NBA Trade Deadline Primer: Biggest Names on the Market
You know the trade deadline is near when the NBA can’t go a few hours without some surprising move or cataclysmic reveal. It all comes to a head this Thursday, Feb. 7, at 3 p.m. ET. Only at that transaction buzzer can we see all of the league’s smoke for what it is.
One way or another, we’ll know something substantial regarding the Pelicans’ plans for Anthony Davis and what they might want in return. Another franchise could telegraph its intentions—and its gathered intelligence—as the Knicks did when they freed cap room for a second max salary slot last week. There will be clarity as to what any number of projected playoff teams see in their current station, and a fascinating counterbalance as other projected playoff teams respond. Deadline week is here, and it begins with a primer on the biggest names on the market:
Anthony Davis, Pelicans
Since the moment that Davis requested a trade through his representatives, there has been a full-on whisper offensive to control the market forces at work. The latest: Davis’s representatives have reportedly given the Pelicans a list of teams their client would consider re-signing with long term, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.com and Shams Charania of The Athletic. The aforementioned list includes the Lakers, Knicks, Clippers, and Bucks—making the Celtics a particularly notable omission.
Boston is the shadow bidder in the Anthony Davis sweepstakes, barred, for now, by technicality. A quirk of their current contracts prevents Davis and Celtics guard Kyrie Irving from playing on the same team. Once Irving’s deal expires at the end of the season, so, too, does that complication. The best return for Davis may only come then. Not only does Boston have an intriguing collection of players and picks to offer, but their very presence at the table could change the scope of the bidding altogether.
All of which leaves a number of connected parties with very different motivations: the Pelicans naturally want the best possible trade package in exchange for their franchise player; Davis appears—based on the machinations of his representatives—to want to play for the Lakers; the Lakers want to push a deal through before the Celtics can enter the fray; and the Celtics, who have been planning to chase Davis for years, can only make vague suggestions as to what will or will not be on the table come summertime. Something has to give, and the future of the league could swing accordingly.
Mike Conley, Grizzlies
No matter his surroundings, Conley is an easy basketball fit—a smart, capable guard who can run an offense to proficiency and blend seamlessly into a playoff-caliber defense. The hazard involved is his health; caution would be warranted in committing $67 million over the next two seasons to any player, much less a smaller guard over 30 with a worrisome record of foot injuries. How teams weigh that risk will frame the market for the near-All-Star point guard, but should the Grizzlies find the offers lacking, they could always keep Conley through the deadline and revisit the matter this summer.
Utah, whose interest was first reported by Marc Stein of the New York Times, could likely entice Memphis with the right trade package. It’s a near certainty that Ricky Rubio would be involved in such a deal, as Conley’s arrival would make Rubio (and his expiring $15 million contract) less essential. Then, to meet the league’s salary-matching requirements, one of Derrick Favors or Dante Exum* would likely be included. Any agreement would come down to the sweeteners attached—namely, how many of their own future first-round picks (and at what protections) the Jazz are willing to give up.
*This assumes that Utah would prefer to keep Jae Crowder and Kyle Korver. If not, all sorts of permutations become possible.
Marc Gasol, Grizzlies
Gasol is very much available and well respected throughout the league. Whether he’ll actually be moved is another matter entirely—one complicated by the $25.6 million player option Gasol holds for next season. Any team interested in Gasol as a long-term player will need to grapple with the reality that he could become a free agent at season’s end if he so chooses. Those who might see value in Gasol as a rental have to account for the possibility that he could size up the free agent market and accept his option, commandeering a sizable chunk of potential cap space in the process. Uncertainty compromises what was already a limited market. Only a few teams have need for a center as it is, even fewer have the players (and contracts) to make a deal logistically possible, and fewer still would be looking to really invest in a 34-year-old.
Let’s run through the league by process of elimination. Denver, Oklahoma City, Minnesota, Philadelphia, and Utah already have centers who are clearly better than Gasol. For Boston, Portland, Houston, and Indiana, Gasol wouldn’t be a meaningful upgrade—supposing he’s an upgrade at all. New Orleans and the Lakers have other priorities, while the Clippers would never compromise their cap room. Orlando has too many bigs as it is. Brooklyn, Phoenix, Chicago, New York, Atlanta, Sacramento, Dallas, and Cleveland are too young to be a Gasol destination. That leaves six teams (Charlotte, Miami, Washington, Detroit, Toronto, and San Antonio), most of which have shallow, wanting rosters as it is.
Most will likely want to hold on to their draft picks. Some wouldn’t be able to complete a deal without sending back long-term salary. If Gasol is to be moved by the deadline, the Grizzlies might need to engage a third team, just to ensure that all the parties’ interests are actually served.
The majority of the Lakers’ roster
To build a compelling offer for a player like Davis requires multiple young players, choice draft picks, and enough contract ballast to hold a deal together. New Orleans reportedly wants expiring contracts—not only to make a trade for Davis legal by the numbers, but to account for a Solomon Hill salary dump as well. That combination leaves the Lakers entirely in flux; as it turns out, the players most likely to be left out of a deal are either LeBron James or making too little money to be of logistical consequence.
It goes without saying that Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, and/or Kyle Kuzma would act as the centerpiece of a deal. The needed salary could come in the form of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope ($12 million), Rajon Rondo ($9 million), Lance Stephenson ($4.5 million), or Michael Beasley ($3.5 million). Even Josh Hart or Ivica Zubac could find their way into a deal if the Pelicans demanded it. No other team in the playoff mix is quite so volatile.
Markelle Fultz, Sixers
Trading for an All-Star talent in Jimmy Butler successfully pushed the Fultz story from foreground to background, but let’s not forget that one of the shallower teams in the league has a stray former No. 1 overall pick around and little apparent idea of what to do with him. Could trading Fultz land a useful wing to round out Philly’s rotation? Is there a team with interest in Fultz and a few veteran role players to spare? NBA types are all over the map on these questions, in part because Fultz may be the most difficult player to gauge in all the league. He is almost entirely a theoretical concept; even some fans of his game and talent might balk if asked to give up real basketball assets in exchange.
All of which leaves Philadelphia in a somewhat awkward position. An NBA team built around Joel Embiid (24 years old) and Ben Simmons (22 years old) needn’t rush into anything, but adding Butler did bring a certain urgency. Not only are the Sixers at least somewhat committed to Butler’s competitive timeline, but they’re presumably on-board with re-signing him to a rich deal this summer—the kind that would make it tricky to build out the roster in the future. Fultz, complicated though his case may be, could be Philly’s best near-term chance of fleshing out this roster.