It is unlikely that any trade made before the March 25 deadline will overshadow a trade that has already gone down – the Brooklyn Nets acquiring former MVP James Harden and forming a super team in the East.
But with more teams than ever in both conferences in contention for playoff spots, competitiveness could convince some teams to go for it. Even the New York Knicks feel like a contender, picking up veteran Derrick Rose in a trade with Detroit earlier this month.
In the Eastern Conference, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Brooklyn are clearly separating themselves from the next tier of teams. But just four games separate fourth from 13th place in the conference. The only two teams clearly out of it at this point in the season are the Detroit Pistons and Washington Wizards.
The West has a similar structure. The Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers, and Los Angeles Clippers are all clearly in the upper-echelon, but 5.5 games separate 4th from 14th place in the conference, with only the Minnesota Timberwolves having a non-competitive season so far.
Some of those teams in both conferences will fade, of course. But as the Miami Heat proved with their improbable run to an Eastern Conference title last season, all it takes in the uncertain circumstances we’re living through is to get hot at the right time. With that in mind, here are five players who could still potentially be on the move before the trade deadline and make an impact on a contender.
Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards
Jan 31, 2021; Washington, District of Columbia, USA; Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal (3) dribbles the ball as Brooklyn Nets forward Jeff Green (8) defends in the fourth quarter at Capital One Arena. Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Make no mistake – the asking price for Beal would be high. He’s younger than Harden, Jrue Holiday, and Paul George, who all required 3 or more first round picks to change hands plus talented players. Beal is only 27 and is having his best NBA season, leading the league in scoring at 33 points per game. He’s signed through at least 2022, though he can opt out of his contract after that season if he wants. Beal has been mildly criticized for being too loyal to a Wizards franchise that has failed to assemble a competent roster around him in his career, but the team’s poor performance this season seems to have him reconsidering that loyalty. Beal has been linked to the Miami Heat in trade rumors, and Miami certainly has some young assets in players like Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson, and Kendrick Nunn who, along with multiple draft picks, could be a starting point in a deal. But expect a number of teams to have major interest in pursuing a trade with Beal should Washington look to move him and start a much-needed rebuild before the trade deadline.
Al Horford, Oklahoma City Thunder
Feb 12, 2021; Denver, Colorado, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder center Al Horford (42) prepares to pass the ball in the fourth quarter against the Denver Nuggets at Ball Arena. Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
For the second straight season, the Thunder have turned a contract for a former star deemed a negative asset into a positive. Last year, the Thunder took on the remaining contract owed to Chris Paul only to see him return to his All-Star form. They were able to trade him for a first round pick this offseason after conventional wisdom had suggested they’d need to attach an asset to him to move him. Horford was in that same boat when the Thunder took on his remaining contract after he struggled in Philadelphia last season. Horford has played well this season, hitting better than 40 percent of his threes, playing solid defense, and, much like Paul did last year, having a really positive influence on a young and overachieving Thunder squad. Horford’s contract is still a huge and complicated one to trade for, but a team in need of a stretch big who can rebound and defend might be willing to make a move for him. A team like Dallas could be a good fit – they certainly need some more defense and shooting in their lineup, it wouldn’t take a lot to get him (which is good because Dallas doesn’t have a lot of picks to trade), and they’re a team that could afford to pay the remainder of his contract.
Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic
Feb 12, 2021; Sacramento, California, USA; Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic (left) controls the ball against Sacramento Kings center Richaun Holmes (right) during the first quarter at Golden 1 Center. Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports
The Magic are struggling, but that’s not Vucevic’s fault. He’s having another All-Star-caliber season. He’s a force on the boards, he can score inside or outside, and he’d be a major offensive upgrade for any contending team. The Magic are in need of a rebuild. Vucevic is 30 and still playing at a high level, so he could help fetch assets for a team that needs an infusion of talent. Vucevic would be a great addition on a team like Portland or possibly even the Clippers, although the Clippers are devoid of tradeable first round picks for the foreseeable future after trading four for Paul George last offseason.
Wayne Ellington, Detroit Pistons
Jan 28, 2021; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Detroit Pistons guard Wayne Ellington (8) drives to the basket against Los Angeles Lakers guard Wesley Matthews (9) during the third quarter at Little Caesars Arena. Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
The Pistons would actually love to move a different player, Blake Griffin. But Griffin’s massive contract compared with his injury history and the fact that he’s having the worst season of his career make it impossible to trade him without attaching an asset, like a young player or draft pick. The Pistons are rebuilding, so giving away picks just to shed salary doesn’t exactly fit with that strategy of finding young talent. One player who could be attractive, though, is veteran Wayne Ellington. Ellington plays solid defense, is a good teammate, is hitting 45 percent of his three-pointers, and is signed to a cheap contract. He won’t bring back more than a second-round pick or two, but his skillset is a need for virtually every contender. With Avery Bradley out with an injury in Miami, the Heat could be an intriguing potential trade partner.
Andre Drummond, Cleveland Cavaliers
Feb 8, 2021; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers center Andre Drummond (3) shoots over Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22) during the first half at Phoenix Suns Arena. Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
Drummond was leading the league in rebounding and helping a surprising Cavs team compete for a playoff spot. Then, they added another center in Jarrett Allen, one who is younger, better defensively, and reportedly in the team’s long-term plans. In a contract year, Drummond is now splitting minutes with a center whose skillset overlaps with his and the team has spiraled, with a 4-10 record since Allen was acquired. Drummond is limited in what he brings. He’s a monster rebounder and he is a great finisher around the basket. But when he wants post touches, he bogs down the offense. He also has poor defensive instincts. He could help a team like the Raptors, who need significant help on the glass. But with his status as a pending unrestricted free agent, don’t expect an immense return in a trade for him.