The NBA landscape is undergoing seismic changes this season. Fresh faces are challenging the veteran teams trying to maintain their grip on the league. New contenders are emerging as once-dominant franchises fade from title contention.
As my boss Bill Simmons recently put it on his podcast: “This is the most good players we’ve ever had.” There are hordes of stars, and just about every team has at least one All-Star-caliber player. The amount of talent has led to a league with a lot of parity—and a lot of teams that believe they can win the title.
The championship window feels wide open. The Denver Nuggets will look to become only the 10th team to win back-to-back titles since the 3-point line was introduced, but they’ll face a gauntlet to get there. Other experienced playoff teams like the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics, and Los Angeles Clippers are lurking.
Behind them, most teams in the mix would need to make a trade to truly contend. The Clippers already made their move for James Harden to bolster their odds. Other teams will strike soon, too. The Philadelphia 76ers could have a move up their sleeves. The Miami Heat still have the picks and assets they didn’t flip for Damian Lillard. The Minnesota Timberwolves are a feel-good story, but they need better shooting and another playmaker. And so on down the line, from the Los Angeles Lakers to the Phoenix Suns, teams will likely be aggressive ahead of the deadline with a title shot seemingly within reach.
However, the seller’s market could be sparse. The Toronto Raptors just traded OG Anunoby to the New York Knicks, but that was a player-centric deal, not a sell-off for picks. If everyone is buying, then not many needle-moving players could be available. Yet a market of buyers might pressure some teams to sell high. The critical question for teams looking to make additions isn’t just who’s out there. It’s how long their window of contention will remain open.
No one could have seen the Golden State Warriors landing Kevin Durant years ago, turning a perennial contender into one of the all-time great rosters. But now it’s not hard to see how the Nuggets could prove to be an unstoppable force once their young guys make strides. And then there’s the Oklahoma City Thunder, who reflect the rapidly changing landscape better than anyone else as the NBA’s next potential unbeatable team.
With super-contenders on the horizon, teams today should feel even more urgency to capitalize on the present. So let’s take a look at three intriguing teams in the West and the big-picture questions they face as the NBA’s trade season gets underway.
Is It Time for the Oklahoma City Thunder to Cash In?
Oklahoma City has already defeated the team with the best record in the West (Minnesota), the defending champions (Denver), and the team with the best record overall (Boston). This is despite the fact that the Thunder have the second-youngest roster in the league, behind only the Spurs. Young teams usually aren’t this good so early. But in a short time, the Thunder have surpassed other youthful rising contenders from recent seasons, like the Grizzlies, Kings, and Pelicans, while leaving aging contenders like the Lakers and Warriors in the dust.
To put it simply, the Thunder are for real. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is an MVP candidate, Chet Holmgren belongs on the All-Star team, and Jalen Williams looks like the perfect third star as a two-way presence. Aside from their big three, they have a defensive ace in Lu Dort, knockdown shooters like Isaiah Joe, and an All-Rookie guard who plays like a veteran in Cason Wallace. The team is also coached by one of the NBA’s best in Mark Daigneault.
There are shades here of the early 2010s OKC squads, which were led by Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden. Except these guys have a more synergistic fit and a deeper bench, plus the flexibility to improve further. Looking ahead, their core could be bolstered even more by the 15 future first-round picks and 22 second-round picks the team has at its disposal.
If they want to land the next star made available in a trade? OKC is in the driver’s seat, and Sam Presti has already proved he’s not afraid to acquire a player out of the blue, like when he paired Paul George with Westbrook.
Need to make a move around the margins? Easy. Presti has enough assets that he can overpay to get a guy who isn’t necessarily being discussed in rumors.
The Thunder can do pretty much whatever they want, both now and later. In the immediate timeline, there’s plenty of logic to letting this team ride it out this season to see what it has in the playoffs with this core. The vibes are so good with this group right now, there’s no rush. But change is inevitable at one time or another. The Thunder can’t pay everyone, and eventually the guys in the wings will want to get more chances.
