Eastern Contender Trade Targets

Updated: February 17, 2021
Portland Trail Blazers v Atlanta Hawks

The NBA Trade Deadline is March 25th, situated almost exactly at the halfway mark of this stranger than ever season. As records around the league suggest, the lack of full stadiums has had a significant effect on typical home court advantage, which, combined with many teams dealing with depleted rosters due to health and safety protocols has many teams unsure just how good (or bad) they really are.

And that uncertainty extends out to the playoffs. Will home court advantage return? Or will play be more akin to the Bubble of last year’s playoffs? Teams with any real chance to contend should be aggressive – after all why can’t they be this year’s Miami?

Let’s look at the contenders and would-be contenders around the NBA and identify their biggest needs and who might fill them as trade season gets underway. Below I’ll cover the Eastern Conference, while later this week we’ll hone in on the West.

The Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks clock is ticking more than people realize. Yes, Giannis is still young and now locked in long term but the core around him and Middleton are living on borrowed time. Brook Lopez will be 33 in April. Jrue Holiday is going to be 31 at the end of next season and owed a large deal with a short shelf-life. Not only are key players aging out of their primes, but the Bucks will also have almost zero financial flexibility.

So the Bucks should be aiming to win now, in the most extreme sense of the phrase, and to do so they need to learn from past mistakes. The Bucks Achilles heel has been their tactical inflexibility and further thinning of their roster has exacerbated that issue. So far this year, Giannis has only spent 5% of his time on the court playing center. Contrast that with a finishing mark of 23% last season. While Giannis at center is not a panacea, it’s an indicator of whether the Bucks have the desire or ability to play a switching defense – something that most other contenders situationally use to great success. But it gets difficult to make a playable group if you take Brook Lopez off the floor, a requirement if Milwaukee wants to switch. What the Bucks need is a two-way 4 that lets the Bucks play Giannis at center without compromising the defense. Enter PJ Tucker. You’ll be reading Tucker’s name a lot in the coming weeks, here and elsewhere, because his skillset is the cure for what ails a lot of contending teams.

Tucker is the Platonic ideal of a switchable 4-5, and as Kirk Goldsberry has noted the last few years he’s led the league in 3-pointers made from both corners league wide. He did an admirable job at center for the “Pocket Rockets” last season and is the best defensive player in the NBA to never make an All-Defense team. Opponents would grimace at the prospect of dealing with him and Giannis down low.

But it won’t be easy to pry Tucker away. As previously mentioned, he will be in high demand. And when the Bucks went all in to get Holiday, swapping depth and picks to become, in theory, a deadlier playoff team, there was an additional price. The cost of upgrading from Bledsoe to Holiday, other than the bevy of first round picks, was the hampering of further trades or acquisitions by bumping up against the hard cap as an over the cap team. This makes in-season trades a delicate, precise matter, without even looking at their threadbare asset collection.

In order to make a deal, Donte DiVivencenzo more or less has to be in the trade as Milwaukee has little else of value outside of a couple of second round picks. Also, Donte has been shooting 40% from 3 this year and is their last young player with upside. Moving him for Tucker, if the Rockets even want him, would hurt. But if the Bucks come to believe as I do that their window is smaller than it appears, Tucker could be the answer.

The Brooklyn Nets

When you’re starting KD, Kyrie, and Harden, what you don’t need is pretty obvious. The offense, sitting a hair behind the scorching hot Utah Jazz, will take care of itself. The issue is the defense, or rather, where is the defense going to come from?

Glancing at the starting 5, one might be tempted to say the Nets need a center. In the playoffs, teams punish conservative drop coverage schemes and DeAndre Jordan simply doesn’t have the athleticism anymore to play any other PnR style. This leads to the situation like their game against the Bucks when Kris Middleton casually sauntered into endless open elbow jumpers in their thrilling 125-123 win on January 18th. Having Harden on the roster (and to a lesser extent Kyrie) necessitates that the Brooklyn Nets will be a switching defense when the chips are down. Which means what they need is a big, switchable wing, capable of guarding 3-5. And the Nets have to find said player with the added constraint that they can’t move a first to get said wing. But the luxury the Nets have over a lot of the other contenders is that this addition does not need to be a shooter – when Kevin Durant is at the 5 and Irving, Harden, and Harris are the others on the court – you have the luxury of adding a dunker-spot-dweller.

