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The 2021 NBA Trade-Season Primer

Which teams will be buying and selling before the deadline? And which players might be on the move? We survey the market and examine this year’s biggest questions.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

We’ve seen only three trades since the 2020-21 NBA season started: the blockbuster that landed James Harden in Brooklyn, the significantly lower-wattage deal in which the Cavaliers shipped Kevin Porter Jr. off to Houston, and the Knicks sending former lottery pick Dennis Smith Jr. and a future second-rounder to bring Derrick Rose back for a second tour of duty (and a third stint with Tom Thibodeau). That number might be about to rise, though: Last Saturday, teams became eligible to trade players who signed new contracts in the first three weeks of free agency, putting 90-odd players into play for league executives trying to take stock of where their teams stand.

That sort of analysis and decision-making process—typically complicated and fraught under normal circumstances—promises to be especially challenging in a season that’s seen rotations, fortunes, and best-laid plans dramatically altered (and more than 20 games postponed) by COVID-19. With about six weeks remaining until the March 25 trade deadline, let’s start trying to get our arms around what the 2020-21 NBA trade market might look like by considering a few big questions, starting with:

Who will be buying and selling?

A third of the way through the season, about half of the NBA sits within three games of .500. With a few exceptions at the top (the L.A. teams, Utah, Philadelphia, Milwaukee) and the bottom (Minnesota, Washington, Detroit) of the standings, damn near every team seems like it’s one good week away from considering itself a sleeper playoff team, and one bad week away from putting a blanket over its head, pouring a Forgetting Sarah Marshall–sized bowl of depression cereal, and watching Cade Cunningham highlights with the lights turned off. On top of that, this season’s addition of a play-in tournament in which the ninth and 10th seeds in each conference will get a chance to make the postseason seems likely to limit the number of teams feeling compelled to sell.

The next few weeks should whittle down that uncertainty a bit. But in terms of trying to get a jump on the market, it’s tough to parse who should be going for it and who should be taking it slow when so many teams reside in the league’s lumpy middle.

OK, what about the top-of-the-standings exceptions? What do the contenders need?

Let’s take a spin:

Lakers: The defending champs have been dominant defensively and almost just as good on offense, scoring at an elite level whenever LeBron James and Anthony Davis share the court. Their shuffled-up starting five continues to rank among the league’s best big-minutes lineups; recently, they’ve been bullying opponents with a lockdown second unit in which LeBron is flanked by the speed and length of Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Kuzma, Alex Caruso, and Talen Horton-Tucker. A shot-blocking, rim-running reserve center (like last season’s JaVale McGee) might be nice just to round out the toolbox, but I’d bet on that coming on the buyout market rather than in trade. For the most part, I think, the Lakers have their team. Good thing it’s awesome.

Clippers: The Clips are near the top of the league in points scored per possession thanks to scorching 3-point shooting. One prospective area of concern, though, is that the migration to the perimeter leaves the team a bit underwhelming inside: The Clippers rank in the bottom third in both drives to the basket and free throw rate (after finishing second last season), and in the bottom five in both points in the paint and the percentage of their shots that come at the rim. The Clips might not even really want a bull-in-a-china-shop-type player—they essentially swapped Montrezl Harrell for Serge Ibaka, after all—and I’m not sure how many will be available anyway. It might behoove them to look for one, though, just to have around in case those jumpers stop falling at an inopportune time. Like, say, after halftime in three consecutive elimination games in the second round of the playoffs.

76ers: Joel Embiid has been absolutely incredible, and the starting five that Daryl Morey reconfigured on draft night has outscored opponents by 98 points in 257 minutes heading into Tuesday night, averaging an obscene 124 points per 100 possessions—an offensive rating head and shoulders above the league’s best full-season mark. Philly’s overall shooting and playmaking shortfall becomes glaringly obvious without Embiid, though; the offense completely craters whenever he sits. A stretch 4 or stretch 5 who could help open up the floor when Ben Simmons runs the show without Embiid would be nice. So would another backcourt initiator who could reduce Philly’s reliance on promising young but unproven types like Shake Milton and rookie Tyrese Maxey.

Jazz: Utah’s combination of bombs-away 3-point shooting and characteristically stingy defense gives it a real path to championship contention. If Quin Snyder’s club has an Achilles heel, though, it’s the lack of a lockdown perimeter defender who can bottle up quicksilver guards or go toe-to-toe with big-wing creators. So all Utah’s front office has to do is find a player who can do that while shooting well enough to avoid being played off the floor in the highest-leverage moments of the season. Easy-peasy.

