We’re one month away from the NBA’s February 7 trade deadline, and while we’ve seen some swaps already—most notably the one starting to cause the kind of agita in Philadelphia typically reserved for a Wiz wit—it’s been fairly quiet on the bartering front.
That’s not entirely uncommon for early January; teams typically wait until the eve of the deadline to get to business. Still, while a number of recent seasons have featured significant moves come midwinter—see: the Pistons going all in on Blake Griffin, the Pelicans pivoting from a post-Achilles-tear DeMarcus Cousins to Nikola Mirotic, and the Cavs overhauling half their roster in a day—this one seems set up more for sparklers than fireworks. Let’s take a look at some of the reasons the next month will more likely change things on the margins of the league than shift its center.
The stars (that haven’t already moved) are staying put
In recent years, the focal point of transactional activity in the NBA has moved from February’s deadline to the preceding summer. We’ve seen Jimmy Butler moved on draft night, Paul George and Chris Paul traded on the eve of free agency, Kyrie Irving dealt in late August, and Carmelo Anthony flipped right before training camp—all earlier-than-usual moves brought on by players looking to exert their influence over where and with whom they play, and teams aiming to maximize their return for a player at the end of a contract.
The trend continued this past summer when top 2019 free-agent-to-be Kawhi Leonard moved to Toronto in July in a blockbuster headlined by fellow All-Star DeMar DeRozan. While there’s plenty of intrigue surrounding where Leonard will decide to play next season, the deal preempted any deadline drama surrounding his whereabouts for the remainder of this one; with a healthy Kawhi looking like an MVP candidate, the Raptors are 30-12, and totally committed to making a run at a title rather than trying to redirect him for a bunch of other pieces. Ditto for Butler, whose move from Minnesota to Philly in November ahead of his own potential free agency this summer took him off the trade-deadline board, no matter how much “aggressive challenging” he might do.
The rest of the league’s top players who can hit the market this summer have no reason to rush. Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson are trying to win a third straight title in Golden State. (The same goes for DeMarcus Cousins, continuing to rehab his surgically repaired Achilles tendon.) Irving and Al Horford are set up for a deep postseason run in Boston, as are Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe in Milwaukee. And while the prospect of Anthony Davis turning down a five-year supermax extension to stay in New Orleans looms over the league, he has continued to suggest he’s not looking to force his way out of town right this second, making it extremely unlikely that the Pelicans would move him before the deadline. Barring some drastic, explosive changes over the next four weeks, those guys aren’t going anywhere.
The lone major name left on the board appeared to be Kevin Love. When the five-time All-Star power forward signed a four-year, $120 million contract extension in July, he became both the post-LeBron Cleveland Cavaliers’ offensive focal point and the team’s most notable trade asset. His six-month post-extension trade moratorium will end January 24, but Love hasn’t played since a left toe injury shut him down after four games and required him to undergo surgery, and he told reporters on Monday that he’s not even allowed to run yet and might not return until “right before All-Star break [or] after All-Star break.” That crosses yet another potential difference-maker off the list for teams that might be looking to make a splash.
With the high-wattage talent largely off the board, the most recognizable names up for discussion could include J.R. Smith, now in his second month of exile from Cleveland, and the Hawks’ quartet of backup point guard Jeremy Lin, 3-and-D center Dewayne Dedmon, and forwards Kent Bazemore and Vince Carter, whom I insist remain teammates no matter what happens for … reasons. There’s the astonishingly goateed Robin Lopez and the decommissioned-then-briefly-reactivated Jabari Parker, Derrick Favors and his nonguaranteed $16.9 million contract for next season, and Nikola Mirotic, with whom the Pelicans were reportedly willing to part in a deal for Butler. And don’t forget the recently demoted Enes Kanter, just one of a slew of Knicks who are set to enter free agency (Mario Hezonja, Emmanuel Mudiay, Trey Burke, Noah Vonleh) or whom the rebuilding squad will look to move (Courtney Lee, Tim Hardaway Jr., Lance Thomas) to carve out the financial flexibility to go big-game hunting.
In the right setting, some or all of those players could prove useful. Their moves wouldn’t inspire any push notifications on your phone, though.
The sellers aren’t sure they’re sellers
The traffic jam in the standings of both conferences—four games separating sixth from 11th in the East, five games separating fourth from 12th out West—means more teams remain within striking distance of a playoff spot as we reach the halfway point. As such, a number of teams that might typically decide to strip their roster for parts might instead choose to stand pat … or even position themselves as buyers.
