Let's face it — the best and most powerful teams in the NBA don't really change from week to week. A handful of results in the middle of winter can only mean so much to a franchise's championship hopes. What does shift regularly, though, is how much interest a squad can hold over the course of a season. Every week, BDL's Most Interesting Power Rankings track the teams most worthy of your attention.
This time: considering which teams are most interesting as we approach Thursday's 3 p.m. ET NBA trade deadline.
THE TOP 15
So the Clippers would never trade Blake Griffin ... except they're talking about it. And anyone who thinks they're better without Blake is nuts ... except they have been, for about two months ... which is why they're willing to at least consider moving him this summer, if not right now ... because if you were going to trade him, you'd be crazy to do it while his value's at its lowest point ... except they're talking about it.
That about sum it up?
Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical reported earlier this month that Griffin, sidelined since Christmas by a partially torn left quadriceps tendon and a broken shooting hand suffered in a fight with Clippers assistant equipment manager Matias Testi, could find himself in trade talks this summer. Multiple reports suggest that timetable has moved up, with the Clippers reportedly engaging clubs in conversations centered on the five-time All-Star.
Dan Woike of the Orange County Register reported Monday that "one executive involved in any trade discussions" called the Griffin chatter "one hundred percent not true." Head coach and president of basketball operations Doc Rivers has said the same:
Doc Rivers said "We're not trading Blake."
— Dan Woike (@DanWoikeSports) February 16, 2016
As reasonable as that seems — I'm with SB Nation's Tom Ziller on the relative intelligence of jettisoning a 26-year-old who was the third-best player in the 2015 postseason — the combination of the fight and L.A. doing more than just treading water without Griffin, going 18-5 since he went down while scoring and defending at top-five levels, seems to have at least opened the door to a path once considered nearly unthinkable.
"The Clips are listening" to Griffin offers, ESPN.com's Zach Lowe reported Tuesday, "and they've rarely listened before." Combine that with Woj's Tuesday report that a planned deal between the Clippers and Orlando Magic to land veteran forward Channing Frye is on hold while L.A. explores "a larger trade scenario," and it sure seems like if Doc and company hear something they like before Thursday at 3 p.m. ET, the Clippers could be in for drastic changes.
2. Houston Rockets (27-28; LW: not ranked): The Rockets are a trade-deadline junkie's dream: an underperforming team with a roster full of interesting pieces on contracts with varying degrees of movability. Entering the All-Star break a half-game out of the Western playoff bracket, with an incentive to miss the postseason — if the Rockets make the playoffs, they owe the Denver Nuggets their 2016 first-round draft pick; if they don't, they'll instead owe Denver a 2017 second-rounder — the question is: how much does Daryl Morey want to tear down what he's built?
Barring a farewell to James Harden, which some argue is what Houston really needs but which remains the longest of longshots, the top Rocket on offer figures to be Dwight Howard. Less than three weeks ago, he was believed to be staying put. Last week, Woj reported that the Rockets had actively started shopping the eight-time All-Star, despite neither Howard nor his agent, Dan Fegan, asking for a move. Now, Frank Isola of the New York Daily News says the Rockets and Miami Heat have discussed a swap in which Howard would land in South Beach while Hassan Whiteside heads to Houston; subsequent reported talks with the Charlotte Hornets don't seem to have produced anything more promising.
The financial realities of trading Howard, who makes $22.3 million this season, are further complicated by Houston's status as a "hard-capped" team that can't exceed "the apron" (the point $4 million above the luxury-tax line of $84.74 million) in total salary at the end of any move. Lowe reports that Houston has "found little interest so far" in Howard's services, and you can understand why nobody's bowling Morey over with killer offers.
