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NBA Panic Room: Which Teams Have the Most Cause for Concern Before the Trade Deadline?

Taking stock of the franchises that may be most tempted to make a splash this week

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For those teams dipping or excelling before the All-Star break, Thursday’s trade deadline represents the final chance to right any roster wrongs. A losing streak might cause a front office to panic enough to give up a first-rounder for Lou Williams. Racking up a few wins might bewitch over-performing teams into pushing for a player to put them over the top. Which GMs have cause to panic?

Cavaliers: Panic

On this episode of Cleveland’s wheel of blame, we’ve landed on … nationally televised games! Saturday, after a 120-88 loss to the Rockets, LeBron James suggested that his team should be taken off the big stage. (How kind of him to give the team’s defense a week off from being the problem.)

“They should take us off every nationally televised game for the rest of the season,” James said. “We haven’t played good ball and we get our butts kicked every time we play on national television, so I’m at a loss for words.”

Of the games the Cavs have played on either ABC, ESPN, or TNT this season, only one ended with a win: the season opener against Boston. But what if, like in many of its non-nationally televised games, Cleveland is just not playing well? What if there’s zero correlation? This team isn’t exactly new to the spotlight: Everyone on the roster who’s played more than a dozen games, other than Cedi Osman—who, uh, has such an enormous role—has been to the playoffs. (And those are, you guessed it, nationally televised.) Being watched by some guy named John on his couch in Kansas is not the issue.

Luckily for Cleveland, there are many more practical problems to pick from: deserted-town-level defense, a starting point guard whose bounce is gone, a frontcourt without a rim protector, and an MVP candidate who is beginning to look despondent.

I wrote last Friday that Cleveland’s front office can either throw LeBron a lob by making a trade before Thursday’s deadline, or hoard its assets to plan for life without him. Neither strategy, though, seems like a sure way to end the drama.

Heat: Don’t Panic

Our late-blooming darlings have dropped three games in a row, once again raising questions for a lineup that spent the first two and a half months of the season being questioned. Justise Winslow’s name is being brought up in trade rumors; acquiring a late-game scorer would help the Heat win the types of games in which the team struggles.

But Miami doesn’t need to make a big splash to find room for optimism: Hassan Whiteside was out in its most recent loss to Blake Griffin and the Pistons; Rodney McGruder, who went down in preseason with a stress fracture is his leg, is due to return soon; and the front office was recently granted a $5.5 million injury exception for Dion Waiters, and the option to buy out another player before the March 1 deadline would create even more space.

Wizards Without John Wall: Don’t Panic

Bradley Beal has taken the Rolex off. Without Wall, the Wizards are 4-0, dishing out the best assist rate in the league, and are passing like a team that finally learned to share.

We can play Ewing Theory advocate, but even if Washington’s wake-up call is thanks to Beal’s solo leadership, this roster will not hang come postseason. And Wall is bypassing surgery so he can return for the playoffs—Scott Brooks won’t be able to sit his star no matter how well the team is playing without him.

Let’s leave the land of hypotheticals. Without Wall, the Wizards beat the Hawks, OKC without Andre Roberson (the Thunder are 1-5 without their key defender), the Raptors (a sincere bravo), and the Magic.

Consider president Ernie Grunfeld, and the $129.7 million he will find himself working around four seasons from now in 2021-22. That money is set to be spent on a trio of stars whose average age is 25 years old. The franchise doesn’t have to push for this season. If the Wizards do make a move, say for DeAndre Jordan’s expiring contract, what that will cost would hamper Washington’s future.

Jazz: Don’t Panic

Utah entered the season with a reputation for being downtempo, low-scoring, and watchable only in the closing minutes to make sure that its defense did, in fact, seal your bet on the under.

What a metamorphosis the Jazz’s past nine games, a 7-2 run, have been. The Jazz rose (and ran) to become one of the highest-paced teams in the league. They dropped 129 points on a fully-healthy, fully-staffed Warriors defense!

But making a win-now trade now is impulsive. Utah’s rise begins with rookie Donovan Mitchell, who averaged 24.6 points on 49.5 percent shooting over the 7-2 stretch. Having drafted a 21-year-old star isn’t a reason for the front office to scramble to make it back to the conference semifinals. Unlike their recent offense, that’s rushing not worth rallying behind.

Spurs

The Spurs don’t panic.