There has been some dismay over the impact of the play-in tournament on the NBA trade deadline. While borderline teams would benefit from more aggressive rebuilds, the creation of two additional pseudo-playoff spots will inevitably motivate short-sighted owners to chase victories ... and the millions of dollars of home playoff matches generated at the gate. As of this writing, only one Western Conference team (Houston Rockets) is more than two games out of No. 10. There are four in the East, but one of them is the reigning runner-up in the Eastern Conference, the Atlanta Hawks. Cam Reddish trade aside, they do not sell.
So we are approaching a deadline of February 10, where the number of sellers has been artificially deflated, but that does not mean we are overflowing with buyers either. As we have covered, the overwhelming majority of the NBA's warring class is limited in the kind of draw capital it can devote to mid-season improvements. As it stands right now, the Memphis Grizzlies are the only team near the top of the standings that has complete freedom of movement with its picks. All others are at least partially Stepien-locked.
Logically, a season with few willing sellers and fewer flexible buyers should generate a rather dull trading deadline. That's not how the modern NBA works. There will be significant movement at the deadline because there is significant movement at each deadline. It's just going to boil down to a few teams to spur this move this time around because they's uniquely qualified to facilitate the kind of move that's going to dominate this specific deadline. These four teams stand out as power brokers in the in-season trading market.
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Rarely does a buyer have as much power at the deadline as the East's current No. 1 seed does this season. Why? Consider this deadline's hottest item: The versatile one that shoots forward. Jerami Grant and Harrison Barnes may be available. Robert Covington is determined. TJ Warren could probably be obtained at a reasonable price if a challenger wants to take a bigger turn. Marcus Morris threatens as yet another option for this typically sparse archetype. All teams want players like this. Few have enough of them. But look at what the candidates can offer.
The Lakers, Jazz, Nets, Mavericks, Nuggets and Heat have extremely limited draw capital to offer, and most sellers are not particularly interested in first-round picks five or six years later. Phoenix has a bit more flexibility when it comes to elections, and operates essentially with the ability to handle first-time players in 2024, 2026 and 2028, if it really wants to, but how valuable are the Suns choices really? If Devin Booker, DeAndre Ayton and Mikal Bridges are there in the long run, those choices are likely to be in their 20s. The talent at probably the NBA's most important position far outweighs what most of the league's buyers are able to pay for. Except the Bulls.
Chicago had hoped that 2020's No. 4 overall pick, Patrick Williams, could fill his void on the striker and eventually grow into a co-star for Zach LaVine. The Bulls' hopes for the former were shattered as he underwent wrist surgery that knocked him out for the season. Their hopes for the latter live on to a great extent, but it is worth asking how much Chicago should value its future relative to its extraordinarily promising present. The Bulls are No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference right now. Nets lost Kevin Durant in 4-6 weeks with a knee injury and Kyrie Irving still can not play home games. The Bucks have no idea when Brook Lopez will recover. The Bulls may never have a clearer path to the NBA Finals than they have this season. Nikola Vucevic is 31 and DeMar DeRozan is 32. This window will not be open forever.
A significant upgrade to the starting spot, which is currently occupied by Javonte Green, is their best chance to crawl through that window and claim the 2022 championship. Williams is not only their ticket to the upgrade, he is the only major ticket available to all of these sellers. The Bulls are in the somewhat unique position of buying by essentially being able to choose their seller. They do not have to convince the Pistons to swap them Grant or Kings to swap them Barnes. It is up to these teams to convince the Bulls that they should swap Williams, for even after a season-ending operation, he showed such a high upside last season that no other buyer has a merchant chip with almost as much value.
The Bulls may be able to bypass the traditional buyer-seller form entirely with a chip like Williams. For example, might it be worth calling the Toronto Raptors and seeing how accessible the scorching heat Pascal Siakam can be? He has certainly been in trade rumors in the past, and the 20-year-old Williams fits better on the timeline for the Raptors strikers AND Anunoby and Scottie Barnes than the 27-year-old Siakam. Toronto may not be as interested in abolishing its resurgent All-Star, but it's a valuable call to make with an asset as valuable as Williams' offer. Toronto went out of the play-in race a season ago. Masai Ujiri always prioritizes the long-term health of its franchise.
The Pistons and Kings will not move Grant or Barnes until Chicago makes a decision on Williams. Bulls may even be eligible to ask for an extra asset if they send out their best young prospects. The rest of the NBA is desperately hoping the Bulls retain Williams, not only to avoid the creation of a more dangerous challenger in Chicago, but to keep the price of the available forwards at a more reasonable level.
