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There are only three certainties in life: death, taxes and a bevy of deals going down at the NBA trade deadline.
As a result, it’s never too early to start thinking about the 2019 edition of the annual tradestravaganza.
As the Feb. 7 trade deadline approaches, it’ll become increasingly more clear which teams plan to be buyers and which teams will strip down their rosters with an eye on the future. Teams that fancy themselves legitimate contenders will do everything they can to bolster their rosters ahead of the playoffs, while lottery-bound squads will likely trade away their veterans for draft picks and out-of-favor young prospects.
Trade-deadline deals come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from straight-up player-for-player swaps between two teams and multi team blockbusters. It’s rare for a superstar to get flipped ahead of the deadline, but players in the midst of their contract years are frequently dangled in trade discussions. The fear of losing a player for nothing in free agency is strong motivation to move him at the trade deadline.
Below, let’s take a look at which teams figure to be buyers at the deadline and which teams should be sellers.
The Phoenix Suns have a promising foundation of young talent in Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Josh Jackson and Mikal Bridges, but they’re nowhere near ready to contend for a playoff spot. They’ve already sloughed off veterans such as center Tyson Chandler and wing Trevor Ariza this season, but as the trade deadline approaches, the fire sale may continue.
Anderson may be tricky to flip, as $15.6 million of his $21.2 million salary for 2019-20 is already guaranteed, but the Suns should be open to taking on longer-term contracts in exchange so long as they come packaged with draft picks and/or young prospects. Third-year big man Dragan Bender could also be available, as the Suns turned down his fourth-year option in October, which means he’ll be an unrestricted free agent in July.
The Atlanta Hawks are in the beginning stages of a rebuild, having hemorrhaged the core of their 60-win team over the past few years. While Trae Young, Taurean Prince and John Collins all look like legitimate long-term building blocks, Atlanta figures to continue weaponizing its future cap space to accumulate young prospects and draft picks in exchange for taking bloated contracts from teams desperate to shed salary.
Kent Bazemore’s name was bandied around trade rumors throughout the offseason, although his $19.3 million player option for 2019-20 may make him less palatable to potential suitors. Keep an eye on center Dewayne Dedmon, who’s on a $7.2 million expiring contract and unexpectedly unveiled a credible three-point stroke upon his arrival in Atlanta. Contenders in need of frontcourt depth—here’s looking at you, Los Angeles Lakers—figure to come calling Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk about Dedmon.
New York Knicks
The Knicks have officially moved on from Kristaps Porzingis and were able to dump a lot of their bad contracts in the process. They acquired Dennis Smith Jr. and the expiring contracts of Wes Matthews and Deandre Jordan. In that deal they were able to get rid of Tim Hardaway Jr. who will be making around 18 million the next 2 years and Courtney Lee who is making 12.8 million next year. Overall the Knicks are making a strong play for the likes of maybe Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving this offseason and should have room for 2 max contracts this coming offseason.
That doesn’t leave much room for veteran 30-year-old forward Lance Thomas. Thomas is making a $7.6 million salary for next season is fully non-guaranteed until June 30. He may be an attractive trade chips for contenders, with Thomas providing salary relief and frontcourt insurance.
The Cleveland Cavaliers lack a direction following LeBron James’ departure to Los Angeles. Heading into the season, head coach Tyronn Lue and general manager Koby Altman told veterans Kyle Korver, JR Smith and Channing Frye that they weren’t going to be in the rotation as the team went younger, according to Joe Vardon of The Athletic, but an 0-3 start to the season abruptly changed those plans.
Though Vardon reported in late October that the Cavaliers front office “is still committed to winning this year rather than tearing down,” that shouldn’t be the case anymore. The blockbuster move would be to flip Kevin Love, who signed a four-year, $120 million extension this past July, although Bleacher Report’s Ken Berger reports that may not be easy. Smith’s history of gaffes could reduce his appeal on the market as well, but only $3.9 million of his $15.7 million salary for 2019-20 is guaranteed, which could have appeal for teams in need of cap space.
In Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr., the Chicago Bulls have their frontcourt of the future in place. With the playoffs all but a pipe dream this season, developing those two in tandem should have been the Bulls’ top priority, but the presence of Robin Lopez, Jabari Parker, Bobby Portis and Cristiano Felicio complicated those efforts.
Lopez is in the final year of his four-year, $54 million contract, which should make him expendable at the trade deadline. It’s difficult to imagine much of a market developing for Felicio, but if the Bulls are wary about their ability to retain Portis in restricted free agency this coming summer, he could likewise be dangled to fetch draft compensation in return. The Bulls have also been shopping Parker, per Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times, but his market has been “quiet” in the midst of a disappointing 2018-19 season.
Nikola Vucevic has been a fixture of trade rumors for years, but this may finally be the season in which he finds his way out of Orlando. The Magic spent the No. 6 overall pick on Texas center Mo Bamba, who profiles as their long-term 5 of the future alongside some combination of Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac.
Vucevic won’t ever find his way into the Defensive Player of the Year conversation, but he’s rounded out his offensive skill set in recent years, improving both as a passer and as a three-point shooter. With Vooch in the final season of his four-year, $53 million deal, the Magic may dangle him on the trade market once they slide out of playoff contention rather than losing him for nothing as a free agent in July.
New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans look like they have to move away from Anthony Davis after he publicly requested a trade this past week. The main teams in the running look like the Lakers and the Knicks with rumors that the 76ers and Raptors may be building a nice package. The Celtics could trade for him but due to NBA rules would have to wait until this summer to pull the trigger.
