The NBA trade market had been quiet in 2021, but the unofficial tipoff to deadline season arrived last week. The Detroit Pistons sent Svi Mykhailiuk and a 2027 second-round pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for Hamidou Diallo.
Two lottery-bound teams swapping bench players headed for restricted free agency isn’t exactly a repeat of the James Harden blockbuster. And unfortunately for fans hoping for another move that will shake up the NBA title race, it doesn’t look like that will happen in the next week.
“I just think it’s going to be a boring deadline,” a Western Conference executive told ESPN.
A combination of continuing fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, the play-in tournament expanding the playoff races in each conference and a sheer lack of superstars available has left the NBA collectively scratching its head.
Still, for teams on the fringe of those expanded playoff races, this week offers an opportunity to make one more push to improve their postseason chances or to take advantage of a scarce trade market and secure future considerations. ESPN spoke to several scouts and executives to get a sense of what this group of six teams might do heading up to March 25.
Where they stand: 19-20, eighth in Eastern Conference
Possible trade candidate: PF John Collins
After going all-in during free agency last summer, the directive in Atlanta is clear. The Hawks want to make the playoffs. They fired head coach Lloyd Pierce just before the All-Star break and have since ripped off five wins in a row to catapult themselves back inside the top eight in the East. Despite the Hawks getting Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari back to health and potentially having Kris Dunn and De’Andre Hunter rejoin them soon, the universal opinion among league insiders is that Atlanta is looking to acquire talent over the next week.
“The pressure hasn’t changed,” said a West executive. “They still are going to do something.”
Whomever the Hawks decide to target, the name floating around from Atlanta’s end is John Collins. The fourth-year forward is set to be a restricted free agent this summer and could be in line for a nine-figure deal after he and the Hawks failed to come to an agreement on an extension before the season.
“They’re worried he’s getting maxed, and they’re putting it out there they are willing to pay him if he gets a max but won’t be thrilled about it,” said an East executive. However, Collins’ $4.1 million salary makes it difficult to trade him for an established player, and a deal for the future — be it young players or draft picks — doesn’t help the Hawks make a playoff push this season.
“I think they’d like to buy, but not sure there’s a lot to buy or what they buy it with,” said an East exec. “[Kevin] Huerter and picks, I guess, is the package, but what is that buying you?”
Where they stand: 17-20, ninth in Eastern Conference
Possible trade candidates: PF Thaddeus Young, PF Lauri Markkanen
Arturas Karnisovas, Chicago’s first-year vice president of basketball operations, neatly summed up the trade market in a pre-All-Star-break news conference.
“Expanding the playoffs to 10 teams — and then two or three are still delusional and think that they can make it to 10 — that makes [for] a very interesting trade deadline,” he said with a smile.
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What seems clear is that the Bulls want to be one of those 10 teams themselves. In fact, executives think the Bulls would even consider improvements to push to make the playoffs for the first time since trading Jimmy Butler four years ago, and referenced coach Billy Donovan’s decision to bench Coby White and Wendell Carter Jr. in favor of Tomas Satoransky and Thaddeus Young for Sunday’s win over the Toronto Raptors as proof.
“They’re clearly trying to win when they are benching those two young guys,” said a West executive.
“Patrick Williams and Zach [LaVine], I’d think, are untouchables. Otherwise, they’re open.”
However, contenders around the league are eyeing the Bulls’ roster should they decide not to chase a postseason berth. Young is shooting a career-high 60.5% from the field in his 14th season and would be of value to multiple teams looking to bolster their bench. However, depending on how serious Chicago is about a playoff push, the Bulls might prefer to retain him.
“He helps [the Bulls] now,” said one of the East scouts, “but contending teams would be wise to look at him if they decided to move him.”
What’s more unclear is the status of Markkanen, who will be a restricted free agent this offseason. The Bulls might not want to match what Markkanen could get on the open market this summer, especially in a free-agent market that has lost much of its star power. However, any team trading for the 7-footer would face the same dilemma.
“I think they’d trade Markkanen if they get a good offer, but I don’t think they’re likely to trade him,” said an East executive. “I don’t think they do anything unless they get something they love.”
Where they stand: 15-24, 13th in Western Conference
Possible trade candidates: PF Harrison Barnes, PF Nemanja Bjelica, SG Cory Joseph, PF Jabari Parker
The Kings’ 15-season playoff drought doesn’t appear likely to end this year. They’re already four games back of the final play-in spot, with three teams between them and the 10th-place Memphis Grizzlies.
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They also have a player in Barnes who could be a good fit on teams like the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat, who are in need of a battle-tested combo forward who can provide versatility and two-way play.
“I think Barnes will be in play,” said an East executive.
The ninth-year forward, who won a title with the Golden State Warriors in 2015, is posting career highs in rebounds (6.2) and assists (3.5) to go along with 16.7 points per game. He’s under contract for two more seasons at declining salaries, which could lead Sacramento to decide to retain him as it tries to build a playoff team around De’Aaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton.
“If I had to guess on Barnes, I would say [he doesn’t get traded],” said an East scout.
If that happens, the Kings have other players who could be moved in lesser deals, including Bjelica, who is playing a career-low 17.7 minutes per night but is still a career 39% shooter from 3-point range (though at just 32.6% from beyond the arc this season).
