Previous Story

Oscar Season Turns Ugly

All Features

Next Story

The Branding of the Olympics

The NBA Swap Meet

The buyers and sellers get ready for action as the NBA trading deadline approaches

We’re just nine days away from the trade deadline, which kind of weirdly might be the most anticipated day of the NBA calendar. It was something of a dud last season, with just a handful of trades, featuring J.J. Redick as the highest-profile player moved and merely one first-round draft pick changing hands.

Fans and team executives have been drooling about the potential of this trade deadline ever since. The line between “buyers” and “sellers” has rarely been more obvious, with several teams either working to position themselves for the lottery or eager to unload long-term money — or both. At the opposite pole, the championship picture feels cloudier than usual. The Heat are vulnerable, and the Thunder and Spurs, the last two champions of the West and still the conference’s two most polished teams, are dealing with injury uncertainties. The league feels like it’s at a pivot point as executives gather in New Orleans to talk turkey over All-Star Weekend.

There are some big questions as we all prepare to tear up our cap sheets, overdose on coffee, and sift through rumors planted by angling agents and GMs:

The Picks Dilemma: What Is the Ripple Effect?

One grim reality for those craving trade madness: Most of the contenders, one-piece-away pseudo contenders, and buyers desperate to win now have already dealt away future first-round picks. The list of such teams includes Miami, Indiana, New York, Brooklyn, Washington, Golden State, Detroit, Portland, Dallas, Memphis, Minnesota, and the Clippers.

Some of those teams can trade first-round picks that come sooner than others, but there is very little interest around the league in picks that might not arrive until 2019 and 2020.1 These teams, chasing wins today, have thus forfeited a crucial source of currency in dealing with teams chasing wins tomorrow. That changes the way everyone in the market behaves, and will make it harder for the tankers to net a coveted first-round pick by dangling their assortment of perfectly nice but replaceable veteran types — Brandon Bass, Jameer Nelson, Arron Afflalo, Thaddeus Young, Spencer Hawes, Marvin Williams, et al.2 The Suns were brilliant for this reason in sensing Washington’s early-season vulnerabilities and snagging a first-round pick for Marcin Gortat when the moment was ripe. Phoenix now stands as perhaps the most interesting trade deadline team, armed with Emeka Okafor’s insurance-backed contract, quality young players on rookie deals, and a bonanza of picks.

As for the rest of the potential buyers, remember this: The value of expiring contracts, once such juicy assets, has been in continued decline for years. The new collective bargaining agreement has resulted in shorter contracts,3 leaving fewer toxic long-term deals that teams are willing to dump in exchange for expiring flotsam. And teams that do have those expiring deals are more willing than ever to simply let them expire if the only alternative is dealing them for blah long-term money.

The list of teams in dire tax situations isn’t that long, either. Chicago has already gotten itself under the luxury tax, and neither Brooklyn nor the Knicks are worried about cutting tax bills this season if they must sacrifice a quality player to do so.

Salary-based desperation isn’t what it used to be. Expirings like Trevor Ariza, Rodney Stuckey, Charlie Villanueva, Paul Pierce, and Danny Granger aren’t the carrots they once were. Washington and Indiana have been active on this front, per several league sources, but have found little traction so far. Trading Granger will be especially tough for the Pacers, since they cannot take on even a single dollar of money for next season without jeopardizing their ability to re-sign the terrifying (in a good way!) Lance Stephenson.

The Wizards, meanwhile, may have to settle for a smaller deal — if they can manage any at all. They’d surely love to upgrade the backup point guard slot after the Eric Maynor flop, and given the front-office connections between Denver and Washington,4 a deal involving the exiled Professor Andre Miller, PhD, would seem to make sense. But the Wizards are just $1 million under the tax line, meaning they’d have to send out significant salary to offer Miller tenure.

Any of these pick-less buyers seeking to add a major player will have to find another form of currency to grease the wheels. The most obvious such device would be players on their rookie contracts.

Take the Warriors, for instance. They’ve fallen to the no. 8 spot with a flailing offense and shaky depth, but they’ve traded just about every possible pick and might have played their last low-risk card in the Jordan Crawford deal. If they really want to add an impact piece this season, they’ll either have to orchestrate another three-team trade or part with one of the Harrison Barnes–Klay Thompson duo. That would be a major step, and though Barnes especially has struggled, sources around the league say Golden State doesn’t appear ready quite yet to go this route. The Dubs also have two sizable trade exceptions they could use to take on another player, but they’ve got about only $2.5 million in wiggle room below the tax.

