams looking to shave money: You’ll have to cough up a significant asset in order to do so.

Here are some teams that have expiring contracts and could take on longer-term deals:

  • The Cavs have Alec Burks’s expiring salary ($11.5 million), though he can’t be combined with other players in a trade until January 28 because he was just traded to Cleveland two weeks ago; and J.R. Smith ($14.7 million), who has a partially guaranteed contract for 2019-20 ($3.9 million guaranteed). I reported earlier this month that the Rockets and Pelicans have some interest in Smith. However, it’s also more difficult for the Cavaliers to take on money since they currently have over $110 million in projected salary for next season.
  • The Hawks have Jeremy Lin ($13.7 million) and Dewayne Dedmon ($7.2 million) on expiring contracts. Before Trevor Ariza was dealt to the Wizards, league sources said one of the many versions of the trades discussed involved sending Ariza to the Lakers, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to the Rockets, Lin and an asset to the Suns, and Brandon Knight and a first-round pick to the Hawks.
  • The Bulls are looking to find a home for Parker, as discussed above, but his $20 million contract with a team option for next season warrants mentioning in this group.

The above teams aren’t making a playoff push (though Boylen might tell you otherwise). The following teams do hope to make the postseason, but have expiring contracts that could help them make an assortment of trades:

  • Nets: Brooklyn has $48.2 million in expiring and non-guaranteed deals, including DeMarre Carroll ($15.4 million) and Kenneth Faried ($13.8 million). The Nets entered the season planning to make the playoffs, so they may prefer to let these contracts expire and retain the cap space.
  • The Pacers are looking to move either Darren Collison ($10 million) or Cory Joseph ($7.9 million), according to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst.
  • The Mavericks are making a strong run at the playoffs, but they could capitalize on Matthews’s ($18.6 million) recent improved play to pick up a long-term asset.
  • The Kings have $37 million in expiring contracts, including Zach Randolph ($11.7 million), and $11 million in cap room.
Brooklyn Nets v Washington Wizards
Otto Porter Jr.
Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Sacramento Is the Deadline Wild Card

Led by point guard De’Aaron Fox, the Kings are on pace for their best season since 2004-05, the last time they made the playoffs. Sacramento’s odds of making the postseason are still slim in the loaded West, but with their 2019 first-round pick going to either the Sixers or Celtics, they have every reason to push for the playoffs.

With their collection of expirings and cap space, the Kings are in a fascinating position: They can either add assets to help build for the future, or add players to try to break their long postseason drought. Their attempts to make additions in recent offseasons suggest they’ll try to find a balance. During the 2017 offseason, the Kings made Otto Porter Jr., then a restricted free agent, a four-year, $100 million offer. Porter ended up signing Brooklyn’s offer sheet, which the Wizards matched. But Washington is now in tax hell with a fringe playoff roster; it could look to Sacramento for some relief.

If the Kings used Randolph as filler in a trade for Porter, they’d only need to include an additional $3.3 million in salary, which could be met with Ben McLemore ($5.5 million), Willie Cauley-Stein ($4.7 million), or a combination of younger, cheaper players. The Wizards could be looking for the latter, if they choose to move Porter. Here’s one idea:

Kings get: Otto Porter

Wizards get: Zach Randolph, Justin Jackson, Skal Labissiere

I don’t love the idea of trading for Porter considering he’ll make up to $28.5 million a year through the 2020-21 season. But this move would be as much for next season and the season after as it is for this one. Porter, 25, is a valuable 3-and-D role player whose skills could be unleashed in Dave Joerger’s lightning-fast offense after spending two-plus seasons in Scott Brooks’s slow-paced system. Having a player like Porter could help the Kings stabilize development for their other young players, and make the team more appealing to potential free agents. Even with Porter, the Kings could create up to about $33 million in cap space this offseason. That’s more than enough to pursue a forward like Tobias Harris, or a big like Julius Randle.

Conversely, the Kings could be a target for a team looking to dump salary ahead of free agency like the Knicks, or get under the luxury tax like the Heat. The Kings wanted Zach LaVine this summer; would they also want Hardaway, his older, less-athletic doppelganger? I would hope not, unless the payoff is a valuable prospect like Frank Ntilikina or a first-round pick. Regardless, the Kings are equipped to make some noise ahead of the trade deadline. Let’s just hope they don’t make any rash decisions.

Will the Pelicans Finally Get Their Wing?

The Pelicans have outscored teams by 12.8 points per 100 possessions over the 840 minutes when Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday have shared the floor, which is about same as a high-60s-win team. But when just one of Davis or Holiday, or neither, is in the game, the team has been outscored by 12.8 points per 100 possessions over 648 minutes, which is like a high-60s-loss team. The replacements for Davis and Holiday are about as helpful as Jack Black would be as a stunt double for Tom Cruise.

It’s on general manager Dell Demps to find reinforcements so the team can make the playoffs and have a chance at making a run ahead of a big offseason for Davis and the franchise. The Pelicans already tried to trade for Jimmy Butler with an offer headlined by Nikola Mirotic and an unprotected 2019 first-rounder. As is the case with the Sixers, there aren’t many available wings, which is New Orleans’s main position of need.

The Pelicans pursued Hawks wing Kent Bazemore this offseason, per league sources. Bazemore has a $19.3 million player option for next season that he will surely pick up. Bazemore is too small to defend larger players, a problem shared by E’Twaun Moore, New Orleans’s current starting small forward. But Bazemore might be worth a gamble if there are no better bets available because of his energetic play. As noted above, the Pelicans have also expressed interest in J.R. Smith, a former New Orleans draft pick. Maybe once Hood becomes eligible to be traded on January 15, something like this makes sense for both sides:

Pelicans get: J.R. Smith, Rodney Hood

Cavaliers get: Solomon Hill, a 2019 top-four-protected first-round pick, a 2020 second-round pick, and salary filler (Jahlil Okafor)

Dumping Hill, who is due $12.8 million next season, would also give the Pelicans additional flexibility this summer, and Smith’s partial guarantee could be used as part of a trade, waived, or stretched, depending on what the next move would be. Smith might be more motivated following a departure from the Cavs, and Hood can score in bunches. This trade would allow the Pelicans to gain cap flexibility and get help now. The Pelicans need to find their hero some help to give themselves a chance of topping last season’s second-round finish. With Davis, no mission is impossible.