As the trade deadline approaches, executives across the league are using the same word to describe the market: "clogged." As in, clogged with available players no one wants for the desired price, and clogged with bloated long-term salaries -- stinky leftovers from the 2016 cap spike -- no one wants at (almost) any price.
Derrick Favors is a useful bellwether. He is a good player on an expiring $12 million contract, and very much on the market, according to several league sources and prior reports. In past financial crunches, a team in Utah's situation could have extracted a ton of value by peddling a decent-sized expiring contract.
The model was simple: You need payroll relief, and we have a solid player on an expiring contract. Rent Favors, and send us a good player on a long-term deal -- plus a draft pick for our trouble. Utah is not a free-agent destination, so snagging a starter on a long-term contract in exchange for a guy walking out the door could be a win -- free agency via trade.
Then you scan the pile of available guys on long-term deals and realize: There might not be a single one the Jazz want. Ditto for Dallas (sitting on $13 million in cap space), Phoenix ($10 million), or any team dangling a big expiring contract. Who wants any of the multiyear, eight-figure deals clogging cap sheets in Portland, Milwaukee, Charlotte, Miami and elsewhere? The summer of 2016 warped everything.
Some teams with big expirings -- the Lakers with Brook Lopez and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope; Minnesota with Cole Aldrich; the Blazers with Ed Davis -- aren't in position to take any long-term money back. Some are capped out; others (e.g., the Lakers) are hoarding space for this summer.
At the same time, who is trading a first-round pick to rent Favors, Rodney Hood, Tyreke Evans, Lou Williams, or any other potential difference-maker on an expiring deal? Only a few teams can talk themselves into having any shot against Golden State or Houston, and a few of those -- Toronto, Oklahoma City, even the Rockets themselves -- already forked over first-rounders in prior trades.
Houston and Washington traded first-rounders at last year's deadline, but they accomplished two things in those deals: They bolstered their roster, and got off dead money. That double merited forking over a pick. New Orleans tossed away a pick to grab Nikola Mirotic, and offload Omer Asik's hideous deal.
Doing both of those things in one trade is hard. Capped-out teams really, really do not want to cough up a first-rounder to accomplish just one of them -- the jettisoning of unwanted contracts. That hurts. That is also what teams with cap flexibility are charging for absorbing those contracts. The common ground is narrow.
Some bad teams with dead money don't have much incentive to unload it if doing so costs them a first-round pick. Take the Magic: They'd love to get off the horrific deal that will pay Bismack Biyombo $17 million per year through 2019-20, but why should they give up any draft picks to do it now? They stink, they're OK stinking to chase the No. 1 pick, and they aren't in danger of going over the tax this season or next. Starting Biyombo helps them stink. The price for dumping his contract will decline the minute the calendar flips to July 1, and it ticks one year closer to expiration.
It's tough finding impact trades in which the situations of two teams align. Good luck if you need a third team. There will be a bunch of deals. There always are. Unexpected stuff will happen. But we may get a pile of smaller, lateral deals -- and no blockbuster sequel to the Blake Griffin trade.
With that in mind, let's bounce around the league.
• If Utah, now on a six-game winning streak, gets a first-rounder of any sort for either Favors or Hood without also absorbing blah contracts, it will be a victory.
Hood is solid. Everyone in the league needs wings. The Jazz know him best, and have clear concerns about his night-to-night availability. Sometimes a team-player relationship runs its course.
But I would be in no hurry to give up on a rangy wing with proven 3-point range and off-the-bounce chops. That is especially true in the current cap environment, outlined expertly Monday morning by ESPN's Brian Windhorst and Bobby Marks.
Only a half-dozen or so teams have real room this summer. A few of those -- Atlanta, Phoenix, probably Chicago -- seem disinclined to spend it on veterans. Who is backing up the Isaiah Thomas Memorial Brinks Truck for Hood? The answer might be: nobody.
A lot of quality free agents are going to discover their market tops out at the larger midlevel exception reserved for teams over the cap, but under the tax -- around $9 million per season. But some teams won't use that, since doing so would take them over (or perilously close to) the tax -- and trigger a hard cap right above it.
That leaves the baby midlevel (about $5 million per year), the biannual exception ($3.3 million-ish), and minimum salaries. Teams are going to get good players at the minimum this summer.
Teams -- even those over the cap -- can pay their own free agents as much as they'd like, up to the max, due to a mechanism called "Bird rights." With money so tight, Bird rights become more valuable. Teams could almost wield them as a cudgel against veteran free agents in July: "No one is offering you more than the midlevel, but we can. Take this flat deal. It's a win for you."
And even if a team decides it still doesn't want to retain its own free agent that way in July, it can use that same Bird rights leverage in a sign-and-trade. It could be a win-win: The player gets paid, and his team gets more in return than it could today.
