f you think about it, isn’t it a little weird that NBA trade chatter hits its peak around the February deadline?
By then, it’s often too late for player swaps to make a difference. Even with the earlier cutoff this year, the post-deadline portion of the schedule will account for about 30 games, barely more than a third of the season.
That’s why now is the best time to crank up the trade talk. With only a month in the rearview mirror, we’ve seen which teams have glaring needs, which are primed to unload talent as part of a tank job and which have distressed assets worth moving before they lose all value. We have just enough information to make moves, but it isn’t too late for those moves to matter.
That’s a sweet spot, people.
Cleveland Bulks Up
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Cleveland Cavaliers Get: De Marcus Cousins
New Orleans Pelicans Get: Tristan Thompson and 2018 first-round pick (via Brooklyn)
Why the Cavs Say Yes:
There are a few ways to justify this from the Cavs’ perspective. Ideally, Cleveland would back-channel an agreement with Cousins about staying with the Cavs on a max-salary extension this summer. Otherwise, there’s no sense in giving up the Brooklyn pick, the franchise’s only long-term asset of any significance.
Getting Cousins to stick around could go a long way toward keeping LeBron James beyond this year, too.
Even if the Cavs can’t reach an illegal wink-and-nod agreement on Cousins’ contractual future, they might want to consider this move anyway.
Nobody knows where James will play next season, and if the Cavs were sure the Brooklyn pick would fall at the top of the lottery, this would be a different conversation. But the Nets are far from guaranteed to finish with the league’s worst record. In fact, that seems downright unlikely with so many teams—namely the Chicago Bulls, Sacramento Kings, Dallas Mavericks and Atlanta Hawks—trailing the Nets in the win department.
Thus, it isn’t a question of going all out to win before James leaves orbuilding for the future around that prized pick. Instead, it’s more like “go all out to win before James leaves because that pick might not be worth all that much.”
The Cavs missed out on Eric Bledsoe. They don’t know when Isaiah Thomas will be back or what he’ll look like when he is. Cousins could be a game-changer against Boston (currently running away with the conference) and whoever comes out of the West.
This is a short-term, semi-desperate move with limited downside—especially if the Nets pick winds up being outside of the top five.
Why the Pelicans Say Yes:
They’d have to be sure of Cousins’ intention to leave in July for this to be a no-brainer. If New Orleans has a chance to keep him, it’s difficult to sell Thompson and a first-rounder being worth as much as him.
But uncertainty is a major component here. The Pelicans have to consider the darkest timeline.
Is Thompson and a first-rounder worth more than…nothing? Because that’s the easy calculation New Orleans would have to make if signs pointed to Cousins departing in free agency. Theoretically, the Pelicans have been weighing that possibility from the moment they acquired him last February.
Unless, of course, they already have their own wink-and-nod agreement in place.
Clips Punt on DJ
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Los Angeles Clippers Get: Greg Monroe and 2018 protected first-round pick (via Milwaukee)
Phoenix Suns Get: DeAndre Jordan
Why the Clippers Say Yes:
This Clippers team doesn’t work. It’s too old, too injury-prone and bereft of prospects.
Jordan can opt out of the final year of his deal this summer, and even if non-stretch centers aren’t as valuable as they used to be, he’s going to have a shot at a $100 million contract. Given his age—he’ll turn 30 in July—now would be a good time to secure one last fat deal before decline sets in.
L.A. must assume an opt-out is coming. With a max deal already in place that’ll take Blake Griffin into his 30s, there’s no way to justify a similar one for Jordan. Locking in two non-complementary players to massive contracts would limit financial flexibility throughout the roster. The Clips would essentially be stuck in mud for another half-decade.
Thus, getting Monroe—mostly to make the money work; he’s on an expiring deal—and that protected first from the Bucks makes sense. The pick won’t convey unless it falls between 11 and 16 this year, but the Clips would get it in 2019 if it fell between No. 4 and No. 16. The protections diminish every year after that until the pick is completely unprotected in 2021. That isn’t quite a true premium asset, but since the Clips are likely to lose Jordan in July anyway, it’s a good get.
Why the Suns Say Yes:
A rebuilding team should be loath to surrender first-rounders of any kind, but the Suns have their own selection and the rights to Miami’s this year. That softens the blow of losing a Bucks pick that likely won’t convey until 2020 anyway.
All the opt-out concerns over Jordan still apply, and this is another proposal, like the one involving Cousins and the Cavs, that depends on some assurance that the Suns will at least get a fair hearing in the Jordan sweepstakes.
Phoenix can move other vets Tyson Chandler and Jared Dudley stand out as likely candidates—to clear plenty of cap space. There’ll be more than enough cash to pay Jordan the max.
Why does it make more sense for the Suns to bury DJ in dough than it does for the Clips? Mainly because a rebuilding team needs some kind of anchor. Chandler and Dudley are fine influences, but they’re post-prime role-fillers right now. Jordan is still effective on both ends, and his presence would lend some competitive legitimacy to a bunch of young players that need it.
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Philadelphia 76ers Get: 2018 second-round pick (via New Orleans), heavily protected future first-round pick
Chicago Bulls Get: Jahlil Okafor
Why the Sixers Say Yes:
If there were a deal out there for Jahlil Okafor that’d net the Sixers more than a second-rounder, they would have pulled the trigger by now.
Maybe Philly doesn’t think the timing is right. Maybe it doesn’t believe the bridge between it and Okafor is completely torched. (How the Sixers could possibly think that in light of what’s happened over the last two years is a mystery, but you never know…)
Point is, if Philadelphia wants to move on, it can make this deal (or one like it) with just about any team on the Bulls’ level. Sending Okafor to his native Chicago is more of a solid for the big man than anything else. Plus, there’ve long been rumors about the possibility of such a homecoming.
