For all of the fantasizing that it generates, the trade deadline means very different things for different teams. While some front offices have the assets to add true difference-makers, others have already spent most of their war chests and are merely hoping to fill a minor hole or two with small deals. There aren't enough All-Stars to go around.
But that reality cuts both ways. While some teams really are a blockbuster away from championship contention, others are practically already there. As it stands right now, there are six teams within spitting distance of the top of the Western Conference, and what would constitute a successful trade deadline for each of them varies wildly.
So let's dig into those six contenders and figure out, given the restrictions that are at play and the players we either know or assume to be available, what such a dream scenario at the deadline would look like. Realistically, these are the best-case scenarios for those six teams as the Feb. 6 deadline approaches.
Best-Case Scenario: Somebody likes Kyle Kuzma more than they do
Kyle Kuzma set sky-high expectations for himself this season Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball were jettisoned in the Anthony Davis trade, but Kuzma remained. The organization trotted him out as a de facto mascot for the NBA Draft Lottery, and after a miserable season, he did plenty of things to endear himself to a weary organization. Wearing a "hand of the king" pin to the lottery spoke volumes on his self-awareness as a member of LeBron James' team. He even took Jeanie Buss out to dinner. Kuzma's entire offseason screamed "lifelong Laker."he was capable of being the Lakers' third star. Overtly or not, the Lakers endorsed that notion this offseason.
His season itself has not. Third stars aren't limited to 24.8 minutes per game, nor are they held out of high-leverage moments. The Lakers have been in 18 league-defined clutch situations, but Kuzma has been on the floor for only eight of them. A lot of that is contextual. With Davis and James occupying two front-court spots, Kuzma has had to compete with Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee for minutes alongside them, but if the Lakers really believed in Kuzma's stardom, they would likely force the issue regardless of fit. Kuzma has played less than 150 minutes alongside that pair. McGee is close to 500.
None of this is to suggest that Kuzma isn't a valuable player. He just happens to be redundant on this roster. While a third scorer would be welcome, Kuzma below-average 3-point shooting limits his off-ball value alongside James and Davis. He is hardly the defensive sieve he is made out to be, but he's far from a stopper, and the Lakers can't afford off-ball lapses in the postseason. He may not be a star for the Lakers, but there's a non-zero chance he could be a star for somebody else. It's not like 18-point, second-year scorers grow on trees.
The key to this entire deadline for the Lakers is somebody else having the faith in Kuzma that they once did, because beyond him, they have almost nothing to trade. They literally cannot legally trade a first-round pick at the moment. At 24, Kuzma is the youngest player on the Lakers' full-time roster. If they are going to find a wing stopper or a secondary ball-handler on the trade market, Kuzma is going to be involved.
It's just a matter of who believes in him. The Kings stand out as a potential option. Luke Walton coached Kuzma in Los Angeles, and Kuzma-for-Bogdan Bogdanovic swap crept up earlier this month. The rebuilding Pistons might view Kuzma, a Michigan-native, as a viable centerpiece in a Derrick Rose deal. It's unclear who exactly will seek Kuzma out, but somebody will, and Rob Pelinka's ability to cash in his one remaining trade chip will make or break this deadline for the Lakers.
Best-Case Scenario: Other potential Bradley Beal suitors exhaust their asset supplies
The Nuggets, more than any other contender, can afford to be patient. Arguably the three best players from last season's playoff run -- Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris -- are 25 or younger and under contract until at least 2022. The same is true of emerging star Michael Porter Jr. Only one player on their entire roster (Paul Millsap) is in his 30s, and they are so deep that a typical deadline deal holds minimal appeal. Yes, the Nuggets have short-term weaknesses, but most of them could be resolved through lineup reconfiguration. If they need better shooting on a given night, for instance, Mike Malone can simply reallocate some of Harris' minutes to Malik Beasley. Denver has a bit of everything. Its goal should be consolidation.
