NBA trade deadline: Top teams to watch

Our NBA insiders are debating the biggest topics in the league. Sports Illustrated senior writers Chris Mannix and Howard Beck weigh in on the teams to watch as the NBA trade deadline nears.

Chris Mannix: So, Beck, with less than a month to go before the NBA trade deadline, there are a couple of things I’m sure of. First, it’s a seller’s market. There are far fewer teams looking to offload assets (Utah, maybe Toronto) than there are teams looking to beef up for the stretch run. Second, given how wide open the playoff field looks–catch the full-strengthÂWarriors getting thumped by the skeleton Suns on Tuesday? There will be a few facepalms from front-office members of teams that don’t make a move. So as we inch toward February, what’s the top team you are watching?

Howard Beck: I’m worried, Mannix. I’m worried about this trade season, albeit from the most trivial possible standpoint. I’m worried this trade season will be a dud due to this sudden new wave of parity, combined with the allure of the play-in tournament and the decreased allure of the lottery odds. As you noted, we just don’t have that many obvious sellers. Fans and media love trades! Good trades, bad trades, weird trades, whatever. We just love a good transaction. And we might all be gravely disappointed this year.

That said, I’m looking at a would-be buyer first and foremost. We’ve covered this at length, so I won’t go that deep here, but I think the whole league is curious to see what, if anything, the Lakers do. Will they go get some help forÂLeBron James andÂAnthony Davis and try to salvage this season? Or are they so determined to keep their future draft picks that they’re willing to let this season go down the drain?

Best guess: Do the Lakers make a move? And does it involve any draft capital?

Mannix: Short answer—I don’t know. No one does. The Lakers have been putting it out there that they are not interested in dealing their first-round picks unless an All-Star player is coming back. And I don’t see that All-Star (right now) being available.

I touched on this in a column Monday, but I can see both sides of the picks debate. I can see LeBron’s side; he’s 38 and in the middle of an MVP-level season. With a little help—and with Anthony Davis’s health—James can envision pushing the Lakers through a superteam-less conference field. Why does he care about a first-rounder in 2027? I thought our pal Brian Windhorst had a great note in a recent podcast: 20 years into his NBA career and LeBron has played with exactly five rookie first-round picks. Internally, I’m sure the Lakers are selling James on an offseason whenÂBradley Beal orÂDamian Lillard becomes available, and L.A. swoops in with its picks to acquire them. But that’s more fantasy than reality.

Still, I see the Lakers’ side, too. DoesÂBojan Bogdanović make them a title contender? DoesÂMalik Beasley? DoesÂChristian Wood? Is it worth expending draft capital—capital that L.A. might need in the post-LeBron era—to bring one of them in? What do you think?

Beck: I think it’s a mistake to view any potential trade as “championship-or-bust.” If that’s the standard for trading your picks, you’ll never make a deal. I don’t think there’s any single trade out there—now or in July—that will assure the Lakers of title contention. But the basic formula of LeBron + AD + shooters/quality role players at least gives you a chance at a meaningful playoff run. THAT is what they should be aiming for.

And maybe that will be the case. I’ve heard the Lakers and Pistons have discussed a deal that would include both Bogdanović and Nerlens Noel. Since the Pistons are demanding draft assets in any deal for Bogdanović, it’s sort of a given that the Lakers would have to surrender a first-round pick to make a deal. Maybe they make a second deal to fortify the rotation further. Will they be willing to trade both picks that are currently trade-eligible? The sense around the league is they won’t. But we’ll see.

So the Lakers are probably the most fascinating (potential) buyer. Who’s the most intriguing seller?

Mannix: Easy. Utah. Could the last few months have broken any more right for Danny Ainge? He gets a boatload of draft picks forÂRudy Gobert andÂDonovan Mitchell, gets off to the kind of fast start that makes fans forget—at least temporarily—about Gobert and Mitchell, develops a (possible) All-Star inÂLauri Markkanen and then watches his team sink in the standings after a string of (competitive) losses, which effectively gives him license to do what he probably wanted to do in the first place: make as many player-for-picks swaps he can before the deadline.

