Power brokers of the NBA trade deadline: Why Bulls, Pacers, Blazers and Thunder will dominate the rumor mill

There’s been quite a bit of consternation about the play-in tournament’s impact on the NBA trade deadline. Even if borderline teams would benefit from more aggressive rebuilds, the creation of two extra pseudo playoff spots will inevitably motivate shortsighted owners to chase wins … and the millions of dollars home playoff games generate at the gate. As of this writing, only one Western Conference team (the Houston Rockets) are more than two games out of the No. 10 seed. There are four in the East, but one of them is the reigning Eastern Conference runner-up Atlanta Hawks. Cam Reddish trade aside, they aren’t selling.

So we’re approaching a Feb. 10 deadline in which the number of sellers has been artificially deflated, but that doesn’t mean we’re overflowing with buyers, either. As we’ve covered, the overwhelming majority of the NBA’s contending class is restricted in the sort of draft capital it can surrender for mid-season improvements. As it stands right now, the Memphis Grizzlies are the only team near the top of the standings that has complete freedom of movement with its picks. Everyone else is at least partially Stepien-locked.

Logically, a season with few willing sellers and fewer flexible buyers should generate a fairly dull trade deadline. That’s not how the modern NBA works. There is going to be significant movement at the deadline because there’s significant movement at every deadline. It’s just going to boil down to a few teams to spur that movement this time around because they are uniquely qualified to facilitate the sort of moves that are going to dominate this specific deadline. These four teams stand out as the power brokers of the in-season trade market.

Rarely does a buyer wield as much power at the deadline as the East’s current No. 1 seed does this season. Why? Consider this deadline’s hottest commodity: The versatile, shooting forward. Jerami Grant and Harrison Barnes might be available. Robert Covington certainly is. T.J. Warren could probably be had for a reasonable price if a contender wants to take a major swing. Marcus Morris is looming as yet another option at this typically sparse archetype. Every team wants players like this. Few have enough of them. But look at what contenders can offer.

The Lakers, Jazz, Nets, Mavericks, Nuggets and Heat have extremely limited draft capital to offer, and most sellers aren’t especially interested in first-round picks five or six years down the line. Phoenix has a bit more flexibility when it comes to picks, essentially operating with the capability to deal first-rounders in 2024, 2026 and 2028 if it really wants to, but how valuable are Suns picks, really? If Devin Booker, DeAndre Ayton and Mikal Bridges are there long term, those picks are likely to be in the 20s. The talent at arguably the NBA’s most important position far outweighs what most of the league’s buyers are capable of paying for. Except the Bulls.

Chicago had hoped that 2020’s No. 4 overall pick, Patrick Williams, could fill its void at forward and eventually grow into a co-star for Zach LaVine. The Bulls’ hopes for the former were dashed when he underwent wrist surgery that knocked him out for the season. Their hopes for the latter are very much alive, but it’s worth asking how much Chicago should value its future in comparison to its extraordinarily promising present. The Bulls are the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference right now. The Nets lost Kevin Durant for 4-6 weeks with a knee injury, and Kyrie Irving still can’t play home games. The Bucks have no idea when Brook Lopez will be healthy. The Bulls might never have a clearer path to the NBA Finals than they do this season. Nikola Vucevic is 31 and DeMar DeRozan is 32. This window won’t be open forever.

A significant upgrade to the starting spot currently occupied by Javonte Green is their best chance at crawling through that window and claiming the 2022 championship. Williams isn’t just their ticket to that upgrade, he’s the only big-ticket item available to all of those sellers. The Bulls are in the somewhat unique position as a buyer of essentially being able to pick their seller. They don’t have to convince the Pistons to trade them Grant or the Kings to trade them Barnes. It’s up to those teams to convince the Bulls that they should trade Williams, because even after season-ending surgery, he displayed such high upside last season that no other buyer holds a trade chip with nearly as much value.

The Bulls might be able to circumvent the traditional buyer-seller mold entirely with a chip like Williams. Might it be worth giving the Toronto Raptors a call, for instance, and seeing how available the scorching hot Pascal Siakam might be? He’s certainly been in trade rumors in the past, and the 20-year-old Williams more snugly fits the timeline of core Raptors forwards OG Anunoby and Scottie Barnes than the 27-year-old Siakam. Toronto probably isn’t all that interested in dealing away its resurgent All-Star, but it’s a worthwhile call to make with an asset as valuable as Williams to offer. Toronto tanked its way out of the play-in race a season ago. Masai Ujiri always prioritizes the long-term health of his franchise.

The Pistons and Kings aren’t moving Grant or Barnes until Chicago makes a decision on Williams. The Bulls might even be justified in asking for an extra asset if they send out their best young prospect. The rest of the NBA is hoping desperately that the Bulls keep Williams, not only to avoid the creation of a more dangerous contender in Chicago, but to keep the price of the available forwards at more reasonable levels.

