One of the structural aspects of the NBA that sets it apart from other leagues is its high-intensity and incredibly active trade deadline. Each February teams are active in trade talks, with rumors swirling for months about which players will get dealt and which franchises are buyers and sellers. The excitement is unfathomable from the comfort confines of fandom and a fantastic exercise in strategic thinking for those who put their analyst cap on.
From a coaching perspective though the trade deadline is one of the more difficult aspects of managing the NBA season. Integrating the new into the culture of the old with limited practice time is no easy task. The greater the player and more of a role he has on his new team, the more difficult it can be to catch them up on both offensive and defensive schemes, play calls, and coaching preferences. That doesn’t even factor in how a player learns to gel with their teammates.
With all the warnings to heed, there are certain types of players that are easier than others to integrate at the trade deadline or work into a rotation on relatively little experience with their new team:
There’s an old saying within basketball circles that the point guard is “the extension of the coach on the floor.” Getting used to a new offense is always difficult for the maestro that helps orchestrate it, but veterans who have run multiple schemes throughout their NBA careers have a large bank of knowledge to draw upon. Jarrett Jack for example, currently playing with the New York Knicks, has already been led by nine different head coaches during his career. If that doesn’t prepare someone to pick up a new offense quickly, nothing will.
Most teams looking to bring in a veteran point guard do so for a backup role, hoping that a steady hand controlling tempo can help anchor a bench unit. The role isn’t too large, and regardless of play type or scheme the point guard can make a great impact on the game by getting teammates easy baskets no matter what the play call is.
2. The sharpshooting wing
No role is more universally transferable across any offense than the ability to catch-and-shoot. Instant offense on the wings provides spacing around other more cornerstone players that most organizations try to build around. Ball handlers/ focal points of an offense are constants, as are big men that patrol the paint or set screens. Those shooters that stretch defenses out provide immediate relief for those players, giving them more space to operate and let their own skills thrive.
Sharpshooters are usually acquired solely because the team trading for them has an absence of perimeter shooting, meaning they’ll be propelled into the rotation right away. That can mean two different things from a coaching perspective. First, the team could run their offense entirely the same way as before the trade, just with a better player in the shooter’s spot, serving as a decoy away from the ball or a knockdown threat to run actions for. There’s advantage to the rest of the team to not overhaul an offense at the trade deadline; continuity helps make the first four months of the season feel as important as the final two.
The second path is to gradually incorporate new sets and plays that leverage the skills of elite shooters. Last season the Cleveland Cavaliers did this with Kyle Korver, using his elite shooting as a gravitational force to suck defenders away from the rim. That opened up more space for LeBron James, Kevin Love and company to operate in the lane.
Adding a shooter doesn’t require a complete retooling of the offense, but it can provide coaches an important toy that allows them to leverage their best player’s skills to their fullest. Those few feet of space created on any given play can be the difference for a team during crunch time in the postseason.
3. The pick-and-pop big man
The term “stretch-4” is synonymous with pick-and-pop big men, a positional skill almost vital in the modern NBA. With the league drifting towards being ball screen-dominant over the last decade, the need for spreading out players away from the ball on offense became paramount. Instead of having two big men on the floor with one standing at the block the entire possession, coaches began to move the 4 to the perimeter, opening up the lane completely for rim attacks off drives or vicious dunks from the roll man.
Player skills have caught up, as big men now shoot the three-pointer with high efficiency and confidence. That being said, being a reliable pick-and-pop threat that can defend against the same action is highly coveted, and much more rare than it might seem. The reason pick-and-pops are so effective on offense is that most big men struggle to guard those actions. Elite shooters from the big man position are still a thorn in the sides of defenses.
Pick-and-pops aren’t generally difficult plays in design – the execution of them is what creates the advantage, not the trickery before the screen. A role is always there in today’s NBA for a big man that comes off the bench and stretches the defense. Once that big gets accustom to the team’s pick-and-roll scheme on the defensive end of the floor there’s very little that could keep them off the floor during crunch time.
Our five teams, five trades series continues with a look at the closely contested Northwest Division, where all five teams are potentially in the playoff picture and have their own individual areas to improve:
1. Denver Nuggets (21-18, third in Northwest)
Trade Idea: Acquire F Ersan Ilyasova and G Marco Belinelli from the Atlanta Hawks for a lottery protected 2018 first-round pick, F Kenneth Faried and G Malik Beasley.
