Because this is a pandemic-shortened season with plenty of COVID-19 and contract-tracing absences, and because there will be a Play-In Tournament in each conference for the seven-, eight-, nine- and 10-seeds, fewer teams than usual have crossed over into the trade deadline "seller" threshold. Thus, it doesn't look like there will be any blockbuster trades or fire sales where one of the lower-tiered teams sells off most of its assets to jumpstart a rebuild. However, this is the NBA after all, and everything could change with one small domino fall - like if Bradley Beal decides he wants out of Washington.
To get you ready for trade season, here's a guide to how each team should approach this year's trade deadline on March 25th.
Focus: Depth at forward
The Celtics would obviously love to go superstar hunting and go after someone like Bradley Beal (Wizards). However, unlike the past half-decade, there’s a number of other teams who could potentially outbid them for a superstar (unless they were willing to part ways with Jaylen Brown). Therefore, Boston will probably try to make some key moves around the edges to acquire another starting-caliber forward. Thad Young (Bulls), PJ Tucker (Rockets), and Harrison Barnes (Kings) would all be ideal targets and should be available for the right price.
Focus: Defense, defense, defense
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what the Nets' focus should be this deadline. On one end, they're on pace to have the highest offensive rating in NBA history. On the other end of the court, they have the 25th-rated defense in the league. If Brooklyn can play competent defense this postseason, they could win the title. If they don't improve, players like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid will eat them alive in the playoffs. Look for them to try to land a rim protector on the cheap like Andre Drummond (Cavs) as well as another defense-focused forward like PJ Tucker (Rockets).
Focus: Shooters that can defend well enough to play for Coach Thibs
The Knicks (18-18, fifth in the East) are the feel-good story of the league so far. That being said, they're a very unbalanced team with the second-best defensive rating and the 23rd-best offensive rating. In a league that has increased reliance on three-pointers, the Knicks rank second-last in three-point attempts (27.8) and three-point makes (10.4) per game. That isn't going to cut it late in the season or in the playoffs. Look for New York to try to add a three-and-D wing at the deadline - perhaps they could even bring back former Knick, Wayne Ellington (Pistons).
The 76ers are looking like a title contender as is, and Ben Simmons is playing like the best defender in the NBA. Thus, the Simmons-for-Bradley Beal (Wizards) fake trade that many thought might be in the works after the Simmons-for-James Harden deal fell through probably isn't going to happen. On a smaller scale, however, the team needs some more floor spacers and three-point shooters (they rank third-last in three-point attempts and makes) to give Simmons and Joel Embiid more space to operate. A JJ Redick (Pelicans) reunion would be optimal.
Focus: Big men
A large part of the Raptors' early-season struggles is attributable to them losing both of their starting big men from last season, Serge Ibaka (Clippers) and Marc Gasol (Lakers). Aron Baynes has been awful, leaving Chris Boucher as the team's only competent big man in the rotation. Boucher has been great, but he's 6-foot-9 and weighs 200 pounds. Do you think he's going to be able to cover Joel Embiid or Giannis in the playoffs? Therefore, expect the Raptors to sniff around Nikola Vucevic (Magic) and Andre Drummond (Cavaliers) this deadline.
Focus: Decide what kind of team they are going to be moving forward
The Bulls' focus this deadline needs to be a focus within. Are they going to build around All-Star Zach LaVine? Or do they deal him at his peak value to a contender? Are Lauri Markkanen or Wendell Carter Jr. part of their long-term plans? Or is it time for them to cut bait with the often-injured, but talented youngsters? If they're going to deal any of their young players with trade value, they should look to unload Otto Porter Jr.'s contract as part of the deal because he's one of the most overpaid players in the league.
Focus: Continue to embrace the full rebuild
Whether you like the moves that he's making or not, at least Cavaliers' GM Koby Altman has a plan and has stuck to his vision the past two seasons. The Cavs want to feature two point guards (Collin Sexton and Darius Garland), some uber-athletic three-and-D wings (Isaac Okoro), and rim-running/rim-protecting big men (Jarrett Allen). They also seem to value hybrid forwards with some perimeter skills like Larry Nance Jr. Those five players are decent building blocks for Cleveland moving forward, but the team is still in need of superstar talent - the type that can normally only be found in the first couple picks of the draft. Thus, the Cavs need to trade-off any asset with value (Cedi Osman, Kevin Love, Andre Drummond) outside of those five players and tank all the way to the bottom to try to land themselves someone like Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green or Jonathan Kuminga.