Quantity may be limited in terms of sellers, but this trade deadline makes up for it in terms of quality. The Indiana Pacers and Portland Trail Blazers, between them, have and are likely shopping virtually every type of player a winner could want. Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner and Jusuf Nurkic check almost every box at center between the three of them. Covington is the coveted 3-and-D wing, though he’s really more of a help defender. Warren is a lottery ticket. Norman Powell is a 3-point-oriented perimeter scorer, Caris LeVert is a 2-point-oriented perimeter scorer. There’s even a chance, albeit a fairly limited one, that a true superstar in Damian Lillard becomes available between now and deadline day. Buyers have theoretical access to anything they might need on the trade market. It’s just concentrated on fewer sellers.

But the fact that there are so few sellers gives the two biggest ones an inordinate amount of power over the bigger number of sellers. Teams interested in centers, for example, can’t leverage the teams holding Turner and Sabonis against one another because one team has both. Those two teams are also fairly rare among sellers in that they both have delusions of grandeur … or at least adequacy. When Orlando dealt half of its roster last season, it did so for picks and young players exclusively. 

There’s not much evidence suggesting that these teams prioritize the same things. Portland still appears desperate to put a winner around Lillard even without a permanent GM in place. Indiana simply never tanks. The Pacers have made the playoffs in all but seven seasons since 1989. That’s a stat the franchise takes great pride in. It might not make for particularly effective long-term roster-building, but Indiana would likely prefer to retool rather than rebuild. Portland appears to be in the same boat.

That puts contenders in a rather interesting position. Are they willing to sacrifice core players for upgrades rather than draft picks? Would those teams even view the players Indiana and Portland has to offer as major upgrades if they have to give up win-now assets to get them? These are philosophical questions that every team is going to answer differently, but it creates a pretty unusual atmosphere for deal-making. The sort of trade chips that typically get deals done around this time of year might not be the ones that matter in 2022.

Get used to hearing Sam Presti’s name at the trade deadline, because with 17 first-round picks in the next seven drafts, he’s going to have the power to outbid any buyer for any veteran the moment he decides his young Thunder team is ready to start winning. That switch is still a year or two away from getting flipped, but Oklahoma City wields a very different sort of power at the 2022 trade deadline. Oklahoma City is essentially the league’s banker. Consider the following:

  • Oklahoma City has the capacity to create something like $34 million in cap space.
  • We need to specify that they can create that space rather than already have it because the Thunder have chosen to remain above the cap in order to retain their cap exceptions. For the purposes of the deadline, this means that the Thunder have two sizable trade exceptions (one for $12.8 million and another for $8 million) that they can use without technically going under the cap.
  • Regardless of their station as a team technically operating above the cap, the Thunder are still more than $22 million below the league’s $101 million salary floor. They don’t have to get up to that figure, as teams can choose to make up the difference by spreading it amongst the players already on their roster, but it’s significantly cheaper to get above the floor at the deadline. When a team acquires a player in the middle of the season, his full-season cap number counts on their books … but they only need to pay that player the amount left on his contract that he hasn’t been paid by his original team. Cheap teams frequently use this trick to save money, and after years in luxury tax hell, you can bet that the Thunder are looking for savings wherever they can.
  • This is going to be Oklahoma City’s last year under the cap for quite some time because Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s max contract kicks in next season. In other words, it’s use it or lose it time for the Thunder.
  • The Thunder tend not to be stingy when it comes to waiving players for the sake of creating roster spots. That makes them an ideal facilitator in lopsided trades, as few teams have empty roster spots with which to absorb players. The Thunder already have one roster spot open.

This financial flexibility essentially gives the Thunder the freedom to do anything they want at the deadline, no matter how crazy. Heck, if they wanted to (and they don’t), they are the only team in the NBA reasonably positioned to absorb Russell Westbrook’s contract.

At a bare minimum, there are a few teams that are almost certain to come calling before the Feb. 10 bell rings. Boston and Portland are almost certain to try to duck under the tax line if possible, for instance, and the Thunder are their best chance at doing so. Don’t be surprised when Oklahoma City extracts some value in the process. The Lakers stand out as another possible victim. Their unusual salary structure of having only two players (Talen Horton-Tucker and Kendrick Nunn) making more than the minimum but less than the max means they’ll almost certainly have to include one or two of those minimum salaries if they hope to match salary on an impact player. Someone needs to absorb those contracts, and there’s a good chance it’s the Thunder. 

But Presti is a big-game hunter, and you can bet he’ll be trying to weasel his way into any blockbusters that might emerge between now and February. Even if he’s not the one landing the star, he’ll happily charge some poor, unsuspecting GM a pick or two for the privilege of doing so themselves. Oklahoma City already has 17 first-round picks in the next seven drafts. Don’t be surprised if the Thunder land No. 18 in the next few weeks.

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