The Wizards and Blazers would probably need to include Otto Porter and C.J. McCollum, respectively, to move the needle, and Portland is lacking in expiring contracts with which to pair any spicy young guy. Rookie-scale players plucked later in the first round just don’t carry enough salary to bring back anything significant.

None of this means these teams won’t be active. They will just have to be creative, using different forms of currency, finding third-team facilitators, and perhaps settling for “shuffle the deck chairs” sorts of deals. The Wolves could be a prime candidate for that last sort of trade. They’re underachieving and the league’s roiling powder keg, but they’re stocked mostly with midsize contracts that won’t bring much other than similar contracts from other dissatisfied teams.5

Who Are the Exceptions to the Pick Dilemma?

Several potential buyers have their own picks to dangle, including, at the very top of the league, the Spurs and Thunder. Both teams typically bypass the trade deadline, and they haven’t made all that much noise on the market so far. The Thunder have their own pick, some interesting young guys, and a valuable future first-rounder from Dallas. Oklahoma City knows it has a chance to win the title right now, and if it could find a wing player on the right contract that could really boost those chances, I suspect it would think very hard about pulling the trigger on at least its own first-rounder.

That player does not appear to have emerged. Lou Williams would have been a nice fit had he come back strong from ACL surgery this season, but he hasn’t. The Thunder are playing a long game, hoarding assets and holding back on the luxury tax until the right moment emerges. I don’t think this is it.

The Spurs are a more interesting case, with old legs, a pile of injuries, a closing window, and a bad record against elite teams. They have their own first-rounder, plus a few midsize deals they could combine into $8 million or so of outgoing salary. But the odds are always against San Antonio introducing a major unknown into its system.

The Pacers and Heat will kick the tires in their arms race, and Miami is prepared to waive either Roger Mason Jr. or Toney Douglas to open up a roster spot. The Heat had real interest in Andrew Bynum before Indiana struck, and if they can’t find anything via trade, they’ll monitor the buyout market for guys like Okafor (unlikely to play at all this season, sadly) and Caron Butler.

Who Is Moving Into Philly’s Room?

The Sixers are $11 million below the cap and about $5 million below the minimum salary floor each team must hit. The penalty for not hitting the floor is weak and of little concern to the Sixers,6 but the flexibility is of major value on the trade market.

It will allow Philly to take on extra salary in any deal for one of the Evan Turner–Young-Hawes trio. The Bobcats are absolutely serious about pursuing Turner,7 per several league sources, and the Sixers could take on Ben Gordon’s expiring contract along with one of Charlotte’s extra first-rounders (likely the 2014 pick Portland owes it) if that closes the deal.

Philly might have enough cap space to do something like that and rent out the rest — at cost — to a team seeking to get under the tax. The Clippers would seem to be the prime candidate. They’re only about $2 million over the tax, and they could get under it by dumping a veteran player such as Jared Dudley or Willie Green, plus Reggie Bullock as the cost of doing business. You could expand this into a bigger money thing involving Hawes, given the Clips’ glaring need for a third competent big, but adding extra complications is always dicey.

The Lakers probably can’t get under the tax, but they could at least use Philly to reduce their tax bill if the Sixers can find a single thing of value on the Lakers’ barren roster.

Bottom line: Philly is a lock to be super-active in the next week.

What the Hell Is Going on in Cleveland?

David Griffin has replaced Chris Grant as the Cavs’ GM, and the other 29 teams are calling to take Griffin’s temperature. The Cavs are likely still committed to chasing a playoff spot this season, but they sacrificed some valuable assets to acquire Luol Deng. If the Cavs think Deng is likely to bolt in free agency this summer, they have to be very careful sending out more future assets to bolster the current roster.

Dion Waiters falls at the intersection of all this. Warts and all, the guy has obvious NBA skills, and smart “buy low” talent evaluators recognize that. Boston has kicked around almost every intriguing “buy low” piece in the league, especially guys on rookie deals. The Celtics have an appetite for low-cost risk on high-upside talent, even talent with “attitude” issues, but Waiters might be too far down the road for Boston at this point. But if the Cavs can find a decent future first-rounder for Waiters, they have to think about it.

