We’re less than one month away from the NBA trade deadline, which means the time is now for teams across the league to look into that deep, dark truthful mirror, face facts about where they stand now, and choose a course of action that might help them get closer to where they want to go. Those choices are clearer for some than others. Title favorites and surefire playoff squads will spend the next few weeks hunting for whatever around-the-edges upgrades might nudge their championship odds north by a percentage point or two. Head down the standings, though, and the calculus gets murkier.
Which teams might—or should—punt on the balance of the 2019-20 campaign and conduct a fire sale before the February 6 deadline? Which ones might sit tight rather than strip their rosters for parts? Let’s consider the state of affairs in the run-up to the deadline, starting with the teams most likely to be open for business:
The Probable Sellers
Friggin’ Pistons, man. It’s been a hell of a decade in Detroit, and the misery has continued lately, as Dwane Casey’s club has lost 10 of its past 13 games. A rash of injuries has ravaged Detroit on both ends of the court: The Pistons own the worst defense in the NBA over the past month and have been unable to fight fire with fire without Reggie Jackson, Luke Kennard, and Blake Griffin, who has missed half the season with a balky left knee, and who may well miss the rest of it. Last Thursday, team owner Tom Gores told Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press that the Pistons are “aspiring to something bigger than” just vying for the eighth seed every year, and “probably have to take some chances with some of the young guys” on the roster. A day later, there were multiple reports that they’d discussed deals for center Andre Drummond with several teams, with expiring contracts and future draft picks suggested as a potential return.
If that’s the route that Detroit’s brain trust wants to take, Derrick Rose (averaging 17.3 points on a .557 true shooting percentage and 5.7 assists in 24.8 minutes per game, owed a shade under $7.7 million for next season) and Langston Galloway (shooting 40.3 percent from 3-point land on 5.3 attempts per game, set to enter free agency this summer) could also become targets for contenders seeking offensive boosts off the bench. Tony Snell’s $12.2 million player option for next season could give suitors pause, as would the fact that he couldn’t get on the floor for Milwaukee during last spring’s playoff run, but teams starved for 3-and-D wings might take a stab at a veteran who can defend multiple positions and who has shot better than 40 percent from deep over the past four years. Markieff Morris (a career-best 41.1 percent from long range) could make sense for teams looking for some toughness and spacing in the frontcourt. Basically: Every healthy Piston over the age of 24 could be on the move, as Detroit tries to figure out a new path forward through Kennard, starting-to-get-minutes rookie Sekou Doumbouya, and per-minute monster Christian Wood, while hoping for a full-strength return from Griffin at some point.
That, frankly, is a fairly dire starting point for a rebuild, but it’s where the Pistons find themselves after years of missed draft picks and free-agent signings gone bust. The good news: Detroit controls all its own first-round picks and should have a pretty clean cap sheet come 2021, whether or not Griffin opts into the final season of his deal.
Kevin Love wants to be traded. Now! pic.twitter.com/Xwi4s499OH— Karol Sliwa (@Karol__Sliwa) January 1, 2020
Kevin Love appeared to be visibly frustrated with Collin Sexton. pic.twitter.com/NKA02hBOt4— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 5, 2020
Kevin Love had an emotional verbal outburst directed toward general manager Koby Altman following shootaround on Saturday, expressing his displeasure and disgust with the organization, league sources told The Athletic.
Love was screaming in front of teammates and Cavs coaches and front-office members that there was “no feel here,” league sources said. ... Saturday’s exchange between Love and Altman was not the first. At the end of last season, Love raised his voice toward the general manager and Altman threatened to fine him. Sources said they heard Love say, “Go ahead. I have plenty of money.”