It has also been reported that Julius Randle and Nikola Mirotic are available for picks, both of these players are impending free agents. If they end up trading Davis it will open up the flood gates and New Orleans could go full rebuild and break down their entire team
The Houston Rockets are firmly in win-now mode. After falling one game short of knocking off the defending champion Golden State Warriors in last year’s Western Conference Finals, they figure to do whatever it takes to surround James Harden and Chris Paul with the requisite talent they need for another deep playoff run.
Less than a week into the season, the Rockets offered four future first-round picks to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Jimmy Butler, according to ESPN.com’s Adrian Wojnarowski, which underscored their desperation to improve. Seeing as they won’t have the salary-cap space to sign an impact free agent in 2019, making a splashy trade is their only way to drastically improve so long as Harden, Paul and Clint Capela are in the fold.
The Philadelphia 76ers struck out on their star hunt over the offseason, but that didn’t stop them from setting a goal of making it to the NBA Finals this year. Instead, they went all-in by trading Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Jerryd Bayless and a second-round pick to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Jimmy Butler and Justin Patton in early November.
Philadelphia likely isn’t done yet. The Sixers have a plethora of future second-round picks they can dangle at the trade deadline, and their bench is in dire need of upgrades. Wing depth and long-range shooting will be the Sixers’ top priority on the trade market, as they’ll need both in spades if they’re to overtake the Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors and/or Milwaukee Bucks in the 2019 playoffs.
Los Angeles Lakers
With injuries ravaging the Los Angeles Lakers, wholesale changes may not be far away. The Lakers are scratching and clawing to hold on to a playoff spot in the bitterly competitive Western Conference, but Lonzo Ball’s Grade 3 ankle sprain will further complicate that goal.
The Lakers likely wouldn’t trade away a young high-upside prospect such as Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart or Kyle Kuzma unless it’s for a star-caliber player with multiple years left on his deal, as they’ll be part of the pitch they give to marquee free agents this coming summer. Since team president Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka are firmly fixated on the free-agent class of 2019, don’t expect the Lakers to make any moves that compromises their financial flexibility beyond this year.
The Milwaukee Bucks quickly learned this year that having a competent head coach can make a world of difference. Who knew?!
With Giannis Antetokounmpo emerging as an MVP front-runner and Khris Middleton possibly headed for his first All-Star Game appearance, the Bucks appear poised to make a deep playoff run this season. But since Middleton, Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez will all become free agents in July, the Bucks’ win-now window may close as quickly as it opened. Dumping a bloated contract—much like they did when they flipped John Henson and Matthew Dellavadeova for George Hill in December—may be worth the draft compensation it takes for Milwaukee.
A free-agent spending spree in 2017 has the Miami Heat stuck in no-man’s land. They aren’t good enough to contend for a championship as currently constructed, but they have far too much talent on their roster to tank for a top-tier lottery pick.
Josh Richardson, Bam Adebayo and Justise Winslow are Miami’s three best trade chips, but the Heat presumably wouldn’t flip them unless it was for a superstar. Since the long-term contracts of James Johnson, Kelly Olynyk and Dion Waiters figure to be difficult to shed, Goran Dragic may be the most likely trade candidate, as his $19.2 million player option for 2019-20 is hardly prohibitive for an All-Star-caliber point guard.
Oklahoma City Thunder
A slow start to the 2018-19 season didn’t dissuade the Oklahoma City Thunder from considering themselves potential championship contenders. Starting the season without All-Defensive wing Andre Roberson got the Thunder off on the wrong foot, but they’ve made a midseason surge up the Western Conference standings.
The Thunder may be reluctant to bring in too much additional salary, as they’re already well over the luxury-tax threshold. But if they can’t get more out of their power forward rotation, Patrick Patterson (who has an affordable $5.7 million player option in 2019-20) could be dangled as trade bait to beef up that hole on their roster. OKC would love to stumble upon a stretch 4, much like the Sixers did with Ersan Ilyasova last February.
The Indiana Pacers are hurdling toward a momentous summer, as Thaddeus Young, Tyreke Evans, Bojan Bogdanovic, Darren Collison, Cory Joseph and Kyle O’Quinn are all set to become unrestricted free agents. Indiana has only $57.9 million in guaranteed salary on its books for 2019-20, so it’ll have the financial flexibility to re-sign whoever it wants, but that increases the pressure to make a deep playoff run this year.
The Pacers’ offseason signings of Evans and Doug McDermott have paid dividends, but they may need even more wing depth to compete with the likes of the Celtics, Raptors and Bucks come April and May. If they aren’t confident in their ability to re-sign one or more of their impending free agents, don’t be surprised if they flip those players to bolster their depth chart elsewhere.
While the Sacramento Kings are in the midst of their best season in more than a decade, they have a frontcourt logjam to sort out. Despite spending draft pick after draft pick on big men, the Kings also signed the likes of Kosta Koufos, Zach Randolph and Nemanja Bjelica as free agents in recent years, creating a value-sucking logjam.
Randolph and Koufos are in the final year of their respective deals, but it’s difficult to imagine the Kings getting much (anything?) back of value. Instead, look for the Kings to exploit their $11 million in available salary-cap space to bring in additional help to aid their potential playoff push.
What Will The Other Teams Do?
|Could Go Either Way||Likely to Stand Pat|
|Los Angeles Clippers
|Portland Trail Blazers
||Golden State Warriors
|San Antonio Spurs
All salary information via Basketball Insiders.