In the coming weeks, perhaps they will consolidate some assets into an upgrade. The Thunder lack size, so they could use a backup center with more strength than Jaylin Williams, and they could use a scorer better than Josh Giddey. Last month, I suggested on The Ringer that Wendell Carter Jr. and Lauri Markkanen could be theoretical targets for the Thunder, replacing Jaylin Williams and Giddey, respectively. With his shooting and ability to move without the ball, Markkanen would be an immediate fit for this group. And though Carter has struggled for the Magic since his return from injury, I still like the idea of adding him, considering his past success defending Nikola Jokic.
With 37 future draft picks on his hands, Presti, the architect behind this burgeoning powerhouse, could turn an already excellent team into a juggernaut. The Thunder are not just participants in the league’s arms race but could also potentially close the championship window for many others.
Should the Sacramento Kings Go Big?
The Kings are matching last season’s beam-lighting frequency with a 49-win pace, mirroring the breakout year that snapped a 16-year playoff drought. But their previously top-ranked offense has fallen out of the top 10, and the defense is still in the middle of the pack. Improvement from within has not propelled them forward as much as they had wished.
Domantas Sabonis is an All-Star-caliber talent who can dominate in the regular season. But he still isn’t regularly shooting 3s, and he remains a limited defender, two concerns for the postseason. He’s also become dependent on De’Aaron Fox and isn’t able to carry the offense by himself. From my colleague Michael Pina earlier this week:
Everything falls apart when Fox is off the court. That includes when he’s staggered with star center Domantas Sabonis. When Sabonis takes the floor without Fox, Sacramento’s offensive rating plummets to 111.4. When it’s Fox and no Sabonis, that number skyrockets to 125.5.
Last season, that was not the case. The Kings offense was dominant with only Sabonis. Now, it’s not. This is in part because their most frequent play—the dribble handoff between Kevin Huerter and Sabonis—has gone from elite to below average. The Warriors began running Huerter off the line in the first round last year, and defenses have copied the blueprint, neutralizing him as a shooter out of movement actions. Huerter has struggled so much this season that head coach Mike Brown has moved him to the bench in favor of Chris Duarte, who is fine but not the answer at the 2-guard. Duarte is not capable of running this action either, and without the handoff to turn to, the Kings offense feels a bit more stagnant without Fox.
Still, Fox’s development is the most encouraging subplot for the Kings. This season, he has cut down his midrange jumpers and extended his shooting range to take nearly nine 3s per game. Instead of dribbling into pull-ups, he’s often taking stepbacks like he does in the clip above. With this philosophical change, he is averaging 29.4 points per game on 39 percent shooting from 3.
Fox and Sabonis need help, though. Malik Monk’s minutes fluctuate. On Tuesday, he got benched because of missed defensive rotations and unwarranted shots. On Wednesday, he dropped 37 points in a double-overtime victory. And Keegan Murray remains an effective 3-and-D player, but at 23 years old, he hasn’t developed into a third star just yet. On Tuesday, he scored 10 points on 12 shots. On Wednesday, he had 28 points and 12 rebounds. Last month, Murray caught fire and scored 47 points while making 12 of 15 shots from 3 against the Jazz. But aside from that outlier performance, he’s hit just 35 percent of his 3s. He’s been inconsistent as a scorer, largely because he still rarely gets to the rim or draws fouls. The Kings are still near the bottom of the league in shots attempted near the rim, and they had hoped their 6-foot-8 lottery pick would fill that void.
Murray is a good defender, but works better as the second- or third-best defender on a team, not the guy who needs to get stops against the opponent’s best scorer. And in no way does it help him when his back line features Sabonis and Harrison Barnes, who doesn’t rebound or deter shots at the rim. Barnes, second to Huerter, is the most upgradable piece on the team. The Kings need another frontcourt player who either is better than Sabonis or complements him on defense.