Dwight's still very good and has been excellent in each of the last two postseasons, but you'd be trading for a just-turned-30 big man with a scary injury history, who's no longer the Defensive Player of the Year-caliber difference-maker he once was, who can opt out of the final year of his contract this summer to enter free agency, and who'll demand a full maximum-salaried contract stretching into his mid-30s. All told, Howard might be too good on too insecure a contract to be worth giving up too much, but no longer good enough to give up everything you've got to get him in-house and take a shot at inking him long-term. That could mean he stays put through the spring, forcing Houston to pursue other reconstruction plans.
3. Miami Heat (39-24; LW: NR): The noise surrounding the potential departure of Whiteside — a shot-blocking, board-crashing, interior-finishing monster in whose minutes Miami has actually allowed more points per possession and whose occasional on-court lapses have led to questions about his maturity — might quiet down, albeit for an awful reason.
After missing the 2016 NBA All-Star Game with what was reported to be a strained right calf, Chris Bosh now faces the possibility of being shelved for the second straight season amid fears that he's developed blood clots in his left calf. The bracing news comes one year after doctors found that a clot that formed in Bosh's calf had moved to his lungs, a potentially life-threatening issue that thankfully only knocked him out for the final 30 games of the 2015-16 season.
There's optimism that this might be more manageable than last year's issue, and that Bosh could return to play this season, but that's not yet certain. Losing Bosh again would likely put the Heat — sitting in fifth place in the East, already over the salary cap, with precious few attractive trade chips — in a position where no addition could put them in serious contention for the conference's top spot.
If that's the case, as much as Pat Riley always wants to win now, Miami could pump the brakes on dealing to help the current club. (Riles' participation in Tuesday's three-way dance flipping Chris "Birdman" Andersen for Brian Roberts and luxury-tax relief suggests he's moving that way.) And as Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun Sentinel notes, "if there is a concern about a career-ending loss of Bosh, it could get the Heat to reconsider any potential trade of" Whiteside, even if the math on re-signing both Whiteside, whose Bird rights the Heat do not hold, and Dwyane Wade seems tight.
4. Detroit Pistons (27-27; LW: 14): Stan Van Gundy struck the first blow of this year's trade deadline, sending point guard Brandon Jennings and forward Ersan Ilyasova to the Orlando Magic, where they reunite with former Bucks head coach Scott Skiles, in exchange for forward Tobias Harris. The move breaks up the most-used five-man lineup in the league and removes from Detroit's rotation both Ilyasova, who's shooting 36.3 percent from 3-point land and had functioned pretty well next to All-Star center Andre Drummond, and Jennings, who had given Detroit a boost as a playmaker off the bench after coming back from a torn Achilles tendon. (While Jennings' individual production hasn't popped off the page, the Pistons have been about six points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor than off it since his return.)
On one hand, the move detracts from Detroit's depth — already a weak point — and introduces a potentially difficult new element to integrate into a team sitting just a half-game out of the East's top eight. On the other, Van Gundy just landed a talented 23-year-old who can play either the three or the four, who's a year removed from averaging 17 points a game and shooting 36.4 percent from deep, who could slot in alongside Marcus Morris, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Stanley Johnson to give Van Gundy the option of switching defensive assignments along the perimeter, and who's locked up for the next three years on a pre-TV-money-hitting-the-salary-cap deal that actually declines in dollar value in its last two seasons.
More than that, Van Gundy did so for the price of Jennings, a career 39 percent shooter coming off Achilles surgery who will hit unrestricted free agency this summer, and Ilyasova, a 28-year-old who profiled more as a placeholder for Detroit's long-term answer at the four than the answer itself. Whether Harris will be that answer remains to be seen, but buying the chance to find out without giving up a core piece or any future draft considerations seems quite nice ... especially y'know, when you can do it at the expense of the team that kind of screwed you over that one time.
But that's none of Stan's business.