This could apply to almost any impending free agent with full Bird rights: Hood, Favors, Avery Bradley, Will Barton, Williams, Julius Randle, and others. (It does not apply to Evans; the Grizzlies do not have his Bird rights, since he is on a one-year deal.)
• Another example: Marcus Smart. Our Adrian Wojnarowski reported over the weekend that Boston has made Smart available in exchange for a first-round pick. Smart will enter free agency after extension talks with Boston fizzled, and depending on a few variables, paying him could take the Celtics into the tax. Things get hairier when Kyrie Irving's inevitable new max deal kicks in after next season.
Boston could try to flip Smart now instead of losing him for nothing. And given that whatever team trades for him would control Smart's free agency via matching rights, he's one of the few guys who might plausibly net a first-rounder.
(Boston may want that extra pick to swap for someone like Evans or Williams. That would be paying very high -- probably too high for Boston's taste -- but trading a pick you get as part of a multistep contingency is not quite the same as trading from your preexisting stash. If not for Step 2 -- acquiring Evans, Williams, whoever -- there is no Step 1. This kind of setup lends itself to three-team deals, too.)
• Rival executives say the Cavs are acting as if they are not going to trade the Nets pick. What a dilemma, for all the LeBron-centric reasons we've discussed -- a dilemma made thornier by the team's utter, humiliating implosion.
Finding a good target for that Nets pick is really hard. DeMarcus Cousins is injured. The Thunder appear ready to ride it out with Paul George. DeAndre Jordan isn't quite worth it. The current version of Carmelo Anthony is, umm, not close to worth it.
Some folks have pitched deals centered around C.J. McCollum. Portland continues to reject any inquires on McCollum and Damian Lillard, sources say. A package of Kevin Love and the Nets pick would be too much for Cleveland; swapping Love for McCollum doesn't really move the needle anyway. A package centered around Tristan Thompson and the Nets pick may not be enough for Portland.
• Marc Gasol makes a ton of sense as a Nets pick target, but the Grizzlies appear happy to stand pat; the two teams have had no dialogue about any Gasol-centric deal, per league sources.
• Gasol's age makes him a suboptimal match for a post-LeBron doomsday scenario. That's why two weeks ago on a Lowe Post podcast, I pitched the idea of swapping the Nets pick for Aaron Gordon. This was pure speculation, to be clear. I just made up a fake trade.
The Cavs would get a 22-year-old who can shoot 3s and switch across all five positions -- someone who can help against Golden State (and, really, anyone) and remain with the team (via restricted free agency) for the next half-decade.
Orlando would do this only if they are squeamish about paying Gordon something like $20 million per season. He might draw a giant offer sheet this summer. Orlando probably shouldn't be squeamish. Trade Gordon, and you have almost nothing beyond Jonathan Isaac to show for years of post-Dwight tanking. Gordon is really good. He will get better. Even at a big salary, he is worth more than the typical No. 6, 7 or 8 pick on a cost-controlled rookie-scale salary.
• Speaking of Orlando: Everyone but Gordon and Isaac is readily available, per sources around the league. Most expect Elfrid Payton, a free agent this summer, to be elsewhere by next season, and I'd agree.
• You can build Charlotte-Cleveland deals in which the Cavs get Kemba Walker and Nicolas Batum for Isaiah Thomas, the Brooklyn pick and about $25 million more in outgoing salary. The two sides have talked at least vaguely, league sources say.
But even those are tough to construct. If the Hornets have to take both Thompson and J.R. Smith, they might view the return -- even with the Nets pick -- as selling too low on Walker. Including Cleveland's pick instead is probably a nonstarter for Charlotte.
The Cavs are already paying a ghastly repeater tax bill. Batum and Walker make $34.4 million combined this season. Send out any less than that -- Thompson, Thomas, and Iman Shumpert make $32.9 million combined, for instance -- and Dan Gilbert pays several multiples of the difference. You might not care about Gilbert's money. LeBron definitely doesn't. But Gilbert does.
There is a deal out there for the Nets pick that makes sense. There is always one we miss, buried in the weeds. Unearthing it isn't easy.
• The Clippers are still open for business. The Rockets, Bucks and Blazers have all poked around Jordan, but nothing has gotten anywhere near serious. (Wojnarowski said on a podcast Monday that the Blazers have "backed away" on Jordan for now. The Rockets and Clippers got fairly far along on a Jordan deal a year ago, sources have said, but with Clint Capela's emergence, the Rockets don't have a real need. It's unclear how recently the two teams even talked.)
