The 2021-22 season had the most parity in recent memory and this year is trending in that direction so far. This is largely thanks to the flattening of the lottery odds and the implementation of the play-in tournament, which has disincentivized more teams from bottoming out.
December 15 marks the unofficial start of trade season with many recent free agents set to become trade eligible. The next month or so will be critical for several teams in determining where they stand in the league and if they should become buyers or sellers.
We are now just past the one-third mark of the regular season and we’re starting to figure out who these teams are. Many squads have set high expectations for themselves this season and there will be a handful that will fall short of them. Few teams like the Celtics and Bucks have separated themselves as likely contenders, while several other up-and-coming teams like the Cavaliers, Pelicans, and Grizzlies are meeting or exceeding expectations. We have more teams competing to make the playoffs than usual in recent seasons but not everyone will make it.
So here is a list of teams with the most pressure heading into the trade deadline…
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The Suns have proved for the third straight season in a row that they are a regular-season winning machine. Even with all the absences they have gone through so far, they still have a strong chance at securing the newly named Maurice Podoloff trophy. That won’t be enough after everything they’ve gone through these last two years and pressure will be high on them to get back to the Finals.
Phoenix is well-positioned to make several types of moves. They have plenty of expiring contracts to facilitate deals and all their first-round picks to add as incentives. They could do something as small as swapping Jae Crowder for a rotation player or something big like acquiring the next available All-Star. They seemed to be the competitive team most primed to make some kind of trade that improves their title odds this season.
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The Nets may have saved a season that a month ago most people would’ve felt was completely unsalvageable. They have gone 10-3 in their last 13 games mostly taking care of business against teams they are certainly better than. There are still many question marks about them and while they are currently fourth in the East they haven’t proved they belong in the Top 4 mix. Their schedule next month will start to heat up and unless they get several impressive wins, all this hot streak may have accomplished is alleviating the insane amount of pressure they had last month.
If the Nets haven’t blown up the roster now they probably won’t anytime soon. If anything they seem poised to be buyers ahead of the trade deadline but lack the assets to make a significantly meaningful move. This means that they’ll depend on the health and performance of their current roster, particularly that of Ben Simmons. On the bright side, Nicolas Claxton has been great for them as one of the league’s best shot blockers and play finishers, which is a massive development for them this year.
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It’s very difficult to evaluate this Sixers’ season thanks to all the injuries they’ve had so far. After going off to a terrible start against some of the best teams in the league, they managed to stabilize their record to .500 despite their absences and sport the league’s fourth-best defense. They still have the benefit of the doubt to improve their record and performance; James Harden just returned from injury and they are still awaiting Tyrese Maxey’s comeback from his. But after going all in constructing this roster to win now, pressure will mount up if they don’t produce enough wins.
The Sixers will be looking for deals to improve on the margins but that’s about it. They are all out of spending power and lack enough assets to make any significant upgrades. Outside of De’Anthony Melton, Philadelphia’s newest additions haven’t performed at the level they have hoped. They will be looking inside for internal improvements if they are going to join the Top 4 of the East.
Los Angeles Clippers
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If there is one team that should feel a ton of pressure but probably won’t acknowledge it, it’s the Clippers. We all knew that reintegrating Kawhi Leonard back into the rotation was going to take some time. But his lack of availability so far does not inspire confidence that he will be ready in time for the playoffs physically and performance-wise. If he cannot get back to a Top 10 level, then everything else the Clippers did constructing this roster around him won’t matter.
If the Clippers’ ranking fifth in defense is a source of hope for them this season, then their 28th ranking in offense should just as equally concern us. They need to start scoring again and fast. They rank 13th in three-point percentage on average volume, which is a far cry from their top ranking in that field two years ago. They have plenty of moveable pieces but outside of potentially adding an upgrade at point guard, they seem likely to stick to their current group.
Golden State Warriors
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Golden State’s weird season continues. They’ve climbed back to .500 since starting the season 3-7 but most of those wins have come against bad-to-average teams. Recent losses to the supposed-to-be-tanking Pacers and Jazz further complicate the Warriors’ place in this league. They are about to embark on a six-game road trip against some of the best East teams, which could keep them around .500.
The Warriors seem unlikely to make any significant move involving their young players since they’ll certainly lose those trades from a value proposition. They are also unlikely to trade Klay Thompson, who has improved but remains inconsistent. The reigning champions will bet on this group getting it together, but any shortcoming may be more indicative of the direction they take in the future instead of this season.
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The Hawks may have misevaluated their group and needs last offseason. The acquisition of Dejounte Murray has not increased their ceiling and his fit with Trae Young isn’t looking amazing. They could really use Kevin Huerter right now as they rank as one of the league’s worst three-point shooting teams. Atlanta could make a coaching change this season but their biggest issues may be personnel-wise.