Let's go live to Stan Van Gundy for reaction to this trade... pic.twitter.com/pHlOw5hZbu
— John Karalis (@RedsArmy_John) February 16, 2016
5. Cleveland Cavaliers (38-14; LW: 5): While giving Kevin Love a vote of confidence last month, Cleveland general manager David Griffin said his front office believes "that there's no such thing as untouchables." But even though Love, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving continue to look a bit awkward sharing the floor, Cleveland keeps more or less crushing opponents when that trio's available. Lineups featuring all three stars have scored nearly 115 points per 100 possessions this season, a monstrous number, and outscored the opposition by almost 12 points-per-100, within hailing distance of the dominant point differentials posted by the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors.
If Griffin can get a bona fide star back for Love, which ESPN.com's Marc Stein and Brian Windhorst claim would be the asking price, sure, maybe he considers a move. Otherwise, why shop a top-tier talent when lower-wattage tweaks — rumored targets include Kosta Koufos and Ben McLemore of the Sacramento Kings, Kyle Korver of the Atlanta Hawks, the Houston Rockets' Trevor Ariza, the Washington Wizards' Jared Dudley and, if he's cut loose by the Brooklyn Nets, Joe Johnson (though Sean Deveney of The Sporting News reported Wednesday that Johnson's "not expected to be on the buyout market") — might help Cleveland kick into high gear?
How much any of those acquisitions would address Cleveland's most pressing issue ...
Tyronn Lue on what's different in Cleveland since he took over: "Our defense is worse."
— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) February 12, 2016
... or help transform the East-leading Cavs into a more legitimate Finals threat remains to be seen. Even if Cleveland stays quiet before Thursday, though, how James, Irving, Love and Lue manage the 30-game sprint to the postseason bears close watching.
6. Atlanta Hawks (31-24; LW: NR): Despite entering the All-Star break in the East's No. 4 spot, Mike Budenholzer's club could choose to fall back rather than go all-in before the deadline. It would have seemed unthinkable during last season's magical run to 60 wins and the East's top seed, but multiple reports have suggested that the Hawks are at least considering dealing Korver, point guard Jeff Teague and center Al Horford, three of the focal-point pieces of last year's franchise-best squad.
Horford's both the biggest potential difference-maker of the bunch and the one whose price tag and contract status would likely give suitors the most pause. He's an unrestricted free agent this summer who turns 30 in June and reportedly prizes the fifth year that only the team holding his Bird rights can offer in free agency, and the Hawks are reportedly only willing to act if you "wow" them with a Godfather offer.
Teams looking for wing shooting help will certainly come after Korver, who's hitting 42 percent of his 3-pointers since Jan. 1 after a cold start to the season, but after the league figured him out last postseason, how much should you be willing to give up to have him this spring? Teague's evidently super available, with just one year left on his current contract, but nobody who wants a pretty good point guard seems to have enough pretty good stuff (or be willing to part with it) for Atlanta to just hand the reins to Dennis Schröder.
Tuesday's report that oft-injured reserve big man Tiago Splitter needs right hip surgery and will miss the rest of the season could prompt the Hawks to make their decision one way or the other. Will they look for immediate frontcourt help to make a last-ditch effort at recapturing last season's good vibes? Will they decide that this season's a lost cause and flip present-day standbys for chances at landing future contributors? Or will they decide standing pat's the move because, upon further review, being a pretty good team that can make the second round of the playoffs and could very well be able to keep their awesome center in free agency isn't the worst thing in the world?
7. Toronto Raptors (35-17; LW: 4): General manager Masai Ujiri has to decide if he believes his Raptors, as presently constituted, are good enough to make a real run at Cleveland ... and, if they aren't, if he's ready to cash in the chips he's accrued to improve their chances.
Thus far, most speculation on the latter has focused on potential upgrades at power forward, where veteran starter Luis Scola has largely outperformed expectations, especially in shooting 43.2 percent from 3-point land, and top reserve Patrick Patterson has been somewhat disappointing, posting career-worst shooting, rebounding and turnover percentages. Toronto's been connected with virtually every notable four-man believed to be on the market —
Markieff Morris (nevermind!), Ryan Anderson, Kenneth Faried, Thaddeus Young and Taj Gibson.
