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Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
Coming up with trades for NBA championship contenders is usually juuust the right amount of difficult. This year, it’s just difficult.
Title hopefuls typically aren’t financially flexible, don’t have the most attractive prospects or contracts and might’ve dealt away some future first-round picks. But their roadblocks are seldom insurmountable. They’re more like invitations for creativity.
Failing that, the trade market almost always includes enough sellers to guarantee some modicum of possibility—and variety. Buyers may not be wielding the flashiest assets, but they have avenues to get a deal done and plenty of smaller-splash options from which to choose.
That’s not the scenario this season. The rumor mill is either quiet or churning out repetition, in no small part, if not entirely, because the list of prospective sellers is uncommonly short.
Between relative cricket noises and contenders like the Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks all having mortgaged their future-first-round-pick stash to kingdom come, this isn’t the year to expect—or, in our case, imagineer—trade-deadline fireworks.
This is not to say deals won’t get done. They will. Maybe the market even turns before the clock strikes 3 p.m. EST on March 25. This preamble is more so a warning that the hypothetical deals cooked up here recycle the same names and sellers because, well, contenders will largely be competing for the same names from the same sellers.
In other words: Get ready to see a lot of the Houston Rockets.
As for our list of contenders, a super non-scientific formula was used to select them: Any team that feels like they’re a blockbuster trade away from making it to the Finals at this writing has been excluded. The toughest cuts included the Boston Celtics, Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat.
What’s left is a pool of eight teams yours truly considers most likely to reach the Finals. Feel free to quibble over the logic. Just make sure you save some rage for the trade ideas themselves.
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Troy Taormina/Associated Press
Brooklyn Nets Receive: Danuel House, P.J. Tucker
Houston Rockets Receive: Spencer Dinwiddie, 2021 second-round pick (via Atlanta), 2025 second-round pick (via Golden State)
Could Brooklyn and Houston really link up for another trade? The Nets appear to hope so. They’re among the suitors for P.J. Tucker, who will remain away from the Rockets until his future is resolved, according to ESPN’s Tim MacMahon and Adrian Wojnarowski.
Brooklyn’s interest tracks with its greatest need: a portable frontcourt defender who can cover some of the toughest playoff assignments. Tucker won’t do much to solidify the Nets’ presence on the glass, but he allows them to continue downsizing at the 5 during non-DeAndre Jordan minutes without forfeiting strength. He will shoot better than 31.5 percent from deep in Brooklyn. James Harden and Nets assistant coach Mike D’Antoni will vouch for that.
Cobbling together a deal isn’t super easy. The Nets aren’t moving any of their four highest salaries—Harden, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Joe Harris—and Jordan is theoretically off-limits given his relationship with the team’s superstars.
Filler is impossible to come by without using the injured Spencer Dinwiddie. He is the team’s fifth-highest-paid player, right behind Jordan. Landry Shamet is No. 7…at $2.1 million.
Most expect Dinwiddie to decline his $12.3 million player option this summer, so his value lies almost completely with his Bird rights. That’s not netting Brooklyn a home run acquisition, even if he is a fringe All-Star at full strength. Houston specifically might see closer to zero use in his Bird rights when it’s staring down a rebuild.
Still, the Rockets can explore rerouting Dinwiddie elsewhere, try to broker a sign-and-trade in free agency or just bring him back and hope his next deal ages well. Opportunities to bag a legitimate lead guard in his prime for a 35-year-old Tucker and Danuel House don’t come around very often. Dinwiddie’s torn right ACL—and prior injury history—is noteworthy but not a harbinger of doom.
Swapping Tucker for Dinwiddie works without other moving parts. But the Nets should want more for someone who’s so good when healthy, and the Rockets should want more other than the right to maybe pay that really good player. Expanding the deal to include House and seconds seems to strike that balance.
Brooklyn is getting someone else who can tussle with bigger wings and will presumably shoot better within its offense. Houston snares two interesting seconds without exponentially improving the Nets’ long-term outlook—a big deal given the Rockets essentially control all their first-rounders between now and 2027. If Houston needs another carrot, Brooklyn can focus solely on Tucker or throw in its own 2024, 2026 or 2027 second.
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Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press
Denver Nuggets Receive: Aaron Gordon
Orlando Magic Receive: Will Barton, PJ Dozier, 2023 second-round pick
The Denver Nuggets may not have the urgency to broker anything this drastic ahead of the trade deadline. They’ve won 10 of their past 14 games, during which time they have a top-five offense and, more importantly, top-seven defense.
