For years, NBA brass has craved NFL-level parity, the chance to enter a postseason with half a dozen teams (or more) believing they have a legitimate chance at winning a championship. And as we approach the trade deadline, it seems the NBA has its wish.
The Lakers have LeBron, the Clippers Kawhi, Milwaukee is a regular season beast but the field still feels pretty open headed into the All-Star break. Utah is getting its legs (and Mike Conley) under them, while Boston, Toronto and Philadelphia loom as threats to the Bucks in the East.
It’s what makes this year’s trade deadline that much more interesting: A fringe move here or there, an upgrade in shooting off the bench or a rebounding big, that might be enough to push a team into the Finals.
The latest intel, speculation and even a few suggestions as we barrel towards Thursday’s deadline …
· The Lakers went back to work this week, after LA’s season was rocked by the untimely passing of Kobe Bryant. The Lakers would love to be players for Andre Iguodala; LA covets the (current) Memphis swingman as much as anyone, but the Lakers are slamming into a salary problem. There is interest in Kyle Kuzma, but his $2 million salary makes it difficult to bring back a better fit, one that will likely have a higher price tag. There is a feeling that LA’s lack of tradeable assets will leave them land locked.
· The Clippers have been aggressive, no surprise considering they have the $11.5 million Mo Harkless contract and a first round pick to deal. Considering if LA doesn’t trade the pick it can’t deal another one until we colonize Mars, there is some urgency in the LA front office to get a deal done. The Clippers have kicked the tires on Kevin Love and could grab disgruntled Kings center Dewayne Dedmon, but neither are preferred options. There is some interest in Tristan Thompson in LA’s front office, per sources, as LA’s coaching staff has fretted about the team’s rebounding, particularly when Ivica Zubac is off the floor. Wing depth is a consideration for the Clippers, with Robert Covington and Iguodala among the possibilities discussed.
· Speaking of Iguodala, a series of tweets from Dillon Brooks and Ja Morant effectively ended any possibility of Iggy returning to Memphis for the stretch run. The Grizzlies have insisted that Iguodola will not be bought out, an executive who has had multiple conversations with Memphis brass told SI.com, leading to the belief that there must be something out there. Dallas? The Mavs have Courtney Lee’s contract and second round picks. The Clippers? A Harkless-Iguodala swap makes sense. Any contender might want to make a run at Iggy just to keep him away from the Lakers. The Clippers almost can’t afford to let Iguodala off the board for that exact reason.
· It’s one of this season’s most inexplicable stories: Boston has a top-five defense! No Aron Baynes, no Al Horford, somehow no problem for Brad Stevens, who has molded Daniel Theis (a solid, but undersized team defender) and Enes Kanter (unreliable on the perimeter but sturdy in the post) into a serviceable defensive frontcourt, with burly rookie Grant Williams mixed in. The core of the defense is on the perimeter—Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have become terrific defenders and Marcus Smart is arguably the top wing defender in the league—but you still do a double take when you see those numbers.
That said: Boston’s brass knows it needs help. Joel Embiid has been a wrecking ball against the Celtics and Milwaukee’s super sized frontcourt is a problem. Boston has had internal discussions about the usual suspects—Andre Drummond, Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson—but the team has a contract problem. There is little appetite for trading Marcus Smart and they aren’t trading Gordon Hayward. The Celtics do still have a stockpile of draft picks, including as many as three this June, but limited ability to make the money work.
ESPN reported Boston was among the suitors for Clint Capela, which makes sense. Capela will make $15 million this season, a number Boston can get to through some combination of Kanter and Theis. The Celtics can throw in Romeo Langford (still a bizarre pick) and a pick to sweeten the pot. Would the Rockets be interested? Houston seems committed to trying to move Capela with an eye on adding a wing player in another deal.
There is strong interest in Boston in Davis Bertans, who would fill a couple of needs. Bertans could join the frontcourt rotation and juice what has been a brutally bad shooting bench. The Celtics second unit is 28 in three-point shooting, per NBA.com, sandwiched between Minnesota and Cleveland. For a team that makes a living beyond the three-point line … that’s bad. Washington has effectively hung up on teams looking to extract Bertans, but Boston could make things interesting if they throw a pick or two into the pot. Because really … what are they holding on to them for?
