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An Early Primer for NBA Trade Season

We’re five days out from 90 percent of the league becoming trade-eligible. Here are the players and teams to watch as the trade market begins to take shape.

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We’re in the groove, folks. One quarter of the season is complete and teams are finding out who they are and what they want. Soon, the floodgates will open for rumors and trades. On December 15, trade restrictions will lift on players who signed as free agents this past offseason, which account for about 30 percent of the league. In total, about 90 percent of the league will be eligible to be dealt by this time next week. So get ready for some gossip! With trade season approaching and the February 6 deadline less than two months away, here’s what some executives around the NBA are thinking and talking about.

Which Bubble Teams Will Become Sellers?

It’s a buyer’s market right now, for a couple of reasons. For one, the 2020 free-agent class is weak. So the best time for a team to acquire an impact player could be in the next two months. Many teams are also still in the hunt for the playoffs, and thus aren’t ready to fold on this season. Just look at the Western Conference, where only 2.5 games separate the 7-seed and the 12-seed. And even though the Lakers and Bucks are on pace to win over 70 games, neither team feels unbeatable. Teams see an open window for a championship—or at least a playoff appearance.

With so many teams trying to win this season, the trade market is relatively quiet at the moment. But teams are definitely talking about certain players who could become available if their franchises decide to become sellers. Executives are also keeping an eye on teams that could fade from the playoff picture or could be swayed to reap the rewards of the market’s great demand.

Take the Minnesota Timberwolves, for example. Playoff teams are monitoring the availability of Robert Covington, according to multiple league sources. Covington is one of the league’s better 3-and-D wings and could net a significant return that helps the Wolves build around Karl-Anthony Towns and their young core. You could make a case that Minnesota should keep Covington: He turns 29 in December, he’s on a team-friendly contract worth $11.7 million on average until the summer of 2022, and he’s a versatile defender who hits 3s at a good clip. Then again, because so few impact players are available, putting Covington on the block could generate a bidding war that returns better assets than would normally be available. And such a return could outweigh the risk of keeping him: Covington is a streaky shooter who doesn’t do much off the dribble, and he’s suffered numerous knee injuries, including one that required surgery in April. The Wolves could make a strong case to gamble on a trade package featuring worthwhile younger pieces to maximize the Towns era, rather than hold on to Covington.

The Houston Rockets have serious interest in Covington, league sources say. The Rockets are in the market for wings; with James Harden having another MVP-caliber season, they’re a team that should go all in no matter who the target is. They have the ammo to do so: Despite the pile of picks it sent Oklahoma City in the Chris Paul–for–Russell Westbrook blockbuster, Houston can still dangle its first-round picks in 2020 and 2022.

Speaking of the Oklahoma City Thunder: OKC remains a playoff contender even after trading Westbrook and Paul George last offseason. The Thunder are just 11-12, but that’s good enough today for the 7-seed in the West. Despite their moderate success, plans haven’t changed; Paul, Danilo Gallinari, Steven Adams, and other veterans are all available, according to league sources.

The Thunder are over the luxury tax, but I’m told evading the tax isn’t a priority. The financial penalty is minimal this season, and they’ll be out of the tax in the coming years because of all of the expiring salaries they have over the next two seasons. In fact, the Thunder are actually willing to absorb long-term, pricey salaries in deals, according to league sources. The Thunder could be used as a facilitator to take on a salary in a multiple-team trade, or simply take back big salaries in return if it means receiving more assets. Cap space is scarce across the league, and teams are already looking to dump salaries to open space for the loaded 2021 free-agent class, headlined by Giannis Antetokounmpo. OKC could be willing to take some money on as it builds for the future.

Will other teams on the bubble follow OKC’s lead? It’s hard to say. The San Antonio Spurs could get a hefty return for LaMarcus Aldridge or Rudy Gay if they choose to abort this season; DeMar DeRozan could also have appeal for a team in need of scoring. It’s unlikely that the Spurs would pull the plug, though. The Sacramento Kings are in an interesting spot, with Bogdan Bogdanovic entering restricted free agency next summer and so much money already committed to the rest of their roster; they seem like a candidate to make moves, though not become all-out sellers. The Portland Trail Blazers and Phoenix Suns are also unlikely to sell, as both are instead pushing for the postseason.

Will Cleveland Blow It Up?

Kevin Love is available, but how many teams actually want him? Love is 31, has a long list of scary injuries, and is in the first year of a four-year contract worth $120.4 million. Few teams have salaries to make a deal work, and even fewer have the desire. Love could be stuck on the Cavaliers, the owners of the league’s third-worst record and the league’s most public locker room drama. But Love can still produce when healthy; he remains an elite rebounder, a solid positional defender, and an effective shooter and playmaker. Love has red flags, but he can still help.