The league is also curious whether Griffin values Anderson Varejao as highly as Grant did. Varejao only has one year left on his contract after this season, and he has rediscovered most of his game after some scary health problems. He’s not quite as zippy as he once was, but he’s an active defender, heady passer, and a killer on the boards, and he’s developed into a good enough midrange shooter to work alongside a traditional post-up big — provided the shooting around them is good enough.

A lot of folks have mentioned a potential Varejao–Omer Asik swap, and that does make some theoretical sense. The Cavs need a rim protector, and Varejao is versatile enough to play at least some minutes with Dwight Howard. He’s not the Ryan Anderson–type floor-spacer Daryl Morey really wants, but he wouldn’t be a bad consolation prize if the Rockets wish to go for the whole hog this season. But Houston might have its eyes on bigger game down the line, and …

What If Everyone Waits Until This Summer?

The trade deadline isn’t the bright line it used to be. We’ve already seen seven trades since late October, more than occurred in the 72 hours before the deadline last season. And look at all the first-round picks who moved in the last year: The Nets, Pacers, Warriors, and others have all sent out picks over the summer — in draft day deals, plays for cap space, or just trades that came up at random times.

Varejao might have more trade value after this season, when only one last partially guaranteed year remains on his contract. And once the 2014 draft is complete, more teams will be freed up to trade future first-round picks.

Which Wild-Card Team Will Surprise Us?

Four teams are generating some curiosity from gawkers around the league:

1. Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets quietly have one of the worst cap sheets in the league. They’re basically capped out for both 2014-15 and 2015-16, and every player outside of Ty Lawson and possibly Wilson Chandler has declined in value because of poor play or injury. Denver doesn’t appear ready to hit the reset button completely, and Tim Connelly, the team’s well-regarded new GM, is still getting a feel for what he has here. But the Nuggets should consider deals that restore some salary normalcy,8 even it costs them Chandler and/or sends them plummeting down the standings. They’re likely toast already as far as the playoffs go, and the Eastern Conference is so bad, they need to prepare for the possibility New York makes the playoffs — torpedoing scenarios in which the Nugs could have two lottery picks. (Denver, of course, will get the Knicks pick via the Carmelo Anthony deal, and it will send the least favorable of its two first-rounders to Orlando.)

I’ve been hearing since the fall that Kenneth Faried is available at the right price, and sources across the league maintain that remains true as we approach the deadline. (Denver has consistently denied this.) They should be ready to give away JaVale McGee if they find a taker, and the Nuggets have a lot of midsize salaries, including Prof. Miller’s, that are handy in trades.

Speaking of McGee: There could be an unusually high number of legit NBA centers on the market, between McGee, Hawes, Larry Sanders,9 Asik, Varejao, Pau Gasol, and others. The demise of the NBA center was always an overblown story line, but it’s interesting to see so many versions of a scarce asset become obtainable.

2. Atlanta Hawks

Danny Ferry, true to Spurs form, is radio silent, and Lou Williams’s decline has robbed him of a once intriguing piece. This is a solid roster filled with talented players on movable contracts, but that can cut both ways. The Hawks might be happy landing the no. 3 spot in a turd conference, staying lean, and keeping the war chest intact for whatever comes down the line. But they could also act if a talent they like becomes available, and sources around the NBA continue to insist Ferry is not in love with Jeff Teague’s four-year, $32 million deal. Don’t sleep on the Hawks.

3. Brooklyn Nets

The win-now tax champions have two market-shifting trade pieces in Pierce and Brook Lopez, but they appear to be leaning toward standing pat. Brooklyn wants to avoid a repeater tax penalty in 2015-16, and exchanging Pierce’s expiring deal for long-term money imperils that goal. Selling Lopez now would be selling low, even if it could bring back a healthy player.

Jeff Schwartz, agent for both Pierce and Jason Kidd, is an influential voice, and might be unhappy with yet another trade for his client. Ownership might prefer the team stand pat after a flurry of deals that haven’t turned Brooklyn into a contender.

4. Toronto Raptors

The Rudy Gay trade invigorated a moribund team with depth and clear-cut roles, but as the great David Aldridge at NBA.com reported Monday, Masai Ujiri, the team’s whip-smart GM, is always on the prowl. The Raps have a lot of dead or semi-dead salary they’d like to move, an extra first-round pick courtesy of the Knicks (BARGS BARGITTY BARGS!), an aggressive ownership group, and a potential hole at point guard next season as Kyle Lowry enters free agency.

