As the NBA trade deadline looms a month away, the market is slow to develop and slower to anticipate the volume of activity. Buyers and sellers are separating themselves in the standings, and contenders ask internally: At what price do we sacrifice tomorrow for today?
As one general manager, consistent with ESPN’s conversations with his peers, said: “It is pretty slow so far. Nobody seems desperate to get into the playoffs. The tankers are sellers, but asking prices are too high.”
Nevertheless, most teams will have front-office executives in Toronto for the G League Showcase this week, including numerous general managers, and those face-to-face conversations could start to spur movement.
Based upon conversations with owners, general managers and agents around the NBA, here are a few factors that will shape the market:
The biggest names on the trade market can dictate momentum, and so far, the sluggish pursuit of LA Clippers veteran DeAndre Jordan reflects the overall morass. Jordan, 29, can decline the player option on his $24.1 million contract for 2018-19, and most teams believe the All-Star center will be willing to re-sign with the team that trades for him — as long as they’re willing to pay him his long-term extension. So far, serious offers to Los Angeles have been slow to come. “He’s a difference-maker, but I’m not sure anyone thinks he puts you over the top,” one GM said.
Because so few elite teams, if any, play through the center position offensively, there’s less of an urgency to exhaust trade assets on Jordan before seeing who else might join the trade market. Milwaukee has been determined to find a center, and Jordan tops the Bucks‘ list, but it’s unclear whether they have a package to eventually make the deal.
The Clippers aren’t set on trading Jordan at all costs, because the idea of bringing back marginal draft picks with heavy protections and so-so talent in a trade is far too unappealing.
Two years ago this week, the Denver Nuggets fetched two first-round picks to send modestly talented center Timofey Mozgov to the Cleveland Cavaliers. It is unlikely the Clippers will get that for their All-NBA center, largely because the dynamics of trading picks for players has changed.
Fewer picks are available in deals that don’t include frontline starters, and several NBA executives believe the fallout from the 2013 Boston-Brooklyn trade has played a part in fostering that reluctance.
“No one wants to end up embarrassed like the Nets were,” one Eastern Conference GM said.
Because there are so few teams with maximum salary-cap space this summer, Jordan’s best option could still be re-signing with the Clippers — and revisiting a trade again in the future.
Another Clipper with value, guard Lou Williams, is attractive because he’s authoring the best offensive season of his career and holds an expiring contract. Bench rentals rarely render first-round picks anymore, but Williams will be a coveted commodity for a contender closer to the deadline.
Given how many draft picks the Clippers have missed on or dumped in trades, it is incumbent on the new front-office regime of Lawrence Frank and Michael Winger to nail these deals.
The push for wing players
There are far more teams chasing wing players — shooting guards/small forwards — than quality talent available at those positions. Drafts have been lean on those spots in recent years, and they’re in great demand now.
Detroit, New Orleans, New York and Portland are a few of the teams most interested in upgrades, but the true list is much longer.
New Orleans is limited in its tradable assets. No one is taking the moribund contracts of Omer Asik and Alexis Ajinca without the Pelicans including a first-round draft pick — if not more — in the deal.
The Pelicans are optimistic that they can get starting small forward Solomon Hill back from a hamstring tear before March, but they’ve remained active. Teams are targeting the availability of Brooklyn’s DeMarre Carroll, Utah’s Alec Burks, Orlando’s Evan Fournier and Atlanta’s Kent Bazemore, among others.
Detroit pursued a deal for Fournier, but that would’ve been hard to execute without Reggie Jackson‘s contract included — even if Detroit decided to include promising rookie Luke Kennard. Jackson will be sidelined for another month-plus with a severely sprained ankle.
Detroit has remained one of the most aggressive teams on the early market, reflective of the Stan Van Gundy regime’s desire to win now.
The Los Angeles Lakers, needing to shed salary for summer free agency, had been hopeful of waiting until the end of the season to move Jordan Clarkson — owed $26 million beyond this season — but there’s a mutual desire to find something sooner than later. The Lakers have made it clear that Clarkson, Julius Randle and Larry Nance are available.
Los Angeles has given up hope on unloading Luol Deng‘s contract in a trade because it would simply necessitate attaching too many draft assets.
The Lakers and Deng haven’t discussed a buyout since late November, but he can simply wait until the season is over to get the full balance of the $37 million owed to him once the Lakers inevitably use the waive and stretch provision to clear salary-cap space. How could the Lakers avoid Deng’s money languishing on the cap for six years with the waive and stretch? Well, Deng would have to be so desperate to leave Los Angeles before season’s end to sign elsewhere on a minimum deal that he’d forfeit the $18.8 million on the 2019-20 season of his contract and accept a buyout. That makes little sense, getting just a half-season of freedom to likely play only a few minutes per game elsewhere.
The Bulls are still planning to trade forward Nikola Mirotic, which can’t happen until Jan. 15 or without his permission, based on his contract. Mirotic has been intrigued with the Utah Jazz, whose coach, Quin Snyder, has a reputation for maximizing offensive talent.
Memphis wants to find a first-round pick for Tyreke Evans, but that is likely to prove difficult. The Grizzlies have missed in several drafts on first-rounders, including the waiving of 2015 No. 17 pick Wade Baldwin, and need to replenish their stock of picks. As a rental on an expiring deal, it is hard to imagine Evans delivering that kind of a return.
The untouchables (for now, anyway)
For now, the Thunder are fully committed to playing out the season with impending free agent Paul George. They still have hope that a strong run in the playoffs could convince him to re-sign in Oklahoma City. Nevertheless, the Lakers were the team to beat when the Thunder made the trade, and that probably hasn’t changed — although Oklahoma City has made a favorable impression on George and ultimately hopes to turn George with a deep playoff run. George has remained open-minded on a Thunder future, but there’s a long way to go.
Before the trade deadline, there are two answers that OKC GM Sam Presti probably won’t get from George and his agent, Aaron Mintz:
1. Yes, I plan to re-sign.
2. No, I plan to leave.
Which is exactly what Presti expected when the Thunder traded for George: This would be a season-long process, and there was always significant risk/reward in the trade that sent Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to Indiana.
So far, New Orleans is determined to re-sign center DeMarcus Cousins and hasn’t invited trade offers on him.
Teams are curious to study Memphis’ plans with center Marc Gasol, but so far, the Grizzlies say they’re planning to keep him.