As the trade deadline approaches, whether the various trades make sense for the active teams will depend as much on context as on the players being swapped. I thought Blazer's Edge's Dave Deckard put this very well last week in discussing the Blazers' own chances of being active.
"'Making a trade' isn't right or wrong, good or bad in itself," Deckard wrote. "Where, when, why, and for whom are the critical questions."
Deciding whether to make an aggressive move to win now, to stand pat or even to rebuild for the future depends in large part on a team's assessment of its own ability. Judge wrong and the results can be painful. To borrow an example from another sport, one I witnessed first-hand, entering last year the Seattle Mariners believed they were ready to compete in the AL West on the strength of an 88-win 2007 season. Team management believed that starting pitcher Erik Bedard, acquired from Baltimore in exchange for top prospect Adam Jones, would be the missing piece. However, the Mariners had been outscored during the 2007 season, a better indicator of the team's chances in '08. Bedard struggled with injuries and the season was a disaster--the Mariners finished 39 games back in the division.
Evaluating their own team's ability is one of the most difficult tasks for a front office, so for the benefit of all those general managers reading Basketball Prospectus, here's a look at four teams in interesting positions leading up to the deadline.
The Cavaliers are unique on this list in that the question isn't one of whether they are good enough to make a move, but whether they are so good that they don't need to. In the expiring contract of Wally Szczerbiak, Cleveland possesses one of the most valuable trade chips around, and the team's willingness to pay the luxury tax gives them the opportunity to take on a big contract in return.
Entering the season, a Szczerbiak deal by midseason was a foregone conclusion. With the Cavaliers playing so well, however, it is difficult to pinpoint an obvious need. Cleveland has kept on winning even when down two starters (Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Delonte West) because of injuries, and ranks in the league's top three in both Offensive and Defensive Rating, producing the NBA's best point differential (+9.9 points per game).
There are players out there who could help the Cavaliers, but the upgrades seem marginal. Based on that, it's easy to see why Cleveland would not want to risk shaking things up at this point of the season. Also, Szczerbiak is still a useful role player, if dramatically overpaid, so the Cavaliers would be creating a hole if they gave him up--especially with Szczerbiak starting at the two for the moment with both West and Sasha Pavlovic sidelined. (The team also has a smaller expiring contract in Eric Snow, but is likely to keep it and apply for insurance on Snow's chronically bad knees, which have ended his playing career.)
The only potential acquistion that seems to make some sense is Minnesota's Mike Miller, whose contract runs through 2010. If he deigns to start shooting again after his bizarre transformation into a pass-first point forward with the Timberwolves, Miller offers the shooting Cleveland gets from Szczerbiak with a better-rounded game. Otherwise, the Cavaliers would be smart to stick with the group that has been so successful thus far.
No team has bigger questions to answer over the next week and a half than the Suns do. Reports over the weekend, primarily from ESPN.com's Marc Stein and Chad Ford, had Phoenix considering blowing things up and putting Shaquille O'Neal and Amar'e Stoudemire on the market. The funny thing is that the Suns' playoff chances actually got a big boost Saturday, when Mavericks guard Jason Terry broke a bone in a finger on his left hand. If Phoenix is to catch anyone in the West's top eight, it is most likely to be Dallas. The Suns have the superior point differential, and unlike Utah (which boasts the best differential of the three teams), the Mavericks have not been hampered by heavy injuries to date.
Of course, making the playoffs as the eighth seed and serving as the sacrificial offering to the L.A. Lakers in the opening round (which would be a role reversal from the 2006 and 2007 postseasons) is hardly what Phoenix had in mind at the start of the season. The talent is there, but we're more than halfway into the season and the Suns have yet to put together a consistent stretch of basketball. It's hard to imagine the team coming together enough to be able to win a playoff series. From that standpoint, the time is right for the Suns to bury the Seven Seconds or Less era and begin preparing for another run.
The bigger question for Phoenix is not whether to deal but whom. Look for more Stoudemire analysis in this space in the future, but suffice it to say dealing away a 26-year-old star big man might not be the way to go. The ESPN.com reports have made it clear that the one Suns player who remains essentially off-limits is Steve Nash, but isn't a 35-year-old (as of Saturday) who has shown signs of slowing down precisely the player who should be on the market?
Nash's frustration with the team's direction makes him a major 2010 flight risk, and even if the Suns could re-sign him, how many more years does Nash have at an elite level? What kind of team is going to be around him? Phoenix has been able to reload on the fly twice in the last decade and a half, and both times saw them give up a starting point guard (Sam Cassell to get Jason Kidd from Dallas in 1996; Stephon Marbury to New York to create the cap space used to sign Nash in 2004) to kick-start the process. This rebuilding effort is going to be longer and more painful, but it makes sense to start it in similar fashion.
Portland Trail Blazers
The Blazers find themselves in an interesting position. Their young core has developed quickly enough to have them in position to make the playoffs and potentially even win the Northwest Division. Portland is on track to compete in the Western Conference for years to come. The Blazers could stand to potentially improve at small forward or point guard, and have a valuable expiring contract of their own in Raef LaFrentz, for whom Portland or another team will be able to claim insurance because of his shoulder surgery. The Blazers' choice is whether to cash in LaFrentz's contract or hang on to the insurance money and then use their cap space (more than the mid-level exception, though less than the max) this summer.
While Portland is 3.5 games back of San Antonio and 2.5 behind Denver, the team's point differential (+3.5 ppg) is best of the group of West teams chasing the Lakers. Add in a schedule that has only recently begun to ease up and the Blazers rank fifth in the league in Bradford Doolittle's Prospectus Hoops List power rankings and second in the West. Yet Portland's weakness--the defensive end--is obvious in the numbers, too. Amongst playoff teams, only New Jersey has a worse Defensive Rating than the Blazers. Shore that up and Portland could make a lengthy postseason run as early as this year.
The Blazers don't seem likely to give in to the temptation of playing for every win today. Their goals are bigger and longer-term in nature.
"We're well aware of where we are as an organization and where we want to go," Nate McMillan told Hoopsworld.com. "We won't be doing anything to patch up this team or make a run for this year. Anything that we do is going to be for the future of the franchise. We know we have a young team and there are a lot of teams that are interested in our players. Kevin (Pritchard) and I will work hard to improve the team, but not for the sake of making a run for just this year. It would be something we feel helps us for the future, not just this year."
Rumors continue to link the Raptors to Shawn Marion, but would adding Marion be enough for Toronto? The Raptors have slipped into 14th place in the Eastern Conference, 5.5 games out of a playoff spot, with a point differential to match. Toronto has been dismal on defense and is below average in terms of Offensive Rating as well. It's too late to save this season, and the team may be in need of a major infusion of talent and depth, particularly on the wings, to compete in 2009-10 as well.
Complicating matters for the Raptors is the looming free agency of Chris Bosh. Bosh is the most prominent 2010 free agent playing on a non-playoff team, and within the past week his name has started popping up more frequently in trade rumors. Basically, Toronto seems to be stuck between two extremes. Bryan Colangelo either needs to adopt an extreme win-now philosophy to get the team competitive enough to get Bosh to stick around, or rebuild, a process that would probably include dealing Bosh.
Giving up a talent like Bosh in his prime rarely works out for a team, but it beats the alternative of losing him as a free agent in a year where the Raptors would be hard-pressed to sign a replacement. O'Neal is Toronto's only trade chip of real value, making it difficult to make the kind of upgrades that would be necessary to compete in the East.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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