The NBA’s development league is holding a talent showcase in Reno this week where dozens of wannabe big-leaguers are doing their best to impress, but the real action is taking place away from the floor. Every NBA general manager in attendance is indeed talking up players ... NBA players who might be dealt.
Therefore, the stretch run to the Feb. 21 trade deadline has officially begun. Almost three months have passed, and GMs now have a better idea about what they need and where they’re going. The true contenders are looking to plug holes and find difference makers. Those headed for the draft lottery are trying to dump heavy contracts and gain financial flexibility.
With the handcuffs on the new labor agreement about to kick in, teams are more mindful than ever about payroll limits and luxury tax thresholds and expiring contracts. The trading game is almost as much about managing the cap as it is managing a roster. The more freedom a team has, the more options available to add talent.
Conversations have started and talks will intensify right around the All-Star break. The one team under close watch will be the Lakers, who fancy themselves as a contender but are playing like a lottery team. If they panic, anyone not named Kobe Bryant will be thrown into the discussion. Yes, even Dwight Howard.
Here’s an early list of trade possibilities and why they could switch teams fairly soon:
Pau Gasol. If the Lakers are still flirting with .500 ball next month, tossing Gasol overboard is almost a given. He’s due $19 million next season, and only a few teams can swallow that, but it’s only for one season so there’s not too much risk. Some contender will bite. What Gasol might fetch in a trade is another story, but a package that includes a veteran shooter (Luol Deng?) might do it. Gasol is a bad fit with Mike D’Antoni and isn’t aging well in L.A., and the Lakers know this. Now they have to convince another team he can still produce.
DeMarcus Cousins. If the Kings don’t trade Cousins next month it’s because everyone is bidding low and trying to steal him. Besides, there’s no worse feeling than living through the growing pains of a terrifically talented center who’s been suspended three times this season and then watching him mature and prosper for someone else. That said, if the Kings are offered a good player who also happens to be a good soldier, or a package that could expedite rebuilding, they’ll jump. Remember, in another year they must decide whether to give Cousins big money, and you tell me what’s scarier: trading him, or empowering him?
Al Jefferson/Paul Millsap. Both can be had at the right price for the same reasons. Their contracts are up this summer, and Utah isn’t sure if it can keep either low post player. The Jazz are grooming big men Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors for next season anyway, so it makes sense to cut loose Jefferson or Millsap by the deadline, especially if Utah can get quality at point guard, something it hasn’t had since Deron Williams.
Andrea Bargnani. Whether the Raptors do anything will be dictated by whether or not GM Bryan Colangelo still has the green light from ownership to do his job. He’s not guaranteed to return next season, so why would the organization allow him to make a major move that would impact the next GM? The Raptors don’t have a future star and are a mish-mash of role players and young players who’ve already maxed out. Bargnani might bring back an asset, and yet even he’s devalued. Nobody sees him as a game-changer.
Monta Ellis. The Bucks are in for a major shakeup that actually began with the mutual parting of the ways with coach Scott Skiles. The right move for Herb Kohl would be to sell the team, which he’s tried to do, but nobody’s buying or coming close to the right price. Therefore, the Bucks will keep their payroll trim while hoping to get lucky in the draft. That’s really the only way they can operate as a small-market team that doesn’t generate much revenue or buzz. Ellis will likely exercise his $11 million option for next season if only because nobody will likely give him that much in a new contract. He can still score and, therefore, still help somebody, except the Bucks, who are in no hurry to hand him an extension.
Nene. The first 30 games proved he’s not good enough to turn around the Wizards, and he’s due $39 million the next three years. Surely, there’s a market for him, and because Washington’s only other assets are John Wall and future No. 1 picks, Nene is their one true trading chip. With the right move, coupled with the right call in the draft lottery, the Wizards can pull themselves out of the basement sooner than you think. They’re due for doing something right.
Derrick Williams. The Wolves realize the longer they hang onto Williams, the less the chance they have of dealing him. As a player who doesn’t have a true home at either forward spot, he’s another one of David Kahn’s lottery picks gone sour, following Wes Johnson and Jonny Flynn. The problem with keeping Williams and hoping to see his value rise is coach Rick Adelman has buried him on the bench, raising serious red flags around the league. Another team could take a chance that Williams just needs a change of scenery, and he’s only 21, which is all in Minnesota’s favor. The Wolves would be lucky and probably thrilled to get another lottery pick in return.
Tyreke Evans. If the Kings wanted to give Evans an extension they would’ve done so last fall. Clearly his time is up in Sacramento, and now it’s up to the Kings to see what he brings on the market. Another team will give him what would amount to a three-month tryout to determine how much to pay him next season. But anyone would be foolish to give the Kings anything more than a role player in the deal. Evans had a terrific rookie season but never improved, and the Kings made the mistake of hanging onto him too long and allowing his value to drop.
Tayshaun Prince. He’s championship-tested, comes at a fair salary and the Pistons won’t (and can’t) drive a hard bargain. He’d be a good get for one of the half-dozen teams with realistic championship hopes because his mood would instantly change and he’d be motivated to be with a winner. The Pistons have no reason to keep him, not even for sentimental reasons. He’s not a locker-room guy, not part of their future and can’t help them win many games. He’s more value to Detroit somewhere else.
Luis Scola. He’s a power forward with something left in the tank who can get 13 points and six rebounds. Besides, his contract is reasonable. That sounds like a good excuse for the Suns to keep him, except this franchise needs help in plenty of other areas. When you’re stuck near the bottom of the conference, nobody is safe, not even Michael Beasley, a player the Suns would love to keep and give a generous contract extension. Oh, you like that joke, too?