Ultimately, though, Barnes could be one of the most impactful players available at this year’s deadline. That’s both a sign of how little there is to trade and the importance of his role in today’s NBA, and could lead to Sacramento getting an offer that forces its hand.
“My sense is they’ll keep him,” said a West executive. “But if someone throws a [Robert Covington]-style package at them (meaning multiple first-round picks), you have to think about it.”
New Orleans Pelicans
Where they stand: 17-22, tied for 11th in Western Conference
Possible trade candidates: PG Lonzo Ball, PG Eric Bledsoe, SG JJ Redick
Each of the past two offseasons, the Pelicans have made blockbuster trades, bringing back a slew of draft picks and interesting players. What that has done, however, has left them with almost two entirely different teams.
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One group is the young players whom Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin has either drafted (Zion Williamson, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Kira Lewis Jr. and Jaxson Hayes) or paid (Brandon Ingram and Steven Adams) to be part of this team moving forward. The other includes the names that have been bandied about by executives around the league for weeks now: Ball, Bledsoe and Redick. “They’re willing to move on from all of those guys,” said a West scout.
New Orleans actually pulled Redick from the lineup earlier this year as Griffin tried to work out a trade for him. After missing three games, he returned and showed the shooting form that has interested contenders — 46.4% from 3-point range since the start of February — but he’s now out again, this time after undergoing a nonsurgical procedure on his left heel. The injury and his $13 million salary make finding a match for a trade difficult, and league insiders see him as a possible post-deadline buyout candidate.
Bledsoe, meanwhile, makes even more — $17 million this season, over $18 million next season — and after his disastrous showings in the playoffs each of the past two seasons in Milwaukee, contenders might be reluctant to add him for the stretch run.
Then there’s Ball, who is playing some of the best basketball of his career. Over the past 11 games, he’s averaging 14.9 points and 6.2 assists, while shooting 39.6% from beyond the arc. Some league insiders wonder if he’s even still a candidate to be traded, though his restricted-free-agent status certainly complicates the situation. Agent Rich Paul will undoubtedly be looking for the No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 draft to be given a hefty deal somewhere, and it’s possible Griffin would prefer to move on and free up additional playing time for Lewis and Alexander-Walker, both of whom he drafted in the first round.
“I know he feels pressure to win,” an East executive said of Griffin. “He also really likes all the young players he drafted and wants them to play. I don’t really know how he’s going to bridge that gap.”
Where they stand: 17-22, 11th in Eastern Conference
Possible trade candidate: PG Kyle Lowry
“I think they’ve got to take a long look at where they’re going,” said an East scout. “Are they really going to pay [Lowry] and have him there for three or four years?”
That’s the question the Raptors face heading into next week’s trade deadline. Lowry is arguably the greatest player in Raptors history and the face of the franchise, but in a trade market devoid of star talent, he could also represent the best player available — if he is even available.
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Lowry, 35, will be a free agent this summer. And while he made it clear he will be retiring as a Raptor when he spoke last week after returning from the All-Star break, he gave no definitive answer as to where his playing future lies after this season. That has led to plenty of speculation about where Lowry could end up if Toronto chose to move him, with his hometown Philadelphia 76ers being positioned to land him.
“There aren’t a lot of deals that I look around and think should happen,” said an Eastern Conference executive. “That one is.”
Lowry’s large contract creates trade obstacles. A team that’s over the cap must send out nearly $25 million in matching salaries to make a deal work. Still, after a long list of big names have changed teams since the summer of 2019 — including Jrue Holiday and James Harden joining Eastern Conference contenders over the past five months — Lowry stands out as the lone true game-changing player should the Raptors decide to move on.
“I would say they hold,” said a West scout. “I just don’t get the feeling it’s going to happen, though maybe they’re just waiting for the right offer.”
Where they stand: 13-26, 14th in Eastern Conference
Possible trade candidates: SG Evan Fournier, SG Terrence Ross, PF Aaron Gordon, C Nikola Vucevic
Orlando’s core has been together since the Magic acquired Ross midway through the 2016-17 season, and all they have to show for it is a pair of first-round playoff exits. The hopes the team had of taking a step forward this season were shattered by injuries to Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz, among others, leaving the Magic far behind even the expanded playoff field.
And yet, in the days leading up to the deadline, it’s still unclear whether Orlando will significantly shake up the roster, even with a quartet of players who could bring back significant future considerations that could help them in healthier times.
“I can’t figure those guys out,” said a West scout. “I don’t know if they’ll do anything.”
With Fultz and Isaac set to come back next season, the belief around the league is that Orlando is unlikely to trade Vucevic, who made the All-Star Game two of the past three years and is under contract through 2022-23 (with salaries that decline each year). However, rival teams do think Orlando will move on from Fournier, who is on an expiring deal, especially as the Magic’s playoff hopes grow more and more unlikely.
“I think they’ll rent Fournier to someone, but that’s it,” said an East exec. “Nobody has given me any indication they’re going to move Vucevic, or even have a discussion for him, unless they get a huge return.”
The swing piece here is Gordon, of whom opinion is split around the league as to what will happen with him. What isn’t disputed, however, is that Orlando should be active.
“Have you seen their team?” asked a West executive.