Lowry is ornery, but he’s also very good, and the market for him could be cool this summer. Most of the 10 or so teams set to have $10 million or more in cap space don’t need a point guard, and Lowry’s clashes with head coaches could deter the rest. The Raps may well be able to re-sign him at something like $21 million or $24 million over three seasons, and that should be a happy outcome for everyone.

Can Anybody Unload Bad Money?

There are a lot of teams, if they’re being honest, that would probably like to get off multiyear contracts clogging their cap sheet: New Orleans (Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans), Detroit (Josh Smith), Denver (McGee, perhaps J.J. Hickson), Milwaukee (almost everyone), Orlando (Glen Davis), Sacramento, (Marcus Thornton, Jason Thompson, Carl Landry), Washington (Martell Webster), New York (stop laughing), Oklahoma City (Kendrick Perkins), Cleveland (Jarrett Jack), and Chicago (Carlos Boozer, an amnesty candidate, and perhaps even Taj Gibson).

The Kings are an especially interesting case. If Gay opts into his contract, re-signing Isaiah Thomas will likely take the Kings to at least the edge of the tax — and possibly over it. Luckily for the Kings, they might be able to let the market for Thomas in restricted free agency play itself out. The qualifying offer Sacto must tender to keep matching rights on the little guy is laughably low, meaning they can make that commitment and hope the market avoids any protracted pursuit of Thomas. Remember, there just aren’t that many cap-room teams in need of a point guard, especially one that struggles at times on defense.

Regardless, teams are going to have a very hard time dumping big long-term deals. Everyone is prizing flexibility, and several potential dumpers have already traded away the first-round picks that would make a dumpee willing to swallow a smelly dump. If everyone ends up stuck with their own toxic contracts after the deadline, it will be interesting to see if there is any renewed desperation over the summer.

10 Things I Like and Don’t Like

1. Goran Dragic “rebounds”

The most exhilarating sight in the league begins when Dragic grabs a defensive rebound, or is close enough to the teammate who does so as to enable an instant handoff/outlet pass. From there, Dragic is going streaking without any immediate concern for things that worry normal NBA point guards — a numbers disadvantage, a scary big man already back on defense, or a weirdly angled path up the sideline.

Dragic may not have an endgame in mind, but he understands that just getting the damn ball up the court quickly might open up possibilities that wouldn’t otherwise exist. Maybe he can speed by that retreating big man, suck in some extra attention, and find a spot-up shooter who will appear somewhere behind the play. Maybe he can get all the way to the rim, or a draw a foul.

Maybe the blitz fails, leaving Dragic to pull the ball out and wait for his teammates. No problem. There’s plenty of time left on the shot clock, and Dragic hasn’t cost his team a thing by chasing a quick-strike basket.

The man is fearless and creative, with an endless reservoir of fakes, change-of-pace dribbles, lower-the-shoulder space-clearing bumps, and crazy scoop finishes at the basket. He is, for now, the new king of the one-man fast break.

2. Golden State’s offense

A blowout of the embarrassing Sixers jumped Golden State from 16th to 13th in points per possession, but its offense has generally been a disappointment, and it’s just 6-7 since I called it a potential shadow championship contender. Even in that piece, I worried the Dubs wouldn’t reach “shadow” levels unless they kicked an irritating habit of short-circuiting possessions with 10 or 12 seconds left on the clock and settling in for low-efficiency isolation plays. Stuff like this just doesn’t cut it for a team with two great shooters, multitalented big men, and elite passing up and down the roster:

If this doesn’t change, we’re going to start hearing rumblings about Mark Jackson’s job status.

3. Taj Gibson, no. 1 option

The Bulls’ offense is rough on the eyes, a collection of second- and third-option grinders in need of a maestro. But Gibson’s emergence as a legitimate post-up threat has emerged as a silver lining. He’s never going to be an unguardable beast, but he’s become tricky enough with turnarounds and up-and-unders that the Bulls have introduced more screening action designed to spring Gibson on the left block.

About 33 percent of the possessions Gibson has finished this season have come via post-ups, a large share, and up from 17.5 percent last season, per Synergy Sports. He’s shooting 43 percent, a so-so number on par with those of more noted post-up behemoths such as Greg Monroe and Howard, and he doesn’t draw many fouls. But he does attract some extra attention, and he can prop up a limping Chicago offense for a brief stretch.

