As the NBA season goes on the picture becomes clearer on each team and where they stand competitively compared to the rest of the league. Midseason trading gives teams the ability to change their trajectory, trading to add talent for the playoff push or dumping assets to begin a rebuild and position themselves for free agency. A few of our writers took a look around the league and picked the teams that need to be active over the next few weeks to be better set up for the future. Our participants are:
Justin Kirkland: Atlanta Hawks/New York Knicks/Cleveland Cavaliers
This is the low hanging fruit of NBA trade discussion right now. These teams are at the bottom of the league. Unlike the similarly putrid Golden State Warriors, there is no Hall of Famers due to return for these three franchises. The blueprint for these situations is selling your veterans to more competitive teams for assets.
Atlanta knew that this season would be a rebuild but a mix of injuries and youth has frustrations mounting. The Hawks are one of the few teams with plenty of cap space for the summer already and could eat up a bad contract if they had to. They solved their backup point guard problem by acquiring Jeff Teague to keep the offense respectable when Young sits. They will continue to build around that young core by trying to surround them with the right vets.
The Knicks need to be on the phone with anyone who picks up about pretty much everyone besides whatever pieces of their young core they still covet. Marcus Morris is having a career year and has the playoff pedigree to instantly boost the depth of any team in the league. His scoring punch and leadership in the locker room will make him an important rotational player for the rest of his prime. Julius Randle has a contract slightly above his current production but is young enough to retain intrigue about his upside. New York should be looking for a “Trust the Process” style rebuild and it will begin by selling the assets they tried to “buy” their way into playoff contention with.
Cleveland will be looking to move Kevin Love. Love has murky value as an aging, expensive star that provides limited value on the defensive end. Love is still capable of stretching the floor and scoring around the rim. With the right team, he can add an offensive presence that also brings his playmaking skills that have not been showcased as much with this younger Cavaliers team. Talks about Love to Portland have cooled off after Carmelo Anthony’s signing. If they can’t move him, Cleveland will hope he does his best Chris Paul impression and teaches this young roster how to play winning ball.
BJ Boyer: Los Angeles Lakers/Philadelphia 76ers/Boston Celtics
All three of these teams have NBA Finals aspirations, but the Los Angeles Lakers appear to have the closest thing to a championship profile out of this trio. LeBron James and Anthony Davis have positioned the Lakers, along with the Los Angeles Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks as the three teams in the NBA that have a true shot of snatching the Larry O’Brien Trophy come June. Both Philadelphia and Boston read as pseudo contenders that could reaffirm their challenger status to the Bucks in the Eastern Conference with the right trade.
Despite James stating that the Lakers “have enough right now,” their roster has glaring weaknesses that will be magnified in the playoffs. Los Angeles doesn’t fare well in their non-LeBron minutes, and they need another guard/wing playmaker (preferably someone that can stretch the floor to a respectable degree) to fortify their attack. There have been rumblings about Darren Collison ditching retirement to latch on to a contender in hopes of scoring a ring, and Los Angeles has also been linked to the likes of Derrick Rose and Robert Covington amongst others. It’s championship or bust for LeBron & Co., and they’ll likely be a buyer at the deadline looking to beef up their depth for a championship hopeful run.
It’s been an up-and-down year for the Philadelphia 76ers, battling both inconsistent play and injuries, with key cogs such as Joel Embiid, Josh Richardson and Al Horford all missing time. Philly’s erratic performance and surprisingly woeful 9-16 road record have led to the elicitation of questions about fit. Is the duo of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid one you can cash in on a championship with? Was it worth signing up for Al Horford and his gargantuan contract? Do the 76ers have enough depth to contend with a Toronto or Milwaukee in a series? With all of the trade rumors swirling around, it’s evident that Philadelphia’s front office doesn’t believe their current makeup resembles that of a team capable of landing in the NBA Finals this season. Philly has been linked to Bogdan Bogdanovic, Malik Beasley, Danilo Gallinari, Rose, and Covington, as they hunt for talent to up their standing amongst the Eastern Conference’s elite.
Kemba Walker has infused the Boston Celtics with new energy this season, whisking away the moody, black cloud left by Kyrie Irving. However, despite the positive waves permeating throughout the franchise right now, they’re actually on the same trajectory record-wise as last year’s version of the C’s. Still, with the brilliance of Walker and All-Star-esque emergences of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, Boston finds themselves in the thick of the chase for the Eastern Conference crown. The Celtics’ fierce two-way attack (Boston is top-five in both offensive and defensive rating) is led by a litany of talented guards and wings, four of whom (Walker, Tatum, Brown and Gordon Hayward) are averaging 16 points per game or more. Where the Celtics lack is in the paint, devoid of a fearsome interior defensive presence that can hold their own against the likes of a Joel Embiid or the Toronto Raptors’ bruising frontcourt featuring Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol. While there’s nothing to substantiate this claim, I’d love to see Danny Ainge set his sights on Oklahoma City Thunder big man Steven Adams, but I’m unsure about OKC’s willingness to part with Adams and what their asking price would be. Derrick Favors’ situation with the New Orleans Pelicans is another I’d be monitoring if I were the Celtics, as he’s a serviceable rim protector whose expiring contract wouldn’t force the Celtics into any long-term commitment.
Felix John-Baptiste: Denver Nuggets/Los Angeles Clippers
The Nuggets have been a team on the constant rise since they traded away their former franchise player Carmelo Anthony at the beginning of the last decade. They solidified their stature by finishing with the second-best record in the Western Conference in the 2018-19 regular season. Although they were bounced out the playoffs by the undermanned Trail Blazers, teams around the NBA were on notice of their potential.
But, is that it? Is this team just full of potential that they may never reach? While we are well aware of the talent on the roster, something screams inevitable regular-season success without playoff triumphs. Nikola Jokic, an All-NBA player, can do it all. But can he be the best player on a championship-level team?
The Nuggets have many guards and swingmen they could package for a bonafide star. It feels like this team has reached its ceiling with the roster as is unless “rookie” sensation Michael Porter Jr. takes things to another level this season.
The Los Angeles Clippers were already a pre-season favorite around the NBA to win it all. Teams trying to score against the trio of Patrick Beverley, Kawhi Leonard, and Paul George are going to have their hands full in the playoffs. Combine that with the potent scoring potential, which includes Lou Williams off the bench, and you have the formula for long term success.
However, there’s another team in LA that has championship aspirations as well. The Lakers have the best record in the West (36-11), which also happens to be the second-best in the league only behind the Milwaukee Bucks. Although the Lakers have lost both games to the Clippers so far this season, they do have the x-factor on their side: Anthony Davis.
Davis has shown huge potential in the paint this season as if he’d been playing with LeBron James his whole career. He enforces the Lakers’ height advantage over the Clippers. Further bolstered by JaVale McGhee and Dwight Howard, who’s seen a resurgence and resurrection of his career this season. The Clippers don’t have many answers for height at this time and may look to address that by the deadline. We all know the game slows down in the playoffs, and the Lakers would be inclined to force-feed mismatches at the rim.
The quest to capture the Larry O’Brien trophy is always grueling and the field is wide open this year. Those at the top will look to make one significant move to put themselves in the best position to prevail.