Bucks: After a shaky start, the Milwaukee machine has kicked into gear and hit its stride. The Bucks have won 14 of 19 with a reimagined offense that’s been the NBA’s most potent and a defense that, despite some struggles, still sits in the top 10. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday form arguably the league’s toughest two-way trio, and no bench has a better net rating than Milwaukee’s. As every Bucks fan knows all too well, though, all the depth in the world doesn’t mean much in the playoffs, and the big question—well, besides whether coach Mike Budenholzer can make the necessarily tactical tweaks this time around—is whether Donte DiVincenzo, Pat Connaughton, and Bryn Forbes will be viable answers when it matters most. The Bucks thought they had an upgrade at shooting guard this offseason, and then they didn’t. Can they find another?


Any reason those contenders might not be able to get deals done?

Well, for starters, they’re just about out of draft picks to trade. Thanks to previous deals and league rules prohibiting teams from trading first-round draft picks in consecutive seasons, as ESPN’s Brian Windhorst recently detailed, half of the league can’t trade one of its first-round selections for a number of years—a group that includes these teams at the top of the standings.

The Jazz can’t trade one of their first-round picks until 2026. The Clippers handed the Thunder control over all of their first-rounders through 2026. The Lakers gave the Pelicans the same rights to land Anthony Davis; the Nets did the same for the Rockets in the Harden deal. Ditto for the Bucks, who threw everything at New Orleans to get Holiday.

One notable exception: Philly owes Oklahoma City a protected future first from the Danny Green deal that’s encumbered from 2025 through 2027, but it does have its next few first-rounders to play with if Morey sees an opportunity to go all in. Even then, though, finding the right mix of salaries to land big-time talent might be challenging for a Sixers roster with four starters who make $15 million or more while everyone else is signed for less than the midlevel exception.

Putting together a package of outgoing money, enticing young talent, and draft-compensation sweetener is difficult enough; on top of that, teams will have to assemble a deal that can notably improve on their current rosters without taking away too much of what’s made them successful so far. That figures to be awfully tricky for any of the top teams between now and March 25.

If a team does decide to go all in, who’s worth going all in for?

Ladies and gentlemen, Bradley Emmanuel Beal:

It’s no secret that the rest of the league has been circling like vultures over a Wizards team that has sputtered to a 6-15 start through COVID-19-related absences, injuries, abysmal defense, and a dreadful start from offseason acquisition Russell Westbrook. Amid those struggles, though, Beal has continued to burnish his credentials as one of the league’s most irrepressible offensive forces, averaging a league-leading 33.3 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 4.5 assists in 35.2 minutes per game.

The list of other players who have scored as much and efficiently as Beal has thus far is four names long: Michael, Kareem, Gervin, and Harden. Beal has become a mammoth offensive focal point and primary creator, but he’s also a killer off-ball threat—shooting 40.5 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s through the past eight seasons, according to NBA Advanced Stats’ player tracking data. Beal demands defensive attention wherever he goes, has demonstrated a capacity to defend well across wing spots in games that matter, and has a track record of elevating his game in the postseason (see: Washington’s second-round runs in 2015 and 2017). At age 27, with his 2021-22 salary already locked in (ensuring that any acquiring team gets at least a season and a half of his services), Beal is an awfully valuable player, and would be an immense addition for any team aiming to boost its chances of winning the title.

For the time being, contenders licking their chops for a chance to trade for Beal will have to continue to sit and stew: Shams Charania and Fred Katz of The Athletic reported last week that “Beal has so far expressed he wants to remain in Washington and has not indicated he prefers to be traded,” and that “the Wizards, in turn, have no interest in trading him.” Of course, the best-laid plans and most fervent convictions of players and teams can change quickly—just ask Tommy Sheppard and John Wall—so expect the whole league to keep monitoring every twist, turn, sideline stare, and head shake of the Beal situation until 3 p.m. ET on deadline day.

Is there a good Plan B if Beal really is staying put?

Can I interest you in Zach LaVine?

