The 2021 NBA trade deadline is just two days away, and teams at the top and bottom of the standings are lining up to make their moves. While there isn’t a superstar on the market who’ll redefine the race for the championship — not after James Harden was already traded from the Houston Rockets to the Brooklyn Nets in January — there could potentially be smaller moves made to bolster contenders and help teams on the fringe of the play-in race make one more big push.
With that in mind, we asked our experts to answer five big questions heading into Thursday’s deadline, including which teams they’re watching most closely, who could be moved and what are their bold predictions.
1. What are you watching most closely this week?
Tim Bontemps: What happens with Kyle Lowry. In a trade market devoid of game-changing players, Lowry has the potential to be a swing piece in the title chase. If he leaves Toronto and winds up on either the Philadelphia 76ers or Miami Heat, he could completely change the landscape of the Eastern Conference. It’s hard to see any other player being moved who could have a similar impact.
Kirk Goldsberry: Can the Lakers get some shooting help? They rank 27th in the league in 3-point production and 22nd in 3-point percentage. Their current fleet of shooters doesn’t scare anyone, and in an era increasingly defined by long-range offense, the purple and gold need some additional perimeter firepower for this title defense.
Tim MacMahon: What will the rebuilding Rockets do? First-year general manager Rafael Stone has added a lot of draft capital while dealing almost all of last season’s starting lineup, headlined by the bundle of picks acquired from Brooklyn in the James Harden trade. Perhaps the Rockets can add more draft compensation by flipping Victor Oladipo, whom Houston hopes it can trade to a team that values his Bird rights instead of just as a rental. Houston is also aggressively looking to cash in some of those draft picks for a player who can be a long-term foundation piece, such as 25-year-old Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon.
Bobby Marks: Lowry and the Raptors, who’ve lost eight consecutive games and find themselves on the outside of the play-in tournament (three games in the loss column behind Chicago). Lowry is on an expiring $30.5M contract and can dictate if he wants to pursue a championship with a team like Philadelphia or finish the season with the Raptors. Lowry does not have a no-trade clause and Toronto is free to ship him off to any of the other 29 teams. However, because he is considered the best player to ever don a Raptors uniform and helped lead Toronto to a championship in 2019, Lowry has control over the identity of his next destination.
Royce Young: Will fringe teams make moves to plan ahead or hope for a play-in appearance? The new season structure could dramatically impact the trade deadline, with more teams holding on to their players. It could cause a deadline supply-and-demand issue, with quality players hard to find.
2. Which title contender most needs to make a move?
Goldsberry: The Sixers need offensive help. Even though the Doc Rivers/Daryl Morey era is off to a great start, Philly needs to bolster its offense to compete with Brooklyn and Milwaukee, who both boast top-five offenses. Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris and Ben Simmons are a great trio, but if Philly could add one or two more potent perimeter threats — like say, Lowry — that would elevate its chances to come out of the East.
MacMahon: Needs might be a bit strong, but the 76ers absolutely should be aggressive in their pursuit of Philly native Lowry, a playoff-proven leader who seemingly would be a great fit with franchise cornerstones Embiid and Simmons. Daryl Morey’s history with the Rockets certainly indicates that the 76ers will make a splash before the deadline.
Bontemps: All of them? The interesting thing about this season is all of these contending teams have flaws. The Lakers and Sixers need offense. The Nets need defense. The Clippers need someone who can organize an offense. The Bucks need depth. The Heat and Celtics need power forwards. The Nuggets and Blazers both feel a piece short. Even in a market where there isn’t a ton of interesting stuff to be had, all of them should be looking to make moves.
Marks: Since the Celtics are not title contenders, I am going to pick Philadelphia. I know Doc Rivers has been on the record saying that he loves his team and getting Embiid back healthy should be the primary focus. However, this 76ers team checks the boxes when it comes to pieces to put into a trade: $30 million in expiring contracts, an $8.3 million trade exception, two prized young players in Tyrese Maxey and Matisse Thybulle, and the ability to trade two first-round picks. Yes, it takes two to tango when it comes to making a trade, but the 76ers should not be content when it comes to their roster at the deadline, especially if a player like Lowry becomes available.
Young: I’m keeping the Denver Nuggets in the “title contender” category, despite it being a little iffy, because they were in the NBA’s final four last season and still have a top-15 player on the roster. The Nuggets are clearly missing elements to generate consistency, and are in need of shooting and scoring options to supplement Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic.
3. Which likely lottery team most needs to make a move?
MacMahon: It’s time for a roster reset in Orlando, which looks likely to finish with top-five lottery odds after squeaking into the playoffs the past two seasons. According to a source, Evan Fournier has made it clear that he has no intention to re-sign with the Magic as a free agent this summer, so Orlando might as well get something in return for a player efficiently averaging 19.1 points per game. Gordon, who has a season remaining on his contract, is commanding a lot of interest.