Do any of those targets represent enough of an all-around upgrade to be worth attaching a meaningful asset — the 2016 first-rounder Ujiri snagged from the New York Knicks for Andrea Bargnani, rookies Delon Wright and Norman Powell, young bigs Bruno Caboclo and Lucas "Bebe" Nogueira — and risking upsetting the balance of what looks like the best squad in franchise history? Given Ujiri's belief in the value of culture and chemistry, the bet here is that unless an opportunity presents itself at a friendly cost — say, Anderson for Patterson and one youngster — Toronto will keep its powder dry, continue to ride its All-Star backcourt, and bank on DeMarre Carroll returning to health and Patterson returning to form in time for the playoffs. (Unless, of course, Atlanta gets serious about Horford.)
8. Boston Celtics (32-23; LW: 8): Perhaps no general manager is better positioned to make a monster offer than Danny Ainge, who has David Lee's $15.5 million expiring contract as ballast, two extra first-round picks this year, including an unprotected Brooklyn Nets selection that could land in the top three, and a half-dozen or more interesting young players still on rookie contracts. But having a fully stocked treasure chest is one thing; finding a partner offering someone for whom it's worth opening it is another.
Ainge was very clear in a recent chat with Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald about wanting to target "players that can make a big difference, not players that can win us two games or anything like that."
“Our objective is not to keep us in the No. 3 seed in the East and maybe move up a bit, other than that’s our players’ objective and that’s our coaches’ objective. I think those are amazing goals, and it’s been fun watching this team compete and beating some of the good teams along the way. But our objective is to put together a team that can compete for championships."
Boston has the goods to make just about any deal work, even for All-Stars like Griffin, Love, Horford and DeMarcus Cousins, enough talent on-board to withstand a culling if it returns an A-lister, and a GM who thinks big. Like children watching Itchy and Scratchy, Celtics fans have been waiting nearly two years to finally reach the fireworks factory. Can Ainge at long last find the right opportunity to light the fuse?
9. Utah Jazz (26-26; LW: 13): With 30 games left in the regular season, the Jazz sit in eighth place in the West, a half-game up on Houston ... and, more interestingly, just 4 1/2 games back of the fifth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, who could be poised for a tumble without injured centerpiece Marc Gasol and whose Tuesday trade of shooting guard Courtney Lee for, ostensibly, four second-round draft picks suggests they're prepared for at least a modest slide.
With Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert back to run with wing scorers Gordon Hayward and Rodney Hood, Utah's won seven of its last nine, outscoring opponents by nearly seven points per 100 possessions. That's given fans hope that the Jazz might be able to not only make the playoffs for the first time in four seasons, but make a little noise once they get there. One spot where the Jazz could use some help: at the point, where the combination of Raul Neto and Trey Burke has been more serviceable than sizzling.
Utah has reportedly engaged multiple teams in talks about Burke, with one popularly floated proposal shipping Burke and working-his-way-back-from-injury scoring guard Alec Burks to Atlanta in exchange for Teague. Then again, if installing Teague means taking the ball out of the hands of Hayward and Hood while temporarily blocking back-next-year youngster Dante Exum, it might be worth asking just how much better that deal makes Utah.
GM Dennis Lindsey is surely asking himself that question right now, while also quietly searching for another ball-handler who can also spot up as a supplementary shooter and fit into Utah's defense-first culture. On that score, by the way, ESPN Insider Kevin Pelton's got a pretty neat idea: New Orleans Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday. And speaking of the Big Easy ...
10. New Orleans Pelicans (20-33; LW: NR): Detroit landing Harris nixes one of the most natural theoretical landing spots for Anderson, who came into his own under Van Gundy during their days with the Magic, but that doesn't mean the sweet-shooting stretch four won't still draw interest. Woj reports that Anderson's likely price tag in unrestricted free agency — somewhere between $16 million and $18 million in Year 1, and he's reportedly committed to finding his market — has some teams feeling gun-shy, but it only takes one buyer to get the ball rolling.
