Big questions, lots of answers before NBA trade deadline

Will another NBA star be on the move before the deadline? Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Only a week or so ago, most league executives anticipated a quiet deadline. So many teams were in desperate win-now mode, few would sell off quality veterans to the grease the trade wheels. Teams just outside the contender circle wouldn't mortgage the future for a suicide mission against Golden State and Cleveland.

Ha, ha. Orlando fell so far out of the playoffs, it had no choice but to salvage something from Serge Ibaka -- and the Raptors, flailing pseudo-contenders at the time, scooped him up to chase a suddenly wounded Cavs team. Sacramento punted on their playoff chase by sloughing away DeMarcus Cousins ahead of a draft in which they do not even control their own pick.

Two teams staring at bloated salary sheets -- Milwaukee and Portland -- trimmed their future obligations ahead of a looming cap crunch.

New rules and a new financial reality hover over this deadline. After leaping from $63 million in 2014-15 to $94 million this season, the cap is set to flatten out at just over $100 million in both 2017-18 and 2018-19, per the league's latest projections. Teams who lavished players with mega-deals over the last two summers could find themselves trapped in 2018 and 2019, as guys on cheapo rookie deals graduate to mammoth veteran contracts. First-round picks, minimum salaries, and cap holds will all be fatter under the new deal.

That could lead to the sort of cost-cutting deals we used to see under the old, flat cap. Expiring contracts might even have trade value again someday! Teams without much future space might flip real assets for players under contract, instead of waiting until free agency to sign whomever they'd like.

We're not there yet, and we may never get back to a 2010-style world in which only a few teams have real cap room; plenty are set for big space this July, and the league could tap new revenue sources that will lift the cap higher than expected in the future.

But we're not in 2015 or 2016 anymore, either. The era of free money is over. Other teams could hunt money-saving deals in the future, especially if they splurge in free agency again this summer.

The revamped collective bargaining agreement brings key new rules: the designated player extension for certain stars, and two-way contracts for players who shuttle between the D-League and the parent team -- deals that could make second-round picks more valuable trade chips.

Teams are still scouring the CBA, seeking loopholes and leverage points. Some might wait until the draft in June, when they understand it completely, to make big deals.

But we've already had some action, and we'll get more. Let's bounce through the biggest questions as 3 p.m. Thursday approaches:

Will Boston sit tight again?

Fans are growing impatient as Boston sits on its treasure trove. They showed limited interest in Ibaka and Cousins, and some of their best assets are starting to age. Picks have become players, and some of those players are overseas because Boston can't fit everyone on its roster. They've already cut R.J. Hunter, the 28th pick in 2015, and they've dangled former No. 17 pick James Young across the league for at least a year.

Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley will be on expiring contracts next season, seeking huge raises for 2018-19 and beyond; their trade value -- or Bradley's, anyway, since Thomas isn't going anywhere -- declines every day. Al Horford is almost 31, and several other key guys are 26 and older. What is Danny Ainge waiting for?

Boston is threading a tricky needle. Before they lost Kevin Durant, the Thunder talked about the possibility of contending for titles for something like 15 straight seasons instead of flaming out after a half-decade of ring-chasing. That's why Sam Presti, their GM, kept the back of the roster stocked with extra picks, and then turned those extra picks into young players on rookie scale contracts. The coffers would always be full.

The Thunder are no longer contending. Durant left, and he reportedly grew frustrated with Oklahoma City's inability to land quality veterans.

Boston is at no risk of losing a player near Durant's caliber, and if they simply keep their picks, they have a chance to be very good for a very long time. The status quo is the safest route. They won't jeopardize it for a rental (Ibaka) or a ball-dominant star who could ruin their culture (Cousins).

They have talked intermittently with the Clippers about Blake Griffin in recent weeks, per several league sources, but a deal is extremely unlikely. Griffin will be a free agent this summer, and Boston would probably need official permission to talk to him about his future -- a concession Minnesota allowed Cleveland before the Kevin Love trade. The Clips would ask for a bounty, starting with Jae Crowder and one of the Avery Bradley/Marcus Smart duo, plus picks, per league sources.

Boston could contend now and later by dealing some of its chips for an in-his-prime stud under contract, which is why they've zeroed in on Jimmy Butler and Paul George. Snag one, and Boston could still open more than $25 million in cap space this summer if they renounce their rights to Kelly Olynyk. That's not quite enough for a veteran max deal, but the Celtics could sniff that territory if they shed Jordan Mickey and Terry Rozier, convince overseas guys to stay abroad one more year, or get lucky with an unexpected cap bump next season. (Note: If any of those variables flip the wrong way, Boston can't quite get there as constituted.)

