Examining what West contenders will be looking for at the trade deadline
By Rob Mahoney
The NBA trade deadline is Thursday at 3 p.m. ET. What should playoff contenders have on their shopping list and how badly do they need to make a move? Yesterday we examined the wants and needs of Eastern Conference playoff teams, and today we turn our attention to those in playoff position out West. Here’s the breakdown, in order from No. 1 to No. 8:
SAN ANTONIO SPURS
On the list: A taker for DeJuan Blair
Before the Spurs go back to their quiet run as one of the best teams in the league, they have just one bit of business to attend to. San Antonio outgrew Blair a few seasons ago and has reportedly been scanning the market periodically for potential trade partners ever since. Blair’s strong per-minute production (14.1 points, 10.2 rebounds per 36 minutes) suggests a player who could find success in a larger role, but the Spurs’ deep rotation renders him unable to make good on that potential. And so Blair — who will be a free agent at season’s end and is highly unlikely to re-sign — remains one of the most imminently “gettable” pieces in the league.
One would think there would be some kind of market for him, but the buyers have been quite tentative in their pursuit of a 23-year-old big man on a $1.1 million expiring deal. The Spurs initially hoped to get a first-round pick for Blair, according to Yahoo! Sports, but they have since begun to settle for more marginal assets in negotiations. The odds are good that general manager R.C. Buford gets something for Blair before the deadline, but Blair’s inability to get off the bench for Gregg Popovich, his lingering health concerns (he’s playing without ACLs in both of his knees), his size and his free-agent status may send up red flags for teams that otherwise might be interested.
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
On the list: A long-term big man
The search for a Kendrick Perkins replacement continues, though at a rather leisurely pace. As it stands, the Thunder are the best team in the West and a worthy foil for the Heat in a potential Finals rematch. But Perkins, who is owed $18.6 million over the next two seasons, remains the one piece in OKC that provides neither a great basketball fit nor any developmental potential. Perkins is who he is at this point — an underwhelming rebounder, a non-factor on offense (save as a screener) and a good citizen in a great team culture. That hardly seems like enough justification for the minutes (25.1 per game) and contract that Perkins has been awarded.
The Thunder are good enough that a deal for Perkins is far from necessary, and in the meantime he’ll give OKC some intangible payoffs while also guarding the league’s top back-to-the-basket threats. Still, I’d fully expect the Thunder front office to feel its way around the trade market in a purely exploratory fashion, as trading Perkins ultimately registers in OKC’s best interests.
LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
On the list: A new home for Eric Bledsoe, if they’re so inclined
Another contender without much reason to budge. The Clippers have their stars, their key reserves, their young assets and their deep bench. There are no holes to fill or any glaring deficits in their performance. That leaves L.A. without many moves to make, save to potentially accelerate its timeline by dealing younger players for proven veterans. The Clippers’ reported interest in Kevin Garnett fits that mold — interest undoubtedly motivated by the team’s earlier-than-expected ascent into the West’s top tier.
Most of those deals in some way involve fireball guard Bledsoe, the one asset most marginalized by the Clippers’ improving health. Bledsoe had room to push the pace and make mistakes when a few pieces were missing from the rotation, but Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill are back in the mix and Chris Paul has returned from his knee injury. That leaves Bledsoe at the center of the Clippers’ playing-time pinch and operating at a deficit relative to his overall trade value. He could certainly be moved (potentially in conjunction with Caron Butler, who has outlived his usefulness in many ways) to help bolster the Clippers’ efforts elsewhere, but there hardly seems to be any immediate need to do so.
On the list: Shooters
The Grizzlies already addressed their most pressing item (luxury-tax relief), but there’s no question that they could use an extra perimeter shooter or two. The spacing of coach Lionel Hollins’ offense continues to be a nightmare. Though many assumed that the acquisition of Tayshaun Prince would help because of his strong three-point percentages in recent years, the 32-year-old forward is neither a prolific enough long-range shooter (he’s averaged just a single three-point attempt per 36 minutes so far with Memphis and no more than 1.8 per 36 in any season since 2008) nor a significant enough deep threat for Memphis to seriously benefit from his presence on the perimeter. Even if his attempts trend upward as he gets more comfortable with his new team, Prince isn’t likely to be the saving grace of a team that ranks 30th in threes attempted per game and 23rd in three-point percentage.