The Kings have reportedly shown interest in bringing Anderson, who grew up near Sacramento, back to Northern California this summer. Morey's had conversations about Anderson as a floor-spacing bomber next to Howard in the past. Deals like those might not push New Orleans back to the playoffs, but if they can net the Pelicans some draft picks and/or young talent to put around Anthony Davis in the years ahead, they're worth considering for Dell Demps (or whoever's got the final call in decision-making matters these days).
11. Sacramento Kings (22-31; LW: 3): After giving up 2014 lottery pick Nik Stauskas and what could wind up being an unprotected first-round pick to dump contracts that created cap space for Rajon Rondo, James Anderson, Marco Belinelli and Kosta Koufos, and after going from about to fire George Karl to deciding to keep him, I'm prepared for the Vivek Ranadive/Vlade Divac regime to do damn near anything. Whenever I try to hone in on the Kings' plans, I hear the voice of Bob Uecker in "Major League 2."
12. Orlando Magic (23-29; LW: NR): Trading Harris for Jennings and Ilyasova might help now, providing additional playmaking and shooting for a club that's intent on making the playoffs, but has gone 4-16 since Jan. 1. (That it also opens up more time at the three and four spots for Aaron Gordon, Mario Hezonja and Evan Fournier doesn't hurt.) It could also help in the near future, as Jennings is an unrestricted free agent and GM Rob Hennigan can excise $8 million of Ilyasova's salary from the 2016-17 books by waiving him before July 1. Simply letting them walk allows the Magic to open up nearly $40 million in cap space this summer.
Trading Frye, made somewhat redundant by the addition of Ilyasova, in a deal that would return Lance Stephenson, whom Orlando would promptly waive, would open even more. (Jennings' addition to a point-guard mix that already features Elfrid Payton, C.J. Watson and Shabazz Napier could also mean another roster-balancing move's in the offing, which would have its own financial implications.) Add it all up, and the Magic might be able to work their way into enough room for two max free agents.
Who are those two free agents, though? Orlando's been very bad since Dwight left and failed to land its last big free-agent target, Paul Millsap, last summer. And while having two max slots is great, just about every team's going to have loads of money to spend as the salary cap shoots up near $90 million, and this free-agent class looks a bit iffy beyond the top-tier talents. It's anybody's guess whether Hennigan will be able to land more talented, productive and potential-laden pieces with his newfound financial flexibility than the 23-year-old he just shipped out.
That said, you don't have to use cap space in free agency; maybe Hennigan's betting that even if he can't convince Kevin Durant to come to the Magic Kingdom, he can position Orlando as a landing spot for another star in a sign-and-trade to complement his young base of Gordon, Hezonja, Payton, Fournier, Victor Oladipo and Nikola Vucevic. That seems a hopeful play that could go belly-up if high-class targets won't take Orlando's money, especially if SVG kickstarts Harris' development. Hennigan and company started something on Tuesday; it'll be fascinating to see how they finish it.
13. Brooklyn Nets (14-40; LW: 30): Brooklyn might finally have a new general manager, which might mean there will finally be someone in place to make the franchise's biggest decision: whether to move Young and Brook Lopez for any first-round draft picks they can find, or to keep the productive tandem as cornerstones around which to try to construct the next competitive Nets team.
In a vacuum, the latter makes sense. Young and Lopez are valuable and talented solid citizens who complement one another. But the Nets don't play in a vacuum. They play in a reality where ownership signed off on the prior regime utterly stripmining the franchise's future, one in which the Nets will not hold the rights to their own first-round pick until 2019. ("Lessons learned.")
I'm sympathetic to the idea forwarded by Devin Kharpertian of The Brooklyn Game that Lopez, particularly, is too damn good to pass up for "just any old first-round picks," but to a greater degree than any other team in the league, the Nets need to increase their chances of finding ways to add young cost-controlled talent. If there's any shot that Young or Lopez can help facilitate that, the Nets' new GM must pounce.
