We should take two lessons from last season's trade deadline, which started quietly before descending into madness over those frantic final 45 minutes.
The strange brew of shorter contracts and an unprecedented cap spike brings real incentives to stand pat -- "Why trade for this dude when he's about to hit free agency and we have cap space?" -- but also creates harder-to-spot variables that push teams toward action.
Never underestimate what unhappy, desperate teams might talk themselves into during the frenzy. There are only four teams with a realistic chance to win the title -- something that should dull the market -- but there is also a lot of angst around the league. Teams without extra first-round picks should hoard their own like gold, since they bring cheapo, set-in-stone rookie deals, but that didn't stop them last year.
After four days of skulking around with team executives in Toronto, let's bounce around some of the bigger questions as the NBA's annual bonanza approaches.
THE SPECTRE OF THE SUMMER
Teams unsure about the implications of the cap spike might put off big choices until the draft, which means June and July could be absolutely nuts.
That applies to two of the starry names riding the rumor mill: Kevin Love and Blake Griffin. Love's fit as a third wheel remains awkward, but the Cavs want to win the title, and they know their core is good enough to approach the finish line. Rejiggering things now would be a gamble. The Cavs might draw juicier offers in June; Boston dangled four first-rounders for Justise Winslow in the heat of draft night, after all.
The Cavs are hunting for upgrades, but Love isn't the bait -- yet. They have a rare open roster spot, and could wait for Brooklyn to buy out Joe Johnson.
Conflicting noise is spouting from Clipperville, but the smart money is on L.A. waiting until the summer to really get busy on the Griffin front. Doc Rivers wants to give this core one last postseason shot, and the Clips need Griffin just in case Kevin Durant picks them, triggering a Griffin-for-Durant sign-and-trade.
But the Griffin noise is real. He's no longer untouchable. The Clips are listening, even right now, and they've rarely listened before. If they get wind over the next four days that they're out of the Durant sweepstakes, they could accelerate the Griffin trade timetable. It would take a monster offer to pry him away before the draft, but the ground is trembling (As I've written before, Rivers needs to think very hard about whether trading Griffin is a good idea).
DWIGHT HOWARD AND THE MID-TIER SELL
Trade-niks have been lamenting the lack of sellers, but that creates a void for some non-traditional seller to slide a quality player onto the market and net a bounty in return -- especially when wannabe contenders like Houston, Chicago, Atlanta, and Memphis are hopelessly behind the Big Four. Before he broke his foot, Marc Gasol was my favorite sneaky theoretical trade target -- even though Memphis would never have gone through with it. The Grizz need to recoup lost picks, and in the land of short contracts, a true star locked up for years could rock the market. Alas, Gasol is hurt, and Mike Conley is on an expiring deal, playing the league's most loaded position.
Howard is at the epicenter of all these competing trends. Houston has been making calls on him for two weeks, but the Rockets have found little interest so far, per several league sources. Howard is 30, declining and about to enter free agency as the cap spikes to around $92 million -- the new estimate lots of teams are using after the league initially projected an $89 million ceiling for next season.
Howard wants a max deal that would start at $30 million per season. That would officially end the era of every contract looking fantastic amid an indefinitely rising cap. The league and union still project the cap to dip down after rising to a high around $108 million in 2017-18, and if that happens, Howard's theoretical max deal won't be some anomalous bargain like the contracts inked last summer under a $70 million cap. It will be pricey and constraining, and those are scary words attached to an aging center with a history of back, shoulder and knee issues.
It's hard to find a team willing to meet Houston in the middle. No team is a Dwight Howard away from vaulting into Warriors/Spurs/Cavs/Thunder territory; the Rockets contacted Toronto, perhaps the closest thing to a one-player-away team, and found zippo interest, sources say. The Celtics, loaded with ammo, have recoiled at paying a price Houston would find acceptable.
Houston needs to find a front office under pressure, that sees value in nabbing Howard's Bird Rights -- the ability to offer him one more year than any other suitor this summer. No one is quite sure how valuable that fifth year is under a rising cap. On the one hand, good players can sign three- or four-year max deals anywhere, re-enter free agency during their primes and sign another fat deal.