Counting on this tear to sustain is risky—particularly on the less glamorous end. Gary Harris hasn’t really been available since the beginning of February, and opponents will inevitably shoot better than 32.9 percent from three. Denver’s defense continues to be suspiciously stingy through the stints in which Michael Porter Jr. and Nikola Jokic play the 4 and the 5, respectively.
Accepting the Nuggets’ recent success as a new normal doesn’t preclude their need for more defensive versatility. They still don’t have clear-cut options to throw at LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard or Paul George in prospective playoff series. To say they have one to toss at a healthy Anthony Davis would be a stretch, though both JaMychal Green and Paul Millsap are viable options.
Aaron Gordon gives them that guy, provided a left ankle sprain that’s kept him sidelined for all except one game since Feb. 1 doesn’t turn out to be a more sinister issue. He isn’t what you’d consider a lockdown one-on-one stopper, but he has the quickness and strength to rumble with bigger wings. And he’s shooting well enough from three (36.5 percent) that Denver shouldn’t have an issue playing him at the 3 and moving him off the ball if the matchup calls for Green or Millsap to man the 4.
Orlando’s end of this deal rests squarely on how it views Will Barton. He hasn’t been as prolific as last season, but he’s still an operable on-ball option who can generate his own offense and help table-set for others. The Magic need more of those players if they plan on evading a full-tilt reset. He becomes a lot more attractive to them if they think he’ll pick up his $14.7 million option.
P.J. Dozier and a second-round pick should be fitting sweeteners if Barton is more than a rental to Orlando. Dozier is hitting 38.2 percent of his threes while taking on key defensive responsibilities, and his $1.9 million salary for next season (non-guaranteed) remains ultra-team friendly. The Magic can try finagling a 2021 first-round pick if it looks like Barton will opt out. That shouldn’t be a deal-breaker for the Nuggets; they can also offer up permutations involving Gary Harris’ money or non-Dozier assets instead.
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Matt Slocum/Associated Press
Los Angeles Clippers Receive: Sterling Brown
Houston Rockets Receive: Mfiondu Kabengele, 2023 second-round pick (via Portland)
The Clippers are limited in what they can do unless they’re willing to part with some of their mid-salaried non-stars. And even then, they shouldn’t be blessed with the firepower to make a huge splash.
Patrick Beverley and Marcus Morris Sr. are quality salary anchors, but neither is a solo centerpiece. Los Angeles doesn’t have the depth at center necessary to haphazardly hock Serge Ibaka or Ivica Zubac. Base-year compensation renders Luke Kennard difficult to move post-extension, and he hasn’t exactly lived up to his pending deal (four years, $56 million, with a team option on final season, plus nearly $8 million in unlikely incentives).
Lou Williams’ expiring contract makes for a tidy trade chip, but the Clippers no longer have interest in moving him, according to The Athletic’s Sam Amick. Looming over all this is the team’s proximity to the hard cap (sub-$1 million) and the inability to deal a first-round pick.
Ergo, the Clippers are more likely to hunt for additions on the margins. Sterling Brown more than qualifies.
He doesn’t give the Clippers much on-ball creation—although he has run some point with the Rockets—but he is knocking down 39.7 percent of his threes and can be used to chase around guards against whom Beverley is no longer a consistent match. And as an added bonus, Los Angeles puts a hair more space between itself and the hard cap by sending out Mfiondu Kabengele.
Houston shouldn’t have any issue with this return. Kabengele is an expiring salary after the Clippers declined his third-year option, and the Rockets won’t have Brown’s Bird rights in free agency. Getting a second-round pick for him is a good piece of business. If the Portland selection doesn’t do it, Houston can try getting Los Angeles to include Detroit’s second in 2024, 2025 or 2026.
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Matt Slocum/Associated Press
Los Angeles Lakers Receive: Garrett Temple
Chicago Bulls Receive: Wesley Matthews, Alfonzo McKinnie, 2023 second-round pick, 2024 second-round pick
Calling for the Lakers to go after a big man is fine. But prioritizing that at the trade deadline feels weird unless Anthony Davis’ right calf strain is a longer-term worry. He figures to close games at the 5 in the postseason, and it should be easier for the Lakes to scoop up another big man on the buyout market.