The quantity may be limited in relation to sellers, but this trading deadline outweighs it in terms of quality. The Indiana Pacers and Portland Trail Blazers, between them, probably have and buy almost every type of player that a winner could wish for. Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner and Jusuf Nurkic check almost every field in the middle between the three of them. Covington is the coveted 3-and-D wing, though he's actually more of an assistant defender. Warren is a lottery ticket. Norman Powell is a 3-point-oriented perimeter scorer, Caris LeVert is a 2-point-oriented perimeter-scorer. There's even a chance, albeit a rather limited one, that a true superstar in Damian Lillard will be available from now until deadline day. Buyers theoretically have access to everything they might need in the trading market. It's just concentrated on fewer salespeople.
But the fact that there are so few salespeople gives the two largest a disproportionate amount of power over the greater number of salespeople. Teams that are interested in centers, for example, cannot take advantage of the teams that hold Turner and Sabonis against each other because a team has both. These two teams are also pretty rare among salespeople, as they both have delusions about greatness ... or at least adequacy. When Orlando handed out half of its roster last season, it did so exclusively for select and young players.
There is not much to suggest that these teams prioritize the same things. Portland still seems desperate to find a winner around Lillard, even without a permanent GM in place. Indiana simply never thinks. The Pacers have reached the playoffs in all but seven seasons since 1989. It's a state the franchise takes pride in. It may not be a particularly effective long-term roster build, but Indiana would probably prefer to rebuild rather than rebuild. Portland appears to be in the same boat.
It puts the candidates in a pretty interesting position. Are they willing to sacrifice core players for upgrades instead of draft picks? Would these teams even see the players Indiana and Portland have to offer as major upgrades if they have to give up win-now assets to get them? These are philosophical questions that each team will answer differently, but it creates a rather unusual atmosphere for concluding agreements. The kind of trading chips that typically get deals made around this time of year may not be the ones that matter in 2022.
Get used to hearing Sam Presti's name at the trade deadline, because with 17 first-round picks in the next seven drafts, he will have the power to outbid any buyer for any veteran the moment he decides that his young Thunder- team is ready to start winning. That shift is still a year or two from being reversed, but Oklahoma City has a very different kind of power by the 2022 trade deadline. Oklahoma City is basically the league's banker. Consider the following:
- Oklahoma City has the capacity to create something like $ 34 million in attic space.
- We need to specify that they can create that space instead of already having it because the Thunder have chosen to stay over the hood to preserve their hood exceptions. In terms of deadlines, this means that the Thunder have two significant trade exceptions (one for $ 12.8 million and another for $ 8 million) that they can use without technically going under the ceiling.
- Regardless of their station as a team that technically operates above the ceiling, the Thunder are still more than $ 22 million below the league's $ 101 million salary floor. They do not have to come up with that number, as teams can choose to even out the difference by distributing it among the players already on their roster, but it is significantly cheaper to get across the floor by the deadline. When a team acquires a mid-season player, his full-season cap number counts on their books… but they only need to pay the player the amount left on his contract that he has not been paid by his original team. Cheap teams often use this trick to save money, and after years in the luxury tax hell, you can bet the Thunder are looking for savings wherever they can.
- This will be Oklahoma City's final year for quite some time, as Shai Gilgeous-Alexander's maximum contract runs into next season. In other words, it's use it or lose it time for the Thunder.
- The Thunder tend not to be stingy when it comes to giving up players to create roster spots. This makes them an ideal facilitator in skewed trades, as few teams have empty list spaces to absorb players with. The Thunder already has a vacancy on the list.
This financial flexibility essentially gives the Thunder the freedom to do whatever they want by the deadline, no matter how crazy it is. Heck, if they would (and they do not), they are the only team in the NBA that is reasonably positioned to absorb Russell Westbrook's contract.
At a minimum, there are a few teams that are almost certain to come and ring before the bell rings on February 10th. Boston and Portland are almost certain to try to dive below the tax limit if possible, for example, and the Thunder are their best chance to do so. Do not be surprised when Oklahoma City extracts some value in the process. The Lakers stand out as yet another possible victim. Their unusual salary structure of having only two players (Talen Horton-Tucker and Kendrick Nunn) earning more than the minimum but less than the maximum means that they will almost certainly have to include one or two of these minimum salaries if they hope to match the salary of an impact player. Someone needs to absorb those contracts, and there's a good chance it's Thunder.
But Presti is a big game hunter, and you can bet he will try to weave himself into all the blockbusters that may pop up between now and February. Even if it's not him who lands the star, he's happy to charge a poor, unsuspecting GM a choice or two for the privilege of doing it himself. Oklahoma City already has 17 first-round picks in the next seven drafts. Do not be surprised if the Thunder lands No. 18 in the next few weeks.