Trade season is nearly upon us. This Saturday, December 15, marks the date on which teams can trade most of the free agents they signed in the offseason. The lifting of that restriction won't inundate the market with hugely desirable players, in part because salary cap quirks keep free agents who received some of the biggest raises off the market until January 15 (Brook Lopez, Kris Humphries, Roy Hibbert, Ersan Ilyasova) or for the remainder of the season (Eric Gordon, Nic Batum, and any other restricted free agent whose team exercised matching rights to keep him).
But there are still some interesting names available, and more players makes the cap mechanics easier for some of the intriguing rumored trade targets already eligible (Pau Gasol, Andrea Bargnani, etc.). League executives agree the chatter has been quiet so far, but they say that every season, and it's early yet. Here's a team-by-team look at some intriguing December 15 names, and a few words on the likelihood of any moves.
The Sexy Names
The Rockets didn't expect to get Lin from the Knicks, and they certainly didn't expect to follow up the Lin swipe by dealing for a superstar ball handler who would usurp Lin's intended role. But that's what happened, and now Lin is shooting 39.5 percent (including a miserable 52 percent in the restricted area), barely getting to the line, and struggling to fit in as a secondary ball handler/spot-up shooter. He's losing crunch-time minutes to Toney Douglas, and that price tag — about $8.3 million per season — looks much steeper now than it did in July.
The Rockets are bold, they prize flexibility, and assuming they keep their lottery-protected first-rounder (property of the Hawks), they may need to shave off a teensy bit of 2013-14 payroll in order to offer a veteran a max-level contract this season.
Would they actually trade Lin, a potential marketing bonanza? Extremely unlikely. There is value in having two capable ball handlers against defenses increasingly bent on forcing teams to swing the ball from strong side to weak side, and it's early to pull the plug on an enticing player. Houston could also cut its cap figure by doing any number of less dramatic things, including declining what amounts to a second-year option on Carlos Delfino — himself trade-eligible on Saturday, and a useful piece for a good team in need of a backup shooter.
Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon
No one knows what's going on with Gordon's knee, and cap rules give him the right to veto any trade until July 2013. But it's unclear whether he wants to be in New Orleans after urging the Hornets to let him sign with Phoenix last summer.1
It's also unclear if and when he'll be healthy again, an uncertainty that will obviously depress whatever market might exist.
As for Anderson, it's sweet that the Lakers want him in any theoretical Gasol deal. But the rebuilding Hornets would seem to have little use for an aging center earning $19 million per season through next year, and there's no indication New Orleans has much interest in trading Anderson in any three- or four-team deal that would send Gasol elsewhere. He's a productive player with a hugely valuable skill set on an affordable contract averaging about $8.5 million per season. The Hornets can open up max-level cap room without moving either Gordon or Anderson.
The Noisy Teams
The Toronto Raptors, All of Them
Perhaps the league's biggest disappointment, the 4-18 Raptors have bigger deals to consider than any involving their December 15 crew; the whole NBA knows the Andrea Bargnani/Jose Calderon package is an almost perfect salary fit for Gasol, though the Lakers' front office has presumably watched Bargnani shoot bricks and play some of the worst help defense in the league.
Saturday's deadline frees up (among other Dinos) John Lucas III, a shoot-first backup point guard who can barely get minutes in Toronto, and Landry Fields, a wildly overpaid wing who once again shot miserably this season before undergoing elbow surgery. The handcuffs also come off Alan Anderson and Aaron Gray, but none of these guys moves the needle much. The Raptors, as of now, would be capped out this summer and could have only limited flexibility — something like $8 million to $10 million in space — in the summer of 2014 if Bargnani is still around, so they have some incentive to cut salary.
Speaking of incentive to cut salary: Denver is on pace to be very near the tax line next season, assuming Andre Iguodala sticks around for the final year of his current deal at $16.1 million instead of opting out. They're also a decent team right now — 10-11 despite playing a tough schedule heavy on road games — with a need for both outside shooting and a usable two-way big man. They've got salaries of almost every size attached to intriguing players, and Professor Miller's December 15 entry into the trade market just adds another such player — one George Karl admittedly adores. They've also got a massive $13 million trade exception left over from the Nene deal. The Nuggets could essentially get involved in any sort of deal, and Miller is a plus offensive player on an affordable contract that will pay $5 million next season and as little as $2 million in 2014-15. He's a minus defender whose presence on the court forces Denver into constant and uncomfortable switches, but he's valuable in the right role.2
The Phoenix Mess
The headliner here is Michael Beasley, and you can count on zero hands the number of teams that have any interest in acquiring Beasley now, with $6 million on the books for next season and at least $3 million for 2014-15. Saturday also frees up Jermaine O'Neal (reborn, and stealing Marcin Gortat's minutes), a fierce defender in P.J. Tucker (swiping Beasley's time), the very good Goran Dragic, and Shannon Brown, a decent rotation player when he doesn't have to create off the dribble.