Love insists that, visual evidence to the contrary, he’s cool with Collin Sexton and his other teammates. But given the repeated tantrums, deteriorating on-court results, and previously reported interest in listening to offers, you’d have to imagine that Love’s time in Cleveland is drawing to a close. The Cavs have already moved Jordan Clarkson to Utah for former top-five pick Dante Exum and a pair of future second-round picks. Tristan Thompson’s in the final year of his contract, averaging career highs in points, rebounds, and assists, and he could be a target for teams (Clippers? Raptors?) looking to shore up a rebounding deficiency and add another big defensive body for a playoff push. Brandon Knight, John Henson, and Matthew Dellavedova all carry big expiring contracts, which could help suitors get off some longer-term money of their own for the price of some young talent and future draft assets. At this point, moving everyone besides Sexton and rookies Darius Garland and Kevin Porter Jr. is probably on the table for the Cavs. Or, at least, it should be.
New York Knicks
Despite a refreshing recent uptick toward professional-grade averageness, the Knicks still own the third-worst record in the NBA. As such, it’d make sense for team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry to at least explore flipping their gaggle of players that they signed this past summer for cost-controlled young talent or whatever draft capital they can score. I’m not sure what kind of return New York could reasonably expect for the likes of starters Taj Gibson and Elfrid Payton, reserves Bobby Portis and the just-returned Reggie Bullock, or out-of-the-rotation Wayne Ellington—or how interested the Knicks’ decision-makers would be in moving them—but it seems like it would be wise to at least survey the market. (Payton, in particular, has been a major contributor to the Knicks’ ascendant decency as a steady pass-first playmaker since his return from a hamstring strain; he’s got a 4.38-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio since David Fizdale’s firing.)
The player who could probably net the biggest return is Marcus Morris, a rugged and experienced forward on an expiring deal who’s scoring a career-best 19.1 points per game and is shooting 46.9 percent from 3-point range on 5.8 tries a night. Morris, enjoying life as a top option for the first time in his NBA career, says he doesn’t want to go anywhere. The Knicks would also “prefer to keep him,” according to Shams Charania of The Athletic, with some members of the organization believing he has “long-term value with the club,” according to Colin Martin and Ian Begley of SNY. Both could change, though, if a legit contender dangling a future first-round pick comes calling.
The Reluctant Sellers in the Crowded (Bottom of the) West
Just four games separate the eighth-seeded Spurs and the 14th-place Pelicans in the Western Conference standings. Two weeks ago, we were all wondering whether Alvin Gentry had reached the end of the line in New Orleans and firing up the trade machine to find new homes for Jrue Holiday and JJ Redick. Now, though, the Pelicans have won six of nine behind a defense bolstered by Derrick Favors’s return to form and the hot shooting of Lonzo Ball, and appear to finally be on the verge of getting no. 1 draft pick Zion Williamson back in the fold. Your fortunes can change quickly in the West … which makes it awfully tricky to parse out which teams might decide to cut bait.
The best bet could be the Kings, whose season has careened from disappointment to delight and back again, with nine losses in their last 11 games. Six months into a three-year deal with the franchise, center Dewayne Dedmon wants out of Sacramento badly enough to eat a $50,000 fine for publicly saying so—which he’s probably pretty cool with, because that three-year deal will pay him $40 million (like Love, he’s got the money to cover the cost of his freedom of speech). Dedmon has been roundly outplayed this season by Richaun Holmes, who has been arguably Sacramento’s best player and one of the league’s best development stories. He’s not far removed from being a 37.2 percent 3-point shooter over two seasons as a rim-protecting stretch-5 in Atlanta, though, which could spur a playoff hopeful to kick the tires on the 30-year-old.
The most intriguing name to watch in Sacramento is Bogdan Bogdanovic, who’s set to hit restricted free agency this summer, and who’s still coming off the bench behind the just-extended Buddy Hield and De’Aaron Fox. I wrote a bit before the season about the financial crunch the Kings would find themselves in after re-signing Harrison Barnes and extending Hield, and whether the need to preserve cash for eventual extensions for Fox and Marvin Bagley could lead to the Serbian’s exit. Sure enough, Bogdanovic wound up in the rumor mill Monday, with Marc Stein of The New York Times reporting that Sacramento had made overtures toward the Lakers about a deal for Kyle Kuzma, with the understanding that Bogdanovic would need to be heading to L.A. in any arrangement. Multiple reports (that sure seemed to emanate from the same place) pooh-poohed that notion, suggesting that the Kings would need to be bowled over by an offer to even consider moving Bogdanovic. If they’re willing to match in restricted free agency and pay him this summer, that makes sense; if they’re not eager to shell out big bucks for a third guard, though, we could be in for more Bogdan chatter before the deadline buzzer sounds.
