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Three Playoff Hopefuls on the NBA Trade Deadline Borderline

The fate of the Kings, Clippers, and Magic this season could come down to the deals they do (or don’t) make come Thursday afternoon

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For some teams, deciding whether to focus on the future or go all in on the present at the NBA’s annual trade deadline doesn’t require more than a moment’s thought. A franchise circling the drain near the bottom of the standings is probably going to look to sell off its present-day assets in pursuit of something that might have greater value in the years to come. One on the cusp of credible contention would be more inclined to dangle future picks or still-buffering young talent that could land the piece that puts it over the top this season.

If your team sits between those two poles, though—by no means a sure thing to make a deep postseason run, but still within arm’s reach of your conference’s top eight—the choice is considerably trickier. Should the team take it slow in hopes of bigger and better things next season? Or should it push the chips in and take a chance, in hopes of giving its players, coaches, and fans something to look forward to come the middle of April?

Let’s take a look at three teams in the NBA’s middle who will have to make that decision before Thursday’s 3 p.m. ET trade deadline, starting in California’s capital:

Sacramento Kings

You guys: the Kings! Three months after we started expressing cautious optimism that maybe Sacramento had stumbled onto something sustainable for the first time since Chris Webber’s heyday, the Kings remain very much in the thick of the playoff chase in the Western Conference.

Dave Joerger’s team won its 28th game of the season on Monday, topping last season’s total with nine weeks to go, drilling the Spurs behind stellar games from point guard De’Aaron Fox (20 points, six rebounds, six assists), backup ball handler Yogi Ferrell (19 points on perfect 7-for-7 shooting, including four 3-pointers, in 19 minutes off the bench), and rising rookie Marvin Bagley III.

The no. 2 overall pick in the 2018 draft has battled through questions of how he fits into the Kings’ frontourt rotation, and whether Sacramento made a grievous error in passing on Rookie of the Year favorite Luka Doncic, by balling out since returning from a bone bruise on his left knee. The 19-year-old is averaging 15.6 points, 8.8 rebounds, 1.2 assists, and 1.0 blocks in 27.2 minutes per game over his past 10 outings, capped by a career-best 24-point, 12-rebound, four-assist, three-block performance against San Antonio that he finished with one hell of a flourish:

The Kings enter Tuesday’s play in ninth place in the West, just a half-game behind the eighth-seeded Clippers. They’ve been in better form than their Pacific Division neighbors of late, going 9-6 in their last 15 games compared to 6-9 for the Clippers with a better net rating by nearly two points per 100 possessions. Strength-of-schedule ratings suggest Sacramento and L.A. have about the same level of difficulty ahead of them, with the Kings having one more road game on their slate than the Clippers. It’s not just as simple as “be better than the Clippers over the next nine weeks and you’re in” — the Lakers sit in 10th, just a game behind Sacramento, and they’ll be adding a probably healthy LeBron James (and maybe a whole lot more) for the stretch run—but just keeping this up would give the Kings a fighting chance at breaking the NBA’s longest-running postseason drought.

Sacramento is also better positioned than any other team to take a big swing. The Kings still have a little more than $11 million in salary cap space, as well as four expiring contracts—Zach Randolph’s $11.7 million, Iman Shumpert’s $11 million, Kosta Koufos’s $8.7 million, and Ben McLemore’s $5.5 million—plus the smaller nonguaranteed 2019-20 contracts of Ferrell and reserve guard Frank Mason. They can use all that cap room and all that disappearing money to offer a get-out-of-financial-jail-free card to a franchise with luxury tax troubles … in exchange for a good player who could both improve this season’s team and fit into the Kings’ structure for the future.

The Fox–Buddy Hield backcourt seems set in stone. The frontcourt is crowded, and youth is starting to be served: Don’t look now, but after hemorrhaging points earlier in the season, the pairing of rookie bigs Bagley and Harry Giles has been a net positive for the past 15 games, a bigger net positive in the past 10, and a monster net positive when they run with Serbian swingman Bogdan Bogdanovic. That leaves room for an upgrade on the wing over Shumpert and Justin Jackson. Otto Porter Jr. would make a ton of sense, if the Wizards were actually interested in moving him; Harrison Barnes might, now that the Mavericks have their two high-usage pieces of the future locked up.

The Kings are young and very fun. They have money to spend when nobody else does, and thanks to two remarkably ill-fated trades, they owe their 2019 first-round pick to either the 76ers or the Celtics. It’s been 15 years since the Kings were this good, and there’s no incentive for them not to try to get better before season’s end. They should go for it. Let’s get nuts, Vlade.

