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Nine Questions as NBA Trade Season Begins

The NBA’s silly season unofficially begins Thursday, when 74 players who signed contracts this summer become trade eligible. That doesn’t mean anyone will get moved immediately—according to ESPN’s Bobby Marks, there hasn’t been a trade on December 15 in a dozen years—but it does trigger a more fluid marketplace.

And even if there aren’t too many new needle movers in today’s pool—James Harden is among them, but he has the ability to veto any trade and, um, is not going anywhere—21 more players become available in a month. And that group is littered with much juicier names, like Bradley Beal, Deandre Ayton, and Zach LaVine.

With all that in mind, here’s a primer that tries to answer the most relevant questions as we set our sights on February 9’s trade deadline.

Who are the best players who can technically be traded Thursday?

As mentioned, this list is not deep. Here are a few notable ones who could be on a different team in a few months: Danilo Gallinari, Patty Mills, JaVale McGee, Donte DiVincenzo, John Wall, half of the Lakers, Kyle Anderson, and Collin Sexton.

Will all this parity catalyze or stifle trade negotiations?

A lot can happen between now and February. Injuries, shooting slumps, winning and losing streaks, more injuries, etc. But right now, the standings are cluttered: In the Eastern Conference, only six games separate the third-seeded Cavaliers from the 11th-seeded Bulls; out West, the 11th-seeded Timberwolves are just 5.5 games back of the top-seeded Pelicans.

Such an erratic landscape makes separating haves and have-nots difficult. And, as of today, well over half the league still has no idea what direction it’ll be heading in a month from now, let alone two. The Jazz represent this dilemma better than anyone else. They have a ton of picks, some young talent, and a group that’s overachieved just enough to complicate (in a good way) the plan their front office probably had a few months ago. Heading into the deadline, they have a trade exception that’s large enough to send them into the luxury tax. Would they be willing to do that if they’re still above .500?

Speaking of the tax, how does that affect things?

There are several teams just under the tax that, despite a sense of urgency, may be hesitant to improve what they have as quickly as they can. The Heat and Blazers are two good examples.

Miami was one shot away from making the Finals last year. Jimmy Butler is 33 years old. Kyle Lowry turns 37 (!) in March. And they’ve spent zero days with a winning record this season. Should the Heat be active or sit on their current group and believe their outside shooting will eventually come around? (Miami ranks 28th in quantified shotmaking, according to Second Spectrum.)

Before any potential transaction involving Victor Oladipo (who can’t be dealt until January 15 and can veto any deal), Max Strus, Duncan Robinson, or another role player is made, there’s a good chance Miami will make sure it doesn’t bump them into the tax.

One can argue that Portland owes it to Damian Lillard, who is 32, to win now. But someone can also look at the pending return of Gary Payton II and call him the midseason upgrade they need. With the Blazers an eyelash under the tax, it’ll be hard for ownership to see any trades that make enough of a difference to be worthwhile.

Which teams could be sellers in the next two months?

It’s hard to know who will take an intentional step toward the lottery since some of the league’s worst teams are loaded with young talent that may enable them to turn things around quickly. But the Pistons, Rockets, Hornets, Magic, Spurs, and Thunder definitely aren’t buyers. Most have seasoned, productive players who make more sense in the postseason than on a team that’s focused on the draft.

Here are a few names to keep an eye on: Bojan Bogdanovic, Alec Burks, Eric Gordon, Josh Richardson, Jakob Poeltl, Doug McDermott, PJ Washington, Kelly Oubre Jr., Gary Harris, Terrence Ross, and Mo Bamba could be on the move.

What will the Lakers do?

The Lakers are 11-16 with the 21st net rating, two spots below the Pacers, a team that’s supposed to take Russell Westbrook off their hands. Saving this team using draft picks in 2027 and 2029 would be like hiring an interior designer two weeks after your house exploded.

Some of the more popular trade scenarios involving L.A.’s expensive backup point guard would bring back centers (like Myles Turner and Nikola Vucevic) who play the same position Anthony Davis has finally embraced.

It’d be a mess. Still, Davis is playing like an MVP candidate, and LeBron James is 37 years old. There’s a now-or-never sentiment worth exploring if you’re of the mind that it’s a sin to waste a season when these two are still top-10 players.

