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Seven NBA Observations on Joel Embiid’s Injury, LeBron’s Future, and the Trade Deadline

Are the Philadelphia 76ers more or less likely to make a trade after the Embiid news? Plus, deadline dilemmas for the Hawks, Bulls, Suns, and Clippers (and five fake LeBron trades because we can’t resist).

Getty Images/Ringer Illustration

It’s officially trade deadline week, folks! We’ve already seen a handful of deals leading up to Thursday’s deadline. Could we see a few more? To get ready, let’s examine the latest with Joel Embiid, the Dejounte Murray stalemate, the Chicago Bulls’ next move, and what’s next for Los Angeles since LeBron James is definitely staying put.

1. How Will the Philadelphia 76ers Respond to Embiid’s Injury?

Embiid will undergo a procedure for a torn meniscus this week, but the Sixers haven’t ruled out his potential return this season. If his meniscus is repaired, the normal recovery time is usually four to six months. If the meniscus is removed, athletes can usually return more quickly, but complications could ensue. The Sixers will announce an update following the surgery, but in 2017, Embiid underwent a partial removal of the meniscus in the same knee, and he didn’t return that season. Back then, the Sixers were tanking, though. Circumstances are different now.

The Sixers currently occupy the 5-seed in the East, and they’re only four games up from the seventh-seeded Magic and five games up from the eighth-seeded Heat. Philly is 4-10 without Embiid this season and will be in danger of slipping into the play-in tournament. Debates have ensued about the 65-game minimum for awards and the role it played in Embiid’s premature return. But Daryl Morey must also ignore the noise and continue to conduct business. The biggest question now is whether the Embiid situation is a plot twist that complicates or clarifies the front office’s trade deadline approach.

Ever since the James Harden trade, I’ve said on The Mismatch that it wouldn’t shock me if the Sixers won’t make any big trades before the deadline, will go as far as they can in the playoffs, and will then make a big move this offseason, when they’ll have a projected $40 million in cap space available. A patient approach makes even more sense if Embiid can’t make a full return this season, therefore increasing the 76ers’ desire to optimize for next season.

But if the Sixers do believe that Embiid can return this season, they could try to add reinforcements at the deadline to hold on to a guaranteed playoff spot. After all, why risk slipping into the play-in when your team has a chance to make a run? It’s not as if there are any guarantees that Embiid will be more healthy during the 2025 postseason.

“Given the way the last decade has unfolded, a medical degree might have been more useful than journalism school for covering the Sixers,” Kyle Neubeck wrote on PHLY Sports. Truer words have never been written. The Process hasn’t yielded the championship that Sam Hinkie dreamt of many years ago, but Embiid had been playing at an even higher level after winning MVP and co-star Tyrese Maxey was making the leap, so this felt like as good a shot as any. It could be too hard for the team to give up entirely on this campaign. With that in mind, I think that the Sixers should be fairly conservative but opportunistic at the deadline. Certain moves could make sense if they offer help now while also maintaining flexibility for the summer ahead.

Multiple reports say that the Sixers have interest in veteran Kyle Lowry, should he get bought out by Charlotte. Before the Embiid surgery announcement, The Athletic’s Shams Charania said on The Kenny Beachem Podcast that the Sixers have interest in acquiring Portland’s Malcolm Brogdon or Detroit’s Monte Morris. Any of them would make perfect sense as low-cost acquisitions. In theory, trading draft picks attached to expiring salaries for, say, DeMar DeRozan or Alex Caruso would also help in the interim while setting Philly up for success once Embiid can return.

Rather than lean toward an extreme, the Sixers need to strike a balance between staying patient and finding help in the short term, just in case Embiid returns to lead a storybook finish.

2. The Atlanta Hawks Still Have Time to Reconsider

Dejounte Murray has been shopped around for weeks, and the Hawks haven’t found an acceptable deal yet. Reports say that only the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Lakers have made serious offers, and neither has come anywhere close to matching what Atlanta originally gave up to land Murray from the Spurs: three first-round picks and one swap.

Unless the offers get significantly better in the coming days, the Hawks should at least consider keeping Murray and instead look into trading Trae Young.

I’ve said it before, but here’s my logic behind this stance: The Hawks could receive a major haul for Young now and then give Murray the keys for the rest of the season, which would help them decide whether he’s a keeper and would potentially raise his trade value for the offseason. As of now, the Hawks are facing an uninspiring return for Murray and a summer in which Young could demand a trade, which would limit his value. The market is limited on point guards because most teams are perfectly happy with their primary shot creator or have a young guy they’re invested in. By the summer, teams could draft new, talented guards (and this class has plenty of them), further limiting new destinations for Murray or Young. So by trading Young now and keeping Murray, the Hawks could maximize value.