Case in point: Brooklyn. The Nets have four frontcourt players on expiring contracts who, in most seasons, might be just the sort of veterans that playoff-bound teams would target to both bolster their rosters and clear out some cap space come the summer: DeMarre Carroll ($15.4 million), Kenneth Faried ($13.8 million), Jared Dudley ($9.5 million), and Ed Davis ($4.5 million). And in most recent seasons, the Nets would’ve likely been willing to do business, sending out present-day players and taking on longer-term money in exchange for future draft considerations and low-cost young talent. Since Sean Marks took the reins in Brooklyn in February 2016, the Nets have turned under-contract vets into D’Angelo Russell and draft picks that became Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, and impressive rookie Rodions Kurucs, while also adding a top-12-protected 2019 first-round pick from the Nuggets and five future second-rounders.
But with the East so muddled beyond its top five teams, the decision-making math has changed. The Nets are 20-22, eighth in the East and just a game out of sixth. They’ve boasted the NBA’s fifth-best offense over the past 15 games, and LeVert—their best player early in the season—is still working his way back from a dislocated right foot, due to return before the end of the season. Things are finally starting to go well in Brooklyn, and the Nets’ expiring vets have helped contribute.
Dudley, who has made 24 starts, is a smart, professional forward who moves the ball and helps space the floor. Davis has been a dynamite interior deterrent off the bench; Brooklyn allows nearly eight fewer points per 100 possessions with him in the game. And while injuries have cost Carroll a step, he’s still averaging 12.2 points and 4.8 rebounds per game over his past 15 appearances while shooting 36.6 percent from 3-point range. If a team looking for some grit along the back line or another 3-and-D type comes calling on Davis or Carroll, will it be business as usual for Marks? Will he operate the Nets as a team looking to build on its current roster base rather than break it up for longer-range gains?
Similar questions exist elsewhere. In a perfect world, the Hornets would find a team willing to view diminished former first-round pick Frank Kaminsky as a significant enough sweetener to take on the eight-figure guarantees owed to Nicolas Batum or Bismack Biyombo. (This would be an extremely perfect world for the Hornets. The most perfect world that has ever or could ever exist, in any strand of the multiverse.) But sitting seventh in the East, looking to get back to the playoffs and keep the soon-to-be-unrestricted Kemba Walker enthusiastic about the idea of returning this summer, can Charlotte really deal today’s team to ease tomorrow’s financial burden?
Orlando is flailing at 17-23; the long-range play would be to flip possible All-Star center Nikola Vucevic and swingman Terrence Ross before they hit unrestricted free agency this summer. But just two games out of the eighth seed, could the Magic instead look to add help—like the backup point guard they so desperately need behind D.J. Augustin—in pursuit of their first playoff appearance since the Dwight Howard era? After a disastrous start that seemed to portend a fire sale, the Wizards have stayed just barely afloat at 16-24, three games out of eighth, and have gone 3-2 since John Wall’s season-ending injury. Is that enough to convince the forever-present-focused Ernie Grunfeld to double down on last month’s Trevor Ariza deal by again trading later (say, a protected first-round pick?) for now, rather than putting Bradley Beal and Otto Porter on the market in earnest? A recent losing streak has the Grizzlies tied for the second-worst record in the West, but they’re also 3.5 games out of no. 8; Memphis has already added Justin Holiday, and seems more likely to go down swinging than put a for-sale sign on Marc Gasol. (I bet you could get Chandler Parsons, though. He seems available.)
The powers are keeping their powder dry for AD
For the teams at or near the top of the league’s pecking order, the only chip worth going all in on remains Davis, a 25-year-old MVP candidate who can wreck game plans on both ends of the floor and might not even have reached his peak yet.
The Lakers have LeBron, the Klutch Sports connection, Los Angeles, and a legacy of all-time big men. If that’s where Davis wants to wind up, he can tell the Pelicans he’ll only re-sign in L.A., and try to steer Dell Demps toward making yet another franchise-shifting trade with the Lakers. There’s no guarantee the Pelicans will oblige; remember, none of George, Irving, Butler, or Leonard wound up landing with the teams reportedly at the top of their wish lists. But you’d wager on the Lakers keeping all of their best young assets—Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, their upcoming draft picks, etc.—out of any prospective deals just in case, and on Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka veering away from taking on any contract that extends beyond this summer so that they can retain the flexibility to try to land Davis and another big-ticket free agent to pair with James.
If Davis stays put beyond the deadline, though, the Lakers will have company in the sweepstakes. Danny Ainge has reportedly had his sights set on Davis for years, and still has the war chest—Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, impending restricted free agent Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart, as many as four first-round picks in the 2019 draft, and more—to outbid just about any offer another suitor could make. The Warriors have also long had interest in Davis as a potential bridge to a new era in their dynastic operation, though finding a package the Pelicans would take that doesn’t include Durant or Stephen Curry would be pretty tough. (“OK, Alfonzo McKinnie, Jacob Evans, and two future top-14-protected first-rounders for AD. Final offer.”)
A Davis deal could alter the face of the league, and in today’s NBA, teams start getting ready for that sort of opportunity years in advance. Don’t expect the chance to make a slight upgrade to their rotation now to get in the way of that, even for teams with a chance to win the championship this season.