The Clippers have a bunch of mid- and low-salaried players who can now be included in deals: Matt Barnes, Grant Hill, Jamal Crawford, Ronny Turiaf, Ryan Hollins, and Willie Green. Chauncey Billups won’t become trade-eligible until January 15. There are three interesting things in play here:
•Health. Billups’s brief comeback is already over, though he’ll presumably return soon. No one knows when Grant Hill will play again, or how effective he’ll be when healthy. Lamar Odom is rebounding better and generally looking almost like an NBA player again, but he’s still shooting 32 percent, including a horrid 4-of-24 from long range, and it’s unclear how much the Clippers will really be able to count on him against good teams in the playoffs.
• Rotation issues. Crawford is essential and isn't going anywhere. Barnes has, in many ways, outplayed Caron Butler, whose contract expires after next season. Barnes is a feisty defender and one of the most intuitive cutters in the league, a skill that fits nicely on a team with two offensive centerpieces that draw so much attention; he’s shooting 64 percent on two-point field goal tries. But he doesn’t have Butler’s ability to space the floor, and with Hill’s uncertain status, the Clippers probably need both Barnes and Butler — especially since being able to play smaller, with one of those two sliding to power forward, could be an important asset against a couple of potential playoff opponents (San Antonio, Oklahoma City, et al.).
The big rotation is always going to be in flux. DeAndre Jordan has fallen off after a hot start, and he’s still below 50 percent from the foul line — an issue that will make it dicey for the Clippers to close games with both Jordan and Blake Griffin on the floor. Odom and Turiaf have surpassed Hollins in the rotation, meaning Hollins could be available on the cheap for a team seeking an additional big man; Boston comes to mind as a potential suitor, since the coaching staff is familiar with Hollins’s game from last season. The Clips’ bench units are absolutely blitzing teams right now, but Odom and Turiaf are limited players, and the team might look around for an upgrade somewhere.
• Eric Bledsoe. The Clippers might be thinking too conventionally with Bledsoe, but within that context, the reality is that Chris Paul is always going to limit Bledsoe from getting the time he deserves. Only about 20 percent of Bledsoe’s minutes have come with Paul on the floor, and the Clippers have outscored the opposition by about 6.5 points per 100 possessions in those minutes — even while giving up points at what amounts to a league-worst rate, per NBA.com’s stats database. (They were fine defensively with those two on the floor last season, though in fewer minutes than they’ve logged already this season.) Those defensive struggles and size issues likely explain Vinny Del Negro’s reluctance to use them together, despite Bledsoe’s super-long arms and general defensive ability.
Bledsoe’s in the top 10 overall in PER, and he's cut his turnover rate from “horrific” to “acceptable.” Paul's a free agent in the offseason, but the Clippers obviously want him back, and his cap hold soaks up their cap room — and their ability to pursue free agents above the mid-level exception. A Bledsoe trade feels almost inevitable, though the Clippers don’t need to do it this season, especially if they can’t find anything that would help their title chances. But teams are going to start calling more often, and the Clippers now have some additional pieces to throw around.
The only December 15 guy is Randy Foye, a useful spot-up shooter and wing defender whose $2.5 million salary doesn’t put a lot of things in play on its own. (The Jazz also have about $2.3 million left over from the Mehmet Okur trade exception, but they cannot combine that exception with other trade-related exceptions to swallow a player with a larger salary.)
The larger state of the Jazz is what has executives around the league trying to sniff out Utah’s intentions under new GM (and Spurs alum) Dennis Lindsey. Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap will both be free agents after this season, and Utah could pile up something like $30 million in cap space if they both leave. Utah has no need to keep both of them, since Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter are ready for larger roles on an exciting young team; Kanter, especially, has shown improved footwork in the post on offense, though he turns the ball over at an alarming rate.
This also happens to be a pretty good team right now — the team that, perhaps more than any other, most closely resembles what we expected at the start of the season. They’ve got a strong top-10 offense and a porous bottom-10 defense, with Jefferson’s plodding pick-and-roll defense and some inconsistent weak-side rotations (from Gordon Hayward, among others) the primary culprits. They look almost exactly like the very solid team that finished last season, though with more 3’s (finally, Utah embraces modern basketball!) and the potential for better defense with more Favors time and more use of ultra-big lineups featuring Millsap at small forward.