If you’re the Sixers, perhaps you can’t do better than the second-rounder. But if they could get Chicago to toss in a potential first with heavy protections—one that would likely turn into another second after not conveying for several seasons—that’d be hard to top.
There’s no place in Philly’s future for Okafor. Everyone knows it. It’s time to move on.
Why the Bulls Say Yes:
Good teams have no reason to surrender assets for Okafor. When a buyout is possible—as it seems to be in this case—a club like, say, the Boston Celtics can just wait around and sign Okafor after the Sixers pay him to go away. They can trust their sweet record, great coach and functional culture to attract castoffs without giving up a pick or prospect.
That isn’t the case for the Bulls, who might be able to play the homecoming angle but would have to sell Okafor on signing up for the first stage of a rebuild. Considering where he spent the last three-plus years, that might be a tough pitch. Chicago’s best bet is to trade for him.
A couple of second-rounders for a former lottery pick that never got a chance to play a major role is well worth it. Offensively, the fit with Lauri Markkanen intrigues. Defensively…the Bulls can worry about that later.
This is about acquiring talent, and whatever you think of Okafor, he’s still a talent.
Free Jah Again
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Philadelphia 76ers Get: DeMarre Carroll
Brooklyn Nets Get: Jahlil Okafor and Jerryd Bayless
Why the Sixers Say Yes:
Philly gets a rotation wing who can play the 4 in a pinch, defend a couple of positions and stretch the floor. With Okafor a goner at the end of the season, this is the move to make if the Sixers want short-term help rather than more future considerations.
Basically, the upgrade from Bayless to Carroll costs the Sixers less than $1 million extra this year and about $7 million in 2018-19. Flipping Carroll next season wouldn’t be too tough since he’ll be an expiring contract, and when you factor in the cleansing feel of moving on from the entire Okafor debacle, the deal gets more enticing for the Sixers.
Philadelphia doesn’t need Bayless. Ben Simmons runs the offense, and T.J. McConnell is fine as a backup. If Markelle Fultz gives the Sixers anything at all this year, there’s no reason to keep Bayless around.
Carroll, though, could give the Sixers a boost when they hit the postseason. He’s a solid veteran with deep playoff experience. If Philly runs into opponents with more than one dangerous wing—which is likely to happen in the postseason—Carroll gives them another option.
Robert Covington can’t guard everyone.
Why the Nets Say Yes:
They’re already ahead on the Carroll deal, having snatched 2018 first- and second-rounders from the Toronto Raptors in exchange for taking on Carroll’s salary this past summer. That’s a win for the Nets.
Imagine how much better the bargain gets if Brooklyn saves a few million bucks by exchanging Carroll for Bayless (who would also help fill a backcourt need after D’Angelo Russell’s knee surgery) and getting another former lottery pick.
Adding Okafor would be perfectly on-brand for the Nets, who picked up Russell over the offseason. Lacking the rights to their own recent first-rounders, the Nets have made it a point to grab lottery talent on the cheap via trade.
Okafor fits that M.O.
The Big One
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Boston Celtics Get: Anthony Davis and Omer Asik
New Orleans Pelicans Get: Al Horford, Jayson Tatum, 2019 first-round pick(s)
Why the Celtics Say Yes:
Um…they get Anthony friggin’ Davis?!
Horford is a fine player, an All-Star who is proving right now that he can anchor an elite defense. He’s awesome!
He’s also 31 and is under contract for an average of $29 million through 2019-20.
Davis is seven years younger and under contract at cheaper annual rates (averaging about $26 million through 2020-21). A top-10 player who costs less and may not have reached his peak, Davis is a massive short- and long-term upgrade over Horford—one big enough to justify using Tatum, the best rookie performer this year not named Ben Simmons, as a throw-in.
One big enough to make absorbing Omer Asik’s dead money worth it.
Imagine a Boston core this year of Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris and Davis. That’s at least as title-ready as the one that currently includes Tatum and Horford in place of Smart and Davis. And what about next year, when Gordon Hayward slots in for Smart? That’s terrifying!
This move only costs Boston a couple million extra bucks this season, and it would actually save money after stretching Asik at some point. Giving up Tatum at this fledgling stage of his development hurts, but players like Davis come at a cost.
Why the Pelicans Say Yes:
This is tough, but try to imagine the revamped Pels after this deal gets done.
Assuming Cousins stays—which is quite a leap without Davis, but maybe he recognizes this bounty as an upgrade—New Orleans can lock in a core of Boogie, Horford, Tatum and Jrue Holiday. Sure, you lose superstar talent in the downgrade from Davis to Horford, but you gain a player in Horford who does more of the little things and might even be a better complement to Cousins. Horford’s skill as a facilitating hub would change the offensive dynamic in New Orleans.
More importantly, the Pelicans add Tatum. He’s immediately the team’s best wing, a potential multi-time All-Star under his rookie deal. He’s the kind of asset that offsets overpays on players like Holiday.
Tatum is already a better defender than anyone envisioned, and his ability to hit the three makes his in-between shot creation and scoring feel even more valuable. He now can go to his mid-range and post attacks as secondary weapons.
As far as the picks go, Boston could have as many as three 2019 firsts, depending on how protections and conveyances play out. If the Pelicans can pry away the Grizzlies and Clippers selections, fantastic. If Davis only nets them one of those, that’s fine. Remember, Tatum has done enough already to rank as his draft class’ top player. The Pels are getting a haul in the future-asset department either way.
If Cousins leaves, at least you’ve locked in a star center, added a future All-Star on the wing and shed roughly a zillion dollars in salary. That brightens the Pelicans’ forecast considerably and doesn’t destroy their current ability to compete. If there’s any sense whatsoever that Davis might one day agitate for a trade, New Orleans should pull this trigger immediately.