Focus: Embrace the full rebuild
After deciding against trading Blake Griffin at peak value two trade deadlines ago and doing the same with Derrick Rose last trade deadline (note: they traded him earlier this season for a potential reclamation project in Dennis Smith Jr. when they probably could have landed a first-round pick last year), the Pistons won't be able to jumpstart their full rebuild, but they damn sure better stop trying to win games this season. With the second-worst record in basketball (9-25), Detroit has zero chance of making the postseason this year, so there's no reason for them to be holding onto any player that could yield them any type of asset or draft capital this deadline outside of Jerami Grant and their recent draft picks - heck, they should try to trade some of their young core if it's the right price too because none of them project to be future stars anyways. If Wayne Ellington, an ideal wing shooter for any contender, is still on the roster in four weeks, Pistons fans should boycott the team.
Focus: Consider being sellers at the deadline
The Pacers are one of those franchises that are too proud to ever tank. They're always in contention for a playoff spot and always seem to make nice, savvy moves around the edges to improve their roster every offseason and trade deadline. However, they seem to have bad injury luck (Victor Oladipo in 2018-19; TJ Warren and Caris LeVert this season, etc.), which has capped their ceiling. After starting the season strong, the injuries have caught up to the Pacers (15-18, 9th in the East) this year. They may actually be better off dealing a couple of their role players like Jeremy Lamb, Doug McDermott, Aaron Holiday, and TJ McConnell at the deadline, acquiring a couple of future draft picks, and tanking the last quarter of this season to try to land a mid-to-high lottery pick in such a loaded draft class. Then, next year, once Warren and LeVert return, they'll have a strong roster of veterans and hopefully a young stud (similar to the team they surrounded Paul George with early in his career).
Focus: Improve their depth
The Bucks haven't been nearly as dominant this season as they were the past two regular seasons. In fact, at 21-14, they've nearly lost as many games as they lost all of last year (56-17). That doesn't mean that they're necessarily worse off than they were last year though as they've definitely upgraded at point guard for the playoffs with Jrue Holiday replacing Eric Bledsoe. With a strong big three (Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Holiday), the Bucks could use some extra depth all over their roster as it's not as deep as it was in previous years. Perhaps they will target some championship-caliber veterans like Rajon Rondo (Hawks) or PJ Tucker (Rockets) at the deadline to fill some of the voids on their bench?
Focus: Who knows?!?!
Everything we knew about the Hawks is in flux right now after the franchise decided to fire third-year coach Lloyd Pierce and replace him with Nate McMillan. Are they still hell-bent on making the playoffs like they were when the season began? Or are they taking a more realistic, big picture approach and trying to address some of their roster issues this deadline? Assuming it's still the former, look for the Hawks to dangle their talented, but soon-to-be costly young power forward, John Collins for a more short-term upgrade at forward. A Collins and Tony Snell for Aaron Gordon (Magic) deal would actually be a pretty nice deal for both sides and would give the Hawks a versatile two-way forward that could hopefully help them improve on their 23rd-ranked defense while maintaining their ninth-ranked offense.
Focus: Try to make the playoffs, but DO NOT mess with this young core
The Hornets are currently 16-18 and the eight-seed in the East. Who expected that when the season began? Nobody. Then again, who expected LaMelo Ball (20.8 PPG, 6.8 APG, 6.1 RPG, 46-43-86 shooting splits in his 14 games as a starter) to look like a budding superstar at the midway point of his rookie season either? Probably just LaVar Ball. The Hornets have a great thing going for them right now and shouldn't make any moves that would inhibit Ball's progress this season as that should be their number one priority the rest of the way. That being said, it'd be really nice if the Hornets had a better big man than Bismack Biyombo for Ball to throw no-look passes to, so if they could ever land a big man with some potential like Marvin Bagley (Kings) on the cheap, it'd be a solid risk.