· The Pistons continue to be ready to move off of Andre Drummond, as Detroit begins (another) rebuild. Interest in Drummond, as you might imagine, has been downright cool. His $27 million salary is a problem, as is a growing feeling that Drummond could opt into a nearly $29 million salary next season. As strong a rebounder as Drummond is—and Detroit’s guards make him look infinitely worse on the perimeter than he can be—there are concerns among some executives about his passion for the game. That’s unnerving. Reggie Jackson can be had if a team is willing to surrender an asset for an injury plagued player in the final year of his contract.
There’s stronger leaguewide interest in Derrick Rose, who has reinvented himself as a premier role player over the last two seasons. But Rose will make a little over $7 million next season—a salary his production has vastly exceeded. The Pistons vice-chairman is Arn Tellem, who used to be Rose’s agent, and who he shares a close relationship with. In short: Detroit will need to be blown away. Lottery pick blown away.
· Cleveland’s conversations about Kevin Love have grinded to a halt in recent weeks. There has been something of a disconnect between teams and the Cavs on Love discussions: Inquiring teams think Cleveland should be grateful to get off Love (and the growing distraction he has become) for expiring contracts. The Cavs still see Love as an asset, and want something (read: a pick) for him. Considering Love will make north of $90 million over the final three years of his deal, that ain’t happening. Speculation about Portland seemed to be just that. The Blazers seem satisfied to nibble around the edges at the deadline (Trevor Ariza has been remarkably useful) and try to make the playoffs with the current group. For what it’s worth, Love wasn’t all that enthralled with the idea of returning home to Oregon anyway, per sources.
· Minnesota has been perhaps the NBA’s most aggressive would-be seller. The ‘Wolves season has fallen off a cliff after a solid start. There is a growing belief that Covington will be auctioned off to the highest bidder before Thursday, with interest in the three-and-D win strong. The ‘Wolves badly want D’Angelo Russell—amazing, really, given how badly Russell jilted Minnesota last summer—but there are strong suspicions that Golden State will wait until the offseason to figure out how Russell fits into a Stephen Curry/Klay Thompson. The Warriors, who already offloaded Willie Cauley-Stein, seem more likely to move some combination of Alec Burks, Glenn Robinson III or (less likely) Kevon Looney. How aggressive Golden State gets probably depends on how desperate they are to get under the tax this summer—and avoid what could be a nine-figure repeater tax in the future.
· The Wizards are in a weird place. They have rejected overtures for Bertans, seeing Bertans as an ideal stretch-four alongside Bradley Beal and a returning John Wall. ESPN reported (and the Washington Post confirmed) the Wiz have an interest in Tristan Thompson, who would address a fairly significant rebounding problem. Still, the Wiz could be holding out for a whopper of an offer for Bertans (something several teams believe) and could cut loose Ian Mahinmi in a buyout later this month. Beal has been cantankerous of late—you might be too if you had willed Washington’s M.A.S.H unit to 17 wins and an outside shot at the playoffs and didn’t make the All-Star team—so the Wizards might make a late season playoff run a priority. It’s hard to tell.
· The Nuggets and Heat are among the teams registering interest in Jrue Holiday, though the Pelicans are not biting … yet. Denver has made Gary Harris very available, and would part with Malik Beasley, too. Just don’t ask for Michael Porter Jr., who has emerged as the sweet scoring forward many thought he would be before the back injury scared everyone away. New Orleans’s decision on Holiday will be interesting. He’s a terrific player, durable, an elite defender … but does he fit in a Zion/Brandon Ingram/Lonzo Ball long term plan? David Griffin can be choosy; Holiday has said he is happy in the Big Easy, and Griffin is under no pressure to deal him. But a team could come in and blow Griffin away, hoping Holiday is the missing piece for a Finals team.
· Miami has told teams that Tyler Herro is off limits, at least for now. The Heat hit big with the Herro/Duncan Robinson/Kendrick Nunn pickups, and Miami isn’t interested in any contracts that stretch beyond 2021 … when Giannis Antetokounmpo could be a free agent, and Pat Riley will have another chance to lure a transformational star to South Beach. Danillo Gallinari fits that mold, and Gallo’s three-point shooting would be a welcome addition to Miami’s frontcourt. So, too, would LaMarcus Aldridge, but the Spurs are something of a mystery. They rarely make midseason trades but there is some league-wide thinking that both Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan could be available. Aldridge, who has emerged as a reliable three-point shooter this season, is probably more valuable, and an Aldridge-Bam Adebayo front line would be fun to watch.