The Wizards have investigated the market for Jordan without gaining any traction, sources say. A package of Marcin Gortat, Jason Smith (perhaps heading to a third team), Kelly Oubre and a first-round pick has long been my favorite realistic Jordan package. Oubre is up for an extension after this season. Washington will have trouble paying Oubre, Bradley Beal, John Wall and Otto Porter.
Of course, they'd also have trouble paying Jordan, Beal, Wall and Porter. (They could trade Porter, but it's unclear if the Clippers have any interest.) Interest leaguewide would be higher if Jordan signaled he might opt into his deal for next season, but that hasn't happened, sources say. The salary mechanics between Washington and LA are tricky; the Wiz are over the tax, the Clippers barely under it.
• Portland is $3 million over the tax, and when a non-contender gets that close, it usually tries to duck it. Maurice Harkless is the name to watch. He earns about $11 million per year through 2020, and he has largely fallen out of the rotation. But he's still just 24, with the raw ingredients of a modern NBA wing who can slide up to power forward. A bullish team with an expiring contract might take a shot on him if the Blazers toss in a second-round pick.
Would the Mavs exchange Josh McRoberts' expiring $6 million deal for Harkless? That gets Portland under the tax, but it also cannibalizes the Mavs' cap space this summer. They have bigger ambitions for that space, but they've had bigger ambitions since 2011.
• You know the Rockets will kick around any way to upgrade this roster, even on the fringes. They are all-in to chase Golden State now.
• The Warriors are trying to beef up their bench given wobbly play from Andre Iguodala, Patrick McCaw, Omri Casspi and Nick Young. They inquired about Avery Bradley, but got nowhere, league sources say. That's not surprising; the Warriors have little to deal beyond minimum-salaried players, second-round picks starting in 2020, and first-rounders they obviously won't flip for bench guys.
Could they coax Brooklyn into a Patrick McCaw-Joe Harris swap? Both teams would probably demand a second-round pick as sweetener, leading to a stalemate. Harris is better now, but McCaw is four years younger. The deal would add about $200,000 to Golden State's salary bill -- plus tax -- and believe it or not, the owners actually care.
Harris will be an unrestricted free agent this summer; McCaw will be restricted. McCaw has been so uneven, the monster offer sheet Golden State feared may not be coming. The Warriors could just keep him.
None of Golden State's other expendable minimum guys have any value.
• Expect the Nets to be active listening to offers for Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie. Parting with either would hurt; the Nets justifiably feel proud of the work they have put in with both. Dinwiddie has been their best player this season. But Harris is a free agent who will have suitors, and Dinwiddie's trade value may never be higher; he will make just $1.6 million next season before entering free agency in July 2019.
If someone offers a first-rounder for him, they will think hard. The bet here is he stays put.
• Denver is in the awkward spot of needing to cut money from next season's payroll without hurting their current team. The most likely scenario with Nikola Jokic's potential free agency remains Denver declining his cheapo option for next season, making him a restricted free agent in July (as opposed to unrestricted in a year), and paying him the max. Do that, and you're likely in the tax before paying Will Barton -- an unrestricted free agent this summer.
Denver could trade Barton now, but it appears to be fine holding onto him and risking that he walks for nothing, per league sources. The Nuggets have his Bird rights for sign-and-trade purposes. They will have to attach a draft pick to dump Kenneth Faried. That would hurt.
Sam Amick of USA Today reported last week that Denver has discussed Darren Collison deals with the Pacers. (Collison will miss the next few weeks after undergoing knee surgery, the Pacers announced Monday.) Marc Stein of The New York Times reported Monday that Denver has looked into Smart. They've also kicked the tires on Cory Joseph, league sources say, but Joseph has a $7.9 million player option for next season. Only $2 million of Collison's deal is guaranteed. Unless they know Joseph will decline that option -- hard to tell -- the salary difference matters to Denver.
• Ditto for Garrett Temple and his $8 million player option for next season. He's available, and solid, but the option is a turnoff.
• The Wolves have been cautious even discussing the 2018 first-round pick they own via the Thunder, sources have said. (Minnesota owes its own pick to the Hawks.) The Wolves know they will need cheap rookie-scale guys as Andrew Wiggins and then Karl-Anthony Towns age into max deals. Gorgui Dieng could likely be had, but who is excited about paying him this season and then more than $48 million over the next three years?
• The Sixers are acting as buyers, per league sources. They have only one extra first-round pick left, so that might limit their purchasing power to whatever they can nab for second-rounders.
• Miami does not appear to have traction on anything major, league sources say.
• Toronto is already out a first-round pick via the DeMarre Carroll salary dump, but they will hunt up until 3 p.m. Thursday for this season's version of the P.J. Tucker buzzer-beater. They need a dose of shooting. So do a lot of other teams.