The prevailing thought was this NBA trade deadline will be fairly uneventful. Half the league changed places during the offseason. Very few teams project to have cap space this summer, and it’s a historically weak free-agent class. But, because the league is more wide open than it has been in years, things seem to be going the other way a bit. In addition, with free agency this summer looking like a bust, some teams are shifting their shopping focus to the trade deadline.
At every trade deadline, each team sorts into one of four categories:
Buyers: Teams actively looking to add pieces
Sellers: Teams actively looking to trade players for future assets
Either: Teams that have some pieces to sell, but will buy in the right deal
Neither: Teams that will just sit out the deadline and do their work in the summer
Let’s break it down.
Atlanta Hawks: Sellers. The Hawks are some odd sellers. Their veteran talent isn’t getting them much. But Atlanta has more cap space ($70 million-plus) than they can reasonably use this summer. If GM Travis Schlenk can get some assets right now by eating a bad contract or two that extends into next season, he’ll do it. Atlanta already swung one trade to bring back Jeff Teague in exchange for Allen Crabbe. If the Hawks can move Chandler Parsons, Evan Turner or maybe flip Teague to bring back a bad contract and small asset, they’ll do it. The only thing that’s untouchable is the young core the Hawks are building around Trae Young.
Boston Celtics: Neither. Danny Ainge and Boston will be linked to any number of veterans on the market. Ainge will look for upgrades to bolster a shaky bench. The challenge is the Celtics simply don’t have the tradable contracts to do much. The bigger deals are attached to players Boston won’t trade. The smaller deals are attached to young players under team control for a while. Look for it to be a relatively quiet deadline for the Celtics.
Brooklyn Nets: Neither. Despite Kyrie Irving’s recent proclamation that it’s “glaring” that the Nets need help, GM Sean Marks is probably sitting this one out. This was always a bit of a transitional year for Brooklyn. The Nets have enough talent to get to the playoffs, but things will really come together next year when Kevin Durant joins the fray. Because of that, Marks may make a small move around the edges, but he won’t do anything to mess things up for the next few years.
Charlotte Hornets: Either. Charlotte has a lot of ground to make up, but with the bottom of the East having injury issues, you can’t really count them out of a playoff push. The Hornets have some veterans they can move fairly easily if something presents itself. Ideally, the Hornets would just hold pat, let a few bad contracts come off the book and move forward this summer. But the ideal roster management situation has never been a thing under Michael Jordan’s watch. That’s why you can’t predict what Charlotte will do at the deadline.
Chicago Bulls: Neither. Unlike last season, the Bulls don’t have veterans to trade. Otto Porter Jr. is virtually immovable because he can’t stay healthy. Zach LaVine is the Bulls’ best player. The rest of the roster is made of younger players whom Chicago will keep. You could make a case that the Bulls should be a buyer to make a real run at the playoffs, but the team simply doesn’t have the assets to get anything meaningful done. That makes for a quiet deadline in Chicago.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Sellers. Outside of Collin Sexton, Darius Garland and Kevin Porter Jr. — and maybe Cedi Osman — Cleveland could trade anyone on its roster. The Cavs already moved Jordan Clarkson and would love to find homes for a host of veteran role players like Matthew Dellavedova, John Henson or Brandon Knight. The Cavs would also gladly trade Kevin Love, but with three years and over $91 million owed to Love after this season, it’s unlikely he goes anywhere. After years of having a bloated cap sheet, Cleveland could have up to $29 million in cap space this summer. The Cavs could continue to build their asset base by taking back a bad contract extending into next year, as they’re unlikely to do much in free agency at this point in their rebuild.
Detroit Pistons: Sellers. Detroit is about as close to having an “Everything Must Go!” sale as there is in the NBA. Andre Drummond has been on the trade market for a month. Derrick Rose and Markieff Morris could help several contenders. The Pistons would even move Blake Griffin, but there’s no chance anyone is taking on the $75 million-plus he’s owed beyond this season. Outside of promising rookie Sekou Doumbouya, a trade of any player on the Detroit roster is possible.
Indiana Pacers: Buyers. The Pacers are “soft buyers.” In reality, they’ll probably keep what they have intact. Indiana’s big addition will come in the form of Victor Oladipo’s return at the end of January. But GM Kevin Pritchard will take advantage of an opportunity if one presents itself. The Pacers could use a veteran backup big man and maybe another wing. Everywhere else on the roster is fairly stocked with productive players.
Miami Heat: Buyers. Miami is firmly in the mix of best Eastern Conference teams behind Milwaukee. The Heat would love to add another player or two. The challenge for team president Pat Riley is persuading a team to take on a bad contract or two in exchange for a good player. The Heat also have to work around the hard cap, which makes it impossible for them to take on even minimal money in a trade. It’s likely the roster is what it is for the rest of this year, with big changes coming this summer when some of the bad contracts become more valuable expiring deals.
Milwaukee Bucks: Buyers. Milwaukee is another “soft buyer.” The Bucks don’t really need anything. They’re already 10 to 12 guys deep. Did you know that only Giannis Antetokounmpo averages over 30 minutes per game for the Bucks? And the MVP is barely over that mark. Milwaukee is on pace to win 70 games for a reason. The Bucks have everything they need. If something small comes up to upgrade a spot, GM Jon Horst has been aggressive in the past, but that’s probably unlikely this season.
New York Knicks: Sellers. You know how sometimes two neighbors will get together and have one big garage sale to draw even more people to buy their junk? Maybe the Knicks and Pistons should get together for one big sell-off. Outside of R.J. Barrett and Mitchell Robinson, New York will trade anyone. All of the veterans the Knicks signed this summer were inked to deals that are very tradable. That was smart work. Now, the Knicks have to actually move them. None of the available players will bring back a massive return, but if they’re smart about it, the Knicks could collect several small assets along the way to aid in their never-ending rebuild.
Orlando Magic: Buyers. It’s unlikely the Magic will do anything because they don’t have tradable contracts. But Orlando desperately needs help at point guard and forward. The Magic have lost Jonathan Isaac and Al-Farouq Aminu for the season up front, and now D.J. Augustin is on the shelf for a month in the backcourt. The Magic won’t swing any blockbusters, but look for them to add a veteran or two to fill out the rotation as they keep pushing for a second straight playoff appearance.
Philadelphia 76ers: Buyers. The Sixers want to add help. They’re still looking for shooting and playmaking off the bench. And Joel Embiid’s injury has Philly monitoring available big men. With a good group of young wings, the 76ers have been shopping Zhaire Smith as the centerpiece to bring back help. If Philadelphia doesn’t add anyone via trade, look for it to be very active on the buyout market.
Toronto Raptors: Neither. Last year we wrote: “You can never count out team president Masai Ujiri when it comes to making an unforeseen trade, but it’s probably going to be a quiet deadline for the Raptors.” It’s the same story this year. Ujiri is the most likely executive to swing a massive, unexpected trade. He’s as aggressive as they come. But barring that, it’s likely Toronto will focus on getting healthy and continuing to develop a young bench as it defends its title.
Washington Wizards: Sellers. The Wizards will listen on almost all of their veterans. They take calls daily on the availability of Davis Bertans. If the intention isn’t to re-sign Bertans this summer, Washington should move him for the best offer it can get. Beyond Bertans, maybe Isaiah Thomas could bring back something small, as teams are always looking for point guard depth and bench scoring for the postseason. Reminder: Bradley Beal can’t be dealt until later this spring because he has a six-month trade restriction after inking his contract extension this fall.
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