Marks: I don’t want to say that Orlando has to make a move, but the Magic have the trade pieces to retool their roster and start planning toward next season. The Magic have been decimated this season by injuries and are headed to the lottery as a result. Because of his expiring contract, Fournier is more of a short-term rental but could help a playoff team looking for additional shooting. The time is now if Orlando is looking to maximize its return in a deal for Gordon, who is under contract through 2021-22.
Young: The Oklahoma City Thunder. Sam Presti is in the middle of reconfiguring the roster, but there are a few veteran players whom other teams might value. Al Horford could be tough to move because of his remaining salary, but George Hill and Mike Muscala are very available and could be considerable boosts to good teams. And no, Presti would not say he has enough future draft picks already.
Bontemps: The Orlando Magic have typically been hesitant to make any significant moves. That needs to change this year. Fournier is on an expiring contract, and Gordon plays the same position as injured forward Jonathan Isaac. Both should be traded by Thursday to allow this team a chance to actually rebuild, rather than stay on the treadmill of fighting for the 8-seed.
Goldsberry: Even after shipping out P.J. Tucker, Houston is still sitting on some tradable contracts that could not only help contenders but could also fetch return pieces to fuel the Rockets’ rebuild. Shipping out Oladipo, Danuel House or even Eric Gordon could help Houston eventually pull itself out of this post-Harden nightmare.
4. What is a trade (or type of trade) you most want to see happen?
Marks: I want to see Dallas take a swing and acquire Andre Drummond. This Mavericks team can beat the best on any given night, but I am concerned if Kristaps Porzingis can hold up for the remainder of the season. The time to find help for Luka Doncic is now, not in the offseason. The Mavericks could offer Cleveland the expiring contract of James Johnson and Willie Cauley-Stein, but the challenge comes in cobbling together an additional $3 million in salary with a player who is not part of the rotation. A combination of Johnson and Dwight Powell works, but Cleveland would be inheriting the $11.1 million owed to Powell in 2021-22 and 2022-23. With Jarrett Allen likely to command a salary close to $20 million in free agency, taking on Powell without the help of a third team should be a nonstarter for the Cavaliers.
Young: Oladipo to Denver. The Nuggets would need to match salary, so it would need to be Gary Harris and an incentivizing young player for the Rockets such as RJ Hampton or Zeke Nnaji. But the Nuggets are in a window with Jokic and Murray and need to maximize the opportunity. They have slipped some this season after running to the West finals and we all know time is short in the NBA. A healthy-ish Oladipo could bump the Nuggets firmly back into the championship conversation.
Bontemps: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Talen Horton-Tucker for Bogdan Bogdanovic. The Hawks need defense, and will get that in both KCP and THT (plus it was fun to write those abbreviated names back-to-back). The Lakers, meanwhile, need another creator and shot-maker, and Bogdanovic would provide both. Plus he’d be able to start long-term for them, something he’d like. He’d also give a team facing a lot of difficult financial decisions this summer some cost certainty, given he’s under contract for the next three seasons.
Goldsberry: Miami getting another star before the stretch run. The Heat have emerged as a defensive powerhouse, but their offense just hasn’t clicked this season. Whether it’s Lowry, Oladipo or some other player, I would love to see the Heat import another star who could propel this group back into contention and make the East even more fascinating.
MacMahon: The Nuggets are a cut below contender status now, but maybe that can change if Denver uses one of its intriguing developmental players to make an immediate upgrade. It makes sense for the Nuggets to be aggressive even if it’s just a rental. When you have a player performing at an MVP level, as Nikola Jokic is, you must be in win-now mode.
5. What’s your bold trade deadline prediction?
Young: Toronto blows it up. It’s been a long time coming, but with their aging and expensive core, the Raptors need to pivot to what they hope is an abbreviated rebuild. Lowry is a Raptors legend, but his time will come to an end and he will move along to another Eastern team to make a run at another Finals.
Bontemps: Lowry gets traded. After losing eight games in a row, it’s hard to argue Toronto is a realistic contender to make noise in the East. As a result, the Raptors should move Lowry to a contender and allow themselves a chance to quickly pivot around their young core of Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby.
Goldsberry: Boston doesn’t get a deal done. The Celtics are .500 and need help especially in their frontcourt. However, this front office is quickly earning a reputation for the deals it doesn’t make, and the trade deadline is a notoriously tough time to acquire meaningful new pieces at fair prices. The Celtics might be looking to add pieces, but they won’t allow themselves to get fleeced. In turn, they will end up empty-handed.
MacMahon: The Celtics, leery of paying luxury tax for a team that entered the week at .500, don’t find a fit for their massive trade exception. Harrison Barnes would make a lot of sense, but the Kings shouldn’t move him unless they get a significant return.