And you know what? He’s right to do it. It’s been a nice ride for Utah, but it’s over. If the Jazz can get first-round picks for Malik Beasley and Kelly Olynyk, if they can find a taker forÂMike Conley, they need to do it. This team doesn’t really gain much from competing for a play-in spot, in my opinion. What they need to do is lose, a lot, and put themselves in position to land a transformative player.

You agree? Or are you keeping your eye on someone else?

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Beck: I’m with you on the Jazz, for all the reasons you mentioned. Their early success was a nice story, but it was never going to be sustainable with a roster of role players. And I say that with all due respect to Markkanen—excuse me, THE FINNISHER—who’s been a revelation and deserves an All-Star nod. But the whole point of trading your two foundational stars is to let your team bottom out and give yourself a shot at a future star in the draft. Hovering around .500 does them no good.

So I’ll take it a step further: They should gauge the market for Markkanen, too. His value has never been higher. His stellar play might cause Utah to win too many games in the final months. And as great as he’s been, I don’t think anyone in the league views Markkanen as a player you build a contender around. He’s thriving in a small market, with zero expectations and zero pressure. Will he sustain this level when the Jazz become a playoff team again? If the Jazz have any doubts, they should look to move him now.

But I think the team generating the most buzz and curiosity is still the Raptors. They’ve badly underachieved. They’ve shown no signs of reviving themselves. They have a front office known for its boldness and creativity. And they have a wealth of talented players on reasonable contracts who could help a contender. So what do you think? Do they moveÂOG AnunobyFred VanVleetGary Trent Jr.?

Mannix: I’d definitely put the Raptors in the seller category. Masai Ujiri has never had much of a stomach for being mediocre, and that’s exactly what Toronto is. Scottie Barnes is untouchable, but other than that they should be—and I think they will be—open for business on anyone else. Anunoby generates the most interest when I talk to front-office people. A sturdy, two-way player shooting mid-30s from three-point range? You get at least one unprotected first-round pick back for a player like that—maybe more. It would be smart for the Raptors and Grizzlies—a team with a shot at making a run this season with young talent and draft capital to spare—to spend some time on the phones.

Then there’s Atlanta. I’m going to assume this is the year the Hawks finally offloadÂJohn Collins. But what else should they do? Ever since that conference finals run in 2021, they have been a disappointment. Nate McMillan is likely gone at the end of the season, and this team may have to think about a full rebuild aroundÂTrae Young.

Beck: Oh, the Hawks. What a weird and wholly frustrating team. I liked the trade forÂDejounte Murray. I still like Young, as maddening as he can be. The roster is talented. But the chemistry is clearly off, and they never have found a way to defend consistently. And yes, Young is probably going to be on his third head coach before too long. But is a minor shakeup enough? How much do they get for Collins? They’ll probably be sellers, but I don’t know how big a difference it makes this season.

If there’s one other clear seller in my view, it’s the Wizards. They’re going nowhere, again. They might loseÂKyle Kuzma to free agency this summer if they don’t trade him now. And they have some solid role players (thinkÂMonte Morris andÂRui Hachimura) who would be much more useful on a good team. Heck, they should be exploring trades forÂBradley Beal, given how bleak things have been there. But the Wizards are a very conservative operation, and one that’s always been reluctant to blow it up and bottom out. Do they surprise us this time?

Mannix: Now they are my team to watch. I expect Kuzma to move. He’s in (effectively) the last year of his contract and seems unlikely to be back in Washington next season. And there will be a strong market for a 20-point-per-game scorer who can rebound and has a decent three-point shot. Will Barton, who has fallen out of the rotation in recent weeks, is very available, too.

I’m not expecting Beal to move, but the Wiz have to at least start thinking about a post-Beal future. He is still a big-time scorer, but there’s nothing about this roster that makes you believe that Beal can prop it up into anything more than a lower-tier playoff team. The Wiz just have not hit on enough draft picks. Beal will be 30 next season and will have four years—four well-paid years—remaining on his contract. He’s also got a history of injuries that Washington has to be worried about. Frankly I’d be gauging the market for Beal right now, but with Beal’s no-trade clause, it’s a process best suited for the offseason.

So put the Wizards on your watch list. And then set your alerts for them this summer when I think the action could really pick up.Â

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