It’s only year two for this core. So on paper, there’s no reason to rush things. Sabonis is only 27. Fox is 26. Murray is 23. But young playoff teams don’t always get better. Sometimes, they get surpassed. Is that already happening? The Thunder look like the better team, and they clearly have a brighter future. Could the Mavericks, Pelicans, or Rockets make the leap next? Around this time last season, the Kings figured out who they were. But Mike Brown is still throwing darts, trying to find the right mix for this year’s squad. Their offense sputters too often, and their defensive effort comes and goes. We’ve seen this team suffer blowouts and play down to competition far worse than them. This franchise needs to make a move to get back on the right path, and the pressure is on.
The Kings have all of their future picks aside from a protected first owed to the Hawks and a 2030 second to the Pacers. And though a trade is very unlikely, Murray isn’t untouchable. With a nearly full cupboard of assets, the Kings should seek players who provide size on defense and versatility on offense.
We already know the Kings are exploring the trade market since the front office was interested in OG Anunoby. Pascal Siakam remains a potential target, as Shams Charania reported last month. Siakam isn’t an ideal fit since he’s making only 32 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s this season. But his on-ball creation would add a new element to Sacramento’s half-court offense. He can be used all over the floor: Imagine Siakam screening for Sabonis at the elbows, or Fox screening for Siakam to force a switch, or Siakam slicing through a Sabonis handoff. In Toronto, Siakam has seemingly checked out on defense, but a return to form in Sacramento would bring significant help by providing size and on-ball versatility. Siakam alone wouldn’t make the Kings favorites in the West, but for the price of Barnes and Huerter plus one-ish firsts, he would be worth it to bolster their odds (and if he walked this summer, the Kings would be an intriguing cap space team).
Zach LaVine has also been mentioned as a potential target for the Kings. But he is in the second year of a five-year, $215 million deal, so I’d avoid him.
Sacramento can get more creative with trade targets if Sabonis is willing to take more 3s. Since last season, Sabonis has made 36.8 percent of his 3-point attempts, but he’s taken only 1.2 per game. Spacing the floor more often would open possibilities for the Kings to target a non-shooting big who can offer significant rim protection, such as Brooklyn’s Nic Claxton or Cleveland’s Jarrett Allen.
Either of them would change the complexion of Sacramento’s roster. On defense, Claxton is one of the league’s most switchable bigs, while Allen is a force defending the paint. On offense, they could add diversity and some punch at the rim. Brown could get fancy with two-big sets, a card he’s currently unable to pull with Alex Len and JaVale McGee as his only options behind Sabonis.
The Kings fan base has suffered for so long. Ownership should strive for more than just a cute story and a playoff participant. They should be ambitious with their assets and pursue a championship before the opportunity is gone.
Will the Golden State Warriors Do Something Drastic?
Draymond Green stomped on Sabonis’s chest last spring to cap off a season that began with him punching his own teammate, Jordan Poole. This season, he choked Rudy Gobert before socking Jusuf Nurkic in the face. Green is currently serving his second suspension of the young season, and he hasn’t been around the team, according to Warriors head coach Steve Kerr. This is noteworthy since he wasn’t barred from taking part in practices or meetings ... and because photos leaked of him attending LeBron’s birthday party in Los Angeles the day prior to Kerr’s comments. Green is allowed to live his life and be a good friend, but the optics of showing up at a birthday party for an opponent while serving an indefinite suspension aren’t great.
“We’ve been giving him his space. He’s been giving us ours,” Kerr said. And the Warriors have been using that space to take a look at their young players. Jonathan Kuminga is thriving with increased opportunities, looking more and more comfortable playing a Draymond-like role.
Kuminga is occasionally bringing the ball up the floor himself, but largely being used as an on-ball screener and in dribble handoffs. This positions him to find Stephen Curry and make quick decisions from the top of the key and on the short roll.
