NBA Front Office Confidential: Lakers, Knicks navigating trade landscape

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The NBA trade wind rumors are markedly light, as the 2022-23 season reaches the first-quarter turn and gale forces are not forecast, even with the arrival of Dec. 15, when free agents signed during the offseason are eligible to be moved.

But there are teams, in the estimation of scouts, GMs and executives, that need to make a move, with the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks, Dallas Mavericks, Washington Wizards, Atlanta Hawks, Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls being at the top of the list.

Not all for the same reason, however.

With the Lakers, it’s a matter of getting something for Russell Westbrook before he becomes a free agent next summer, and keeping the team relevant and, thereby, LeBron James happy. The problem: For all of Westbrook’s improved play coming off the bench, his salary is a whopping $47 million and a source familiar with the front office’s thinking said any deal that would have to involve one of the team’s future first-round picks “ain’t happening.” 

Back-up point guard Patrick Beverley is also available, a league source said, but the return for a 34-year-old point guard shooting 27% and making $13 million is not likely to be significant. Obviously the thinking on spending draft picks could change, but GM Rob Pelinka has been steadfast so far in preserving assets for the inevitable post-LeBron rebuild.

With the Knicks, the impetus to make a deal is self-preservation — by the front office. It is common knowledge around the league that winning home games is vitally important because Knicks owner Jim Dolan is particularly sensitive to getting harassed at Madison Square Garden by fans for the team under-performing (the Knicks have lost six of their last seven home games). Dolan, league sources say, was also led to believe that team president Leon Rose, thanks to his previous occupation as a high-profile agent for Creative Artists Agency, would deliver one of CAA’s star clients, such as Donovan Mitchell or Karl-Anthony Towns. That has not happened. 

One other piece of common knowledge: Dolan is not a patient man.

The Knicks’ problem is not a dearth of assets — they have four first-round picks (three protected) in the upcoming draft and veteran point guard Derrick Rose, whose role has been severely reduced with the acquisition of Jalen Brunson, to dangle — but a lack of star-level inventory on the market to pursue. The players that already have been reported as available — the NetsJoe Harris, the Hawks’ John Collins and the SunsJae Crowder — don’t have the marquee power that would satisfy Dolan.

The Heat and Bulls are in a similar predicament, laden with expensive rosters and high expectations and currently on course to miss the postseason. But with stars that league sources say they’ve deemed untouchable — Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo for the Heat, Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan for the Bulls — and role players with outsized contracts — Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro for the Heat, Lonzo Ball and Nikola Vucevic for the Bulls — their flexibility to make a meaningful addition appears limited. One league source said the Heat are willing to move Kyle Lowry, but at 37, and with another year left on a three-year $85 million deal, it’s hard to identify a team that would take him on and provide the Heat with an upgrade.

The Mavericks, of course, lost Brunson to the Knicks last summer and are in desperate need of a second playmaker to relieve All-Star point forward Luka Dončić. They’ve brought on a former Knick, Kemba Walker, for a test run, but a league source said they also have interest in a current one, the aforementioned Rose.

The Wizards’ motivation to make a move is to pair a second bona fide star with shooting guard Bradley Beal before he tells them he wants to pursue his postseason dreams elsewhere. Considering they’ve made the playoffs twice (both first-round exits) in the last five years, it’s reasonable to think the Wizards have to demonstrate they’re at least moving in the right direction.

If there’s one team that needs a change for change’s sake, it’s the Hawks. Again. 

After reaching the conference finals two years ago with a slew of young talent, led by a 22-year-old point guard in Trae Young, it wasn’t a matter of if they’d reach the Finals, only when. That projection evaporated when they finished 10th in the standings last season, needed two play-in wins just to qualify for the playoffs, and promptly got bounced by the Heat. They shook up their roster last summer, acquiring DeJounte Murray from the Spurs and sending Kevin Huerter to the Kings, but they’re still struggling to stay above .500, and league sources say Collins, whose relationship with Young has shown signs of strain, wouldn’t mind going elsewhere now that the Murray-Young backcourt has made him a distant third option.

“They’ve got to do something,” said one Eastern Conference scout. “I don’t know that their owner is willing to pay the luxury tax for a team just scraping into the playoffs.”

The team that everyone has an eye on is the Utah Jazz. After they started 10-3, team president Danny Ainge said it was never his intention to angle for the No. 1 pick in the hopes of landing French sensation Victor Wembanyana, despite having traded away his two All-Stars, Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, for young talent and draft picks, the quintessential rebuilding package. Now that they’ve lost eight of their last 11, however, there is speculation that Ainge might be willing to move one of his key veterans, most notably free-agent-to-be guard Jordan Clarkson.

While Clarkson is one notch below All-Star caliber, the consensus is he’d draw a lot of interest, particularly since he has demonstrated he’s more than just a scorer off the bench, nearly doubling his assist average this season (4.9).

“His value is a lot higher than it was,” the scout said. “He’s got a lot higher IQ than people gave him credit for. The passes he’s making, he wasn’t making those before.”

The team that is the quiet envy of rival executives? The New Orleans Pelicans and vice president of basketball operations David Griffin. They are arguably one of the big surprises of the season with the third-best record in the Western Conference. They have a young, exciting team, they’re under the luxury tax threshold, they have young players with tradable contracts, and they have seven first-round picks over the next three years.

“Griff is in a great position because he doesn’t need to make a move,” one executive said. “He has time. But he has the most ammo if he wants to make one.”

LESS IS MORE FOR THE TIMBERWOLVES?: As contrary as it may sound, now that Minnesota Timberwolves All-Star forward Karl-Anthony Towns is expected to miss six weeks with a strained calf, at least one rival scout and rival assistant coach believe it could be exactly what the Timberwolves needed to find a winning combination after an unexpectedly slow start. The offseason acquisition of All-Star center Rudy Gobert was supposed to solidify the T-Wolves as a postseason team and upgrade their defense. At present, they are 10th in the Western Conference and 14th in defensive rating, a spot below where they finished last season.

The issue is that with Gobert at center, Towns is playing predominantly power forward, and in today’s small-ball era, that means the latter is often tasked with guarding a smaller, quicker perimeter forward, or “stretch 4.” Considering how much the team gave up to get Gobert — four players, four first-round picks — and Towns’ franchise cornerstone status, head coach Chris Finch is almost compelled to play them together.

“It’s hard to play two bigs in this era,” an Eastern Conference assistant coach said. “I think they will actually improve with Towns out.”

It looked that way in their first game without him. The Timberwolves held the Memphis Grizzlies 14 points below their average and forced 24 turnovers in a 109-101 win. Kyle Anderson, a far more mobile and defensive-oriented forward, started in Towns’ place and finished with a balanced contribution of 10 points, six rebounds and five assists for a plus-minus of plus-8. Naz Reid came off the bench to add five blocked shots.

“I think they are about to take off with KAT out of the lineup,” an Eastern Conference scout said. “Not because he is the main problem, but it takes so much pressure off of Finch to have to play both of those guys together. It will give (Anthony) Edwards more space, and he is the guy that needs the ball in his hands. They have played well in spurts playing small with Naz Reid at the five off the bench. KAT was guarding fours and getting torched a lot of nights. I think (Phoenix’s) Cam Johnson made six or seven 3s on him. It’s one less bad defender. They still have D’Angelo Russell, who is a cone.”

Which is why they got the shot-blocking Gobert.

Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, “Rebound,” on NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with young onset Parkinson’s, and “Yao: A Life In Two Worlds.” He also has a daily podcast, “On The Ball with Ric Bucher.” Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.


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