Thaddeus Young, then, is the player that both fits these needs and might realistically be had. Young, who previously played with a very different Nets team, has developed into one of the better wing defenders in the NBA, he has the size and speed to play a defensive Swiss Army Knife role for Brooklyn. And though he can’t hit from 3, he’s still an effective scorer with the requisite spacing (something Brooklyn has in spades).

But as will be a problem for many contenders trying to pry away the finishing piece of their championship puzzle, the Bulls are trying to compete this year and Young is quite good. This is further compounded by the addition of the Play-In Tournament. Teams like the Bulls, Knicks, Hornets, and others that might cut bait well before the trade deadline in years past now have real incentive to soldier on. Still, if the Bulls fall out of things ahead of March 25th, the Nets should move aggressively to acquire Young.

The Boston Celtics

Stop me if you’ve heard this before but Kevin O’Connor recently reported that “the Celtics are up to something”. Danny Ainge has long put the lie to the old adage “where there’s smoke there’s fire” because year after year sources report a great deal of activity from the Celtics but the last in-season trade they executed was the Kyrie Irving-Isaiah Thomas deal.

But if they did make a move, what should they be looking at?

It’s instructive that, per multiple reports that the Celtics didn’t want Myles Turner in return for a Gordon Hayward trade. To the extent that Hayward eventually left for nothing. Now is that because they didn’t think Turner was any good? (an estimation I think is very wrong as Turner is having an All-Defense caliber year) or because they feel they don’t need to shore up the position? It could be some combination of both because the Celtics have managed very gamely without a “center of the future” on the roster. Still, a big would help. But I think their biggest need remains another guard or wing. Jeff Teague, after a long overachieving career, looks cooked. Kemba, returning from knee rehab looks physically better but has also struggled. And with Smart sidelined with a calf injury, the Celtics looked rudderless in their desultory loss to the Wizards on Sunday.

Payton Pritchard has filled in effectively and earned minutes in the rotation, but a true contender shouldn’t be another Payton Pritchard knee injury away from falling out of it. The Jays are in their prime. And while Boston should be careful not to short circuit their window now that the hardest work of adding star talent is done, they also must act decisively if the opportunity to make a winning trade presents itself. Adding another wing or guard to play alongside the Jays on the second unit or spot minutes a starter should be their priority. They have assets in prospects and all their own picks to make it happen.

And importantly, they also have a massive use-it-or-lose-it $28.5 million traded-player exception, which allows them to acquire a player in trade without sending matching salary. If they intend to use it, then they should consider Harrison Barnes, or if he’s unavailable, Victor Oladipo.

Let’s start with Barnes. I’ve long been of the opinion that Barnes is an underrated player, whose virtues have been overshadowed by the healthy contracts he’s received. But you don’t get to be the 5th player of the Warriors Death Lineup as a scrub. He’s a player that can do a little bit of everything, shoot, switch, pass, and defend multiple positions. He was overstretched as a number one guy in Dallas but has really found his groove in Sacramento, sporting the highest true shooting percentage (62%) and assist percentage (13.6%) of his career.

The Celtics can make a competitive offer, but would the Kings give up Barne just as he’s begun to play elite ball? If the price is right, perhaps. If not, a lower cost, lower upside gamble would be to make a run at Oladipo. The former Pacers star is currently out with a foot injury and sadly seems destined to never return to his pre-ruptured quad form. But the player he still is and could grow into has real value. A capable defender and 3 point shooter, with some off the dribble juice, could be exactly what the Celtics need. And if Houston doesn’t want to retain him, it might not cost much.