There are three teams with significant draft capital that could use a point guard: the Magic, Nets, and Spurs. As I wrote last month, San Antonio is uniquely positioned to make a compelling offer since it owns several of Atlanta’s future firsts stemming from the Murray deal. The Spurs aren’t trying to win this season like the Magic and Nets are, but all of these teams could surround Young with the type of talented, lengthy teammates he’s never benefited from in his career. Trae pick-and-rolls with Nic Claxton rolling and Mikal Bridges as an outlet? Sign me up. Trae sprinting through a Paolo Banchero handoff with Wendell Carter spotting up? Beautiful. Trae running two-man actions with Victor Wembanyama for the next decade? What a dream.

On paper, a deal involving a player who makes as much as Young is more practical during the offseason, when teams have more financial flexibility. But the Magic, Nets, and Spurs could theoretically make offers that are just as strong now as they would be later. The only guard-needy team that would be better off waiting is the Lakers, who have enough to make an offer for Murray now but won’t have deep enough pockets for Young until the summer.

Hawks fans have dubbed me a Trae hater over the years. If my criticism of his unwillingness to move without the ball and his papier-mâché defense makes me a hater, then sure, I accept the label. But I’ve always felt that those notes were fair and true, just as it’s true now that Young deserves credit for putting in more defensive effort than ever before. It’s apparent from just watching games, as he slides laterally to better stay in front of opponents and attentively makes rotations. But it’s also true in the stats sheet, as he’s posting career highs in deflections and charges drawn per game. On offense, Young isn’t moving off the ball quite as much as I believe he still can, but he’s doing it more often than he used to to fulfill his role in Quin Snyder’s offense and fit next to Murray. Other teams should see great appeal in him as a player about to enter his prime.

A Young trade would have shades of when Sacramento traded Tyrese Haliburton rather than De’Aaron Fox in 2022. The market for Fox was thin at the time. So instead the Kings moved the player with actual value, Haliburton, to land Domantas Sabonis. Haliburton has turned into a star, but so have Fox and Sabonis, helping the Kings turn into a playoff contender.

Could Murray take a similar leap if Young is moved? This season, he’s averaging 26 points and 7.5 assists per 36 minutes and 59.9 percent true shooting in the minutes when Trae isn’t on the floor. Per PBP Stats, his numbers drop to 19.5 points and 3.9 assists per 36 and 53.5 percent true shooting with Young. In other words, Murray’s volume and efficiency rise without Young.

If Young were dealt and then Murray posted those big numbers for the remainder of the season, the Hawks would undoubtedly have a player on their hands who’s worthy of a much greater return than they’re being offered today. Or even better, a point guard they can build around who is worth more than they originally paid.

3. The Denver Nuggets Have Options

Marc Stein recently said on his Substack that the Nuggets have interest in Wizards guard Delon Wright, which makes perfect sense considering his versatility on both ends. Wright wouldn’t provide the type of scoring that Denver gets out of Reggie Jackson, but Jackson isn’t really the type of guard that Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray need during the playoffs. Wright better fits the team’s needs.

I’ve also heard that Denver has considered acquiring former Mr. Nugget Monte Morris, who’s barely receiving any minutes in a crowded Pistons guard rotation this season after he missed time with a quad injury. Nuggets GM Calvin Booth had to move on from Morris two years ago to acquire Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who helped them win a championship and is a major candidate for an All-Defensive team this season. But the Nuggets are in need of a backup off the bench. Wright would provide more size and better defense, but getting Morris back would provide better playmaking and familiarity with the existing core. Either way, Denver has a few potential moves if it wants to bolster its backcourt rotation.

4. The Los Angeles Clippers Need a New PJ

The Clippers have proved themselves as legit contenders following the James Harden trade. But the other player Los Angeles acquired in the Harden deal, PJ Tucker, hasn’t carved out a spot in the rotation and is reportedly seeking a trade.

It seems that the Clippers don’t think that the 38-year-old can give them what they need, but executives around the league anticipate that the Clips will pursue a player who can do a lot of what Tucker did in his prime: provide switchability on defense and floor spacing on offense. The Clippers have an unprotected 2030 first-round pick that they can attach to Tucker’s $11 million salary. The 2030 first is far in the future, but it’s a valuable asset considering the age of this team’s core. Mason Plumlee’s expiring salary ($5 million) could also be attached, while Kobe Brown and Bones Hyland could have moderate value as players under 25 who have upside. So whom might the Clippers target to bolster their Finals odds?

