The trade deadline on February 10 is often one of the most exciting days of the season. We see teams attempt to reshape their roster and plan for the long-term. Teams who are teetering on the verge of contention may choose to sacrifice assets for the sort of short-term gain who may get the team over the hump.
On the other hand, we may see teams who are facing the cold light of day. Their plans have gone awry and it is time to shake things up. Last season, Orlando made that decision. The Magic chose to trade away Fournier, Gordon and Vucevic; they committed completely to a rebuild.
It is one of the most intriguing parts of the NBA calendar and that intrigue has only changed with the introduction of the play-in tournament. In the past, we would see teams consigned to a losing season trade away players of value and focus on nailing the Draft. The play-in tourney has adjusted the equation.
There are four teams who are feasibly in the hunt for the last play-in berth in the West, Portland, San Antonio, Sacramento and New Orleans. The play-in is a last chance saloon for these teams to make it to the playoffs and make some noise. Coaching staffs value the growth that postseason basketball brings to a young roster.
Postseason basketball is also immensely profitable for ownership groups around the league and provides a springboard for young emerging teams to establish themselves in the national conscious. Memphis is the prime example.
The Grizzlies were an underdog coming into the postseason last year; the team was young and relatively inexperienced. Memphis took out Golden State and dragged themselves into the playoffs for the first time since ‘Grit N’ Grind’. That playoff run introduced the world to Ja Morant and his astounding, must-watch style of basketball.
In the past, Portland would have pulled the plug and traded Lillard. The team has no real growth potential and has stagnated into being a first round exit team. The Blazers are in the same sort of salary cap prison that the Thunder were in three years ago. Joe Cronin, Portland GM, is still looking to add pieces around Dame to make the most of his talent.
The Trailblazers have not yet thrown in the towel, in fact they are doubling down and trying to win with Lillard as their star. The same can be said for Sacramento. The Kings’ rebuild around Fox and Hield has gone nowhere. Sacramento is still a late lottery team even after all of these draft picks.
Before the play-in, Sacramento would have traded Fox and focused on getting a high draft pick to build around. Now, the Kings are still looking to trade Fox but they want Ben Simmons, a player who can help them win now.
You could argue that this is just typical Kings’ myopia but the same trend carries over into the Eastern Conference. It is clear that the Celtics are not good enough outside of the Jays but Brad Stevens is still persisting with his roster.
The Hawks are willing to trade anyone outside of Capela and Young despite being a shot away from the NBA Finals with this roster. The postseason is more accessible and most teams back themselves to win the games necessary to earn a playoff berth.
The upshot of the play-in tourney is that there are more buyers and less sellers when the trade deadline rolls around. For a team like the Thunder who have good vets, an abundance of picks and acres of space, the deadline is the perfect opportunity to do business.
Oklahoma City can be a buyer particularly when it comes to young talent. The market for high-potential, cost-controlled youngsters is relatively sparse but Oklahoma City have the pieces to make that sort of move happen.
The Thunder could be a seller and look to move on the team’s veterans with the future in mind. The impact of Kenrich Williams and Mike Muscala cannot be overstated; both players contribute heavily to the Thunder winning games. Moving one of them makes it more difficult for the Thunder to win in the short term and shores up the tank.
I do not expect either player to be dealt at will, Presti is generally considered in his decision making and will take his time to evaluate a deal, but I do not doubt that Sam will make a move if he gets the right offer. If a contending team like the Bulls offered Dosunmu and picks for Williams, that is a strong offer that will be difficult to turn down.
Out of all the veteran players, I would expect Derrick Favors to be moved on. Favors joined the Thunder with the understanding that he would not spend much time in Oklahoma City. For the Thunder to get any value out of Derrick, the trade deadline is their last opportunity.
Favors has a player option after the end of the season; it is likely that he will decline that option and hit unrestricted free agency. He has made no bones about his intentions, Derrick Favors wants to play on a winning, contending team.
Oklahoma City can also play a part in the trade deadline as being a facilitator for complex trades. In the last few weeks, we have heard trade discussions around Ben Simmons, John Collins and Domantas Sabonis heat up. All of these players earn maximum level contracts and a lot of filler will be required to match salaries.
The Thunder with its abundance of cap space can absorb the salaries of unwanted players and gain assets in the process. Salary dumps come with sweeteners which can be a young player or a future pick. Harrison Barnes and Tobias Harris are the two biggest names in this space.
The Kings and 76ers have been discussing a Simmons for Hield trade for a while now and Barnes will have to be included to make the salaries work. Philly are in the contending stage of their team’s cycle, do they have a year to waste rehabbing Harrison Barnes’ value?
Barnes has the sort of contract and production that is very easy to rehabilitate in the right context. For a team like Sacramento who is years into a rebuild, Barnes has little value despite the fact that he is a forward shooting 40% from deep. For Philly, Barnes is simply a downgraded Tobias Harris.
On a team like Oklahoma City, he will not be relied upon to score the ball. Barnes’ role would be limited to spacing the floor, grabbing boards and playing solid defense. He will get the minutes to show off his strengths while his weaknesses in the playmaking department are hidden.
The other point to consider is that there is uncertainty surrounding three of the league’s premier shot creators. The Blazers’ run as a contending team has run its course and they may look to completely blow the process up by moving Lillard. A Lillard trade will create a chain reaction of teams moving salaries around and attempting to find the necessary assets to swing for the fences. OKC can cash in on the chaos.
James Harden has recently spoke of his desire to see what the free agency market looks like this summer. There has also been a lot of chatter around his previous desire to play in Philadelphia next to Joel Embiid.
Any sort of Harden trade will require assets to sweeten the pot. Simmons for Harden is not a straight swap and Philadelphia may require some of the Thunder’s picks to meet the asking price. Any trade with Philly should involve Presti asking for Matisse Thybulle and seeing how far Daryl Morey is willing to go to get Harden.
Washington also have a dilemma on their hands. Bradley Beal, their franchise cornerstone, is hitting free agency and will be eligible for a super-max contract. Beal is an excellent player but he does not produce at the sort of level that a super-max would command.
For Washington, there would be all sorts of hassle in terms of negotiating a contract that is fair to Beal while also providing themselves with the space to build going forward. That sort of negotiation is only complicated when you consider that Beal has the freedom to do what he wants.
The Wizards could do what Sacramento did with Cousins and what Chicago did with Butler, they could get off the decision making burden by moving Beal and building around Dinwiddie-Harrell-Kuzma. It would not surprise me and that move would provide the Wizards with the sort of clarity moving forward that they have badly missed.
As deadlines go, this trade deadline feels like a big one for the Thunder. After this season, the pressure for the Thunder to improve and become a winning team will only intensify. This deadline is a chance for Presti to start laying the groundwork for the next era of Thunder basketball