Denver has been thin on the wings and the point all season long, with a glut of big men on their roster that they struggle to play on the floor together. Many keep waiting for the team to make a big splash, but the point guard market is rather volatile and unpredictable. Instead we might shift our focus onto the team's tax bill moving forward: Denver is $7 million shy of the luxury tax, and that's before factoring in the new contract due to G/F Will Barton. Any trade the Nuggets make has to clear some space for next season; they're best-served bringing on an expiring contract or two.
Atlanta gives the Nuggets exactly what they might need: the space to absorb a contract, a team willing to take a first-rounder to do so, and two veterans that can help move the needle in the right direction next season. Both Ilyasova and Belinelli would be able and likely to re-sign for cheaper deals in Denver, and the Nuggets would then have $20.7 million before hitting the luxury tax next summer with which they could retain Barton and still have room to maneuver. They won't have their own first-round pick to eat into that space either, potentially opening up the full Mid-Level Exception.
Faried has been a breath of fresh air and activity for the Nuggets when he's been in the lineup, but his contract is too large to have be such an inconsistent part of their rotation. It's best to move on now and open up space for the long-term than to cling onto Faried continually waiting for the right deal. The Hawks could give him a try, and have the ability to go over the cap to make this trade work.
2. Minnesota Timberwolves (25-16, first in Northwest Division)
Trade Idea: Send C Cole Aldrich, their 2018 second-rounder and Miami's 2019 second-round pick to Atlanta for F Luke Babbitt and G Marco Belinelli.
How crazy is it that the Timberwolves, currently on the longest playoff drought in the NBA, are in first place and yet everyone still finds ways to complain about their rotation and bench? This group is one injury away from things going south quickly, and Tom Thibodeau must find a way to untie his hands to make some sort of move to bolster his bench. It doesn't have to be a big move, just adding a veteran somewhere that's ready to jump in and perform. Minnesota also has an open roster spot to maneuver with.
It was just a season ago that Cole Aldrich proved a solid backup center when with the Los Angeles Clippers. Now he's buried on a team that lacks depth, which isn't a good look for the big guy. Atlanta has the ability to absorb him, and his only $2 million guarantee for next season could give them some maneuverability to swallow that cost if they'd rather have the cap space this summer. Two second-rounders for the cost of Belinelli isn't a horrid look either.
Belinelli is the type of veteran that Thibodeau could target, as the two were paired together for one season in Chicago in 2012-13. His outside shooting and familiarity to the system could really stymie these Minnesota Timberwolves off the bench. Thibs has struggled to find anything reliable on the wings behind Wiggins and Butler this season, and Marco would slide in well to that role.
Babbitt is a solid stretch-four as well that would provide instant offense. A frontcourt rotation of Towns, Gibson, Dieng, Babbitt and Bjelicia gives Thibodeau as many unique pieces as he wants, and more much-needed outside shooting to bolster Minnesota's bench.
3. Oklahoma City Thunder (22-17, second in Northwest)
Trade Idea: Thunder waive F Nick Collison, then trade F Josh Huestis to Orlando for F Marreese Speights and G/F Arron Afflalo.
There are just no real good moves for GM Sam Presti to make now that the team is so capped out. He's always active, and will find a way to maneuver something, but it's hard to foresee a move that helps the team greatly. To keep things simple here in this article, there is one move they could make to get this to happen. The Thunder would first have to waive Nick Collison, giving them the open roster spot, and then use their trade exception from Domantas Sabonis in order to absorb the second contract.
Trading Huestis, a wing reserve and defensive specialist that struggles to space the floor, in favor of a proven wing in Afflalo and a stretch-five like Speights could be exactly what the Thunder need. Their roster's biggest weakness is at backup center, an area Speights could do a great deal of help. He's a gunner for sure, but their second group needs another scorer, and outside shooter. He also brings a keen insight on how to counter the Warriors come playoff time after being a member of the club a few seasons ago. The Speights-Patterson backup frontcourt would provide great spacing to any ball handler that Billy Donovan allows to navigate the floor.
Huestis, a free agent at the end of the year, might not be coming back to Oklahoma City. He's struggled to prove he has a role on the offensive end, and with Andre Roberson already filling that role it's hard to justify retaining him for more money. Orlando is the type of team that could gamble on talent like that, and their identity of wanting to become a switchy, lanky team means he's as good of a get for Speights and Afflalo as it gets.
4. Portland Trail Blazers (20-18, fourth in Northwest Division)
Trade Idea: Send C Meyers Leonard, F/C Ed Davis, F/C Noah Vonleh and their rights to a 2019 second-rounder from MIN/LAL to the Chicago Bulls for C Robin Lopez and F Paul Zipser.