If the postseason proved anything for last year's Nuggets, it was the need for more star power. Denver scored only 103.5 points per 100 possessions in clutch situations during the 2019 playoffs, with Jokic and Murray both struggling in that setting. They scored only 186 combined points in their two Game 7s, and lost to the Portland Trail Blazers primarily because CJ McCollum was able to generate offense individually. The Nuggets need such a player. Porter may one day become one, but Denver's safest path toward that kind of stardom would be a trade. That caliber of player is not available now, but will be soon enough.
Bradley Beal is not eligible for a trade due to the extension he signed during the offseason. He will be on July 1, though, and reports are already painting a grim picture of his future in Washington. He is still only 26, under contract for two more years and has never indicated that market size mattered to him. If ever there was a star for the Nuggets to pursue, it would be him. They are in luck if they decide to do so. While they almost certainly would have lost out had Beal been dealt a year ago, most of the big-market star-hunters exhausted their trade assets over the summer. The Lakers, Clippers, Celtics and Nets aren't realistically in a position to outbid Denver anymore because of their big offseason splashes. Most of the teams that are just don't make sense on Beal's timeline.
New Orleans and Oklahoma City aren't in a rush. A few particularly ambitious franchises might not show such restraint. Golden State, for instance, could tempt the Wizards with D'Angelo Russell and their top draft pick. Miami has plenty of its own young talent to put on the table as well, and there are always sleeper suitors for players of Beal's caliber. A successful deadline for the Nuggets is one that wipes such suitors away. If Miami were to acquire Jrue Holiday or Chris Paul, for instance, that would take them out of the running. Golden State swapping Russell for veteran role players that fit with its existing core would do the same. The Nuggets are well-positioned as it is. Their concern at the deadline is everybody else.
Los Angeles Clippers
Best-Case Scenario: Toronto decides to become a seller
Auditing the Clippers for needs is nearly impossible given the limited sample size available for judgment. They have had a league-average defense since Dec. 15, for instance, but have had their three best defenders (Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and Patrick Beverley) available for only five of 16 games they've played in that span. Any external assessment of their weaknesses likely looks very different from the front office's own beliefs. The Clippers could easily stand pat and trust that, even in their current state, the healthy version of their roster still trumps everyone else.
On paper, though, there are two weaknesses to be found. The first is passing. The Clippers are 24th in the NBA in assist rate, and Lou Williams leads the team with only 6.2 per game. Size is the other. The Warriors played Ivica Zubac off of the floor in last year's playoffs, and as effective as Montrezl Harrell has been, he is only 6-8. A true two-way center would go a long way in their inevitable postseason war with the Lakers. Fortunately, one team is well-positioned to satisfy both needs with players Leonard knows quite well.
The Raptors . At 29-14, they currently hold the Eastern Conference's No. 3 seed, and like the Clippers, they've hardly seen their complete roster play together this season thanks to injuries. If, however, the organizational priority were to shift toward the future, Marc Gasol and Kyle Lowry would both be excellent fits for the Clippers. Gasol is the only high-level defensive center on the market who can also shoot 3s. Lowry would fill the playmaking void, but is positionally versatile enough to share lineups with Williams or Beverley if the situation called for it.
Matching salaries would be difficult. Lowry has a $35 million cap figure, while Gasol's isn't exactly cheap at $25.6 million. The Clippers have only their own 2020 first-round pick to offer in terms of meaningful draft capital, but Harrell, Landry Shamet and Jerome Robinson could pique Toronto's interest as well. The Raptors wouldn't sell either for cheap, especially given the PR nightmare that would inevitably follow helping the team that signed Leonard away, but no two players better fit what the Clippers currently need than Lowry and Gasol. Their best chance at filling those gaps at the deadline involves a change of heart in Toronto.