Love would prefer to play for his hometown Portland Trail Blazers, according to multiple league sources. The Blazers make perfect sense as a destination for Love; they need help for Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum after the team has been decimated by injuries. Last week, Rodney Hood suffered a ruptured left Achilles tendon, joining Jusuf Nurkic (broken leg) and Zach Collins (dislocated left shoulder) on the sideline. Nurkic will return this season, and Love would be a terrific frontcourt partner because of his perimeter shooting and playmaking ability. Portland could then play big upfront, which would be valuable in a series against a team with a bigger frontcourt, like the Lakers. Or, it could go with Love at center, which could be useful against the Rockets, who often size down with P.J. Tucker at center.

The Blazers have the salaries to make a deal work with the expiring contracts of Hassan Whiteside ($27.1 million) or Kent Bazemore ($19.3 million). Why not send both to Cleveland and also trade for Tristan Thompson? The Cavs center is also available and would like to play for a contender.

Portland is also expected to pursue Oklahoma City’s Danilo Gallinari, according to league sources. The Blazers have options to help save their season following the Carmelo Anthony Band-Aid.

If Portland receives any competition for Love, it could come from the Denver Nuggets and Phoenix Suns. Though the Nuggets have excelled this season defensively, the offense has sputtered. Trading Paul Millsap, who has an expiring contract, for Love would give Denver long-term security in the frontcourt next to Nikola Jokic. And you can only imagine the creative actions they could draw up with two playmaking bigs in Love and Jokic.

The same line of thinking applies to Phoenix: It could utilize Love next to Deandre Ayton or Aron Baynes, or without either of the centers. Both Devin Booker and Ricky Rubio would benefit from Love’s shooting, which is a huge upgrade over the team’s current floor-spacing big, Frank Kaminsky. The Suns could build an appealing trade package using some combination of their expiring contracts (Kaminsky and Tyler Johnson), young players (Dario Saric and Cam Johnson), and all of their future first-round picks. The Suns are the league’s biggest surprise team; now will they do everything possible to make the playoffs?

What 2020 Draft Picks Can Buy You

Late first-round picks or early second-round picks in the 2020 draft are valuable pieces of ammo in deals for nonstars. In addition to the Rockets, the following have been cited as teams that could trade 2020 draft picks:

  • Milwaukee Bucks: Indiana’s first-round pick (currently slotted at no. 20 overall)
  • Toronto Raptors: Own first-round pick (no. 23)
  • Los Angeles Clippers: Own first-round pick (no. 26)
  • Boston Celtics: Own first-round pick (no. 28) and Milwaukee’s first-round pick (no. 29)
  • Philadelphia 76ers: New York’s (no. 31) and Atlanta’s second-round picks (no. 35)
  • Dallas Mavericks: Golden State’s second-round pick (no. 32)

Of the above teams, I’m most intrigued by what Dallas could do with Golden State’s pick. The Mavericks have two expendable salaries that could prove useful in trades: Courtney Lee’s ($12.8 million expiring) and Tim Hardaway Jr.’s ($20 million with a player option worth $19 million). And because of the 2021 and 2023 first-round picks they sent to the Knicks in the Kristaps Porzingis trade, the Mavs won’t be able to deal any firsts until 2025, because of the Stepien Rule. The best time to acquire a player who could help Porzingis and Luka Doncic make a surprising title push might be now.

But whom could the Mavericks and other teams really trade for with these picks? We previously mentioned the likes of Covington and Gallinari, among others, but league sources say the following could also be had:

Davis Bertans, Washington Wizards: Bertans is a 27-year-old lethal shooter who’s hit 45.2 percent of his 3s this season and could fit on any roster. With an expiring salary worth only $7 million, he’d be easy to trade for. But considering his massive success coming off the bench, Washington could choose to keep him.

Marvin Williams, Charlotte Hornets: The Hornets have exceeded expectations, but Williams’s age (33) and expiring contract make him a likely candidate to be traded, according to league sources. The Athletic’s Shams Charania was first to report that teams are keeping an eye on Williams.

JJ Redick, New Orleans Pelicans: Redick was signed this summer by the Pelicans for two years, $26.5 million, and will likely not be traded because he’s an important veteran presence on their young team. But multiple executives believe New Orleans could be convinced to trade him for a significant offer.

Andre Iguodala, Memphis Grizzlies: As much as the Lakers would love for Iguodala to get bought out, I’m told there’s no world in which that happens. The Grizzlies will trade Iguodala—it’s only a matter of when and to whom. According to a source, Memphis is open to any type of trade package, including deals that bring back a long-term salary.

Marcus Morris, New York Knicks: Following David Fizdale’s firing last Friday and the loud rumblings that James Dolan will make a significant run at hiring Raptors president Masai Ujiri next summer, front office executives wonder what’s next for the Knicks. The expectation is that, by the deadline, Morris’s strong two-way game will garner acceptable offers from a contender.

The names on the market pale in comparison to last year, when Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, and Marc Gasol all got dealt, and Anthony Davis was trying to force his way to L.A. But think of these names all as an appetizer ahead of what’s to come. While most league executives don’t expect any big-name superstars to get dealt, surprises can always happen. There were crickets prior to the 2018 deadline until Blake Griffin was suddenly moving from Los Angeles to Detroit. As always, expect the unexpected.