The vultures are circling Phoenix, looking to see if they can extract value from the Suns' collective failure. The Suns have little interest in dealing Dragic, but the tension between Gortat and Alvin Gentry could lead to a larger deal — one that could include more puzzle pieces starting Saturday.3
More Names to Watch
Teams are looking, and they'll look harder when Avery Bradley returns and adds another wing player to Boston's crowded rotation. But each of those wings has a unique skill set Boston might need at some point to unseat Miami; Lee has better size than Bradley or Jason Terry, and his track record suggests he's a better long-range shooter than Bradley. But he's been cold from outside this season, and struggled initially to pick up Boston's defensive concepts. He's come along in that regard, and on a four-year mid-level deal, he'll draw some interest for a Boston team searching for another big.
Teams are definitely going to call Bobcats GM Rich Cho about Sessions, a free-throw machine who has cut his turnovers and generally helped as something between a bench player and an honorary starter. But he's in the middle of a ghastly shooting slump, his 3-point touch from last season has proved a blip, and his minutes have been inconsistent. Charlotte is in asset-acquisition mode, and if they can flip a 26-year-old (mostly) career backup for a draft pick, they may well do it. Sessions is on an affordable $5 million deal that expires after next season, and he could help any team in need of another ball handler.
Indiana's Messy Bench
Count the Pacers among those potential playoff teams in need of said secondary ball handler. D.J. Augustin has been so bad (shooting 26.6 percent) as to open the backup point guard spot for Ben Hansbrough, and Gerald Green has lost the creative mojo he flashed in Jersey last season. The Pacers have shopped Tyler Hansbrough (the league's most unwatchable player) in the past, and both Green and Ian Mahinmi (shooting 41.5 percent after a hot streak) become trade-eligible on Saturday. All carry small salaries that could augment a larger trade, though any monster Danny Granger deal is less likely given Granger's knee issues.
Jason Thompson and Aaron Brooks
Thompson is coveted around the league after signing a five-year deal worth about $6 million per year. He's a solid two-way player who does just about everything at a "B"-level but nothing at an "A"-level, making him an ideal third big man on a good team. He's blocking Thomas Robinson, and the Kings could stand to cut some long-term salary; they'll be just about capped out this summer once you factor in Tyreke Evans's cap hold and Brooks's player option.
Brooks has rediscovered his shooting stroke but lost his ability to generate assists or free throws in Sacramento's always broken and usually poorly spaced offense.
The Dallas Mavericks
At 11-10 despite a ton of rotation turmoil, Dallas may actually be in "add" mode in anticipation of Nowitzki's return — and with Derek Freaking Fisher somehow starting at point guard. They'll be cautious about adding any long-term money that could impact their anticipated max-level room this summer, though.
Chris Kaman and O.J. Mayo are December 15 guys, but there is no sign at this point that the Mavs have any interest in trading either. Mayo is still red-hot, if a bit turnover-prone, and Kaman is having perhaps the most efficient scoring season of his career — which is much-needed, with Dirk Nowitzki out a few more weeks. Kaman's defense and rebounding have been unsteady, but teams will kick the tires on a decent big with an expiring deal. Mayo has played so well as to transform his deal into an expiring, since his $4 million player option for next season is relatively cheap, but the Mavs have little incentive to deal him.
The Philadelphia 76ers
Half the roster becomes trade-eligible Saturday on mid-tier or cheap salaries. The bigger names are Nick Young (shooting 38 percent and recovering from a toe injury) and a brigade of centers that has been so ineffective the Sixers will be in the market for a big man once trading season heats up. Kwame Brown almost never plays, Lavoy Allen's offense has regressed, and Spencer Hawes is no longer providing enough scoring/passing punch to make up for his shaky post defense. The Evan Turner/Jrue Holiday/Thaddeus Young core is basically set in stone here, and Jason Richardson's shooting has been helpful; the Sixers have outscored opponents by a robust 6.3 points per 100 possessions when those four play together, per NBA.com.
Everything else, including Andrew Bynum's future, is up in the air.
The Magic badly missed Nelson's playmaking during the seven games he was out due to injury, but he's shooting poorly in the first year of a pricey three-year deal, and he hasn't lifted Orlando's offense at all since his return. Nelson's almost 31, so the market for him won't be very big even if the Magic try to pair him with J.J. Redick's expiring deal.
The Chicago Bulls
Several guys become trade-eligible Saturday — Kirk Hinrich, Nate Robinson, Vlad Radmanovic, Nazr Mohammed, and Marco Belinelli. Robinson and Hinrich have been borderline essential in Derrick Rose's absence, and Belinelli has shot the lights out of late in Rip Hamilton's starting spot. The Bulls have a $5 million trade exception, but they're more than $3 million over the tax line and will likely work to cut costs.
The Brooklyn Nets
Keep an eye on the Nets. Kris Humphries won't be trade-eligible until January 15, but his unreliable defense has him out of favor with Avery Johnson. The team is stretching Reggie Evans and Andray Blatche further than is healthy, and C.J. Watson, trade-eligible on Saturday, is a valuable piece who has seen his minutes dwindle since mid-November. The Nets are in win-now mode, and if they feel they need another big man, they could build a package around some of these guys, plus MarShon Brooks, who only recently cracked Johnson's rotation.