Indiana continues to reject any calls about George, per several league sources. They are banking on the new CBA to help retain George; if he makes the All-NBA team this season, they could offer him the new designated mega-extension before he even hits free agency -- a super-rich contract no rival could approach.

One problem: George probably isn't making it unless someone gets hurt. There are only six forward spots on the All-NBA teams, and George ranks behind at least seven guys: Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Draymond Green, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, and Butler.

The Pacers could still offer the mega-contract in July 2018, but they wouldn't know if George qualified for the deal until just before he hits unrestricted free agency. Talk about taking it to the wire.

Dealing for Butler carries some risk if the Bulls gore Boston. Swap the 2017 Nets pick, Jaylen Brown, Smart, and at least one other non-Nets first-rounder, and you've tossed away a lot of your future to build a team that still might not be on Cleveland's level. LeBron is that good. What if you're left with a good team, but not a great one, as Horford approaches his mid-30s -- and Thomas demands a max contract?

About that: Depending on what happens this summer, the pool of money for free agents in July 2018 -- when Bradley and Thomas enter free agency -- could be much shallower than we're used to after recent spending bonanzas. Teams like the Knicks, Lakers, Heat, Mavs, and Suns could all be out of the max-level contract game in 2018 if they fill up their space this summer. A ton will happen between now and then, and it only takes one offer to set the market. But Boston has at least a sliver of hope they might be able to squeeze on those guys a bit.

Regardless: a deal for Butler now seems unlikely, unless the Bulls are posturing. There is some debate over whether Boston did or did not ever include the 2017 Nets pick in an official offer, but they'd have to for Chicago to really engage. Perhaps clarity will come at the lottery, after Chicago sees how far Butler can take their current team and everyone knows where Boston will pick. (New rules allow Boston to place protection on the Nets pick. But even if they could offer a top-1 or top-2 protected pick to Chicago, it's not clear they would, and it's not clear that Chicago would accept it.)

Chicago might even demand both the 2017 and 2018 Brooklyn picks. The 2018 pick isn't as valuable as this year's, since the Nets could sign a few free agents and inch up the standings. But name one team that is a lock to be worse than Brooklyn next season. Look at that roster!

Right now, it looks like Boston and Chicago will continue their staring contest past Thursday. But you never know what might happen at 2:55 p.m. A last-minute about-face shouldn't shock anyone.

Who else wants to win now?

The Clippers are still kicking the tires on everything, including their pipedream of snaring Carmelo Anthony from the Kazoos without giving up any of their core four guys. They've called about almost every available small forward type, but no one is in a rush to take Jamal Crawford, Austin Rivers, and a distant first-round pick. That won't get them Wilson Chandler, and the Wiz threw their phones on the floor when the Clippers inquired about Otto Porter, per league sources.

(The Nuggets, for their part, are seeking a lottery-protected first-round pick and swap rights on another pick for Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, sources say. They want that No. 8 spot in the West, but they think they can get it even if they surrender one of those guys.)

The Clippers might be the biggest wild-card in the league over the next five months. Griffin has looked explosive since his return from knee surgery, but L.A. is three games behind Houston for the No. 3 seed with Chris Paul out another few weeks. They have been hopeless against Golden State. They started this season happy, but the mood has soured at points, and they've gone through severe bouts of angst in prior years. Three of their top four players are headed to free agency, and their coach/president hates rebuilding.

Utah is all-in to keep Gordon Hayward, but they also need to shed some salary before their army of young players ink pricey new deals. They've tested the market for Derrick Favors over the last few weeks, according to several league sources; Favors hasn't been quite the same since coming back from injury, and Utah plays Favors and Rudy Gobert together for only 10 or 12 minutes per game.

Utah's seriousness on Favors is unclear; they are mum as usual, and they don't want to weaken their team ahead of the playoffs with Hayward heading to free agency. Favors is still an important player. They could be testing the market ahead of a trade around the draft.

Meanwhile, Utah has about $13 million in cap room to use at the deadline. They could absorb someone else's unwanted salary and extract something -- a pick, or a useful player -- as the price. If they still have that room after the deadline, here's betting Utah offers George Hill a big raise this season as part of a contract extension.