Los Angeles Clippers

The team the Kings are chasing has hit rocky ground after its stellar start. Since the start of December, the Clips have the league’s ninth-worst record and 10th-worst net rating. Rotational inconsistency, sluggish lineups, flagging defense, and a lack of bankable non–Lou Williams scoring have all contributed to a slide from the top of the West to the verge of the lottery. (Losing high-scoring, sweet-shooting forward Danilo Gallinari for the past nine games to a bout of back spasms hasn’t helped, either.)

While the Kings have every reason to go seize the moment, the Clippers’ incentives run the other way. Thanks to Doc Rivers believing at the 2016 trade deadline that Jeff Green was the answer to the Clippers’ prayers (he wasn’t) and the Grizzlies believing at the 2016 draft that Deyonta Davis and Rade Zagorac were the answer to their prayers (they weren’t), L.A. owes its 2019 first-round draft pick to the Celtics … unless the Clippers miss the playoffs. If the pick lands in the lottery, they keep it.

And as much fun as it would be to see Steve Ballmer jacked up during playoff games this spring, a Clippers front office led by Lawrence Frank and grand-poobah consultant Jerry West has its sights set on significantly bigger things this summer—chiefly, landing two legit superstars (say, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard?)—to transform Los Angeles’s longtime little brother into a full-fledged championship destination. That path requires maintaining the financial flexibility to offer two maximum-salaried contracts, which means that any moves the Clips might make by Thursday afternoon can’t bring back players with long-term salary—or, at least, players whose future money they couldn’t quickly reroute before July 1. There’s an argument to be made that making the playoffs and conveying the pick to Boston would be beneficial for that reason; first-round picks get guaranteed contracts, which eats into cap space, and every penny counts when you’re hunting two of the most expensive players in the league. But an extra first-round pick could be a handy thing to have on the trade front if Plan A doesn’t work out.

We don’t know yet whether the next truly competitive iteration of the Clippers will feature Durant or Leonard. But we can probably say with some confidence that it won’t feature Marcin Gortat, Boban Marjanovic, Patrick Beverley, or Avery Bradley, who is guaranteed only $2 million for 2019-20, making his contract a potentially enticing asset for a team looking to clear out some cap space next season. The Clippers might be content to stand pat and let Thursday’s deadline pass without a big deal one way or the other; ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported Friday that they “do not appear motivated to do much of anything.” Should the spirit move them into the market, though, it’d probably be wisest if they set up shop as a seller; no need to muddy their cap situation snagging a starting center or another scorer for a playoff push.

Orlando Magic

Like the Clippers, the Magic have struggled to stay afloat since a stronger-than-expected opening to their first season under head coach Steve Clifford. Orlando had lost 11 of 14 before a pair of weekend wins over the injury-struck Pacers and Nets, and heads into Tuesday at 22-31, in 12th place in the East.

The Magic are three games behind eighth-seeded Miami with 29 games to go, and while they look to have one of the league’s friendlier schedules down the stretch, that’s mitigated by the fact that they’ll play 17 of their final 29 on the road, where they’re just 8-16 this season. Complicating matters: Two of Orlando’s best players—All-Star center Nikola Vucevic and sixth man Terrence Ross—will hit unrestricted free agency this summer.

Vucevic is the closest thing the Magic have had to a franchise focal point since 2012, when a young Vooch was packaged in a three-way trade that sent former Magic great Dwight Howard to the Lakers. In what has been a career season, Vucevic might be someone Orlando would want to back up the Brink’s truck to keep. But the USC product could draw interest from both L.A. teams this summer if their top free agent priorities go elsewhere, and if the bidding gets too rich, Orlando might opt to redirect those resources and slot recent lottery picks Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba (who is expected to miss “significant time” with a stress fracture in his left leg) in for more minutes in the middle. If the Magic can find a competitive offer for Vucevic’s services as a stretch-run rental—a lightly protected first-round pick, maybe a good young ball handler under team control for a few more years—it might make more sense to cut bait. Ditto for Ross, who profiles as the kind of rangy shooter and theoretical multipositional defender that playoff teams could use to round out their wing rotations, but who will more likely net second-round picks than a first.

FiveThirtyEight and Basketball-Reference peg Orlando’s odds of making the postseason at between 12 percent and 13 percent; ESPN’s model takes an even dimmer view. Leapfrogging the Heat, Pistons, and Wizards isn’t impossible; recent history suggests, though, that it’s not especially likely. I wouldn’t blame a Magic fan for being deeply unsatisfied with the notion of once again punting the remainder of a season in pursuit of a mid-lottery pick—there’s no way they can plummet all the way down to the New York–Cleveland-Chicago-Phoenix depths of the draft lottery standings—and some extra future draft goodies. If nothing else, though, trading Vucevic, Ross, or maybe Jonathon Simmons (whose 2019-20 contract is guaranteed for just $1 million) would more firmly establish that the franchise’s future hangs on the development of Isaac, Bamba, and whatever guard prospect they can pluck in the draft or free agency. When you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere, you don’t really have much choice except to keep going.