Neil Olshey has a reputation as a risk-taker, and rival executives are wondering if he might try to get ahead of any potential LaMarcus Aldridge discontent and start at least thinking about potential deals. Hickson becomes trade-eligible on Saturday, but as a Bird Rights guy on a one-year contract, he can veto any deal. Hickson was halfway out of the league not long ago, but he has worked in Portland to focus on what he does well — rebounding and scoring off cuts — and less on what he wishes he could do well.
10 Things I Like and Don't Like
1. The New Orleans Pelicans
You're all mocking the pelicans? Other NBA mascots include a pair of pants; two different weather systems; a large deer; a space rocket; a person who performs magical spells; the act of magic itself; the inanimate net attached to a basketball rim; a music genre; the sun; and a small chunk of gold.
A pelican is arguably better than all of those. And pelicans are really cool in nature: dive-bombing from monster heights, zipping straight down into the water, and coming up with a meal. The team could replicate this in the arena, with a pelican rappelling from the ceiling, diving into a pool at midcourt, and coming out with a rival mascot in its mouth.
Most important: The inflatable mascot version of the pelican is going to be hysterically cartoonish. The only downside is that "New Orleans Pelicans" is a mouthful of syllables. What about the Bayou Pelicans?
2. Any Michael Beasley Pick-and-Roll
It has replaced the Tayshaun Prince isolation as the least watchable play in the league — especially when Goran Dragic, an actual proficient pick-and-roll player, is on the floor as an option. Beasley has improved his passing, but he's still turnover-prone and settles for way too many long jumpers off the bounce.
3. Rudy Gay's Defense
It's still not quite trustworthy, at least in the way you'd like from a max-salaried wing set to play 40-plus minutes in the playoffs for a would-be contender. Gay is a worker, but there are still too many minor lapses in positioning and effort. Gay is often a half-step out of position against side pick-and-rolls, and that half-step makes it much harder for him to force those ball handlers to the baseline — and away from the middle. And opponents know they can score the occasional easy runout in transition as Gay watches his shot or that of a teammate. He needs to clean this stuff up.
4. The Unflappable Mike Dunlap
The guy is like James Bond on the sidelines — well dressed, with an arms-crossed stoicism he maintains regardless of whether Kemba Walker hits a buzzer-beater or Byron Mullens jacks his seventh 3 of the night.
5. The Jason Terry/Paul Pierce Two-Man Game
Boston is scoring at a league-average rate, a big upgrade from last year's bottom-five offense, and the developing chemistry between Terry and Pierce has helped. Terry has always been a pesky screen-setter, and a pet Boston set includes Terry setting a pin-down screen for Pierce on the right side of the floor. Pierce will come off the screen and make a catch around the elbow as Terry flares over to the right corner.
With the right side clear of any other Celtic, the play puts enormous pressure on defenses. If Terry's man leaves to help on Pierce, Terry will come open for a corner 3. If he stays home, Pierce might have an open jumper or a dribble-drive path to the hoop. It's a nice use of two very good shooters.
6. The New James Harden Isolations
Harden shot 45 percent on about two isolation shots per game last season, ranking among the league's 10 most efficient iso scorers, per Synergy Sports. He's shooting 25 percent this season on twice as many attempts, a good illustration of the difficulties in transitioning to full-time no. 1 option. One play especially irks: Houston will clear one side of the floor for Harden to work in something between an isolation and a post-up. It looks very much like those Miami plays where the Heat clear one side for LeBron. Harden just hasn't been up to the challenge, though you can understand Houston's thinking, with Lin's struggles and the lack of any other creators.
7. The Demise of Jan Vesely
Every part of his game is down save for his passing, and even some of his nice looks out of the pick-and-roll stem in part from his reluctance to shoot the ball. Vesely has the length and athleticism to be a disruptive defender, but he's out of the rotation now, and is fouling like mad when he does play.
8. Arron Afflalo's Step-Back Jumper
I don't even know if this is a like or a dislike. A mid-range step-back is generally an inefficient shot, and Afflalo is shooting his lowest percentage in three years. But he's been decent from the mid-range for an Orlando team lacking better options, and I'm not sure any player creates more distance than Afflalo with that single step back.
9. Nikola Pekovic's Passing
A guy who draws this much attention should net more assists in Rick Adelman's offense, from both the post and the elbows. But clever passing isn't really part of Pekovic's game; he's a finisher, and he's often a split second behind in recognizing an open passing lane that closes fast. This won't matter as much when Ricky Rubio returns, but Pek's game could use a bit of refinement.
10. Kobe Bryant's Twisting Right Layups on the Left Side of the Rim
It's a patented Kobe play, and it is gorgeous: He'll dribble right-to-left across the lane and jump from the charge circle for a contested layup. In midair, he'll contort his body so that his chest is facing the left sideline and his back is to the rim and right side of the floor; it almost looks as if he's blind to the basket. He'll then flip a righty layup off the glass as his body passes under the backboard. It's a pleasing use of both body and rim as protection from shot-blockers.