Golden State Warriors and Portland Trail Blazers
Beyond Sacramento getting active—anybody want a lightly used Harrison Barnes for the low, low price of $60.9 million over the next three seasons?—it’s tough to identify many motivated sellers this early in January. Golden State is living in the Western cellar in an injury-ravaged campaign, but the Warriors reportedly want to keep top trade chip D’Angelo Russell around to see what he’d look like alongside a healthy Stephen Curry for a longer stretch. That would likely put off any deal until this summer, at the earliest, and limit Warriors GM Bob Myers to moving around-the-margins pieces like Alec Burks, Glenn Robinson III, and perhaps Willie Cauley-Stein before the deadline.
Very little has gone right this season in Portland, but the injury apocalypse that facilitated the return of Carmelo Anthony seems less like a reason for Neil Olshey to blow it up and more like an excuse to just ride out the suck and see what the Blazers might have next season, when healthy versions of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins will return to flank Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum again. (Olshey told Jason Quick of The Athletic last month that he planned to be “opportunistic” but “disciplined” in the trade market, for whatever that’s worth.)
If Olshey does get active, the pieces most likely to be on the move are Hassan Whiteside, a mostly empty-calories stat compiler who nonetheless is big and durable, and Kent Bazemore, whose interior finishing has fallen off a cliff—he has the lowest 2-point shooting percentage of any player to log at least 750 minutes this season—but remains a versatile defender who can shoot roughly league-average from long range. Both have monster expiring contracts—$27.1 million for Whiteside and $19.3 million for Bazemore; shouts to the psilocybin-fueled cap-spike summer of 2016—that Olshey could look to use as makeweights to import talent for a playoff run … or, if Portland breaks the other way, to get out of the luxury tax (currently about $11 million over the line). Failing a big move like that, he could look to shuffle veteran forward Anthony Tolliver for a younger body in the frontcourt, in hopes of adding more size to Portland’s injury-depleted front line.
A dismal 2-12 December put Minnesota on the road to nowhere and led to some speculation about whether Karl-Anthony Towns might be the next up-and-coming star to start eyeing an exit from the team that drafted him, with “a few [team executives] relaying word that Towns is unhappy in Minnesota” during the recent G League Showcase in Las Vegas, according to Ethan Strauss of The Athletic. Wolves beat man Jon Krawczynski quickly downplayed concerns about KAT looking to force his way out, though, and Stein of the Times reported in his newsletter that he’d “been advised that the idea of trading Towns is pretty much the last thing the Wolves are thinking about.”
Stein did, however, note continued “external interest” in Robert Covington—a player that Ringer teammate Kevin O’Connor identified last month as an object of interest for playoff teams eager to add a versatile 3-and-D swingman for the stretch run. But that, combined with a bargain contract that will pay him just over $25.1 million over the next two seasons, also makes him exactly the sort of player a Minnesota team intent on building everything around Towns should want to keep around … unless, of course, new Wolves president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas can extract a few pieces that might fit better around his 24-year-old centerpiece throughout the rest of his five-year, $190 million max contract.
San Antonio Spurs and Phoenix Suns
The set-in-their-ways Spurs have bounced back since their brutal start to the season to be positively average for the last six weeks or so—10-9 with the no. 14 net rating in a 30-team league since November 23—and miraculously get back into playoff position. It might be better in the long run for San Antonio’s brass to try to see what sort of young talent or pick packages DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge could fetch on the market, but do you really expect Gregg Popovich and Co. to trade now for later at this stage in the game?
