If more than 90 players who have signed up as free agents are allowed to trade on Saturday, it marks the unofficial start of the NBA trading season. Several big names have been traded since mid-November, including James Harden, Russell Westbrook, John Wall, Victor Oladipo, Chris Paul and Jrue Holiday.
These names have been added to a group that includes Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Kemba Walker and Gordon Hayward, all of whom have switched teams since the summer of 2019.
Could this indicate an active trading season in 2021? Maybe not.
While the unexpected could always happen, insiders by and large expect the next few months to be relatively small on a transactional level as several factors have come together to create a negative market and potentially quiet trading deadline for March 25th.
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Who is left?
A by-product of all of these marquee names that have switched teams over the past 19 months is that there is hardly anyone left to follow them. Two stars who might have been on the move – Giannis Antetokounmpo and Rudy Gobert – have both signed massive expansions to stay at Milwaukee Bucks and Utah Jazz respectively. That took two big pieces off the board.
That leaves Bradley Beal, the guardian of the Washington Wizards, the biggest star that could be considered available. But while Beal hasn’t sometimes been hiding his displeasure in court for the Wizards lately, there’s no evidence he’s asked from Washington, and observers in the league expect this deal to happen in the off-season rather than between now and the deadline.
“I think it would have to be pressure from him and his agent and it sounds to me like it won’t happen until after the season, if at all,” said a Western Conference manager.
Another West executive was even more adamant when he asked the same question.
“Zero,” they said, referring to the chances of Beal being dealt before next month’s close of trading. “They keep saying that. They were absolutely convinced that they weren’t going to move him.”
But while Beal is expected to stay in position, there are some players who may be on the move.
In discussions with executives over the next few weeks, several names repeatedly appeared as logical trade candidates. The New Orleans Pelicans have already hired teams for veterans Lonzo Ball and JJ Redick. The Houston Rockets could potentially move Oladipo again, as could P.J. Tucker, who also has an expiring contract. Nobody believes that security guard George Hill, who is absent from finger surgery this week, will continue to be a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder Rebuild after the next month’s deadline.
Orlando Magic security guard Evan Fournier has an expiring contract and is expected to generate interest. Several executives wondered if the team would consider moving on from forward Aaron Gordon – another four to six weeks with a sprained ankle suffered earlier this week. as part of a pivot in a major rebuilding in the midst of an injury-ridden season.
But while all of these names bring some level of intrigue with them, they don’t move the market – and may shake the rankings – like Harden or Beal or even Holiday, which the bucks traded for in November.
“The two biggest names have already moved,” said an Eastern Conference manager. “Nothing will be bigger than Holiday and Harden, but I still think things will happen as some of these teams realize their place will be worthless this summer.”
Who can make a deal?
Just a year ago the LA Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers were fighting at the Western Conference, and both were seriously pursuing business for Marcus Morris Sr., then with the New York Knicks. The Clippers were able to put together the winning deal, partly because they had a choice to offer for the first round.
Not this year.
Of the teams hoping to battle for a title this year, four – the defending champions Lakers, the Clippers, the Bucks, and the Brooklyn Nets – have no first-round selection in the coming years, making it difficult to find one Way to add a player who makes the difference. And they’re not the only ones.
The Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks, two teams on the sidelines of the playoff race, have already swapped their selections for the first round in 2021. The same goes for the Portland Trail Blazers and Golden State Warriors (though they keep their picks if they drop in the top 20 of the 2021 NBA draft, and via Minnesota’s top 3 protected picks for the first round, which may be that most valuable commodity in the world is league). Located near the tip of the west, Jazz owes the Memphis Grizzlies a choice that will provide protection through 2024.
In total, more than 10 teams are limited in their range of asset designs due to previous deals.
“For good teams trying to get rentals, these deals with no choice will be difficult [to trade]”said a second Eastern executive.” And say you’re Washington trying to make a beal deal. If you want to get three firsts and two swaps, your pool of teams that can do so is much smaller. “
Among the top competitors in the league, the Lakers, Clippers, and Bucks have the added difficulty of being capped hard, which limits the amount of salary they can add in trades.
In the meantime, the teams are still struggling to figure out who they are and what they need. Practices are few and far between and for virtually any team dealing with myriad absences due to injuries or the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, playing with a full team is a rarity and can limit business.
“I think with all the uncertainty between COVID and everything else, not much is going to happen,” another Eastern Conference manager said.
Every trade needs both a buyer – a competing team trying to improve their list in some way – and a seller. And the NBA could be short of sellers this season due to the expanded playoff field.
After experimenting with a box-office round in the bubble last season, the NBA stepped up efforts this season, meaning the top 10 teams at any post-season conference will have a chance.
Only the Minnesota Timberwolves found themselves more than three games away from a potential play-in spot on Thursday.
“There are maybe four teams that really don’t think they will make the playoffs,” said one of the West managers. “So who is going to sell?”
When teams have a chance to get a playoff push – especially teams like the Chicago Bulls, Knicks, or Sacramento Kings that haven’t had a postseason in years – they may be less inclined to trade currently productive players to help you.
“The teams that are in that range of 8 to 13 in both conferences – I think a lot of these teams want to make the playoffs,” said an Eastern Conference manager who believed these teams would not be inclined to take action to weaken their 2020-21 teams.
Several executives also felt it could have an impact on the buyout market after the deadline, as teams staying in search of a playoff spot would rather hold onto those players to do a playoff push rather than trying to get closer to the bottom of the leaderboard. The league’s flattened lottery odds give teams less incentive to be as bad as possible. Just last year, the Charlotte Hornets finished in 10th place before the restart in the east (a place that would have brought them into play-in this year), but jumped to 3rd place in the draft after the lottery.
The NBA also remains a money-driven league, and the trading market is no exception. Several executives said how different teams might approach their financial health could affect the number of deals this year, especially at the lower levels.
In this season shortened by the pandemic, each team has lost five home games, and those who play them are mostly played without spectators. Some teams, like the Golden State Warriors, who took on Kelly Oubre Jr.’s salary after losing Klay Thompson for the season to a ripped Achilles, have already shown their willingness to take money regardless of the NBA’s economic realities. Other teams could find themselves in situations where ownership is telling the front office to make short term savings wherever possible, creating a different group of sellers to feed the league’s buyers.
“Do I think there is likely to be a flood of business? No,” said another East executive. “But I think there are some situations where, although things might be taken off the table because of the uncertainty that is going on, they might actually come together.”