When more than 90 players signed as free agents can be traded Saturday, it will mark the unofficial start of the NBA trade season. Several major players have already been traded in the NBA since mid-November, including James Harden, Russell Westbrook, John Wall, Victor Oladipo, Chris Paul and Jrue Holiday.
These names have been added to a group that also includes Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Kemba Walker and Gordon Hayward, all stars who have changed teams since the summer of 2019.
Would this be a good sign for an active commercial season in 2021? Maybe not.
While the unexpected can always happen, league insiders generally expect the next few months to be relatively easy from a deals standpoint, as several factors have worked together to create an unfavorable market and a potentially quiet March 25 trading deadline.
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Who is left?
One of the consequences of all these great team jobs over the past 19 months is that almost no one has stayed to follow them. Two stars who could have transferred – Giannis Antetokounmpo and Rudy Gobert – both signed huge overtime deals to stay with the Milwaukee Bucks and Utah Jazz, respectively. That takes two big pieces off the board.
Thus, the Washington Wizards keep Bradley Beal as the biggest star deemed available. But while Beal has made no secret of his dissatisfaction on the field with the Wizards of late, there is no indication that he has asked Washington to let him go, and league observers expect the deal to be closed during the offseason rather than between now and the deadline.
“I think we need to put pressure on him and his business manager, and I don’t think that will happen before the end of the season, if at all,” a Western Conference official said.
Another Western artist was even more categorical when asked the same question.
“Zero,” they said, referring to the chances of Beal being sold before the trading deadline next month. “That’s what they always say. They said in no uncertain terms that they would not move it.”
But while Beal should stay in place, some players could be on the move.
In conversations with top executives in the following weeks, a few names kept coming up as logical candidates for the company. The New Orleans Pelicans had already mobilized former guards Lonzo Ball and J.J. Redick. The Houston Rockets could move Oladipo again, as well as forward P.J. Tucker, whose contract is also expiring. No one believes guard George Hill, who is currently out after undergoing finger surgery this week, will be part of the Oklahoma City Thunder rebuild yet in the coming months.
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Guard Evan Fournier of the Orlando Magic has an expiring contract and should be sued. Many executives are wondering if the team will consider keeping Aaron Gordon – who suffered a sprained ankle earlier this week – on the team for four to six more weeks as part of a return to normalcy in the midst of an injury-plagued season.
But while all of these names are intriguing, they don’t move the market as much as Harden or Beal or even Holiday, who the Bucks signed in November.
“The two biggest names have already moved on,” the Eastern Conference head said. “Nothing will be bigger than Holiday and Harden, but I still think something is going to happen, especially as some of these teams realize their cap space will be worthless this summer.”
Who can do business?
Just over a year ago, the Los Angeles Clippers and the Los Angeles Lakers faced each other in the Western Conference, and both made serious trades to Marcus Morris Sr. and then the New York Knicks. The Clippers managed to set up a winnable trade, in part because they had a first-round pick.
Not this year.
Of the teams vying for the title this year, four – the Lakers, Clippers, Bucks and defending champion Brooklyn Nets – have not played a first-round game in years, making it difficult to find a player who can make a difference. And they’re not alone.
The Miami Heat and the Dallas Mavericks are two teams on the brink of the playoffs, having already traded places in the first round of 2021. The same goes for the Portland Trail Blazers and the Golden State Warriors (although they retain their pick if they end up in the top 20 of the 2021 NBA Draft, and they also defend Minnesota’s pick in the top 3 of the first round, which is probably the most valuable commercial asset in the league). The Jazz, who are near the top of the West, owe the Memphis Grizzlies a guaranteed pick through 2024.
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In total, more than 10 teams are limited in what they can offer in the asset project due to previous trades.
“For good teams that are trying to make loan deals, these deals are going to be difficult if they don’t have a choice [to trade],” the second eastern director said. “Let’s say you’re Washington and you’re trying to make a deal with Beal. If you’re trying to get three firsts and two trades, the number of teams that can do that is much smaller.
Among the league’s main competitors, the Lakers, Clippers and Bucks have the added difficulty of being very limited, which limits the amount of salary they can add to deals.
In the meantime, teams are still trying to figure out who they are and what they need. Training is infrequent, and almost every team, suffering from numerous absences due to injury or the ongoing COWID-19 pandemic, plays with a full team-a rarity that can limit graduation.
“I think with all this uncertainty, not much will happen between COWID and everything else,” said another Eastern Conference official.
Who is selling?
Every transaction requires both a buyer – a team that wants to improve its roster in some way – and a seller. And the NBA may not have enough sellers this season because of a wider playing field.
After experimenting with a bubble system last season, the NBA has stepped up its efforts this season, meaning that the top 10 teams in each conference will have a chance to win next season.
On Thursday, the Minnesota Timberwolves were alone on the court with more than three games to go.
“There could be four teams that don’t really think they’re going to make the playoffs,” said a West staffer. “So who’s going to sell?”
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When teams have a chance to reach the playoffs, especially teams that haven’t made the postseason in years, such as the Chicago Bulls, Knicks or Sacramento Kings, they may be less inclined to trade the productive players currently helping them.
“Teams that are ranked between 8-13 in both conferences – I think a lot of these teams want to make the playoffs,” said an Eastern Conference executive who believes these teams will be reluctant to take steps to weaken their 2020-21 teams.
Some executives also felt that this could affect the buyback market after the deadline, as teams still looking for a spot in the playoffs will prefer to keep those players for the playoffs rather than try to move closer to the bottom of the rankings. The league’s lottery odds are even, making it less likely that teams will be as bad as possible. Just last year, the Charlotte Hornets were ranked 10th in the East before the restart (a position that would put them in the playoffs this year), but rose to 3rd in the draft after the lottery.
Moreover, the NBA is always a silver league, and the commercial market is no exception. Many executives talked about how different teams approach their financial situation, which could affect the number of transactions this year, especially at the lower levels.
Each team has lost five home games in this pandemic-shortened season, and most of those games are being played without a crowd. Some teams, such as Golden State, which took on the salary of Kelly Oubre Jr. after losing Klay Thompson to an Achilles tendon tear this season, have already shown a willingness to take the money despite the economic realities of the NBA. Other teams may find themselves in a situation where the owner forces the front office to look for short-term savings whenever possible, creating another group of sellers to feed into the league’s buyers.
“Do I think there could be an avalanche of agreements? No,” said another Eastern leader. “But I think there are certain situations that can be set aside because of all the uncertainty, but they can come about as a result.”
Frequently asked questions
Can players be traded after the deadline?
During the regular season, the deadline for trades almost always falls on July 31. Players can still be placed and claimed after July 31, but trading after that date is no longer allowed. Until 2019, players can still trade after July 31, provided they first consent to the withdrawal of an issued trade permit.
Can I trade NBA players after the deadline?
A free agent player who signs a standard NBA player contract (or a player who signs or upgrades to a standard NBA player contract as part of a bilateral contract) cannot be traded for three months from the date the contract is signed or until December 15 of the year the contract is signed, …
How does the NBA trade delay work?
Teams can trade between the start of the regular season and the NBA trade deadline – 3:00 p.m. (Eastern Time) on the seventeenth Thursday of the season. Teams can trade between the start of the regular season and the NBA trade deadline – 3:00 p.m. (Eastern Time) on the seventeenth Thursday of the season … To execute a trade, teams must participate in a trade contest with the league in which they confirm the details of the agreement.