Dealing Jefferson or Millsap would obviously torpedo those units, which played lights-out ball last season but struggled this season before Favors’s foot issues put the kibosh on the setup. Utah isn’t a contender, but they’re a solid team, and if they get hot, it’s not hard to imagine them pushing one of the Western Conference elite in the first round. With so much future cap space, they might even want to add, though it’s unclear if they’re willing to part with one of their four young talents (Kanter, Favors, Hayward, and Alec Burks) or starting bigs in order to do it. If not, all will be quiet here. Utah's only $3 million below the tax threshold, so they have to be careful about adding salary.
If Utah does decide to roll the dice, I’d expect them to deal Millsap before Jefferson, even though Millsap is a better all-around player earning half the money. That sounds crazy, but context is everything in the NBA. Jefferson is a better offensive centerpiece than Millsap; Jefferson’s post game is the hub of almost everything Utah does, and it’s unclear if their offense could score at at nearly the same rate without it — and with a major mid-season restructuring. Millsap is a fine offensive player, but a complementary one, and neither Favors nor Kanter is close to ready to take on Jefferson’s role.
Millsap is also a better defender than Jefferson in almost every respect, but he’s essentially average on that end, and so the defensive upgrade of ditching Jefferson’s slow feet isn’t all that huge.
This is why the Jazz are an intriguing potential Pau Gasol trade partner, as Tom Haberstroh pointed out last week. There is no perfect Mike D’Antoni power forward with above-average defensive skills and high-volume 3-point range on the market. Andrea Bargnani has shown neither this season, and he’s out for an unknown period. The Hornets aren’t dealing Ryan Anderson just because the Lakers would like them to, even though it seems like that’s how the league operates sometimes. Danilo Gallinari is an intriguing small-ball candidate on a team loaded with interesting trade assets, but any Gallo-centric deal would leave the Lakers bereft of “true” power forwards, and Gallinari hasn’t been an above-average 3-point shooter in three years. (On a Denver-related side note, executives agree that Timofey Mozgov, thrust back into the rotation in the last week, is among the most available players in the league). Channing Frye would've been an interesting name if not for his health problems and the fact that the Lakers have no first-round picks left to trade.
That leaves Millsap, a better version of mid-2000s Boris Diaw who has flashed an occasional 3-point stroke (especially in crunch time of crazy games). The Jazz could still have significant cap room this summer, even after adding Gasol’s $19 million salary for next season, after which his deal expires. The tax issues make any deal tricky, and Utah may want to maintain maximum flexibility and build around the kids. But you can bet that both front offices have constructed several model trades around the Millsap-Gasol centerpiece.
In any case: Teams are eyeing Utah.
The Grizzlies are about $4 million over the tax threshold, putting them on pace for an extra $4 million bill from the league and their first tax bill since 2005-06. Darrell Arthur has looked springy, though inconsistent, since his recent return from yet another leg injury, and he had already passed Marreese Speights in the Grizz rotation before suffering a concussion in Denver on Friday. Arthur will become trade-eligible on January 15, and with Memphis perhaps wary of that tax bill, it will be natural for teams to call about a backup power forward who was crucial on both ends of the floor in the Grizzlies’ exciting 2010-11 playoff run.
It would also be natural for them to call about Speights, since he's fallen to the fringes of Lionel Hollins’s rotation. One problem: Speights also doesn’t become trade-eligible until January 15, and even then, he has the right to veto any trade as a potential Larry Bird free agent who signed a one-year deal in the offseason. The Grizzlies may well want to keep all four of their rotation bigs out of caution. Zach Randolph is starting to look like 2011 Z-Bo, but it took him a long time to reach that level again, and both he and Marc Gasol are carrying very heavy burdens. Arthur has his bounce back, but he’s shooting a ton of mid-range jumpers (fine, for him), barely getting to the line, and just returned from a long absence.