Along the same lines: The Suns have also leveled out after a mid-December swoon, with Devin Booker playing out of his mind—averaging a tick under 35 points and seven assists per game on 54 percent shooting since Christmas—and Deandre Ayton back from suspension and starting alongside Aron Baynes in a twin-towers frontcourt (for now, at least). This is the first time in years that Phoenix has been this functional; after making a slew of moves this summer with the express intention of trying to compete, why fold your hand when you’re only a game and a half out of the eighth seed?
Still in the early stages of their rebuild around exciting sophomore big man Jaren Jackson Jr. and electric rookie point guard Ja Morant, the Grizzlies seem like they should be looking to move their short-time veterans for any future help they can get. And yet: Memphis is frisky as hell! The Grizz are 10-9 with a top-10 offense since December 1 and sit just a game out of the eighth seed while still feeding a steady diet of developmental minutes to nearly all their young pieces. They’re basically playing with house money right now, and outside of the small matter of what to do with chilling-in-cryostasis wing Andre Iguodala—whom every contender in the league is praying will wind up on the buyout market, and whom Memphis’s front office has remained steadfast it will be able to trade for future assets—they don’t really have to do anything.
Starting small forward Jae Crowder hasn’t been shooting the ball well—just 37.5 percent from the field and 30.7 percent from 3-point range—but he’s a veteran wing defender with playoff experience, and someone good teams might target as short-term help on an expiring deal. (I kind of dig John Hollinger’s idea of Dallas, if it can’t find someone juicier to put alongside Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, fitting ex-Maverick Crowder’s deal into the $11.8 million trade exception it created in last year’s Harrison Barnes deal with Sacramento in exchange for a future draft pick.) But Crowder’s also been part of Memphis’s most frequently used lineups, and many of its most successful ones, too, so maybe they decide to just let it ride. With youth being served and a fun product on the floor every night, the Grizz can kind of have their cake and eat it, too.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder are riding a bit higher than the Grizzlies, but they’re ostensibly in the same boat. Sam Presti set the table for his rebuild over the summer, spinning Paul George, Russell Westbrook, and Jerami Grant into as many as 15 first-round picks between 2020 and 2026, plus budding star guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The dealing also imported a pair of big-money veterans—superstar point guard Chris Paul, perennially underrated scoring forward Danilo Gallinari—who seemed likely to be on the first thing smoking out of Oklahoma City as soon as Presti could find suitors willing to further stuff his jam-packed war chest. A funny thing happened on the way to the asset factory, though: OKC’s in seventh place at 20-16, 4.5 games clear of the no. 8 spot, with Paul showing he’s still excellent, Gallinari averaging 18 points per game and drilling 39 percent of his 3s, and the CP3-SGA–Dennis Schröder triptych emerging as one of the most potent trios in the whole stinkin’ league.
Yes, this is a team in transition, a roster essentially constructed to be deconstructed, with many prominent pieces unlikely to be in a light-blue jersey for long. Maybe Presti sees the upside in playing arbitrage with Gallinari, who will hit unrestricted free agency this summer. Maybe he would prefer to cash in his chips before either Gallinari or Paul suffers another in what’s been a long list of injuries throughout each of their careers. When you’re getting close to postseason-lock territory, though—FiveThirtyEight’s projections give OKC an 89 percent shot to make the playoffs, and Basketball-Reference.com has the Thunder near 99 percent—it’d be pretty tough to persuade your fan base of the merits of selling, even if that’s your preferred long-range play.
How the Thunder operate over the next month might be the most fascinating question on the board, but it’s far from the only one. Which way the Raptors lean, whether the 76ers try to take another big swing to smooth out their rocky offense, whether the Wizards can land the richest trade package in NBA history in exchange for the right to employ Latvian legend Davis Bertans—there’s plenty to keep an eye on as February 6 draws near. And the closer we get, the clearer a picture we’ll get of which teams looked in the mirror and saw the writing on the wall.