In no way is Kuminga near the caliber of a defender, but he certainly has made Draymond look replaceable on offense, especially when Chris Paul is helping to absorb some of the playmaking responsibility.
Touches have trickled down to rookie guard Brandin Podziemski, who continues to excel with his crafty style. Podz has particularly developed synergy with fellow rookie Trayce Jackson-Davis, who has been thrust into the starting lineup at center and outperformed veteran Kevon Looney.
The Warriors are a respectable 6-4 since Green got suspended a second time, but their defense has been porous. The team lacks any connectivity with its rotations, and any consistency with its hustle. Green always has been the team’s anchor, the player calling out rotations and setting a tone with his relentless hunger for getting stops. But the Dubs haven’t been all that good with him this season, either. According to PBP Stats, the Warriors have a 119.6 defensive rating when Steph Curry is on the floor without Draymond, and a 120.7 defensive rating in the minutes they’re on the floor together. This issue is in part because of Draymond’s absences, leading to an overall lack of chemistry and continuity.
But is Draymond’s potential return even a certainty to fix Golden State’s defensive woes? The Warriors have more problems than just his attendance. Looney moves like a statue. Andrew Wiggins isn’t as effective as he used to be. Klay Thompson is no longer a stopper.
With so many issues, I could theoretically see the Warriors trading Looney or Wiggins, in addition to CP3 on his expiring contract. There is no single magic trade to propel the Warriors from the middle of the pack to a contender once again. But with Kuminga and Moses Moody, they have two tradable young guys to pair with their first-round picks from 2025 through 2029 at their disposal.
Some of the names mentioned as theoretical targets in the Kings section—Pascal Siakam, Jarrett Allen, and Nic Claxton—apply to the Warriors as well. Perhaps, the Warriors would also consider making calls for versatile forwards like Lauri Markkanen, Jerami Grant, and Jonathan Isaac. Of those three, Grant would likely be the most acquirable: Maybe CP3, Moody, and picks would have appeal to Portland?
Even though Green’s reputation has lost some of its luster, if he were made available there’d be a small group of teams viewing him as their final piece. A motivated Draymond with something to prove on a new team is appealing. Right? If picks or valuable young players were acquired in return, those assets could be packaged with Golden State’s existing assets to acquire another proven presence to pair with Steph: Markkanen and Walker Kessler? Claxton and Dorian Finney-Smith? Siakam and Jakob Poeltl? Here are three other potential options for Draymond trades:
Dallas: Bill connected Green to the Mavericks last year. So, how about Grant Williams, Josh Green, and one future first? Not enough, probably. Could the Mavs find a second first-rounder on the market? I’m intrigued, since Williams could do Draymond-ish things in Golden State and Josh Green could could come alive with Golden State’s system.
Detroit: ESPN’s Brian Windhorst mentioned the Pistons as a suitor for Green last offseason. Obviously, they’re now absolutely terrible. But they could use a mentor for James Wiseman (I’m kidding). So, how about Bojan Bogdanovic plus two firsts for Draymond? The Warriors get a weapon on offense, and then they can flip picks into another player.
Sacramento: Windhorst said the Kings could use cap space to chase Green in free agency because of his relationship with Brown, who was a longtime assistant in Golden State. It never ended up materializing. The Warriors paid Draymond. Does sending Harrison Barnes back to the Warriors along with at least two firsts meet Golden State’s needs? Perhaps not. Barnes is a shell of his former self. Does Murray also need to be included? I can’t imagine the Kings would bite at that cost, but no player would better solve the problems facing the Kings defense than Draymond.
Draymond theoreticals are only natural to imagine, especially following Kerr’s cryptic comments about his involvement with the team. Trading him would change the entire personality of the franchise, and give them a clean slate to build on without worrying about his destructive personality derailing more seasons. After all, Steph is still one of the league’s top players. And as long as they have him the Warriors should be doing everything possible to keep contending.