Focus: Recreate the magic from last year's trade deadline
Last season, the Heat absolutely nailed the trade deadline, acquiring three players who went on to play actual playoff minutes in the bubble in Jae Crowder, Andre Iguodala, and, to a lesser extent, Solomon Hill in a deal centered around the talented, but oft-injured Justise Winslow (who played exactly zero games for the Grizzlies in the bubble). Could the Heat replicate that with this deadline? They probably don't have an asset that they're willing to part with who will yield them as much as Winslow, but perhaps they could go out and get some good role players like George Hill (Thunder) and Wayne Ellington (Pistons) on the cheap to round out their roster for another deep postseason run.
Focus: Tank! Tank! Tank!
The Magic have supplanted the Hornets as the NBA's most aimless franchise. Between their bad injury luck (Jonathan Isaac, Markelle Fultz, etc.) and average, but expensive roster talent, they've all but guaranteed themselves to finish outside the playoffs but likely not low enough in the standings to get a top draft pick in the lottery. And when they do get a good pick, they spend it on busts like Mo Bamba. How do you remedy these misfortunes? Tank! Hold a fire sale! Sell off everyone and try to start fresh. As Tom Petty once sang, "Even the losers get lucky sometimes." Seriously, get a couple of first-round picks for All-Star Nikola Vucevic. Get something for Terrence Ross and Evan Fournier. Deal Aaron Gordon to a team like the Kings or Hawks that would be willing to part ways with a young player with some upside like Marvin Bagley or John Collins. (They should probably move on from their top decision-maker Jeff Weltman while they're at it.)
Focus: Whatever Bradley Beal wants
Let's be honest. Bradley Beal is going to dictate how the Wizards handle this trade deadline. If he wants to be traded, they're going to hold an open auction for him and probably receive three or four unprotected first-round picks, some pick swaps and maybe even a young rotation player or two as Beal would fit well with literally every team in the NBA. If Beal wants to stay in Washington DC, the Wizards better make some moves to improve their playoff chances. Andre Drummond (Cavs) could replace what they lost when Thomas Bryant went down - plus he'll be pretty cheap from an asset standpoint and a free agent after the season. His teammate, Kevin Love (Cavs), might also be a decent pickup as his floor spacing and passing would work nicely around Beal and Russell Westbrook.
Focus: Three-and-D wings
Despite having Nikola Jokic playing like an MVP candidate this season (27.1 PPG, 11.0 RPG, 8.6 APG, 57-42-89 shooting splits), the Nuggets are only 20-15 and currently sit at seventh in the West. What happened to the team that made the Conference Finals last year? Well, besides the low-hanging Covid-19 fruit, the Nuggets appear to be missing Jerami Grant (now with the Pistons) on the defensive end of the court (16th-rated defense). They're also missing him and the old versions of Gary Harris and Will Barton on the offensive end of the court as both have struggled all season. With Michael Porter Jr. still too young to be relied upon in the playoffs, the Nuggets should really try to obtain another wing or two that could play crunch time minutes in the playoffs. PJ Tucker (Rockets), Terrence Ross (Magic), and others might be nice fits with Jokic and Jamal Murray.
Focus: Show some competency for once
The T'Wolves are a clown show right now. They have the worst record in the NBA but don't own their own first-round pick next season unless it falls in the top three (and then becomes unprotected in 2022) because they decided they just had to get D'Angelo Russell's bad contract on their roster and get Andrew Wiggins' bad contract off their roster. If the Wolves continue this incompetency, their franchise centerpiece Karl-Anthony Towns is going to demand a trade (he probably should have done so already!!). For that reason, they need to make a couple of moves around the edges that could help them win some games, give KAT some hope and make that first-round pick next year land much higher in the lottery.
Focus: Keep acquiring draft capital and interesting young players
The Thunder are doing an excellent job setting up their rebuild by making savvy trades, developing young players, and acting as a weigh station for players with bad contracts (i.e., taking on bad contracts in exchange for draft picks). At some point, they'll want to consolidate some of those picks and package them for a star or top pick, but that's not for another year or so. This deadline, they should trade George Hill and Al Horford to contenders and try to land a protected first-round pick or a couple of second-round picks.
Focus: Rim protection
With Jusuf Nurkic out with a broken wrist, Zach Collins out after ankle surgery, and Hassan Whiteside on the Kings, the once formidable front line for the Blazers is absolutely decimated right now. It's showing too as they have no rim-protection whatsoever and have the 28th-rated defense in the league. They're another team who might want to sniff around Andre Drummond (Cavs) or Al Horford (Thunder) to try to sure up their defense and allow Damian Lillard to keep cooking like he has been all season.
