NBA trade deadline: Top teams to watch

NBA trade deadline: Top teams to watch

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

Chris Mannix: So Beck, with less than a month to go before the NBA trade deadline, there are a few things I’m sure about. First, it’s a seller’s market. There are far fewer teams looking to unload assets (Utah, maybe Toronto) than there are teams looking to shore up for the extended run. Second, given how open the playoff field looks — catch the full-strength Warriors getting pummeled by the skeleton Suns on Tuesday? There will be some facepalming from members of the front office of teams that don’t make a move. So as we head into February, who’s the best team you’re watching?

Howard Beck: I’m worried, Mannix. I am worried about this trade season, albeit from the most trivial point of view possible. I’m worried that this trade season will be unpleasant because of this sudden new wave of parity, combined with the lure of the play-in tournament and the reduced lure of lottery odds. As you may have noticed, we just don’t have that many visible sellers. Fans and media love trades! Good trades, bad trades, weird trades, whatever. We just want a good transaction. And we can all be very disappointed this year.

That said, I am looking at a potential buyer first and foremost. We’ve covered this at length, so I won’t go that deep here, but I think the entire league is curious to see what, if anything, the Lakers do. Will they go get help for LeBron James and Anthony Davis and try to salvage this season? Or are they so determined to keep their next draft pick that they’re willing to let this season slide?

Best guess: Do the Lakers make a move? And does it include any capital projects?

Mannix: Short answer – I don’t know. No one does. The Lakers have said they are not interested in making their first-round picks unless an All-Star returns. And I don’t see All-Star (for now) being available.

I touched on this in a column on Monday, but I can see both sides of the election debate. I can see the LeBron side; he’s 38 years old and in the midst of an MVP-level season. With a little help—and with Anthony Davis healthy—James could envision pushing the Lakers into a conference field without a superteam. Why does he care about a front runner in 2027? I thought our friend Brian Windhorst had a great note on a recent podcast: 20 years into his NBA career and LeBron has played with exactly five starting first round picks. Internally, I’m sure the Lakers are selling James in the offseason when Bradley Beal or Damian Lillard become available, and LA comes in with their picks to acquire them. But this is more fantasy than reality.

However, I also see the side of the Lakers. Does Bojan Bogdanovic make them title contenders? Does Malik Beasley? Did Christian Wood? Is it worth spending the projected capital — capital that LA might need in the post-LeBron era — to bring one of those in? What do you think?

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

And maybe it will be. I hear the Lakers and Pistons have discussed a deal that would include Bogdanović and Nerlens Noel. Since the Pistons are looking for draft assets in any deal for Bogdanović, it’s somewhat of a given that the Lakers would have to give up a first-round pick to make a deal. Maybe they make a second deal to further bolster the rotation. Will they be willing to trade both picks that are currently eligible for trade? The understanding around the league is that they won’t. But we will see.

So the Lakers are probably the most enticing (potential) buyer. Who is the most intriguing salesman?

Mannix: Easy. Utah. Could the last few months have broken Danny Ainge’s eligibility more? He gets a boatload of picks for Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, gets off to the kind of fast start that makes fans forget — at least temporarily — about Gobert and Mitchell, develops a (potential) All-Star in Lauri Markkanen, and then watches his team sink in the standings after a (competitive) losing streak, which gives him license to do what he probably wanted to do in the first place: make as many player-for-pick trades as he can before the deadline.

And you know what? He has the right to do it. It’s been a good 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 player for Mike Conley, they should. This team doesn’t 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 bring in a transformational player.

Do you accept? Or are you keeping your eye on someone else?

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Beck: I’m with you on 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—sorry, FINNISHER—who has been a revelation and deserves an All-Star nod. But the whole point of trading your two core stars is to let your team bottom out and give yourself a shot at a future star in the draft. Rolling around .500 doesn’t do them any good.

So I’ll take it a step further: They should evaluate the market for Markkanen as well. Its value has never been higher. His excellent play could lead Utah to win many games in the last few months. And as great as he has been, I don’t think anyone in the league sees Markkanen as a player to build a contender around. He is thriving in a small market, with zero expectations and zero pressure. Will he maintain this level when the Jazz become a playoff team again? If the Jazz have any doubt, they should look to move him now.

But I think the team that generates the most buzz and curiosity is still the Raptors. They got it wrong. They have shown no signs of their revival. They have a front office known for its grit and creativity. And they have a host of talented players on reasonable contracts who could help a contender. So what do you think? Do they move OG Anunoby? Fred VanVleet? Gary Trent Jr.?

Mannix: I would definitely put the Raptors in the seller category. Masai Ujiri has never had the stomach to be 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 with anyone else. Anunoby generates the most interest when I talk to front office people. A strong, two-way player who shoots mid-30s from three-point range? You get at least an unprotected first-round pick for a player like him — maybe more. It would be smart for the Raptors and Grizzlies — a team with a chance to make a run this season with young talent and free capital — to spend some time on the phone.

Then there’s Atlanta. I’m going to assume this is the year the Hawks finally fire John Collins. But what else should they do? Since that conference final that took place in 2021, they have been a disappointment. Nate McMillan is likely gone at the end of the season, and this team may have to consider a complete rebuild around Trae Young.

Beck: Oh, Hawks. What a strange and thoroughly disappointing team. I liked the trade for Dejounte Murray. I still like Young, as crazy as he can be. The list is talented. But the chemistry is clearly off and they’ve never found a way to consistently defend themselves. And yes, Young will probably be his third coach before too long. But is a small change enough? How much do they get for Collins? They will probably be sellers, but I don’t know how big the difference is this season.

If there’s another clear seller in my view, it’s the Wizards. They’re not going anywhere, again. They could lose Kyle Kuzma in free agency this summer if they don’t trade him now. And they have some solid role players (think Monte Morris and Rui Hachimura) who would be much more useful on a good team. Heck, they should explore trading for Bradley Beal, given how bleak things have been there. But the Wizards are a very conservative operation, and one that has always been reluctant to blow it up in the end. Surprise us this time?

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

I don’t expect Beal to move, but the Wiz should at least start thinking about a future after Beal. He’s still a big-time scorer, but there’s nothing on this list that leads you to believe Beal can back him up on anything more than a lower-tier playoff team. The Wiz just haven’t hit enough drafts. Beal will be 30 next season and will have four years — four well-paid years — left on his contract. He also has an injury history that Washington has to worry about. Honestly, I’d evaluate 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 alarms for them this summer, when I think the action might really last.

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