Jerryd Bayless became trade-eligible on Saturday, but Memphis has no other answer at backup point guard, and Wayne Ellington’s prolonged slump — seven of his 19 made 3’s came in one early November game against Miami — has made Bayless even more important. It’s quite possible that Memphis stands pat or makes only a tiny cost-cutting move. Bayless hasn’t shot well, either, but he’s doing an acceptable job running backup point, despite an uptick in turnovers.
I mentioned the widespread appeal of Ramon Sessions last week, but since then, Gerald Henderson has solidified his place at or near the top of Charlotte’s guard/wing hierarchy; he regained his starting spot on Saturday. It’s a crowded list now, with Henderson, Kemba Walker, Jeffery Taylor, Ben Gordon, and Sessions all competing for time.
The Cavs have about $10 million in cap room, making them a prime candidate to absorb salary as either a main player in a two-team trade or a facilitator in a larger deal. The prize here is obviously Anderson Varejao, an ace defender, rebounder, and passer who has hit a bit of a scoring rut after a hot start. Every team could use a guy like this on an affordable deal; the need is simply more urgent in some places. Cleveland GM Chris Grant is a huge Varejao fan, and he'll be asking a ton in return. But with Saturday in the rearview, they also have two semi-intriguing players on cheap contracts that are now trade-eligible: Alonzo Gee and C.J. Miles.
Gee is a useful rotation player filling a pretty vacant spot on the Cavs, but he hasn’t been able to find the shooting stroke that made him especially useful two seasons ago; he’s down to 39 percent overall and 28 percent from deep, and he doesn’t create enough other stuff offensively — productive drives, assists, foul shots — to be of much use if he can’t shoot. (Bonus points, though, for being the league’s biggest secret monster in-game dunker). He’s a nice defender, but Cleveland is overextending Gee in sticking him on the best opposing perimeter player, regardless of position.
Miles was essentially unplayable until a crazy two-game hot streak last week against Indiana and the Lakers, and he’s still shooting well below 40 percent even after that. He can theoretically play both wing positions, but his off-ball defense has been uneven this season, and it’s hard to keep guys on the court if they’re shooting in the mid-30s. Miles is working on a semi-expiring deal, since next season’s $2.25 million salary is unguaranteed.
A handful of good teams — the Lakers, Nets, Grizzlies, Timberwolves (with news of Malcolm Lee’s knee injury on Friday) and Bulls — could use an extra wing player, but all have various tax/cap impediments to adding even a tiny bit of salary, and neither Gee nor Miles is going to tilt the playoff picture. Still: Cleveland is a team to watch, if only because of their cap room. Phoenix and Houston are the only other teams sitting on significant space.
New York Knicks
About half the roster became trade-eligible Saturday, but the only semi-big names that stick out as both useful and tradeable (from New York’s perspective) are Marcus Camby and Kurt Thomas. The latter has been a token starter here and there, but he doesn’t play much otherwise, and Camby has played 46 minutes all season due in part to plantar fasciitis. He's due $4.3 million next season and at least $1.025 million guaranteed in 2014-15, which may be too much for anyone, considering his age/health. Rasheed Wallace has improbably passed both in the rotation, and with Amar’e Stoudemire coming back soon and Carmelo Anthony presumably still due heavy time at power forward, there aren’t going to be many minutes to go around.
Both Thomas and Camby (if healthy) could help a team in need of size or rebounding, but the Knicks aren’t going to help Boston, Brooklyn, or Miami beef up within their conference. The Clippers and Spurs are among Western Conference teams who could use an insurance space-eater/tough guy, but San Antonio already has the maximum 15 players on its roster, and they stand only about $1 million under the tax. (On that note, Patty Mills became trade-eligible on Saturday, and the Spurs are overloaded with movable and expendable rotation players at multiple positions — especially power forward and combo guard. They’ve also got Stephen Jackson’s expiring contract, though Jack is a valuable piece with postseason chops and Gregg Popovich’s confidence. Like Speights, Mills has the right to veto any trade).
Things are quiet for now, but trade season is about to get very interesting.