OK, I can sense some reluctance here. But when you take a closer look, you might be surprised by how similar their production is:

Beal vs. LaVine, 2020-21

Player MIN/G PTS/G REB/G AST/G STL/G FG% 3P% FT% USG% PER
Player MIN/G PTS/G REB/G AST/G STL/G FG% 3P% FT% USG% PER
Bradley Beal 35.2 33.3 5.1 4.5 1.3 0.471 0.340 0.886 37.0 25.1
Zach LaVine 35.5 27.4 5.2 5.3 1.2 0.509 0.409 0.859 30.0 21.7

Only Beal, Damian Lillard, and Stephen Curry have more 30-point games this season than LaVine, who’s ninth in the league in scoring. The two-time slam dunk champ has become a knockdown off-the-dribble 3-point shooter, canning nearly 40 percent of his pull-up triples. The threat of that jumper and his excellent athleticism make him a lethal slasher off the bounce, and he’s averaging more than 13 drives to the basket per game and shooting 70 percent at the rim.

And as the no. 1 option on a team that hasn’t had many other scoring threats, LaVine has become a hell of a shotmaker even with defenders draped all over him: He’s shooting better than 53 percent against “tight” or “very tight” coverage this season, according to NBA Advanced Stats shot data.

LaVine isn’t a top-flight playmaker—though he’s making strides and assisting on nearly a quarter of his Bulls teammates’ baskets, a career high—and he’s got persistent defensive issues. But he’s also a 25-year-old flamethrower who’s become an exceedingly efficient scorer—he’s one of just nine players averaging more than 25 points per game with a true shooting percentage north of .600—and who’s on the books for “just” $19.5 million this season and next. Maybe the Bulls, who are still in play for a play-in berth, aren’t interested in moving their best player. (Though with Wendell Carter Jr., Lauri Markkanen, and Otto Porter Jr. all on the shelf again, new basketball operations chief Arturas Karnisovas might decide to get a head start on the next phase of Chicago’s rebuild.) Teams that can’t get into the Beal business, though, should absolutely make the call to find out.

Besides the contenders, who else might be motivated to make moves?

Teams that expected to be good but mostly haven’t been. Which is to say: Hi there, Miami.

It’s hard to blame the Heat too much for their rocky start, considering how COVID-19 ravaged their roster. Jimmy Butler missed 12 of the team’s first 18 games, and a bunch of other expected contributors (Tyler Herro, Goran Dragic, Kendrick Nunn, and Avery Bradley) have all missed time, too. That’s made it all but impossible for Erik Spoelstra to establish any sort of consistency and build any kind of chemistry; after running 15 different starting lineups all of last season, Miami has already featured 16 in just 24 games this season. And, for what it’s worth, the Heat have looked more like themselves with Butler in the lineup: 7-5 in his 12 games, a plus-4.6 net rating overall since his return, excellent numbers (albeit in a small sample) with a Butler–Bam Adebayo–Kelly Olynyk frontcourt.

But the Heat have some work to do if they want to climb out of the play-in spots. And with Miami unable to trade any future first-round picks right now due to multiyear pick protections on the 2021 and 2023 firsts they owe Oklahoma City, the most likely pathway to a significant deal will require the Heat to give up one or more of its prized young players: Herro, Duncan Robinson, or rookie Precious Achiuwa. Maybe Pat Riley and Co. see that as a nonstarter, preferring instead to just try to get everybody healthy and on the court for a longer period of time and trusting in Spoelstra’s ability to find the right rotation by the playoffs. We know Riley’s not necessarily the most patient type, though.

There’s also New Orleans, which came into the season hoping to make a big splash under new head coach Stan Van Gundy with a full season of Zion Williamson alongside a newly maxed-out Brandon Ingram. But while New Orleans’s revamped starting five—holdovers Williamson, Ingram, and Lonzo Ball with newcomers Steven Adams and Eric Bledsoe—has actually outscored opponents by a very strong 66 points in 281 minutes, the Pelicans have fizzled in almost every other configuration, headlined by a defense that must have SVG losing sleep at night.

The early-season issues reportedly have New Orleans considering shaking up its rotation, with Shams Charania of The Athletic reporting late last month that the Pels had “been receiving calls about the availability of Lonzo Ball and JJ Redick and [had] shown an openness to discussing trades around both with interested teams.” After the rumblings became public, Ball responded with by far his best stretch of the season, averaging 17 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.7 assists, and 1.5 steals per game while shooting 50 percent from 3-point range on 7.7 attempts a night in his next six games. Redick has shown a spark, too, making seven of his last 11 3-pointers through four games since coming back from a few games out of the rotation.