· The Knicks have shopped Marcus Morris, and there is a robust market for the playoff tested combo forward shooting 44% from three. The Clippers thought they had Morris on a three-year deal last summer, so they are out there. The idea that the Knicks wouldn’t deal Morris is a little nutty. Wouldn’t signing Morris to a long term deal be a continuation of signing veterans to play roles that should be going to young players? If the Knicks can get a first round pick (or more) for Morris, they should jump on it.
· Phoenix has a valuable trade chip in Aron Baynes, who has been excellent this season. Keep an eye on the Clippers there.
· Bucks GM Jon Horst told SI.com recently the Bucks would be very protective of its roster, but Milwaukee has Indiana’s first round pick and a deep group of players to make calls with. Eric Bledsoe still scares some inside the Bucks organization, more so now with Malcolm Brogdon in another uniform. George Hill has been bonkers from three-point range—he’s shooting nearly five percentage points better than J.J. Redick and the only player connecting on better than 50% of his three’s—but Milwaukee could look to reinforce the position. We all know the stakes this postseason …
· What will the Raptors do? Toronto has a pair of big expiring contracts in Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka and a full complement of first round picks to play with. But where do they look? There has been reports of Raptor interest in Jrue Holiday, and a Ibaka/OG Anunoby/pick package probably gets a deal done. But that kind of deal would leave Toronto vulnerable up front, with big bodied Milwaukee and Philadelphia potentially standing in front of them. The Raptors also don’t want to absorb too much salary, with Antetokounmpo in their sites in 2021, too. The NBA champs—who lost Kawhi freaking Leonard—might just stand pat and hope Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry and a flawless chemistry is enough to win the East. It could be.
· Oklahoma City has engaged multiple teams on Danilo Gallinari, Steven Adams and basically anyone not named Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, but it’s hard to get a read on what the Thunder really want to do. This team has been fun to watch, Chris Paul has been terrific while leading a team that could be a nightmare first round matchup. Atlanta is looking at Adams, and OKC would love to add springy big man John Collins to its mix. Gallinari has generated significant interest and it’s likely OKC, still in pick hoarding mode, will take an offer that fleshes out its stockpile. Expect the Thunder to play teams off each other for the next few days in an effort to get an oversized return for Gallinari, who is in the final year of his deal.
· Teams are keeping a close eye on Sacramento, which is likely lottery bound for the 437th season in a row. The Kings have a pair of interesting trade pieces in Bogdan Bogdanović and Nemanja Bjelica. Bjelica can be a defensive turnstile but he’s a 43% three-point shooter who can rebound a little. Bogdanović’s situation is more compelling. The Kings swiped Bogdanović in a draft-day trade in 2016, and he has been excellent. But the Kings committed to Buddy Hield last fall. Sacramento has matching rights on Bogdanović, but there are questions about the Kings willingness to match a potentially outrageous offer. Given the weakness of the 2020 free agent class, that could be coming. The Lakers have checked in on a potential Kuzma-centered swap, per source, and teams will probe Sacramento over the next two days to see if a deal is there.
· The Sixers want shooting, but interest in some combination of Zhaire Smith and Mike Scott has been minimal. Philadelphia has not made defensive wunderkind Matisse Thybulle available, though teams have asked. Panic has not set in—Philadelphia, when locked in, can still be a suffocatingly good defensive team—but the shooting problems are real, Al Horford has been an awkward fit and questions about the long term fit of the Ben Simmons/Joel Embiid pairing grow louder every day. Elton Brand has his work cut out finding a piece that will crack this rotation that doesn’t cost him a key player in it.
· One reason teams are asking for first round picks for fringey players: The early read is that the 2020 draft is one you wouldn’t mind getting out of. Teams are still leery of dealing picks too far in the future, but the draft purse strings have been loosened, at least when it comes to June. Teams can feel it.