14. Philadelphia 76ers (8-45; LW: 28): In years past, Sixers GM Sam Hinkie would make no bones about his disinterest in adding here-and-now help before swooping in with his gobs of cap space to snare some second-rounders or pick swaps for facilitating someone else's big deal. But Jerry Colangelo's on board now, and with a seemingly shallow free-agent pool and what The Vertical's Bobby Marks calls "a below-average draft" in which Philly is currently set to make three first-round picks, could the 76ers change course and actually — gulp! — look to add another actual NBA player? Or will Philly's "grease skids, get goodies" approach remain the same, even if the name at the top of the club directory's different?
15. Golden State Warriors (48-4; LW: 1): Perhaps the least surprising pre-deadline report came Monday from Yahoo Sports NBA writer Marc J. Spears:
The chances appear slim that the Warriors will make a trade before Thursday's deadline, a source said.
— Marc J. Spears (@SpearsNBAYahoo) February 16, 2016
After entering the All-Star break with the best record in league history through 52 games, thanks to the NBA's No. 1 offense and its No. 2 defense, it's hard to find places where the Dubs need reinforcements. Sure, Festus Ezeli's out for at least the next month after arthroscopic surgery on his left knee, but Andrew Bogut could probably handle a bit of a bump from his career-low 21 minutes per game, Marreese Speights has been productive since Ezeli went down ... and man, if your big deadline issue is weathering the absence of your backup center, you're in good shape.
So long as Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson remain upright, the Warriors should stay that way as they pursue 73 wins and a second straight title. Then, this summer, Golden State will start setting its sights on acquisition.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
26. Indiana Pacers (28-25; LW: NR): Let's check in on the latest spicy dish to come from Larry Bird's hot stove:
#Pacers staying active before trade deadline. I'm hearing Indiana shopping F Chase Budinger.
— Candace Buckner (@CandaceDBuckner) February 16, 2016
27. Dallas Mavericks (29-26; LW: NR): Mark Cuban has apparently learned when the trade deadline is, which is nice. Even if Dallas is able to make something happen, though, the owner said Tuesday they're in line for "mostly, 'this guy hasn't really performed to expectations on our bench, this guy hasn't really performed to expectations on yours'" moves. Get ready, People Excited By Reports About John Jenkins and Jeremy Evans!
28. New York Knicks (23-32; LW: NR): Carmelo Anthony has a no-trade clause, and he said Saturday he's "not going anywhere." That likely means that, unless Phil Jackson can get someone really interested in Veteran Leader Jose Calderon, or some suitor looking for wing scoring takes a shine to Arron Afflalo or Derrick Williams, it'll be a quiet week in Gotham.
29. Chicago Bulls (27-25; LW: 9): While injuries to Jimmy Butler, Joakim Noah and Nikola Mirotic could provide the context for a "win now" move aimed at stemming their recent slide, under Gar Forman and John Paxson, the Bulls have shied away from in-season trades. Unless they can find a deal that adds a playable rotation-bolstering vet while also saving ownership some money, the Bulls will probably just hope for better health, more consistency and better results down the stretch.
30. Los Angeles Lakers (11-44; LW: 11): There are no "win now" moves to be had in L.A., and little hope that the team's veterans would generate much return. Lou Williams' instant-offense-only game and Brandon Bass' unsexy steadiness could maybe net some future second-rounders, but Roy Hibbert's expiring contract is drawing roughly as much interest as his expiring game, and Nick Young makes too much money to contribute this little anywhere else. The deadline figures to pass with a whimper in L.A., and then the Lakers will return to celebrating the end of Kobe Bryant's career while trying to lose enough to keep their top-three-protected 2016 first-rounder.
In other words, we'll return you to "The Byron Scott Furrowed-Brow-and-Crossed-Arms Hour," already in progress.
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