Predicting what will happen at the trade deadline days before it actually arrives is a fool’s errand. Nobody knows anything. But with that preamble out of the way, please allow this prediction: This year’s festivities will probably be a dud.
Trades will occur, sure. Rumors will go public, of course. But on the whole there are several reasons why fans should expect a relatively quiet Thursday afternoon. Conversations among different front offices have naturally intensified over the past couple days, but several team executives have expressed a similar sentiment, as one recently told SB Nation: “I haven’t seen the volume of calls I’m used to seeing.”
Everything can turn on a dime, but this year’s climate doesn’t feature enough teams that are heading in opposite directions. It’s a seller’s market if there ever was one, which isn’t great news for every franchise that wants to get better.
Even if conventional wisdom places three teams (the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, and Milwaukee Bucks) ahead of everybody else, the Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics, Utah Jazz, Houston Rockets, Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat, Dallas Mavericks and Toronto Raptors are confident enough in what they have not to sacrifice the present for the future.
A few of those aforementioned teams have had early discussions with each other, but some refuse to waste time communicating with one another, knowing full well how detrimental it may be to complete a transaction that could spring a potential playoff opponent up a level, or disrupt their own chemistry.
With an abnormal surplus of teams believing they can win it all or at the very least make a legitimate run, one would expect some of them to get aggressive before the deadline. But the problem here is that teams incentivized to sell off their useful veterans are more interested in a playoff push. And even if their odds to make it this season are slim, they don’t want to punt on next year, either, knowing how rough this summer’s free agency class is and even how down most seem to be on the draft’s prospects. Owners are impatient, and, in some cases, new general managers and team presidents who’ve recently started working for a perennial loser are more inclined to add or stand pat than subtract.
Combine all those elements and what you have is a wide middle class that believes it can surge into a higher tier sometime in the next 12 months; moving productive players for late first-round picks probably won’t help them do that. The Orlando Magic, Oklahoma City Thunder, Phoenix Suns, San Antonio Spurs, Washington Wizards, New Orleans Pelicans, Brooklyn Nets, Sacramento Kings, Memphis Grizzlies, and Portland Trail Blazers are more likely set with what they have (or even looking to upgrade around the margins) than driven to acquire future assets.
That leaves slim pickings from the Golden State Warriors, Atlanta Hawks, Detroit Pistons, Minnesota Timberwolves, New York Knicks, Charlotte Hornets, Chicago Bulls, and Cleveland Cavaliers. Eight teams, several of which see themselves as part of the group listed above (including Atlanta, which has been trying to add a center — i.e. Clint Capela — for weeks, and the Knicks, which may finally move on from Marcus Morris). Again, in-season contributors probably won’t be sent to a contender just because said contender is willing to give up the 25th pick in a draft nobody appears to be super pumped about.
These teams are bad for a reason, meaning there’s a dearth of players who can likely impact winning in a playoff series. Some of their better known commodities are on contracts that are too long, too expensive, or both. Contending teams with interest either don’t have the structural salary to acquire them, or the stomach to swallow all that money knowing they could go star hunting in the summer of 2021 instead. (Kevin Love, who felt like a nice fit for a team like Portland or Utah before the season began, now has many teams believing they should receive compensation for taking him on, per sources.)
Also, with cap space at a premium this summer, several teams listed above are more confident than they’d typically be in their ability to retain free agents. For example: The Wizards can trade Davis Bertans, sure, but his Bird Rights might be more valuable for a team that will still have Bradley Beal, a healthy John Wall, and no cap space over the next two summers.
The Pistons, Timberwolves, and Pelicans, with Derrick Rose, Luke Kennard, Jrue Holiday, and Robert Covington, can afford to keep their asking price high, knowing each one is held in high esteem in a marketplace that has very little star power and limited alternatives. Each one is also under contract beyond this year, and good enough to help their current team next season. Should no deal arise, none of these organizations will panic.
In general, the questionable direction some of these franchises want to take starts at the top, where owners around the league are at war with self-awareness and reality. Making moves with foresight is important, but in their eyes purposefully extending a steak of futility is out of the question. Frustrated fans are taken into account, along with young rosters that could feel demoralized by deals that support losing instead of winning.
Another factor that may cool the market is an unwillingness to part with future draft picks, especially those in 2022, when high-school players may be eligible to enter the NBA. That uncertainty has helped curb a few negotiations, according to sources.
It’s not impossible for an explosion of activity to take place over the next 24 hours. Marcus Morris, Tristan Thompson, Jae Crowder, Andre Iguodala, Capela, Covington, Luke Kennard, Rose, Marvin Williams, Bertans, Holiday, Gary Harris, Evan Fournier, Thaddeus Young, Alec Burks, Andre Drummond, D’Angelo Russell, and several others could all move before Thursday’s buzzer sounds. Crazy things tend to happen in the NBA, and with no Golden State Warriors boogeyman hanging over the championship race it’s possible some teams will feel pressure to do whatever it takes to win it all.
But the circumstances are the circumstances. The market is the market. There are a bunch of good teams, a bunch of decent-to-bad teams that want to be better than they are, and a few teams that understand their current predicament but either don’t have what buyers want or feel no pressure to offer it at a reasonable price. A few months ago this deadline felt like it’d be a feeding frenzy. Don’t be surprised if there isn’t enough food to go around.