I’d go for another PJ: Paul Jamaine Washington Jr., the 25-year-old Hornets forward who is worlds better than Tucker offensively. Washington is a far more dynamic screener and can pick and pop for 3s, roll and catch a lob, or make plays off the dribble. Washington shoots spot-up 3s (36.7 percent in his career) at a clip comparable to Tucker’s (37.4 percent) but has never played in an offense with the spacing that the Clippers could provide. The Clippers could use Washington’s screening as a mismatch-hunting weapon because unlike Tucker, Washington is someone that defenses have to worry about. He can shoot off the dribble and get scorching hot; he’s scored more than 40 points in a game three times in his career. Granted, scoring isn’t exactly what the Clippers need, but it’s a bonus for a versatile defender to have.

Though Washington isn’t a defender or rebounder at the level of Tucker, he’s also never been part of a culture that could highlight his versatile strengths. As part of a perennially losing organization, Washington has still displayed the ability to flourish by switching screens, containing players of different shapes and sizes, and protecting the rim. The Clippers could use him as a power forward next to center Ivica Zubac, or in spurts as a small-ball center.

Washington is also reportedly drawing interest from the Mavericks, so the Clippers could have some competition. But he’d be an ideal fit to bolster their odds for the stretch run.

5. The Bulls Have Only One Option Left

Zach LaVine is out for the season after he decided to undergo surgery on a nagging foot injury. So now what? Will the Bulls keep straddling the middle of the standings with a roster that has no hope of making a real run? Or will they suddenly become sellers ahead of Thursday’s deadline?

To me, the answer is easy: Move DeMar DeRozan, an upcoming free agent. Move Alex Caruso, who’d have significant value on the trade market. And move Nikola Vucevic, a solid center but a vestige of one of the worst trades of the decade.

Commence the fire sale, lose a ton of games, get a higher lottery pick, and finally enter the rebuild you’ve been delaying for years. The 2025 and 2026 drafts will have multiple franchise players. Blow. It. Up!

6. The Suns Are Mulling a Risky Addition

Phoenix has been connected to Hornets forward Miles Bridges more than any other player in the NBA, so much so that it’d be surprising if a move didn’t happen before Thursday’s deadline. Bridges is a 25-year-old forward averaging 20/7/3, but acquiring him isn’t such a simple choice.

Bridges was out for the first 10 games of the 2023-24 season because he was completing a 30-game suspension because of a domestic violence case involving the mother of his children. In June 2022, days before he was set to sign a massive contract with the Hornets, he reportedly assaulted his former girlfriend in front of their two children. Later that year, he pleaded no contest to one felony count. After sitting out the entire 2022-23 season, Bridges signed a qualifying offer to return to the Hornets. But in October 2023, he reportedly violated a protective order during a custody exchange by throwing billiard balls at his ex-girlfriend’s car, shattering the windshield and leaving dents while their children were in the car. On February 20, Bridges has a court appearance for the reported violation of that protective order.

Anyone who acquires Bridges will take on a man with a track record of reckless, abusive behavior. As is often the case in professional sports, though, what’s on the court is all that truly factors into a team’s decision-making. This is why the Hornets brought him back and why the Suns are now expressing interest.

From Phoenix’s perspective, Bridges is the best basketball player they’ll be able to acquire with their paltry assets: Nassir Little and five second-rounders is about the best they can offer for any player. And considering the limited market for Bridges (the Mavericks have also been linked), that might be the best haul the Hornets can get. The Suns could also offer first-round pick swaps to the Hornets in 2026, 2028, and 2030. But two other teams already have the initial rights to them, leaving little value remaining.

From purely a basketball standpoint, Bridges would be a big upgrade for the Suns and would raise the team’s ceiling. He’s made nearly 40 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s this season, which would give the Suns another floor spacer. But he averages 20 points per game because he’s also a potent scorer off the dribble. The Suns will be mismatch hunters in the playoffs, meaning that Bridges could be an important screener for any of their stars. And on defense, Bridges could similarly play a multitude of roles if he puts in better than the minimum effort he’s displayed in Charlotte.

Time will tell if the Suns decide they’re willing to ignore all of Bridges’s red flags to make an upgrade.