The Lakers can try to thread that needle by holding on to one of those picks and protecting the other (or bundling together a bunch of second-round picks), then attaching it to some lesser salary and making calls to some of those obvious sellers mentioned above. They’re rumored to have interest in Bogdanovic, but the better deal might be Patrick Beverley, Lonnie Walker IV, and some type of draft compensation for Eric Gordon, whose salary next year is non-guaranteed. Gordon knows how to complement superstars (including Westbrook, during his final days as one in Houston), and he has playoff experience, a cannon, and the defensive wherewithal to close big games.

This move wouldn’t make the Lakers a championship favorite, but Westbrook, Gordon, Austin Reaves, LeBron, and Davis is a lineup that can do some actual damage.

Which team is low-key the least predictable before the deadline?

The Raptors are a weird team in a weird spot. They have a league-average offense, a top-10 defense, and very little reason to believe either metric accurately assesses how their 13-15 season has gone. Scottie Barnes hasn’t made the All-Star leap that at least one idiot predicted; Fred VanVleet is shooting 37 percent from the field; they dominate the possession game (ranking first in turnover rate on both sides of the ball) but can’t hit shots or space the floor; and they foul a ton.

Versatility is fantastic. Positionless basketball is the future, if not the present. But the downside of having so many interchangeable parts is it complicates role definition. And NBA players who don’t have clearly defined roles tend to get frustrated when their team is losing. The Raptors are feeling both sides of that coin right now.

There’s plenty of reason to feel optimistic about a bounceback. Injuries have gutted this team over the past few months. Precious Achiuwa and Otto Porter Jr. can help when healthy. When Pascal Siakam (who is better than ever and on track to make another All-NBA team) is on the court they outscore opponents by 6.7 points per 100 possessions (for reference, Boston’s league-best net rating is +7.0). And O.G. Anunoby might win Defensive Player of the Year.

But there are also several reasons for Masai Ujiri to explore a variety of trade options, whether to get better or worse if he doesn’t believe this current iteration is able to win a playoff series, let alone make it there.

So what happens next? Do they chill out, get healthy, believe shots will eventually fall, and hope Barnes develops even faster than he has? Or is it worth taking one step back in the hope of two eventual steps forward? For a team that owns all its own first-round picks but none of any other team’s, would they include any in a deal that makes them marginally better/deeper?

There are multiple timelines here. Barnes is seven years younger than FVV and Siakam. Will one generation take precedence over the other? VanVleet can opt out of his contract this summer and Anunoby can do the same the following offseason. The need to make long-term commitments one way or another has boxed Toronto into a tricky corner.

What if the Bulls (a team that’s generally desperate and also in need of a healthy floor general) decide they can’t wait any longer for Lonzo Ball’s knee to recover, then offer Patrick Williams, Coby White, and Derrick Jones Jr. for VanVleet? That’s a fun one to consider if Toronto’s up-and-down play continues and Chicago’s brain breaks. Related:


Will the Bulls please blow it up?

Hopefully! I covered this sad situation late last month, and since that story was published Chicago has gone 2-5, with a couple of wins against the Brad Beal–less Wizards and the Luka Doncic–less Mavericks. The Bulls are very bad. Please make some trades.

Can Bradley Beal finally, please, for the love of God, request a trade?

The most frustrating dead-end relationship in the entire NBA is Beal and the Wizards. Who could’ve possibly seen his massive five-year, $251 million contract becoming an instant albatross the moment it was signed six months ago?

Washington is 1-11 since the day before Thanksgiving. They’re not good, but also not bad enough to safely ensure a potentially franchise-altering top-four draft pick. (Washington owes the Knicks a lottery-protected first-round pick in 2023; Beal has a no-trade clause in his contract.)

Beal has already missed 11 games this season and the most recent update on his hamstring was less than certain about when exactly he’ll return: “His status moving forward will be determined by his clinical evolution,” it read.

As someone who once averaged more than 30 points per game in back-to-back seasons, Beal has only topped the 30-point mark in two games this season despite making an absurd 59.2 percent of his two-point shots. He’s still only 29 years old, one of the 36 best players in the league, and someone who could really help a certain floundering offense in South Beach.

Unfortunately, Tyler Herro would need to be involved in that transaction, and his deal is poison-pilled thanks to the extension he signed in October. Any trade involving that contract in-season is exceptionally difficult to pull off. As a playmaking bucket who’s spent his entire career operating off the ball, Beal would be a perfect sidekick next to Luka Doncic, too. But constructing any deal that sends him to Dallas is pretty much impossible.

Is John Collins on the move? Where to?

Nobody knows. Please stop asking.

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