The Philadelphia 76ers

The Sixers have been one of the more dominant squads this season. With Daryl Morey reshuffling the roster to once again put more shooting around Embiid and Simmons and Doc Rivers reigniting Tobias Harris, they’re a formidable force atop the East. But the problems that have bedeviled every non-Butler version of this team remain. When the game slows down in the playoffs, how will they manufacture half court offense? Who gets the ball in crunch time of a close game? For now, the answer appears to be: give the ball to Embiid and get the hell out of the way. In addition to post-punishing dominance, Embiid has added a slick midrange pull up that allows him the kind of late game closing ability that, among centers, only Jokic has currently mastered.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t have needs. Philadelphia is still in the bottom half of the NBA for half court offense, and as we’ve seen numerous times now, that becomes a bigger problem in the playoffs as teams zero in on Embiid and further ignore Simmons outside the paint. They rank second to last in 3-pointers attempted and near tops in shot frequency from every midrange location. That their offense is humming along this will is impressive but they should be proactive. Mike Scott is on the scrap heap, and the Sixers should think about upgrading with another shooter and ball-handler in the Shake Milton mold. While someone like Evan Fournier would be nice, the Sixer’s salary issues make that difficult. Instead, they should target Alec Burks, currently shooting 42.5% for the Knicks from downtown and more than capable of getting his own shot with bogged down spacing (The Sixers spacing issues don’t seem so bad next to the Knicks). Burks can operate as another spot-up shooter when Green goes through his annual shooting slump or as another shot creator when Milton or Simmons are unavailable next to Embiid.

The Miami Heat

The Heat are another of the walking wounded teams having been decimated by Covid protocols and injuries to their roster to start the season. While they’ve rallied to just outside the playoffs recently, they face an uphill battle to return to the highs of last year’s Finals trip. To do so they will need to sacrifice some of their future value to fill what is perhaps the biggest glaring hole in the entire NBA. They need a Jae Crowder replacement. The Heat knew losing Crowder would sting, but that was the price of holding out hopes for a bid at Giannis. And perhaps fairly, they thought that Crowder’s Bubble shooting wouldn’t return even if they re-signed him (indeed his shooting regressed hard in the later rounds and ended up at only 34% for the playoffs). Still, having that one wing shooter that defenses need to respect outside of Duncan Robinson creates a lot of space for the Heat. While Bam has developed into a hell of an isolation shooter, 3 point attempts are still not a regular part of his diet. Butler’s neither. The vaunted Bam/Robinson DHO gets easier to guard when there are fewer threats on the court.

However, it’s not clear how Miami can upgrade in-season. Outside their young talent, the Heat are fairly asset bereft. Their gamble to wait on Giannis was justifiable, but it was a losing bet. Without churning out another Heat Culture development story, it’s difficult to see how they can replace Crowder. Even acquiring someone like Trevor Ariza, who could be a serviceable small-ball 4, would require moving the now injured Meyers Leonard, who would have the right to veto the deal. A consequence of granting him a second-year team option, rather than a non-guarantee. This curious move cost Miami a lot of flexibility and perhaps their best chance to make a trade.

Somehow I don’t see Leonard opting to move from South Beach to OKC.

The Toronto Raptors

You might quibble with my inclusion of the Raptors on this list. But while they had an atrocious start to the year, the Raptors currently sport a top 10 offense and point differential. With the right addition to shore up their uncharacteristically leaky defense, the Raps could well make another run to the East Finals. What they’re missing is glaringly obvious to any Toronto fan. They need a center. Badly.

The quick pivot to Aaron Baynes following the twin losses of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka has been an unmitigated disaster. Without the emergence of Montreal’s own Chris Boucher, the Raptors might well be looking at a lottery season despite their capable core. Masai has proven he’s willing to go big-game hunting, but for purposes of this exercise, I’ll focus on incremental movement that is more probable in-season (though Raps fans are welcome to continue dreaming about John Collins).

Toronto needs a big man that can dive in the pick and roll, defend his position, rebound, and clean up around the basket. Pretty typical big man stuff. They don’t need a high usage Unicorn, a competent workhorse will do. Luckily those kinds of centers are plentiful around the NBA. And no, I’m not referring to Andre Drummond despite the flurry of reporting and counter-reporting that happened Monday morning. Drummond makes more than 30 million this season, which raises far too many salary matching concerns for Toronto to make a deal worthwhile. But acquiring a Robin Lopez or JaVale Mcgee say, should not cost the Raptors much in future assets or flexibility and will allow them to return to their rightful position as a playoff lock in the East.

Unless otherwise noted statistics cited in this piece come courtesy Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass.


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