Portland has two concerns right now: finding out how to improve their playoff odds this season while they cling to a final playoff spot, and ducking the luxury tax. Since they're in repeater tax territory, the latter may be more important than the former, especially since they predict to be in the tax for many future seasons with an impending Jusuf Nurkic extension. Simply put, Portland absolutely must find a way to shed around $2.93 million from their cap situation. There may be a crafty way to do so here.
The Blazers get a really dependable backup center for the next two seasons in Robin Lopez, a player familiar with the city and the culture of the organization. He's a really good insurance policy behind Nurkic, and the two play a really similar style. More playing time becomes opened up for rookies Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan as a result of the trade, and they get a solid 3-and-D wing prospect in Paul Zipser, giving the Blazers just a little more youth and shooting on the wings. Zipser is under contract for two more seasons as well since he's on his rookie deal; the Blazers need more young bench pieces like that.
Of course giving up that second-rounder in 2019 could hurt their depth, but this is a good deal talent-wise for them. Vonleh and Davis are on their way out of Portland; that much was apparent after the franchise drafted two first-round bigs last June. Meyers Leonard, the frustratingly inconsistent player that he is, gets upgraded over with Robin Lopez. It's a huge win talent-wise over the next two seasons.
As for the cap mechanics, this deal opens roughly $751,512 below the luxury tax – just enough for them to sign a player on the veteran's minimum for the remainder of the season and dodge the luxury tax. Giving up three forwards and only getting back one would mean there's likely another frontcourt player they are looking to sign, and there figure to be some athletic 4-men available come late February.
Now the downside: this deal adds about $6 million to their cap situation for next season, the 2018-19 cap year. They'll still technically be under the luxury tax before a Nurkic extension, and will almost certainly vault themselves above the tax apron by retaining him. That said, the important part of avoiding the repeater tax is done this year; there's value in deferring a luxury tax bill to next season. Plus there are other avenues to figure things out, including finding a way to waive Evan Turner with the stretch provision this July (which would be about $7.3 million in dead cap) and using the Allen Crabbe trade exception (worth up to $12.96 million and expiring in late-July) to add his replacement. All this could be more expensive next season, but it's only one year of Lopez, and if they use that trade exception right to add an intriguing player on an expiring to replace Turner, they both get better in the short-term with their depth and find a way to drop below the luxury tax next year.
As for the Bulls, they have the incentive to take on free agents-to-be like Noah Vonleh and Ed Davis. Their cap space, with an extension for Zach LaVine looming, could allow them to be a player on the free agent market this year. Vonleh is worth a look, and hometown kid Meyers Leonard might be a shooting big that thrives for years to come in Fred Hoiberg's system.
5. Utah Jazz (16-23, fifth in Northwest Division)
Trade Idea: Utah sends C Derrick Favors to Phoenix, the Suns send C Tyson Chandler to Milwaukee, and the Bucks send F Mirza Teletovic and F D.J. Wilson to Utah. The Jazz then waive G Raul Neto.
It's one of the worst kept secrets around the league: Derrick Favors has to get traded this February. The Jazz have Rudy Gobert as their franchise center, and the duo struggles to share the court together. On an expiring deal, Favors will undoubtedly walk this summer, so Utah would be wise to try and flip him now to a team willing to try something for him.
This three-way deal might be a way to get involved in it, grabbing a 2017 first-rounder in D.J. Wilson for their troubles. Wilson and Teletovic don't do a ton to fit into the type of offensive styles that Quin Snyder employs, but Mirza spreads the floor around Gobert and Wilson is a good long-term ploy. We also have to take into account that the Jazz are likely trying to find a home for veteran Joe Johnson; there could be other pieces that move from their roster.
Still, Wilson is a decent talent grab here to take a chance on. He shoots the ball and is versatile to handle it on occasion. Acquiring him before the Bucks get a chance to ruin his development is solid; swallowing Teletovic's deal is just the cost of doing business.
This deal also fits nicely into another well-known secret – that the Bucks are looking to bring in Tyson Chandler. Teletovic and Wilson are the salary to make it work on their end, and they'll have enough space left to acquire someone else. Phoenix sheds a year from Tyson's deal and adds someone they get to audition to be their starting center long-term. Favors has been vastly underrated now that he's overshadowed in the Salt Lake State thanks to Gobert. He should be coveted by a team looking to plug some holes at center long-term.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).