All of which makes the Grizzlies’ rumored interest (via reliable Memphis radio host Chris Vernon) in J.J. Redick completely sensible. Memphis doesn’t have all that many assets to spare and is essentially prevented from dealing any more first-round picks at this point, but Redick would be an outstanding addition if the Grizz can somehow make a deal work.
On the list: Consolidation
The Nuggets have one redundant rotation player too many. Coach George Karl hides that fact effectively by jostling his versatile wings between positions to make the matchups work, but Wilson Chandler’s return gives Denver more decent forwards than it knows what to do with. Whether that means that Chander himself should be the one to go is up to the incredibly sharp Masai Ujiri. Based on Ujiri’s managerial style, I’d be shocked if the Nuggets hadn’t explored that option as well as a number of other conceivable alternatives. The man is nothing if not thorough, and should the deadline come and go without a Denver deal, it won’t be for a lack for trying.
Denver has resources to consolidate and a GM who clearly isn’t timid. All that’s left to do is find the right target (a more balanced big man?) and the right trade partner, though those endeavors alone can prove far more difficult than they might seem.
GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
On the list: Rotation big man, reserve wing player
Most of the Warriors-centric rumors feature Golden State packaging good, young players for more productive (and more highly paid) ones, but I see more value in letting the current core develop while building up the back end of the rotation. Andrew Bogut’s slow return to the court has only exaggerated the need to have one more rotation-caliber big man available, as rookie center Festus Ezeli has proved situationally useless and Andris Biedrins is more generally useless. Likewise, Brandon Rush’s season-ending knee injury has left Golden State one good bench wing player short of a full deck, and I don’t see sufficient reason for anyone to lean on the production of Richard Jefferson at this point in his career.
Golden State’s versatility means that it could go for a wing of just about any type or build, which is a nice luxury for a team that will undoubtedly want to hold on to its most attractive trade assets. Grab a spot shooter, a smart slasher, a reliable defender, whatever — just get one more wing player capable of sopping up whatever minutes fall through the cracks, and another big man who can help fill the void that David Lee and Carl Landry can’t be expected to cover in full.
On the list: A new direction
I’ve been on record since December in saying that the Jazz should be pushing to move Al Jefferson before the deadline, and I remain convinced that ditching Jefferson and keeping fellow impending free agent Paul Millsap is the best course of action. It may well cost the Jazz a playoff berth, but sneaking in as a seventh or eighth seed shouldn’t matter for a franchise that needs to play the long game.
Jefferson and Millsap can get you to the playoffs, but banking on the development of Derrick Favors is what could get the Jazz a step further. Unfortunately, parting ways with Jefferson comes as an inextricable part of that plan — in part because of the role and playing time that Jefferson’s presence inevitably denies Favors, and also due to the massive salary obligation that would come with a delusional decision to re-sign Jefferson this summer. Move him now, get what you can while you can and start building around Favors, Millsap, Gordon Hayward, Enes Kanter and Alec Burks.
On the list: A versatile forward
The Rockets, more than any team in the Western Conference playoff picture, have the benefit of playing with house money. Their heady offensive play has pushed them far ahead of even the most optimistic projections for their season, and yet their great leap forward hasn’t compromised the opportunity to keep improving. It’s a perfect situation for a rebuilding team.
Even after granting James Harden a lucrative contract extension on arrival, the Rockets will have a huge chunk of cap room to work with in their efforts to add a second star to a promising core with room to grow. Not many teams in this position have this much cap room, and for that reason the Rockets may simply wait for the summer and look to make an impact signing through free agency. But if GM Daryl Morey were so inclined, he could use this deadline period to get a jump on his team’s renovations, primarily by acquiring a versatile big man to fill out his starting five.
As dependable as Patrick Patterson and Marcus Morris have been, Houston needs a better all-around player to help balance its play between offense and defense. Josh Smith is obviously an option, though acquiring him now would only give the Rockets a leg up in re-signing him this summer. Millsap is another possibility, though dealing for him now invokes the same potential pitfalls. There are a few less dicey propositions out there, but all would involve Houston surrendering valuable assets for the sake of something that could be accomplished by way of cap space alone in just a few months’ time.
Waiting out this season seems like the best bet for the Rockets. Free agency, after all, not only will give Houston a shot at many of the same players, but it should also open up a wealth of alternatives as teams across the league look to shore up their rosters without the pressures that come with midseason moves.