We can get the obvious teams out of the way early. Houston is probably trying to flip Eric Gordon for draft picks right about now. Orlando will likely take calls on Terrence Ross and Gary Harris. Charlotte and Detroit should be open to just about any veteran on their rosters. Jordan Clarkson sounds great until he runs into a team that can exploit him on defense. These are your garden variety trade deadline targets, mid-sized salaries attached to modest players who could probably help the back end of a contender's rotation but won't swing the championship conversation in any meaningful way.
These players mattered, but lately, they're getting overshadowed every February. James Harden and Ben Simmons a season ago. Nikola Vucevic in 2021, the Andrew Wiggins-D'Angelo Russell swap in 2020 and Marc Gasol in 2019. These aren't back-of-the-rotation moves. They're seismic, trajectory-altering transactions that ripple across the entire league. Every deadline starts with posturing about how these kinds of players aren't available. Every deadline ends with a few of them being moved.
We don't who they're going to be yet, but we can guess that they're going to come from a handful of teams. In one of the most crowded playoff races in league history, five teams stand out as not only the likeliest sellers at the deadline but the fulcrums of the entire market. The league is waiting on these five teams to figure out what they're going to do, and if a trade swings the championship this February, odds are, one of these teams is going to be involved.
1. San Antonio Spurs
Playoff big men are an exceedingly rare commodity. The versatility requirements are so enormous that Karl-Anthony Towns managed to drive Steven Adams off of the floor last spring after only a single game. As recently as a few years ago, you could get away with a smaller forward at center planning to switch screens and make up your losses on offense. Now one conference has to plan for Nikola Jokic and the other is staring down Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo. All it takes to beat the wrong center is a single bad matchup.
That's what makes Jakob Poeltl such a compelling deadline proposition. He's at his best in drop coverage, where he's become an analytics darling with some of the best rim-protecting numbers in basketball. That's all well and good until Stephen Curry comes to town looking for a dance partner. Poeltl can't match most guards with foot speed, but he leverages his size so well with quick reflexes and perfect body positioning that he can hold his own against most of them.
Poeltl is languishing with the worst defensive supporting cast in the NBA in San Antonio. Give him a suitably spry front-court partner and some guards that can stay in front of their men and his rim-protection becomes that much more lethal. Boston has become an increasingly frequent rumored destination and fits perfectly thanks to their ability to switch everything. If Curry or one of his acolytes proves problematic, they can easily reserve Poeltl for bench lineups and prioritize Al Horford at center lineups. But for those pesky Embiid and Antetokounmpo matchups in the East? There's no better option on the market.
The Spurs don't make trades for the sake of trading. Prior to last season's Derrick White and Thaddeus Young deals, their last deadline trade of note came when they landed Nazr Mohammed in 2005. He'll be a free agent this summer, but San Antonio has so little salary committed long-term that keeping him really wouldn't be much of a burden. If he gets moved, it will be for real value.
2. Washington Wizards
Kyle Kuzma is probably going to get traded at the deadline if only because no player who was truly happy with his current team would talk as much on the record about his impending free agency as Kuzma has. He's theoretically a dream fit for almost every contender: the fabled big wing who can shoot that won't compromise what you're doing on either end of the floor. The reality isn't quite as clear.
The notion that Kuzma has dramatically improved in Washington is overstated. He gets to handle the ball more, but he's a below-average isolation and pick-and-roll scorer this season, according to Synergy Sports. That has largely been the case throughout his career. He made up for that with the Lakers as an exceptional cutter and transition player, but those points are harder to come by in the playoffs when he'll largely be used in a spot-up role that he's not exactly equipped for.
No player has benefitted more from a two-month stretch than Kuzma. He flirted with 40 percent from deep in the first half of his rookie season and has shot just over 33 percent in the five years since. Doesn't matter. He has a shooter's reputation. That reputation matters. Opposing defenses are going to guard him, and he's far better at attacking closeouts today than he was two years ago. But anyone expecting him to knock down high-pressure stationary triples out of a standard, late-game spread pick-and-roll is probably going to be disappointed. He's a 28.3 percent 3-point shooter for his playoff career.
Playoff teams are so desperate for wings that they'll still probably roll those dice. The outline of Andrew Wiggins for Golden State a season ago is here, and Kuzma has grown enough as a shot-creator to at least imitate what the Warriors got out of their small forward in bench lineups last spring. But don't be surprised when teams further down the developmental curve sniff around Kuzma as well. His best trait at this stage might be his ability to eat innings in the regular season. He can fill several gaps for forward-needy teams that have enough shooting to support him. The Knicks are an interesting option on this front.
But Kuzma is a litmus test more than anything. He is a flawed but valuable player at a position that is so valuable teams will often tolerate flaws. Someone is going to offer multiple valuable assets for Kuzma with the expectation that they will give him a substantial multi-year contract in the offseason, and in the process, potentially set the market for similar wings moving forward.
3. Chicago Bulls
The Bulls are at the extreme end of the "do these players make sense in the playoffs?" spectrum. We know that they don't. DeMar DeRozan's scoring dropped roughly seven points in the postseason a season ago. Nikola Vucevic might as well paint a target on his jersey defensively once April rolls around. These are regular-season players. Chicago's roster is full of them. It's part of what makes them such an obvious candidate to blow up their roster and start again. Even when healthy, we have a pretty good idea of how this would go in the playoffs. The low-end here is a play-in exit, but the high-end, barring injury luck, is probably a gentleman's sweep in the first round.