The question, ultimately, is whether Van Gundy and Pelicans executive VP of basketball operations David Griffin believe Ball and Redick are likely to build on their recent uptick, or whether it’s only a matter of time before the early shooting woes that both suffered come back. If it’s the former, they might decide to stand pat. If it’s the latter, though, they might try to strike while the iron’s hot, preferring to let another team solve the fascinating riddle of Lonzo’s value in restricted free agency this offseason, and leaving another team to wonder throughout the spring whether the 36-year-old Redick’s going to bounce back.

This is also the time of year to keep an eye on teams that have big trade exceptions allowing them to acquire players without having to send out salaries to match. The granddaddy of them all is the Celtics’ league-record $28.5 million exception from the sign-and-trade that sent Gordon Hayward to Charlotte.

Danny Ainge has said he’d like to use the exception to add “shooting with size” to a Celtics team that could use some more oomph to pair with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown and still-working-his-way-back-to-form point guard Kemba Walker. For all the jokes about how Ainge seems to always be telling us how he came up juuuuuuust shy of swinging a big deal, he has made some big trades—for Kyrie Irving, with the no. 1 pick in the 2017 draft to move down and take Tatum third overall, etc. Coming off three conference finals appearances in four years, with two superstar wings approaching their primes, the Celtics’ window to contend for titles is right now. It’ll be interesting to see how creative Ainge can get to try to maximize it.

The Nuggets ($9.5 million, from the Jerami Grant sign-and-trade) and Sixers ($8.2 million, from the Al Horford–for–Danny Green swap) also have sizable trade exceptions that could come into play before the deadline. There are disabled player exceptions, too—most notably belonging to the Warriors ($9.3 million, for Klay Thompson) and Nets ($5.7 million, for Spencer Dinwiddie).

Who else might buyers target?

That’s going to depend on who winds up selling. Here are a few dudes I’d be thinking about if I was a team trying to bolster my rotation for the postseason (and, in some cases, beyond):

Nikola Vucevic, Magic: You’d never know it, because almost nobody is paying attention to a Magic team that’s lost Aaron Gordon for at least a month and Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac for the season, but Vooch is sixth in the entire stinkin’ league in value over replacement player, nestled neatly between Embiid and Giannis. He’s two seasons removed from his first All-Star berth and he’s having a career year, averaging 23.3 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 3.4 assists per game.

Vucevic has become a bona fide stretch 5, shooting 41.7 percent from deep on 6.2 attempts a night, both career highs. The only other centers to launch long balls as often and as accurately as him are Anthony Tolliver and Channing Frye, neither of whom were averaging 20 and 10 while serving as the low-post and elbow hub of their team’s offense. There are warts: Vucevic is not a defensive anchor, he has two years left on a hefty deal, and you’d expect his historic 3-point shooting to regress at least somewhat. This Magic organization has prized perpetual playoff competition—even if there doesn’t appear to be a true path to contention— and they’ll likely ask for the moon and stars for their top gun (if they even made him available at all). Still: If I was a team looking for “shooting with size,” Vooch would probably be at the top of my list.

Kyle Lowry, Raptors: No, this year’s Raptors haven’t looked like the team that won the 2019 title or came within a couple of possessions of the conference finals in the bubble. But after a nice win in Memphis on Monday, Toronto has won four of five, and is now closer to third place in the East than the bottom of the conference. With Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam carrying the scoring load, and Norman Powell and Chris Boucher providing great minutes, the Raptors seem like they’re closer to falling into place than falling apart. Why, then, would they look to deal Lowry—still a highly productive player, even at age 34, and arguably the most beloved player in franchise history?

And yet: Jake Fischer of Bleacher Report reported this week that “there is a portion of Raptors personnel, league sources said, that believes the franchise should bid its beloved All-Star farewell and begin Toronto’s next chapter in earnest.” How much weight to give the report depends on which portion of the front office holds that opinion, of course, but if team president Masai Ujiri and GM Bobby Webster are willing to consider moving Lowry—in the final year of the contract he extended in 2019—then contenders in need of backcourt help should at least check in. Lowry is an ace facilitator who can knock down 3s, push tempo, and play all-league defense in the backcourt, and he would be a perfect fit in his native Philadelphia or alongside old mates Kawhi Leonard and Ibaka in L.A., though it’s unclear how either team would be able to make an offer worth the Raptors’ while. I’ll be honest: I don’t really see this one happening. If Lowry really does hit the market, though, he’s the kind of piece who could legitimately swing the title.

