NBA Front Office Confidential: Uncertainty defines upcoming trade deadline

An NBA-wide identity crisis is holding the league transaction wire hostage. 

The good news? A few teams have decided who they are and appear ready to make a move. All they need now is a few more teams to join them before the Feb. 9 trade deadline arrives.

A sampling of GMs, scouts and front-office executives identified the Dallas Mavericks, Golden State Warriors and Milwaukee Bucks as interested buyers on the trade market, looking to add a proven player — or two — to complement their star-studded core and improve their championship title chances in June.

And while the market is not exactly teeming with top-shelf talent, GMs and scouts identified several players that could meet the needs of those three teams: Detroit Pistons forward Bojan Bogdanovic, Utah Jazz guards Mike Conley, Malik Beasley and Jordan Clarkson; Orlando Magic guard Terrence Ross; and Houston Rockets guard Eric Gordon.

“Because so many of the teams are bunched together,” said one Western Conference GM looking to deal, “many of the teams are going to wait closer to the deadline to see where things are trending before making any deals. The ‘sellers’ also don’t have the same quality of veterans that have been on the market in the past, so they will either have to keep those vets or lower their asking price.” 

The Warriors, a league source said, have indicated in conversations with other teams that the development of third-year center James Wiseman is not aligning with their hopes of squeezing another championship from the core of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. The Mavericks, several league sources said, are eager to find another playmaker to complement star point guard Luka Dončić, while the Bucks hope to bolster their 23rd-ranked offense with an athletic wing scorer, hence their reported interest in the KnicksCam Reddish, which a league source confirmed.

“I’m sure Cam would like that, too,” one Eastern Conference GM said.

But so far, the transaction wire has been unusually quiet. Only one trade has occurred since the NBA regular season began three months ago: The Boston Celtics traded Noah Vonleh to the San Antonio Spurs for cash in a money-saving transaction for both teams. Last year was relatively quiet up until around this point in the season as well. The first significant trade didn’t happen until Feb. 4, when the Portland Trail Blazers identified themselves as sellers and the Los Angeles Clippers as buyers with a trade that brought Norm Powell and Robert Covington to LA in exchange, primarily, for Eric Bledsoe and his expiring contract. That opened the door to an avalanche of trades in the final week leading up to the deadline. 

The problem this year, said one Western Conference scout, is that how teams perform over the roughly 10 games they have remaining until the trade deadline could decide if they have a shot at a playoff berth or would be better served angling for a ticket to the Victor Wembanyana draft lottery. As of Thursday morning, four games separated the fifth seed from the 13th seed in the Western Conference; in the Eastern Conference, four games separated the eighth seed from the 12th seed.

“Quitting on the season too soon is problematic,” the scout said. “Committing to a playoff run too soon is also problematic. Patience is the name of the game. A 7-3 or 3-7 run could dramatically alter a team’s strategic thinking. “

Blame or credit the play-in tournament for the widespread indecision as well. 

Prior to its inception, teams outside the top 10 in either conference were planning vacations and moving free agents they didn’t expect to re-sign. Now, the 10th spot is a play-in berth and in the East, the 12th-seeded Washington Wizards are only 1.5 games out of it. The West is even more stacked in that part of the standings — the 13th-seeded Lakers are only 1.5 games behind the 10th-place Timberwolves.

The Warriors, Mavericks and Bucks weren’t the only teams currently in guaranteed playoff spots that have indicated they’d like to fortify their roster. The Philadelphia 76ers, league sources said, have indicated defensive specialist Matisse Thybulle is available in exchange for a rebounder. The sixth-seeded Miami Heat are in search of another scorer. And while the Phoenix Suns are currently the 12th seed in the West, they still consider themselves title contenders and hope to convert Jae Crowder — who is at home waiting to be moved — into another able contributor.

Adding to the complexity is that 16 teams are currently over the luxury tax threshold, with an extraordinary number of them at risk of not making the playoffs. That includes the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Wizards in the East, and the Clippers, Lakers, Blazers and Suns in the West.

“If you suck,” the scout said, “it’s best to suck cheaply.”

An Eastern Conference scout pointed to the Raptors, Bulls, Timberwolves and Hawks as teams poised for a makeover, largely because they have underperformed but have quality players to deal. “Minnesota put all their chips into this offseason, and it’s just not working,” he said. “And Atlanta just feel like they need to shake things up. I think they will be looking to re-balance their roster along with their cap situation.”

The Warriors’ willingness to move Wiseman appears to be two-fold, an Eastern Conference GM said — he isn’t ready to help them win a title, and they feel they’re doing him a disservice because he needs playing time to develop. A deal with the Jazz would make sense for both sides except that Utah already has two young big men they like: Lauri Markkanen and rookie center Walker Kessler. I asked three scouts who they’d rather have, Wiseman or Kessler. Two of the three said Kessler. The third: “Kessler now, Wiseman in 2024,” his belief being that Wiseman has the greater upside.

All of which suggests that while it may be quiet now, there is still potential for a hectic trade deadline. Patience, it would appear, is indeed the name of the game. For now.

Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, “Rebound,” on NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with young onset Parkinson’s, and “Yao: A Life In Two Worlds.” He also has a daily podcast, “On The Ball with Ric Bucher.” Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.

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