With the NBA’s trade deadline just a few days away, it’s fair to wonder which teams should be shaking all of the trees and which should be holding on to all of their cards. In the last few seasons, most teams have learned to value their first round picks, and contenders now lean on the buyout market to bolster benches. On the flip-side, teams, that are hard-capped with low ceilings have become the primary lifeblood of the deadline as they attempt to get off bloated contracts while remaining competitive. Part of this weird mish-mash of teams is the result of the salary cap spike leading to contracts that will be (or already have become) albatrosses that now hang over their teams heads. Let’s look at the buyers, sellers, and abstainers in this NBA season’s trade market.
Cleveland has been active at each trade deadline since LeBron James returned from his four year stint in Miami. This season as much as any other, perhaps even more than the fateful 2010 deadline, likely will determine as much about his future as any playoff run could. We know the Cavs are trying to pry Deandre Jordan and George Hill from the Clippers and Kings respectively, but there are serious questions as to how much they could help. While the Cavs’ defense is non-existent at this stage, both players feature a kind of analog already on the team. Complicating matters even further is the serious dearth of trade chips and their desire to get off of J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson’s contracts. General Manager Koby Altman is going to have to make a hard choice: move the one piece chance at a future blue chip player for a marginal gain, or stand pat and deal with an increasingly angry and bitter LeBron.
Miami, by virtue of GM Pat Riley, has long been viewed as the big game hunters of the Eastern Conference. Riley has made a career out of swinging big trades to launch South Beach into the national hoops spotlight. This season opened with Riley acknowledging the immense amount of money promised out to players like Kelly Olynyk, James Johnson, and Dion Waiters. While Olynyk has been the best of those signings thus far, his positional overlap and the regression (or absence) of the others has hampered an already overachieving team. There are rumors that the Heat would be willing to part ways with some of its young talent (Tyler Johnson) before their contracts swell and is in the hunt for Tyreke Evans. While the team prides itself on the sweat equity it invests into young talent, the hard truth is the Heat lack any upper-echelon blue chip talent. Now armed with a season and a half of evidence, Riley can see the hard ceiling even with a top five coach in Erik Spoelstra.
The Hornets are in an unenviable position that more teams will find themselves in over the next few years. As a small market team, Charlotte is often hard pressed to both bring in and re-sign stars on any level. It is for this very reason, and because he is a very good player, that Kemba Walker was given every dollar he asked for. In fairness, Walker has earned his $48 million, and at “just” $12 million per year, he actually is quite the bargain for a blue-chip player of his caliber. However, the reckoning is coming and next season he will be on an expiring contract seeking the absolute maximum amount of money he can receive on the open market. While it is clear he would rather not be on the trading block, and prefer to remain in Charlotte, the Hornets will be forced to trade him or lose him for nothing. On the open market he will command somewhere between $18-24 million, an unpalatable number considering the Hornets are a full seven games below .500 this season.
Los Angeles Lakers
The Los Angeles Lakers are on the cusp of being mediocre, a significant step up from the worst half decade in the team’s history. As they try to extricate themselves from the cathedral of pain built by Jim Buss, the Lakers need to mercifully pull the trigger on several trades. Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson have known for a least two seasons now that they were not destined to be a part of the future in LA. With Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Luol Deng on untradeable contracts, and with no real picks bargain with, the Lakers have been on stand-by mode for the entire season. Keeping these players on the roster isn’t doing any favors for their talented younger players, or their still young coach who has a herculean task in motivating a team of salary dumps and one year signings to play together. If the Lakers are serious about returning to prominence they have to bring in players that will remain beyond the next season.
New Orleans Pelicans
In the immediate aftermath of the Demarcus Cousins injury, which struck right as the ship began to stabilize, the Pelicans need to stand-pat. It would be a mistake to continue to sell the farm for marginal gains. Yes they have already made a trade for Nikola Mirotic, a move which should prove shrewd, but that no-brainer should be the extent of their involvement. There are no players available that would move the needle for them and ultimately, if they re-sign Cousins, Mirotic will be a nice swing forward who adds needed depth. Beyond that they must continue to pitch to Anthony Davis a future with Cousins and hope that they can one day move off of Jrue Holiday’s eventual sandbag of a contract.