Evan Fournier, Magic: Vooch’s teammate has missed 11 games due to back issues, and his shooting efficiency has dipped a tick from last season. But the French swingman is still averaging a shade under 18 points and four assists per game, and he’s getting to the foul line and dishing assists at career-high rates while soaking up more offensive responsibility. He’s a heady playmaker who can create his own shot, knock down catch-and-shoot 3s, and set the table for others, which should make him an attractive option for teams looking to fortify their benches for the playoffs; he’s also in the final season of a five-year, $85 million deal, so it might be in the Magic’s best interest to try to get something back for him before he can leave in unrestricted free agency. (I have no idea how the Bucks could get involved here, but if GM Jon Horst can find some way to consolidate a few pieces into one larger salary and some draft capital to help an Orlando rebuild, he’d be a very nice fit in Milwaukee.)

Al Horford and George Hill, Thunder: Heading into the season, Oklahoma City, with its overflowing cache of picks and roster full of players on rookie deals, looked like maybe the only team in the league that clearly wasn’t trying to make the playoffs. But with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander continuing his growth into a legitimate star (one of only 13 players averaging 20-5-5 with a .600 TS!), the Thunder are just a game out of the play-in spots. Horford (13.7 points, 7.1 rebounds, and three assists per game, 41.5 percent from 3-point land on 5.5 tries per game) and Hill (11.8 points and 3.1 assists, 38.6 percent from deep before hurting his right thumb) have helped, with OKC registering as a slight net positive with the vets on the court together, and getting blitzed by more than 10 points per 100 possessions when they’re off the court.

With so many high-upside prospects likely to be available at the top of the 2021 draft, being as good as possible doesn’t seem like it should matter to the Thunder this season. Then again, Oklahoma City owns Miami’s 2021 unprotected first-rounder (which, after a series of transactions, ended up going from the Clippers to the Thunder in the Paul George deal) and controls Houston’s first, protected only for the first four picks in the draft (via the swap rights they got in the Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook deal). The way the protections are structured—so long as Houston’s pick doesn’t land in the top four—Oklahoma City gets the two best picks out of its own, Houston’s, and Miami’s, and can send the Rockets the worst of the three. That means Thunder GM Sam Presti doesn’t necessarily need to tank to get more favorable lottery odds.

Last year, everybody figured the Thunder would look to flip their vets before the deadline; instead, they kept them all, rode the good vibes, and made a surprising playoff appearance. Might Presti go back to the well again? Or will he try to keep flipping paper clips into houses, seeing whether there are takers for Horford (probably not, given the $41.5 million in guaranteed money he’s owed through 2023) and Hill (a much more digestible $10 million, only partially guaranteed, for next season)?

Similarly:

Thaddeus Young and Garrett Temple, Bulls: You could lump these dudes together with Horford and Hill because:

  1. They’re precisely the sort of helpful veterans that you’d expect bad/young teams to try to shop to playoff hopefuls before the deadline, but ...
  2. Their teams have been good enough to still be within hailing distance of the eighth seed, thanks in no small part to the presence of said helpful veterans.

Temple, a smart vet who has built a lengthy career on the strength of his versatility and being a great teammate, is a roughly league-average shooter who can defend multiple positions and help shoulder ballhandling responsibilities. He’s a solid low-usage, low-maintenance culture setter, and a good dude to have around in the postseason. Young is a higher-priced, but also a higher-upside player—a long-stalwart combo forward who’s been reinvented and rejuvenated by Billy Donovan as a pseudo–Draymond Green-style small-ball point-center.

Before this season, Thad had dished six or more assists 14 times in a career that had spanned nearly 1,000 games. This season, he’s done it six times in 19 games. He’s assisting on 25.4 percent of his teammates’ baskets, more than double his previous career high. The only other 4/5 types averaging as many assists per 36 minutes are Draymond and Nikola Jokic. Big men who can pass have become a performance-enhancing drug for playoff offenses, and the Bulls—seemingly out of nowhere—have one who can also score inside, rebound, and defend across the frontcourt, on a deal that pays him $13.5 million this season and has only $6 million guaranteed for 2021-22. Seems like a recipe for the Bulls getting something good in trade … if, y’know, they actually want to flip the two guys with the best on-court/off-court splits on the team. Which, if they decide to move LaVine and let Karnisovas go full Fixer Upper, might be more likely.