If Hill takes the deal, it could be a tell that Hayward is coming back -- or that Hill is worried about his lingering toe pain.

Hayward is neck-and-neck with George in the All-NBA race, but in a weird twist, the Jazz might not be able to offer him the designated player mega-deal if he earns a spot. Hayward is about to wrap his seventh season; players can ink that deal as an extension after seven seasons only if they are under contract for the following season. Hayward won't be if he declines his $16 million player option for 2017-18.

He could pick up that option and immediately sign the designated player extension to kick in for 2018-19. That may actually be his most lucrative path, even though he could earn much more than $16 million next season if he opts out and signs a brand new contract. If he opts out, Utah's home-court advantage shrinks.

This is probably all moot, since Hayward -- like George -- hangs just outside the All-NBA picture. Hayward could also sign a shorter three-year contract that would fling him back into free agency after his 10th season, the moment he becomes eligible for the largest possible max deal.

Toronto and Washington are both eager to add another rotation player, per several league sources. The Raps roster is a little heavy on bigs after the Ibaka deal, and they still have trade chips -- all their own picks, and some interesting young guys. They have the maximum 15 players under contract, but if necessary, they could waive Jared Sullinger to clear a roster spot.

Any deal involving an expensive Drakes veteran will probably wait until the summer, when the team faces a severe luxury tax crunch.

Several reports have linked the Wiz to Lou Williams, and Washington has indeed explored trading a protected first-round pick for the king of the 2-for-1. That makes me a little queasy, despite Williams' monster season and an affordable $7 million contract that runs through 2017-18 -- big for a capped-out team with limited means to boost the roster in free agency.

Williams' game doesn't hold up as well in the playoffs, when referees don't buy his flailing and opponents pick at his defense over and over. He doesn't move the needle enough toward Cleveland territory to justify sending out a precious chance at nabbing a cheap young player. Washington could also use the midlevel exception -- a real tool again! -- to land a decent backup this summer, though that might rocket them into the luxury tax once they re-sign Porter.

Wait out the Lakers, and Washington might be able to get Williams for a couple of second-rounders.

What else is happening?

  • Our Chris Haynes reported the Pacers have floated their first-round pick in search of a veteran, which fits the general notion that a 29-28 mediocrity needs more to sway George. The roster is overloaded with bricky dribblers and plodding bigs; the Pacers need someone who can shoot, and play either on the wing or at power forward. They probably won't find a great fit. They didn't take a real look at Ibaka, sources say, and they're better off keeping the pick after flipping one for Thad Young. Indiana has drafted well on balance. We gush over Houston's ability to reload without bottoming out, but Indiana did the same thing; they haven't won fewer than 32 games since 1989!

  • The Bucks are doing their due diligence to see if they can step into a seller's void, sources say. They'll at least listen on anyone but Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker, Thon Maker, and Khris Middleton, though the main potential Greg Monroe landing spots have dried up. (Monroe seems likely to decline his $17.8 million player option for next season, at least as of now, a move that would give the Bucks an unexpected batch of cap space.) The Plumlee trade relieved any short-term cap stress, giving the Bucks a little more leverage.

    Minnesota has expressed a tepid interest in Tony Snell, who played under Tom Thibodeau in Chicago, sources say.

  • As David Aldridge reported over the weekend, Portland and Philly were very close to a Jahlil Okafor deal, according to several league sources. The Sixers did not hold Okafor out for two games just to drum up the price, though they certainly had that in mind as a possible ripple effect. It wasn't just a smokescreen.

  • Phoenix is taking calls on most of its veterans, with P.J. Tucker the best candidate to move, sources say. (Watch the Raptors and Clips, among others.) I'd be surprised -- and impressed -- if Phoenix got a first-rounder for him.

  • All is quiet in Memphis.

  • Houston is chasing a win-now move, sources say, and may send out K.J. McDaniels as the sweetener. McDaniels doesn't play, mostly because of a busted jumper. Some team should take a shot on him at the right price. If there's a lesson of the last half-decade of NBA trades, it's this: When there's a rangy or athletic wing that has even a 10 percent chance of being decent, try to grab that player as a throw-in to a larger deal. Think about how teams landed Crowder, Middleton, Iman Shumpert, Will Barton, and even Tim Hardaway Jr. You cannot have enough versatile wings.

  • The free-falling Hornets could tank their way into something like the No. 7 pick, but they are designed to chase the postseason now -- and will almost certainly continue along that path, barring major injury.