The Jazz already made Mike Conley reinjured his hamstring, and Utah needed a scoring guard off the bench in his absence. Conley has since returned, and has played well in his new bench role. Fortunately, the Clarkson deal served a second function. I explained the concept of using multiple trades to circumvent salary-matching restrictions in the Eastern Conference , specifically as it pertains to the Boston Celtics, and the Jazz are in a similar position.in acquiring Jordan Clarkson, but the move makes more sense as a stopgap. It came six days after
Dante Exum makes only $9.6 million. While the rules of matching salary vary depending on the numbers involved, Exum could only net Utah a player worth $5 million more than that in a one-for-one swap. Clarkson makes around $13.4 million, and under the same restrictions, that opens up bold new possibilities. The most ambitious? Andre Iguodala, who would be too expensive for Exum at $17.2 million, but fits within league rules in a one-for-one swap for Clarkson. Utah needed to make the first trade to position itself for the second.
And if the Jazz can pull an Iguodala coup off, they'll have filled their biggest remaining need. While Royce O'Neale has handled his perimeter defensive responsibilities admirably, at 6-4 he just isn't big enough to handle LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard in a playoff series. But Iguodala is, and considering the difficulty the other teams on this list would have in matching his salary, Utah may be in pole position for the best perimeter defender on the market so long as it is willing to commit the draft capital necessary to acquire him.
Best-Case Scenario: A slow deadline creates a robust buyout market
Houston's salary structure makes constructing any difference-making trade almost impossible. While Russell Westbrook and James Harden combine to make over $75 million, the Rockets have only three other players who make more than $3.5 million: Clint Capela, who is their only playoff-caliber center, P.J. Tucker, who is so essential defensively that no realistic trade for him would be worthwhile, and Eric Gordon, proud owner of an enormous four-year extension that makes him virtually untradable.
Even with more tradable salaries, Houston's luxury tax aversion makes improving difficult. The Rockets could have Brandon Knight's hefty expiring contract to trade right now had they not attached a first-round pick to dump it a year ago. Speaking of picks, they already owe two first-rounders to Oklahoma City, so they hardly have any assets to trade. The Rockets could theoretically aggregate some of their smaller salaries for a bigger one through trade, but roster-size constraints make doing so during the season extraordinarily difficult. Barring a surprise, the Rockets aren't making any big trades at the deadline.
But Daryl Morey loves using the buyout market to reinvent his bench, and a slow deadline creates the potential for more expiring deals to be bought out. The Rockets still have around $1.6 million of their Mid-Level Exception to offer prospective free agents beyond the minimum. Iguodala is obviously their first choice, and while he and some of the other big-ticket expiring contracts are likely to be traded, Houston managed to steal Austin Rivers and Kenneth Faried on the buyout market a year ago. Finding similarly impactful role players would be extremely helpful for their depleted bench.
Best-Case Scenario: They do absolutely nothing
The Mavericks are about to face two weeks of torturous temptation. With Dwight Powell now sidelined, they have minutes at center to fill. Another wing defender would be helpful as well, and both holes are fairly modest. Given their abundance of mid-tier salaries, filling them would take nothing more than a phone call.
But the macro view of Dallas' future makes one thing clear: waiting is its best path forward. The Mavs already owe two first-round picks to the Knicks. Giving up any more draft assets for a rental makes no sense for a team with such a bright future. Adding long-term salary is out the window as well. Dallas can create max cap space in the all-important summer of 2021, but it doesn't have much room to spare at the moment.
The Mavs could conceivably get better at the deadline, but is there really any benefit to doing so? As it stands right now, they are three games behind the Jazz and Nuggets for a top-four seed, but 2 1/2 ahead of the Thunder, who currently sit at No. 7. In all likelihood, they will be either the No. 5 of No. 6 seed anyway. Even if they win their first-round series, their reward would be a second-round thumping from the Lakers or Clippers. A couple of extra playoff games aren't worth what little trade assets remain. All the Mavericks have to do is stay the course. Assuming Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis remain healthy, they will be contending for championships in the very near future, and for quite some time after that. Jumping the gun now would only slow them down when it really counts.