Beefing up the shooting and creation—especially during minutes without LeBron James—should be the more pressing priority. Ditto for adding another person who can be saddled with bigger-wing assignments.
Garrett Temple checks two of those boxes. His 34.3 percent clip from downtown doesn’t qualify as much of an upgrade. Even if it rises in L.A. (it might!), he’s not a high-volume flamethrower. Then again, with the way Wesley Matthews has been faring from deep (27.8 percent since Jan. 15), he might actually be an improvement.
Either way, Temple gives the Lakers another secondary initiator. He shouldn’t be tasked with running lineups solo, but the Lakers need ball-handlers who don’t just attack with intent to score. And though Temple’s 2.5 dimes per 36 minutes don’t leap off the page, he has a higher assist rate on drives (10.2) than Dennis Schroder (9.7).
Giving up two second-rounders for him is not an overpay. Even if Matthews’ shooting normalizes, Temple is more likely to stand up against bigger and stronger wings. Chicago hasn’t hesitated to throw him at everyone from point guards to Jayson Tatum. L.A. is also carving out a smidge more room under the hard cap with this trade.
Two seconds should be enough for the Bulls to bite. They’re a fringe-playoff candidate. That’s barely license to make Thaddeus Young off-limits (they’ve apparently done that). Temple is less integral to the bigger picture as an older soon-to-be free agent. Chicago can use Matthews or try to reroute him elsewhere. If the Lakers can get a third party to send out a second for Matthews (Boston?), they might be able to then retain one of their own.
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Rick Bowmer/Associated Press
Milwaukee Bucks Receive: Austin Rivers
New York Knicks Receive: D.J. Wilson, 2023 second-round pick
Flipping D.J. Wilson’s expiring contract for Austin Rivers would be a chess-match move by the Bucks.
For starters, they’d be saving a little over $1 million. They can either use that extra wiggle room under the hard cap to be active earlier on the buyout market or, much less interestingly, try to move another smaller salary and duck the luxury tax entirely if it doesn’t look like Jrue Holiday’s contract incentives are going to hit.
Beyond that, Rivers can actually help the Bucks. He has fallen completely out of the Knicks’ rotation and wasn’t shooting well upon demotion, but he canned 42.6 percent of his triples through his first 13 games and is someone with better size than D.J. Augustin or Bryn Forbes who can create off the dribble. Rivers knocked down 35.9 percent of his pull-up treys last year when Houston was also able to steal minutes with him defending bigger guards and wings.
Rolling the dice on him poses zero risk for the Bucks, and the potential reward is better than it seems. If things don’t pan out, his salary is non-guaranteed for next season. If he plays well, then the two years and $6.5 million left on his contract (all non-guaranteed) become an asset.
Picking up another ball-handling option might also embolden them to use Augustin in a separate trade. The Bucks are among the laundry list of teams to inquire about P.J. Tucker, and matching his $8 million salary gets a lot more feasible when including Augustin’s $6.7 million price tag. Something like Augustin and two seconds would be a good entry point.
New York has little to mull over. Rivers isn’t part of its present, let alone the future, and his salary holds minimal weight in larger deals when the team has so much cap space. Taking on Wilson—who the Bucks just don’t play anymore—amounts to buying a future second for roughly $1 million.
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Nick Wass/Associated Press
Philadelphia 76ers Receive: Nemanja Bjelica
Sacramento Kings Receive: Terrance Ferguson, Vincent Poirier, 2023 second-round pick (top-32 protection; more favorable between Atlanta, Brooklyn and Charlotte or Philadelphia)
Joel Embiid’s bone bruise in his left knee could change the Sixers’ trade-deadline calculus. He’s expected to miss only a few weeks, according to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne and Adrian Wojnarowski, but that takes them past March 25.
Also: This is Joel Embiid. He is both a front-runner to win MVP (for now) and walking injury risk. Philly may not want to make any wholesale changes before seeing him return and play actual basketball.
Nemanja Bjelica is among the solid options who won’t force the Sixers to mortgage any part of their future. And if you’re wondering whether they can get over him burning them in 2018 only to sign with the Kings, the answer is a resounding yes. Team president Daryl Morey wasn’t around then, and Philly has already shown interest in him this season, according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania.