On the flip side, some players crave that extra year of security. People close to Al Horford, another sell-off target about to hit free agency, say he will value that fifth year more than almost every other variable in his free-agency calculus. If teams see a crowded free-agent bidding war for a player they like, they might feel an urgency to acquire him now and use that fifth year to get a leg up in that bidding war.
It's also a carrot that might coax a discount on annual salary. A rival team could offer Howard up to about $129 million over four seasons this summer. Howard becomes more appealing to his incumbent team if he's willing to spread that $129 million over five seasons, perhaps even on a flat contract, in exchange for an extra year. That savings could mitigate the obvious winner's curse here: If Howard's next contract is dicey, then what do you really gain with the right to pay him more money over more years?
If Houston anticipates a cool July market for Howard, those Bird Rights might be the reason the Rockets keep him: an edge re-signing him in July might be more valuable than the best offer they get today.
Only a few teams stand as plausible Howard destinations:
Miami Heat: Just last season, the Heat gave up two first-round picks for an impending free agent, Goran Dragic, they were confident they could re-sign on a below-max five-year deal. Houston coveted Dragic before he signed that mega-deal, and he has disappointed so far in Miami. The Heat are also facing a cap crunch in re-signing Dwyane Wade and Hassan Whiteside.
You could build a bunch of deals in which Miami sends out some combination of Dragic, Whiteside and Luol Deng for Howard, but there are factors working against it. Miami is over the tax and more likely to dump money. Houston is hard-capped, and can barely add a dime without violating league rules. Miami has questions about Howard's character and fit, sources say, and the Heat have been sniffing around cheaper 3-and-D wings -- including Randy Foye in Denver.
The Heat might also ask for Trevor Ariza, and that could be a deal-breaker; if Houston plays its cards right, the Rockets can keep Ariza on the books and still open up max cap space this summer for Durant.
By the way: Howard is getting a little creaky, but he's still damn good, and he turns it up in the playoffs.
New Orleans Pelicans: The Pelicans still like the idea of surrounding Anthony Davis with a bruiser; they've gone back and forth with the Bucks about Greg Monroe, sources say. New Orleans' roster is pretty bare going forward, and the team might feel pressure to salvage something from this disastrous, injury-riddled season.
The Pels and Rockets once flirted about a Ryan Anderson-Omer Asik swap, and the Pelicans now have both to send to Houston in exchange for Howard. But the Pelicans are sifting through a pile of potential Anderson offers, and teams have gotten the impression that Dell Demps, the New Orleans general manager, might not have the freedom to toss in a first-rounder after dealing three picks for Jrue Holiday and Asik. Other teams have offered to slap top-of-the-lottery protections onto New Orleans' 2016 pick, but that hasn't swayed the Pelicans, sources say. Teams are also confused about whether Mickey Loomis, a top executive for Tom Benson's New Orleans Saints, has the final say over Demps.
Anderson has drawn a ton of interest, considering his abysmal defense and approaching free agency; dude might earn $20 million per year on his next deal, and some teams would run from that contract. Detroit and Sacramento both hope to sign him in free agency, sources say, but the teams are deciding whether it might be safer to acquire him now and gain that fifth-year edge in the July auction.
Anderson thrived in Orlando under Stan Van Gundy, Detroit's coach, and he grew up around Sacramento. The Pistons badly want to make the playoffs after a seven-year wait, and they've shown some willingness to at least talk about dealing a protected 2016 first-rounder.
Washington Wizards: Failing to make the playoffs in the Year of Durant would be catastrophic, and possibly lead to blood-letting across the organization. The Wizards are getting Alan Anderson back soon as a pseudo-deadline acquisition, but that doesn't feel like enough, and teams that fall short of expectations are prone to bad short-term moves. Washington is already asking around about reserve big men, league sources say.
The Wiz could send Marcin Gortat, salary filler, and either a young player or a protected first-round pick. If Houston demands both, the Wiz probably walk away. The Rockets could absorb Gortat's salary and still wriggle their way to Durant-level cap space this summer -- especially since either Terrence Jones or Donatas Motiejunas is a lock to jet in free agency.
