Play-In Aspirations & the Deadline

Updated: January 19, 2022

From the outside looking in, the overall potential for talent relocation on the trade market looks lush and vibrant. With the newly established parody at the top and a surplus of teams on the cusp of contention for the title, one would assume that the rumors of win-now pieces for assets would be swirling in excess. If last month’s reports of Indiana and Houston’s bigs being placed on the block was a trailer for the fireworks to come, then this trade season would prove to be one for the history books. Unfortunately for those thirsty for pick-heavy exchanges and player relocation, despite Sabonis, Tuner, and Wood being placed on the open market, there have been zero publicly documented offers from trade partners for an acquisition. To be fair, we are still 3 weeks away and plenty of explosive moves could occur from now until the middle of February. However, there appears to be a few variables that have acted like speedbumps thus far which have congested the fluidity of the market.

Delusions & the Playoffs

In a desperate effort to discourage tanking after The Process era in Philadelphia, Commissioner Adam Silver and his administration decided to flatten out the odds of the draft. It essentially gave the bottom 3 teams equal odds for the #1 pick, 4-6 seeds similar odds to land between 4-10, and decent Blackhorse odds for 7-12 seeds to end up with a 4-8 pick. The results and the opinions surrounding them have been mixed, especially with how much luck and overall chance has now been engrained in the fate of a franchise and its future. However, it is this variable in combination with the play-in game that is of importance with regards to the possibly dry trade deadline this season.

Since there is no guarantee that being the 4th worst team in basketball will come with a top 5 pick in the upcoming draft, some front offices have become fixated with simply “making the playoffs.” Now that being the 9th or 10th seed in one’s conference allows a team to make the play-in, for some franchises, this mild level of success is enough to avoid the tank. In a way, they get the best of both worlds. On one hand, if they end up in the play-in game, then they were not a bottom-feeder team, and yet when they get knocked out by a true contender, there isn’t any sense of failure since it was expected. On the other hand, they still end up with a lottery pick—and for a GM, the 11th pick in the draft comes with it a whole lot less pressure since it is more of a crapshoot of talent outside of the top 5 selections.

It is another situation where ownership and its expectations or perception of its GM and front office may inevitably cause inverted actions. Due to indirect mixed pressures for instantaneous success and yet long-term prosperity, a general manager may make decisions based not on the best interests of the future of a franchise but for his own longevity of his tenure. Especially with events like Scottie Barnes going to Toronto at #4 last year, despite them only having the 7th worst record in basketball, the narrative of a GM to his employer can easily be grayed with the fog of examples that may not actually be applicable to their specific situations.

The number of teams that should be openly identifying as sellers this month should be at an all-time high. Considering how many potential buyers are currently present, and how many elite teams are at the top that solidifies the pecking order in a conference, it should be transparent where a team stands as a contender. For example, with how elite the Suns, Warriors, Jazz, and Grizzlies have looked, not only at the top of their rosters but their overall depth, it should be an easy task for the bottom end of the West to see that a deep playoff run is extremely unlikely regardless of what side of the bracket they may end up on.

For the Pelicans, Spurs, Kings, and Trail Blazers (even if Dame was healthy), they should be openly identifying as sellers, looking to maximize the value of their expendable assets, or looking to fully rebuild depending on their specific situations. Instead in the West, it will probably only be the Trail Blazers & Clippers who sell win-now assets, but only because of the Dame Lillard and Paul George injuries.

In both these cases, these General Managers did not make the difficult decision of identifying their situation as non-contenders and attempting to sell high on their plus rotation pieces to stock up for the future, their hands were essentially forced by their stars being injured. But with all the front offices who have not been forced into a corner due to injury, most likely they will simply stand pat and hope for the play-in.

This prescription for teams like Sacramento & New Orleans is absolutely preposterous. The possibility of Harrison Barnes and Brandon Ingram not being actively shopped and moved by the deadline is in obvious violation of their long-term goals of becoming title contenders down in the future. However, with the play-in tournament open for the taking, Sac & the Pels both become hesitant to sell and most likely will talk themselves into keeping their vets and kick the can down the road to the offseason.

The same can be said about the East. With Giannis and Durant at the top of the conference, teams like the Knicks and Celtics should be aware they simply will not be representing the East Coast in the Finals. However, the delusional dreams created by the Atlanta Hawks last year make it difficult for Boston and New York to punt, even though it obviously is in their best interest to do so. The Indiana Pacers have made their players available, yet only due to a surplus of injuries early in the season. Even so, they have now asked for 2 picks for Turner, even though in years past, they were unable to even get a single 1st round pick for him.


If not for the play-in game, there is a possibility that this trade deadline would be rampant with exchanges and pick-heavy trades. There would be daily rumors of packages sent to Golden State, Phoenix, and Utah for their picks and young players. Instead, the only teams that have been identified as sellers are ones that had no other choice. It will be curious if in the next few weeks at least one franchise on the fence will boldly take advantage of the meek lack of moves of these other franchises in the middle. Despite the countless hypothetical trades created in the machine by novices, paid analysts, and General Managers alike, it is more likely that only a few exchanges actually make their way to the surface by the deadline.


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