Acquiring Bjelica is not without some risk. The Sixers would be betting his three-point clip ticks up from 32.9 percent. It’s a fair gamble. His playing time has been inconsistent, verging on sparse, and he was a career 39.3 percent shooter from distance entering this season. Philly needs another body unafraid to let ‘er rip from three, and Bjelica gives the Sixers a number of lineup options as a second-string 4 and 5 if his threes are finding nylon.
Sacramento’s side is straightforward. It’s saving a couple of bucks and getting a second-rounder for someone who barely factors into the present and, at 32, doesn’t register as part of the future. Terrance Ferguson is also worth some stab-in-the-dark minutes for a team that’s not flush with wings.
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Michael Wyke/Associated Press
Phoenix Suns Receive: P.J. Tucker
Houston Rockets Receive: Jevon Carter, E’Twaun Moore, 2023 second-round pick
This is a throwback scenario from a previous trade brainstorm—except the Suns are now giving up less. The Rockets don’t have the leverage to insist on Abdel Nader, who’s shooting and defending well on the wings, when P.J. Tucker is neither around the team nor playing much like P.J. Tucker.
Houston can push for Nader and/or another second if the competing market is especially bubbly. But Phoenix should start with Jevon Carter, E’Twaun Moore and one second that conveys the year after Chris Paul‘s current deal expires. Langston Galloway can be tossed in place of Moore if head coach Monty Williams remains (somewhat inexplicably) married to giving him regular minutes.
Making a run at Tucker shields the Suns against an equal parts promising and fragile frontline rotation. Deandre Ayton can still switch and bust up plays on the backline, but he’s liable to get burned by quicker smalls if he comes up too high. His presence in general, at both ends, is also maddeningly inconsistent. You don’t always feel him on the court.
Dario Saric-at-center lineups have proved to be a gnarly antidote. They are nuking opponents by 25.2 points per 100 possessions, and the Suns have used them to close a couple of recent games. Will that fly against the Nuggets? Or a Lakers squad with Anthony Davis? Or the Jazz? In a playoff series? What happens if it’s not and Ayton is having one of his now-trademark low-impact appearances?
Tucker is both protection and diversification. He invites the Suns to try different looks for the closing unit. His minutes with Phoenix would be more up in the air than they’d be elsewhere, but he joined Houston in the first place because of Paul. Contending for a title next to his buddy should appeal to him.
Sending Jevon Carter to Houston is a tad nerve-wracking if Phoenix has concerns about the backup guard rotation currently headlined by Cameron Payne. But his minutes have dwindled and his threes aren’t falling. He will never be the answer for a team that needs a second-string pilot.
Carter is at the same time an attractive pickup for the Rockets. They still need to hammer out the guard rotation behind (and beside) John Wall, and his defensive relentlessness is a terrifyingly tantalizing match for lineups that include fellow defensive bully Jae’Sean Tate.
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Nick Wass/Associated Press
Utah Jazz Receive: Danuel House
Houston Rockets Receive: Udoka Azubuike, Elijah Hughes
Bring up the Jazz in the NBA-title discourse, and you’re bound to hear some variation of “But who will guard bigger athletic wings in the playoffs?!?”
How about Danuel House?
Just so we’re clear: Utah’s defense will not be left for dead in the postseason. Rudy Gobert is a transformative linchpin, in all matchups, and the combination of Joe Ingles, Georges Niang, Royce O’Neale and Miye Oni gives them options.
Whether the Jazz want to be leaning on Niang or Oni for mission-critical defensive minutes is a separate matter. Maybe they’re cool with it. House helps bolster their defensive depth regardless. He has gone up against guards, wings and bigs during his time in Houston, and his 31.2 percent success rate from beyond the arc is pretty much guaranteed to improve within Utah’s offense.
Forking over Udoka Azubuike (No. 27 pick in 2020 draft) and Elijah Hughes (No. 39) is not an overpay—so long as House’s right knee injury isn’t anything serious. The Jazz’s timeline is now. They need players who help them now. Neither Azubuike nor Hughes provides immediate aid, and the former is more expendable than ever after Utah signed Derrick Favors and extended Gobert.
The Rockets should be getting enough compensation within this framework. Azubuike is only 21 and under team control for up to three more years. Hughes is just 23, owed $1.5 million next season and can soak up minutes across all wing spots in a Rockets rotation that should be fully immersed in a youth movement after the trade deadline.
Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass and accurate entering games on March 13. Salary information via Basketball Insiders and Spotrac.