The Wiz are also a natural Anderson trade partner; John Wall would get him all the open 3s he could eat, and Washington has a readymade trade package in the Kris Humphries/Kelly Oubre combo. Oubre's an intriguing young player at a position of need; the Pelicans aren't doing much better than that. Washington is reluctant to trade Oubre, but he's barely playing, and the status quo hasn't worked.
There are rumors that Howard would like to end up in Atlanta, his hometown, and the Hawks stand as the mid-tier seller who could dictate this deadline if they make Horford available. With the cap jumping, any non-contender with a 30-ish player approaching free agency has to at least gauge the trade market. Horford's pectoral issues raise some health concerns, but he has been healthy for two years, and his silky game figures to age well.
To put it politely, the league is skeptical this is anything more than a Hawks fishing expedition designed to gin up one crazy offer for Horford. Wes Wilcox, Atlanta's GM, is asking teams to "wow" him, sources say, and no one is biting.
The Hawks might not be fretting as much as it seems about Horford walking. Horford will look around, and he likes the idea of playing in a bigger media market with a larger Dominican population, per several sources familiar with the matter. But he also cherishes the continuity Atlanta has built, and the Hawks understand he is the keystone to their culture of selflessness. If the Hawks keep Horford into the summer, they will have that extra fifth year in the quiver.
As for Howard, he doesn't fit Mike Budenholzer's system, he's older than Horford, and he's eligible for an even larger max contract.
A Jeff Teague deal is more likely, with the Bucks, Jazz, Nets, Knicks and perhaps even the Magic kicking the tires. The Bucks chased Teague in free agency three years ago, and they remain unconvinced that Michael Carter-Williams, coming off the bench again, is the long-term answer, league sources say.
The Jazz are sending out the stand-pat vibe, especially since they've been on a hot streak with Derrick Favors healthy, but no one ever really knows what's up in Utah. The Jazz should at least engage Atlanta about swapping Teague for the Trey Burke/Alec Burks Killer Bs package.
The Nets and Knicks don't have many assets; the Nets are testing the market for Thad Young and Brook Lopez -- they'd be irresponsible not to, even without a full-time GM -- and if they snare a first-round pick for one of them, Brooklyn could flip it for Teague.
There has never been more noise about the normally dormant Bulls, the last of the obvious mid-tier sellers. They could re-center their roster on Jimmy Butler by dealing Mike Dunleavy, Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah and other vets for younger players and draft picks. Unfortunately, Noah is out for the season, Dunleavy just returned and Gasol's deal will expire after only two seasons -- meaning anyone acquiring Gasol will only get his Early Bird Rights, which limits a team over the cap to an offer starting around $13 million. If Gasol wants more, that team will have to dip into its cap space.
The Bulls might also want quality rotation guys instead of just future assets; Chicago and Toronto had initial discussions on a Taj Gibson-Patrick Patterson swap that would give Chicago yet another stretch power forward and trim its tax bill, but those discussions appear to have led nowhere so far. Speaking of Toronto ...
THE RAPTORS AND THE WIN-NOW DILEMMA
A lot of signs in Drakeville point to stasis for the clear No. 2 team in the East. They're 14-2 in their past 16 games, and would be easy favorites over any potential No. 7 or No. 6 seed. Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross are on poison-pill deals that make them hard to trade; the Raps love Patterson, their most tradable, mid-sized contract; and Masai Ujiri, their GM, doesn't appear to be in love with any of the available power forwards who might displace Luis Scola, per several league sources.
But the Drakes are masters at keeping the marketplace guessing, and they have extra goodies to deal at a time when winning at least one playoff series is something like an organizational mandate. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan will never be better. The Scola-Valanciunas starting front line has been flammable on defense, and it's unrealistic for now to count on DeMarre Carroll and James Johnson filling those minutes as small-ball power forwards; Carroll's recovery time from knee surgery is uncertain, and Dwane Casey, the Raps coach, hasn't trusted Johnson.