Focus: Decide whether they really trust Jordan Clarkson for the playoffs
Jordan Clarkson (18.2 PPG, 45-37-97 shooting splits) has been the runaway Sixth Man of the Year so far this season. This comes after a very impressive post-trade and bubble performance for Utah last season as well. That being said, heat-check gunners like Clarkson often see their production fall off a cliff in the postseason when the opposing defenses get more locked in and wasted possessions can be fatal - just look at what tended to happen to other elite Sixth Men like Lou Williams and Jamal Crawford in the playoffs. Utah will be a contender if Clarkson plays with the same consistency he's playing with now in the postseason, but on the chance that he doesn't, they may want to explore the market for a more consistent veteran guard like George Hill (Thunder) or Rajon "Playoff" Rondo (Hawks) for the games where Clarkson reverts to his Lakers/Cavaliers versions of himself.
Focus: Decide whether to play for the next three years or the next decade
If Bradley Beal (Wizards) were to become available, the Warriors would have one of the more enticing trade packages with James Wiseman, the T'Wolves top-three protected 2021 first-round pick and their own first-round picks. Bringing in the 27-year-old superstar would allow the Warriors to be stealth contenders this season and regular old contenders for the next couple of seasons until Steph Curry's prime ends. On the other hand, if the Warriors keep all of those aforementioned assets, they could have a chance to become the modern-day Tim Duncan-Spurs and compete for the rest of Curry's career if they play their cards right and Wiseman develops into a star.
Focus: A playmaking point guard
Here's a staggering stat: The Clippers are, by far, the least clutch team in the NBA right now. In the 17 games they've played that have come down to the wire, they have a net rating of minus-24.3 in 41 minutes - worst in the league by over three points. They also have an effective field goal percentage during those minutes of 44.9 percent - sixth-worst in the league. Small sample size? Kind of. However, they're clearly not getting Kawhi Leonard and Paul George open shots at the end of games. Why is that? Because those two are the team's primary ball handlers. Look for the Clippers to make a run at Rajon Rondo (Hawks), Ricky Rubio (T'Wolves), or any other veteran point guard who becomes available over the next three weeks.
Focus: Three-and-D depth at forward
The defending champions have to be pretty content with how they've played this season given the extremely short layoff from last year's bubble and the injury to Anthony Davis. Their roster should be championship-ready so long as Davis is healthy in time for the playoffs. That being said, they do have a couple of smaller holes in their roster that they could plug with a veteran or two. Like most contenders, they could always use another three-and-D wing to spare LeBron some energy on defense and to make open three-pointers created by LeBron and AD. They've apparently kicked the tires on PJ Tucker (Rockets) already. They could also use a different kind of big man than what they currently have behind Davis. Montrezl Harrell has been a nice energy big this year, but at 6-foot-7, he's pretty undersized. Marc Gasol's passing has been a nice edition on the offensive end as well, but his limited athleticism stands out in certain games. If he's bought out instead of traded, Andre Drummond (Cavs) would be at the top of their list, but if he's not available perhaps Orlando would deal Khem Birch (Magic) to open up minutes for Mo Bamba in their crowded frontcourt.
Focus: A veteran big man
The Suns are probably a year away from being true contenders but don't tell that to Chris Paul and Devin Booker. The two of them have Phoenix humming along at 23-11 and sitting pretty at second in the West. The Suns' roster is ideally constructed for today's games with excellent guards (Paul and Booker), a stable of athletic three-and-D wings (Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, Jae Crowder), and a big man who can score in the half-court (Deandre Ayton). They also have depth at most of those positions. The one area they could use a little help at is a backup to Ayton. If they could find a way to fit Al Horford (Thunder) onto their roster (remember he has a huge contract still), he'd be a perfect defender and floor spacer to spare Ayton for 15-20 minutes a game. If Horford isn't the guy, then Phoenix could probably deal a second-round pick or two to Detroit for Mason Plumlee (Pistons) and get some of the same production.