4. Darrell Arthur’s collapse

This guy hasn’t been nearly the same since an Achilles injury suffered after he was such an integral part of Memphis’s surprise 2011 playoff run. He’s shooting just 39.6 percent, and he’s 36-of-114 (32 percent) since December 13. Arthur’s midrange shot has fallen apart, and if he’s not hitting pick-and-pop jumpers, he offers essentially nothing on offense. It’s a sad decline for a guy who had carved out a role as a mobile defender and midrange specialist. Here’s hoping Arthur reverses it.

5. Josh Smith, understanding basketball (sometimes)

The irony of Detroit firing Maurice Cheeks over the weekend is that the unfittable piece who thrust Detroit into such an awkward roster situation has been playing his best ball of the season. It’s unclear if anything really changed in Smith’s play. He’s still shooting 3s at an irresponsible rate, and good Smith streaks are like those days when you go for a run, and your body just feels so much better than usual — they’re fun and productive, but you have no clue why they happen, and no insight into how to make them happen again.

Smith has been better of late in sensing within games that he needs to rejigger his shot selection. I mean, take a look at the cut Smith makes here, as his defender, Tobias Harris, ignores Smith to focus on a Monroe post-up:

Whoa! Cutting toward the rim instead of hanging around the perimeter for 20-foot jumpers might be a good thing! Who knew? Smith can’t find cutting lanes every time given Detroit’s spacing issues, but he should be doing stuff like this much more.

6. Utah adapting to Alec Burks

I noted before the season how Alec Burks tends to dribble away from screens on sideline pick-and-roll plays, even (especially?) when defenses shade him in that direction. If a Jazz big man set a pick designed to spring Burks into the middle of the floor, he often dribbles the other way — and right toward the dead zone where the sideline meets the baseline.

Utah has adapted this season by flipping the direction of a lot of picks for Burks, and often at the very last second, to confuse defenses:

BURKS

If Burks wants to go toward the short sideline, the Jazz are at least going to set their screens in a way that gives him more of a head start in that direction.

7. New York’s piece of flair

The Knicks have regressed horribly on offense this season, but they can still find potency when they spread the floor and flip the playbook beyond the page that is just stick-figure drawings of Carmelo isolating and J.R. Smith shooting step-back jumpers.

Take this little flare screen action the Knicks break out now and then, starting with a Raymond Felton–Tyson Chandler pick-and-roll that is mostly a bit of misdirection:

It’s a canny way of using one decoy pick-and-roll to bend the floor, suck in Smith’s defender, and then kick the ball across the court to the real action — one perimeter player (Iman Shumpert) nailing Smith’s guy with a blind back screen. Hey, look! Real basketball!

8. Commentators who turn on ex-players

It is unseemly how a once-beloved local player in some markets becomes a disreputable grifter upon changing teams. All the quirks that were ignored or defended as evidence of some sort of “moxie” when the guy was on the team morph into black marks when he returns in another uniform.

It happens in several markets around the league, but it might be most blatant with James Harden in Oklahoma City. It’s as if the folks associated with the Thunder — the broadcast crew, fans, even writers — only noticed Harden’s bad defense and incessant flopping once he became a Rocket.

This isn’t the only example, and such “with us or against us” chatter is part of being a fan. But it’s weird when that stuff seeps into media coverage.

9. Caron Butler’s standstill midrange jumpers

Maybe the second-most depressing shot in the NBA, behind any Tayshaun Prince shot.

10. Kyle O’Quinn’s beard

It’s not “Look at me!” weird like Harden’s beard-slash–marketing device, but O’Quinn may have the league’s best facial hair. His beard is somehow thick, bushy, and well groomed at the same time, and like Mike Woodson’s magical goatee, it emanates a confident masculinity. It’s just a great beard.

I asked O’Quinn after Orlando’s win Sunday whether he was hoping to overtake Harden’s unofficial title as owner of the league’s best beard. “I’m not gunning for it,” he says, “but if you give it to me, I’ll take it.” O’Quinn says the beard is right at the edge of being too “wild” and he doesn’t want it to reach Harden’s unkempt level. And if he ever gets sloppy, Nikola Vucevic, sitting one locker away, is there to keep O’Quinn in check. “He tells me it’s terrible,” O’Quinn says, laughing.

Filed Under: NBA

zach_lowe_headshot

Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ ZachLowe_NBA