You can understand why Ujiri might be wary of trading a first-round pick for Anderson, Young, Gibson, Kenneth Faried or Markieff Morris. None of those guys changes your life as a franchise. They bring baggage, holes in their game, or salary concerns for a team that will be capped out if they re-sign DeRozan. Those players don't catapult you into the conversation with the best Western Conference teams. Horford is a different story. It would take almost everything in the Toronto's arsenal to get him, but if they manage it, the Raps would have a good chance of re-signing him, sources say. Still, such a bold move is unlikely.
But even those non-Horford guys are better than what Toronto has, and that incremental improvement might be the difference in a quarter, a game, or a series for a team with ugly postseason demons. Toronto cannot flame out in the playoffs again -- not with its grand ambitions in free agency. If the Raptors advance to Cleveland, Toronto will need to switch the LeBron-Love pick-and-roll as often as possible; Scola isn't up for that.
A small boost might be worth it if it costs only one of the following three assets: Patterson, the Knicks pick and Toronto's 2016 first-rounder.
OF WILD CARDS AND RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
Quick notes on a few wild-card teams:
Portland Trail Blazers: The Blazers are being pulled in opposite directions. They are way ahead of schedule at 27-27, to the point that Neil Olshey, the team's deal-makin' GM, might pivot into "buy" mode if he finds a young-ish player who fits the timeline of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. The Blazers have pursued Monroe before, and despite Milwaukee striking a strong pose in some talks, Monroe could be had if some suitor tosses in a decent first-round pick.
Portland has $20 million in cap room to play with, plus two restricted free agents -- Allen Crabbe and Meyers Leonard -- due big raises under the skyrocketing cap. Teams queasy about paying their restricted free agents ditched them at least season's deadline, when Brandon Knight, Reggie Jackson and Enes Kanter flew around the league.
The Blazers are high on Crabbe, but Leonard's asking price in preseason extension talks gave them sticker shock. (The restricted free-agency thing is yet another reason to keep an eye on Boston, with both Jared Sullinger and Tyler Zeller ticking toward it).
Alas, the Blazers owe their pick to Denver if they make the playoffs, and given Olshey's draft record, he might prefer to keep it. My best guess: Portland avoids an upgrade, uses its space to nab a couple of extra second-rounders and resumes its pursuit of Monroe -- or someone else -- around draft time.
Orlando Magic: It might be time for a shake-up that adds more shooting, or unclutters a positional logjam. Tobias Harris was the odd man out with Tuesday's trade to the Detroit Pistons for Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova.
In this bizarro NBA, Harris' four-year deal with declining annual salary brings the value of certainty: You know you're getting him for his full prime.
Evan Fournier is another restricted free agent heading toward a raise. The Magic love him, but they might listen.
Indiana Pacers: Larry Legend keeps things close to the vest, and Indy doesn't have a lot of expendable pieces with league-wide appeal. The Pacers are also generally protective of their draft picks. But teams will call about some of their guys, including Ian Mahinmi, and the Pacers are quietly confident they can be a problem in the playoffs if they win a deal on the fringes.
10 Things I Like and Don't Like
1. Zach LaVine and Aaron Gordon, forever
The league has already started talking about a rematch, and this absolutely needs to happen. LaVine is the best dunker since peak Vince Carter, and perhaps the best dunker in basketball history. He's only 20, and he won't be a real All-Star anytime soon. He won't graduate out of the dunk contest, though he must feel some pressure about conjuring new tricks as the hype grows.
LaVine should make this contest his thing -- his All-Star tradition. The dunk contest will be "back" as long as he's in it, and he seems like the kind of guy who might want to establish the first dunk contest dynasty. Why couldn't he win five years in a row?
The league wasn't prepared for a prolonged battle of perfect 50s, and it felt as if we were going on and on until someone made a mistake -- the NBA version of a spelling bee in which the final two contestants keep getting it right. One solution: Declare co-winners earlier. Would anyone have complained?
Wyc Grousbeck, the Celtics owner, offered another solution in a few chit-chats with higher-ups after the dunk contest, sources say: giving each judge a "golden 11" score to use only once over the full contest. That would introduce some suspense and break ties earlier. I'm not sure anyone wanted that dunk contest to stop, but it's an interesting idea.