Focus: Take a risk on a disgruntled player with some upside
It's time for Sacramento to cut bait with Marvin Bagley. There's just too much baggage from the Vlade Divac era that saw Divac select Bagley over Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Trae Young. Bagley's been deemphasized and is disgruntled (as is his father!), but he still has some trade value. Could they swap disgruntled athletic forwards with Atlanta (John Collins) or Orlando (Aaron Gordon)? Sacramento would probably have to throw in a future first-rounder to get those deals done, but adding either one of those forwards to a lineup featuring De'Aaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton would be wildly entertaining...ya know like it was supposed to be with Bagley.
Focus: Acquire some shooting
After putting together the best offensive rating in NBA history last season, Luka Doncic's sophomore year, Dallas' offense has fallen back to earth this year and doesn't even have a top-10 offense at the moment. While some of that can be attributed to Covid-19 and contact-tracing absences, some of that could also certainly be attributed to trading away Seth Curry, a career 44.3 percent three-point shooter. The Mavs could remedy that issue pretty effectively by dealing for a sharpshooter like JJ Redick (Pelicans) or Wayne Ellington (Pistons).
Focus: Keep doing what they're doing
Earlier this season, the Rockets chose a long-term rebuild over a quick rebuild when trading James Harden to the Nets over the 76ers (whose offer was based around Ben Simmons). After the trade, Houston actually stayed in the playoff picture for a couple of weeks before Christian Wood injured his ankle in early February. Since his injury, the team has lost 12 straight games and is in a free fall towards the bottom of the standings and, more importantly, the top of the 2021 NBA Draft. And that's A-OKAY if you're a Rockets fan - you want top-three, top-five talent in as many drafts as possible during your rebuild. This deadline, the Rockets should keep trading players like Victor Oladipo, who has at least a little value, for more draft capital and hope to soon have a treasure trove of assets like the Thunder and Pelicans.
Like most young teams built around a freakishly athletic player like Ja Morant, the best way to surround him is with tough defenders and great shooters. The Grizzlies already have the tough defenders part taken care of (eighth in defensive rating), but now they need to improve on their shooting as they rank in the bottom-10 in three-point attempts, makes, and percentage this season. Like the Mavericks, JJ Redick (Pelicans) and Wayne Ellington (Pistons) would be nice fits as would players with a little more two-way potential like Luke Kennard (Clippers) and Jeremy Lamb (Pacers) if either are made available.
Focus: Don't be afraid to dangle Brandon Ingram for Bradley Beal
Ingram is an excellent young player. He's no Bradley Beal (Wizards) right now though. In fact, he'll probably never be as good as Beal during his prime. So why not call up the Wizards and offer BI and a couple of their future first-round draft picks for Beal. Overwhelm the Wizards before any team even knows Beal is on the market. It's not like the Pelicans are going to use all of those picks, and even if they did, there's a slim chance they ever draft a player as good and as perfect of a fit as Beal would be with Zion Williamson. Swing for the fences, David Griffin!!
Quick tangent: It's a shame because he's such a likable analyst and used to be an innovated coach, but the NBA seems to have left Stan Van Gundy behind. He has a more athletic, bigger, and better passing version of Charles Barkley (Zion Williamson) bulldozing his way to the basket for 25.5 PPG every night, but he continues to play him in big lineups where Steven Adams (28.1 MPG) clogs up the lane. Late in games, he seems to forget that Zion is even on the court sometimes as seen by their 21st-rated clutch offensive rating. Why not let Zion and JJ Redick (only 18.3 MPG) run the unstoppable two-man game that Redick ran in Philly with Joel Embiid all game long? Also, why did it take so long for SVG to start letting Zion start handling the basketball more? Griffin might want to consider cutting bait with SVG early as opposed to letting him be the first long-term NBA coach for Williamson.
Focus: Decide whether to stay the course or consolidate the youngsters for a star
Don't look now, but the frisky Spurs are 18-13 and in fifth place in the loaded Western Conference. They have an interesting mix of above-average-to-good veterans like DeMar DeRozan, Patty Mills, and Rudy Gay and athletic-as-hell guards and wings like Dejounte Murray, Keldon Johnson, Lonnie Walker, and Derrick White. The question they'll face this deadline is whether they want to keep it rolling with this group or package a couple of the veterans and youngsters in an attempt to acquire another star. Most signs out of San Antonio point to maintaining the status quo - the Spurs rarely make in-season trades and there might not be any star players out there this deadline unless Bradley Beal (Warriors) or Zach LaVine (Bulls) are made available.