7. Five Fake LeBron Trades, Just for Fun

Last Tuesday, I wrote about the dilemma that LeBron and the Lakers are facing. Here’s a quote from that story:

If a breakup is inevitable, I can’t help but wonder whether the best time for both LeBron and the Lakers to make a change is now, ahead of the deadline: James could join a contender, and Los Angeles could get something in return. … Changing teams would allow LeBron to take advantage of one of his final years and would allow the Lakers to recoup some value and help lay the groundwork to pursue Luka Doncic later this decade.

I couldn’t have anticipated that later that night, LeBron would post a telling hourglass emoji on X. Or that two days later, Rich Paul would tell ESPN that LeBron won’t request a trade or be traded. Or that LeBron would later post New York–related emojis. Or that Klutch would reportedly patch up its shaky relationship with the Knicks. Or that LeBron would wrap a Knicks towel around his shoulders after the Lakers beat them. Or that LeBron would respond “no” when asked whether he’s decided what he would do with his player option this summer.

Needless to say, it’s been quite a week for the Lakers, but clearly LeBron is just using his same old playbook to pressure the front office into making moves ahead of the deadline. In my piece last week, I proposed a more moderate approach for the Lakers by suggesting that they pursue Hawks guard Dejounte Murray and Jazz center Kelly Olynyk. That way, Los Angeles could get assets for a big move this summer while also boosting its odds now.

But just for fun, let’s pretend that this week gets even crazier and the Lakers do entertain trades for LeBron. Here are the five teams that might want him and what they could theoretically offer:

Golden State Warriors: LeBron for Chris Paul, Jonathan Kuminga, Kevon Looney, a 2026 First, a 2028 First, and a 2028 Second

LeBron has long said that the player he’d most like to play with is Stephen Curry, and he’s BFFs with Draymond Green. But the Warriors’ supporting cast feels so depleted at this point that the team would need to make an additional deal using its remaining assets. A LeBron-Steph two-man game could be glorious to watch. But the Warriors look like a sinking ship right now, and the team could turn into a laughingstock if things don’t work out.

Dallas Mavericks: LeBron for Tim Hardaway Jr., Grant Williams, Richaun Holmes, a 2027 First, a 2029 Swap, and a 2025 Second

LeBron would get the chance to form a Big Three with Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving, his former running buddy. There would be diminishing returns, however, as all three have overlapping skills. But the offense would be devastating as long as Irving and James are willing to sacrifice touches behind Doncic. Still, the fit is iffy.

Cleveland Cavaliers: LeBron for Darius Garland, Caris LeVert, a 2030 First-Round Swap, a 2024 Second, a 2025 Second, a 2027 Second, and a 2029 Second

I’m coming home … again? LeBron could handle creation duties alongside Donovan Mitchell, and they’d be flanked by a defensive frontcourt of Isaac Okoro, Jarrett Allen, and Evan Mobley. That would be a championship starting five. But questions about the fit between Allen and Mobley would remain, though the latter is showing strides as a shooter. This group could become the favorite in the East if it all clicked. And boy, what a story it’d be for LeBron to go back to where it all began to finish out his career.

New York Knicks: LeBron for Julius Randle, Evan Fournier, a 2024 First, a 2025 First, and a 2030 First

I understand that some Knicks fans want to pursue a championship with the core as is. But if you can turn draft picks, a salary filler, and an injured player into LeBron Freaking James, you do it every single time. As good as the Knicks are, Jalen Brunson could still use another shot creator by his side to add more dynamism to the offense. This could become an issue if New York’s roster stays as is.

Philadelphia 76ers: LeBron and Taurean Prince for Tobias Harris, Marcus Morris, a 2026 First, a 2028 First, and a 2030 First

LeBron himself admitted that he thought “long and hard” about lining up alongside Embiid before he decided to join the Lakers. Embiid’s injury could be enough to scare both sides away, but imagine if the Sixers upgraded from Harris to James, giving them another shot creator next to Maxey. There would be a “don’t FIT OUT, just FIT IN” element for LeBron in Philly, though. Things are working so well with Embiid, Maxey, and a bunch of bought-in role players who screen, cut, and move. If LeBron were willing to come off an Embiid handoff or screen and roll for Maxey, then they could thrive. If things got worse, LeBron would get blamed and never be forgiven. But champions are immortalized forever in Philadelphia.

The odds are that LeBron will finish the year out in Los Angeles and then review his options this summer, when more suitors could emerge. But hey, you never know. It’s deadline week.