2. Aaron Gordon, doing crazy stuff in regular games
Heads-up to casual fans: The dunk contest's breakout star does bananas stuff in the flow of regular games -- put-back dunks, baseline hammers, chase-down rejections and "where in the hell did he come from????!!" close-outs like this:
3. Big men in the Skills Challenge
That was by far the best Skills Challenge I can remember. One small change transformed the whole event. We saw one big man gaffe -- Boogie losing the ball on one of his first dribbles -- and the awesome site of all the bigs storming the court as Karl-Anthony Towns dueled Isaiah Thomas on those final, rushed Pop-A-Shot 3s. There was real joy in what had been a silent, blah event.
4. The lax penalties of the Skills Challenge
It's too easy to recover from botching the chest pass through the glow-in-the-dark tire. Players can move on after three misses, and if the first one rattles out, they whip the next two blindly to get their three attempts out of the way. Guys who aim true on the first try deserve a bigger lead.
5. Toronto, All-Star host
Yeah, it was arctic. That put a damper on party-hopping; once you were in one place, you didn't want to leave. But if you play All-Star right, you don't have to be outdoors for more than 20 minutes combined over four days. Stop whining.
Toronto is a fantastic city, and a near-perfect All-Star host. It should get another shot within the next 10 years. It's easy to get around the compact downtown area, and everything is close together. In L.A., you spend half your time in traffic. In Orlando, you waste hours on shuttle buses traversing desolate landscapes between spread-out events.
If we just got run-of-the-mill cold -- if it were 25 degrees instead of below zero -- everyone would have loved Toronto's All-Star year. Let's do it again.
6. The death of Shooting Stars
In a bloated night of a thousand commercial breaks, this baby takes only 10 minutes start to finish, and the NBA scrapped it without explanation. It's fun watching retirees, current players and WNBA stars launch half-court shots! The league clearly -- and correctly -- concluded no one would ever dethrone the legend Swin Cash, but the Cash-Chris Bosh-Dominique Wilkins dynasty deserves a chance to extend its rule.
7. Canadian tuxedo
The league's entertainment crew built multiple Jumbotron segments around American players guessing the meaning of Canadian phrases like loonie, poutine and kerfuffle. (I was unaware kerfuffle was a Canadian thing, and not just a regular word).
The game included "Canadian tuxedo," and I had forgotten this glorious term for an all-denim outfit before Stephen Curry guessed it. What a perfect piece of language. We should use it more in America.
8. Damian Lillard's lunge-back jumper
Let's honor a few borderline candidates absent from the weekend. Lillard's snub drew the loudest objections, and he's the main reason Portland has demolished expectations -- including mine -- after losing four starters to free agency. Lillard is Curry Lite -- a point guard who launches off-the-dribble 3s through teensy windows with enough accuracy to drag opponents out of their standard pick-and-roll defense.
Few players create more space with step-back moves, and Lillard's long-distance moonwalks help him manufacture at least semi-open looks under crunch-time harassment:
9. Reggie Jackson's 1-4-5 cha-cha
Teams have been smart about switching the Jackson-Ersan Ilyasova pick-and-roll, sliding a little guy onto Ilyasova, and daring the Pistons to post him up. Ryan Anderson looms as a potential upgrade over Ilyasova precisely because he has learned to exploit those switches with a funky mix of bully-ball, spin moves and step-backs. He's also an elite offensive rebounder.
The switch leaves a power forward on Jackson, and most power forwards are fast enough to at least make Jackson work for a good look. Centers are slower, and Jackson has adjusted by shifting right into a pick-and-roll with Andre Drummond:
Most defenses switch again, figuring they already have a big man on Jackson anyway, but that second switcheroo gives Jackson an extra speed advantage -- and an easier path to the rim.
10. Nikola Vucevic's weirdo pivoting
Vooch's defensive limitations contribute to Orlando's stagnancy and his permanent All-Star snub status, but he gets more polished on offense every season. Teams have to honor his jump shot out to 20 feet, and he has gotten better zipping passes around double teams.
He also has a nifty array of quick-hitting, reverse-pivot moves and head fakes that confuse defenders expecting standard fare:
There aren't many seven-footers busting out moves like that at high speed. Stay strange, Vooch.