And yet, individually, so many Chicago players are appealing to the right team. DeRozan can't run a playoff offense, but as a secondary scorer against inferior defenders? He's a nightmare late in playoff games. Vucevic shouldn't start playoff games, but he'd be a heck of a gimmick response to the sort of ultra-small lineups that become more common in the postseason. He can work in much the same way Boban Marjanovic did for the 2021 Mavericks. Alex Caruso is a Swiss-Army defender who survived against Antetokounmpo last postseason despite a half-foot size disadvantage. Together these pieces don't fit. Stick them on the right team and each becomes much more interesting.
All of this relies on the Bulls seeing what's right in front of them. This team doesn't have a future. Ironically, this era of Bulls basketball began two deadlines ago when the Orlando Magic came to the same conclusion and sent them Vucevic. That deal might be holding Chicago back now. With 21 wins, they'd have a hard time sneaking into the top-four of the draft. If they don't, the Magic get their pick. From that perspective, the Bulls might just rather wait this thing out and figure out a retool in the offseason. With Vucevic on an expiring deal and DeRozan in his mid-30s, though, the sooner they move, the better.
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4. Atlanta Hawks
After a disastrous start to their season, the Hawks can quietly operate from a position of relative strength at the deadline. Clint Capela is healthy again, and they're 17-12 with him in the lineup. They have a new GM, so they don't have to do anything rash out of job security fear. Trae Young is even making his 3-pointers again. Atlanta can keep its cards close to the chest here and convince rivals that they don't need to sell.
And yet, John Collins has been available since the Reagan administration, Bogdan Bogdanovic can't seem to stay on the floor and there's quietly a fair bit of urgency to find stable footing because Dejounte Murray's contract is virtually unextendable and he'll be a free agent in 2024. The Hawks don't need to rebuild, but they need to retool a bit.
Bogdanovic is the sort of high-risk, high-reward addition that makes sense for asset-thin contenders. Dallas should be asking if there's a way to swap him for Tim Hardaway Jr. without offering a first-round pick. The Bucks could match his salary with Grayson Allen, George Hill and Jordan Nwora, but their second-round picks hold so little value that enticing Atlanta wouldn't be easy. They can trade their 2029 first-round pick, but protecting it would be difficult as it can't roll over into future years.
Collins is the more interesting candidate here for many of the same reasons Kuzma is. Both are probably better-suited on teams without immediate championship hopes, but both fill specific niches that intrigue contenders. Collins isn't an ideal postseason defender, but the ability to credibly roll or pop off of a screen is rare among big men. Dallas is seeing firsthand how valuable it can be with Christian Wood. Utah has been the most persistent destination on the rumor mill, and a partnership with Lauri Markkanen would give opposing defenses nightmares.
5. Toronto Raptors
If nothing else, math is going to force the Raptors to trade someone. Toronto is near the luxury tax as it is. Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. can become free agents this offseason, and OG Anunoby is only a year behind them. VanVleet was reportedly offered $114 million over four years before the season, but thus far has not re-signed. Nick Nurse has called out Trent's defense publicly. Those two are the likeliest to move at this stage.
VanVleet was an All-Star a season ago. He's shooting a career-low 34 percent on 3-pointers this season. That might be fine for certain players, but VanVleet largely only attempts 3s. He can't get to the basket in a half-court setting. If his 3s aren't falling, he's not scoring. With his defense not quite at its usual level either, there's reason to hesitate here. VanVleet from a year ago was the perfect all-purpose guard for a contender with a high-usage ball-handler in place. Now, with his free agency looming, he's a bit more of a risk. Given his track record and the rarity of guards that can defend bigger players as well as he does, though, it's a risk worth taking.
Anunoby is the real prize, though. He's perhaps the best wing defender in the NBA and a career 37 percent shooter, so the question here is less "can we meet Toronto's asking price" and more "can we convince Anunoby to stay here long-term?" Anunoby is underpaid and represented by Klutch Sports, a dangerous combination for interested parties especially when reports have indicated that he wants a meatier role in whatever offense he plays for. Three first-round picks and a nine-figure contract are probably worthwhile for arguably the best 3-and-D player in the NBA, but any acquiring team would have to feel comfortable with his level of comfort in that role. He's a decent ball-handler, but there's not much room to indulge any isolation fantasies in high-stakes moments.
Realistically, any team in the NBA could justify trading for him. He's still only 25 and could help set a defensive culture on younger teams. A few destinations stand out, though. Sacramento sorely needs a wing defender, but could they come up with enough draft capital to entice the Raptors when they already owe one pick to Atlanta for Kevin Huerter? No team needs wings more than the Lakers, and at his age, he'd make sense as a long-term fit in Los Angeles... provided they cough up those two valuable future first-round picks they've been hoarding. If the Raptors want to finally fill their hole at center, some sort of Myles Turner-centric swap could send Anunoby back to the state where he played college ball.
But rest assured, if Anunoby does hit the open market, he's going to draw dozens of offers. As we've covered here, not every player fits in a playoff setting. Anunoby can play for any team at any point on the calendar. Don't be surprised if he fetches the sort of package San Antonio got for Dejounte Murray.