The Hawks have several issues that may prevent them from elevating to the next level. They are now down two unprotected first-round picks from the Murray trade and need to be very careful with the remaining tradable picks they have. They are also treading the luxury tax line this season and will need to trade one of their Top 7 highest-paid players if they are to avoid the tax next season. Their conundrum of not being good enough to contend but also not being inspiring enough to make a trade that puts them into the tax could limit them.
New York Knicks
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New York’s goals this season seem unclear. They want to be competitive but they also want to see significant development from their young players. Those two goals often contradict themselves and it’s unrealistic to expect this group to get back to its 2020-21 level. With the organization trying to achieve a balance of winning and player development, no wonder they are feeling a lot of pressure.
The Knicks have the assets to trade for the next available All-Star (which almost came to fruition for Donovan Mitchell. So they have the means to make the moves necessary to take the next step, they are just trying to be responsible about it. And it’s important that they show restraint in negotiations because once they make an “all-in” trade, they lose the flexibility to make more moves.
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What can we make of Dallas’ struggles? They are arguably better than this despite losing Jalen Brunson with so many of their players underperforming on the offensive end. But what if they just got hot in last year’s playoffs? That, in addition to meeting the Jazz and Suns at bad times for those teams, may suggest that last year’s trip to the Conference Finals was an overachievement. Either way, the Mavericks have their work cut out for them towards constructing a title contender around Luka Doncic.
Dallas has the draft equity to make a significant trade and clearly needs a second All-Star to pair with Doncic. That player may not become available anytime soon, meaning they may be stuck with this roster for the rest of the season. Doncic has shown that as long as he is playing, his team has a chance to beat anybody in a game or playoff series. They got off to a similar start last season and turned it around, so their next month or so will be critical towards separating themselves from the rest of the West. There may not be too much pressure on the Mavs this season, but more so a couple of years from now when Doncic is closer to becoming a free agent.
The Wolves gave up every possible asset they had to acquire Rudy Gobert and are now stuck with this core for better or worse. They will get some slack over the next month with Karl-Anthony Towns out, but so far the pairing of him with Gobert has been abysmal. Unless they are on a 45-50 win pace each season, pressure will be sky-high.
Minnesota will certainly be buyers ahead of the deadline but any move will likely be marginal. They lack moveable assets and they’re unlikely to get positive value for any of their players outside of their Big 3. Their most likely path to success will require them to develop more chemistry around Gobert and make internal improvements throughout the current roster. One silver lining is the current play of Anthony Edwards who looks like he’s back on track in his progression after getting off to a slow start.
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Toronto being .500 seems wrong when watching them at their best. They have a Top 5 lineup with the skill and versatility to go toe-to-toe with any other group. Pascal Siakam has made another leap and OG Anunoby is looking like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Being a title contender this year may be a tad unrealistic, but they should definitely get on track to be closer to the team they were last season.
Like the Suns, the Raptors have all their picks going forward and plenty of moveable salaries. While they are well-positioned to make trades. They’ve fully embraced being this big team that crashes the boards, forces a lot of turnovers, and thrives in transition. If they decide this formula isn’t conducive to winning, then maybe they need to alter their core a bit.
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Miami’s struggles thus far may make them the biggest surprise on this list. The roster is mostly the same as last year’s which made the Conference Finals and was close to making the NBA Finals. Their defense is no longer performing at a top-tier level and their offense has completely fallen off. Injuries have also set them back but they haven’t looked close to being a contender when fully healthy. Pressure could be mounting for them to make a move to improve this team’s title odds.
The issue with the Heat in making moves this year is that they’re just $162,830 below the luxury tax. They may be unwilling to make moves that put them into the tax with the way they’re playing right now. Their history suggests that they will continue to compete, but if they continue to struggle perhaps they can pivot to a one-year reload. Thankfully, they reacquired their 2023 first-round pick this season from the Oklahoma City Thunder.
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Chicago’s ascent to being a legitimate playoff team after making a couple of aggressive moves may have inspired many teams going into this season. As good as they were at their peak, they were never a contender, and their performance this season suggests they may have overachieved last year. If they chose this direction just to be a good but not great team, then they achieved it. But with the way they’re currently playing this roster may not even be good enough for that.
The Bulls are a team many around the league will keep their eyes on for potential trade targets. It would make sense for them to sell high on DeMar DeRozan, who continues to play at an All-NBA level, and for them to get something for Nikola Vucevic who has not been close to the player they hoped. Even if they continue to struggle, they seem more likely to continue trying to compete. They are less incentivized to bottom out since they owe their Top 4 protected 2023 first-round pick to Orlando, and then their Top 10 protected 2025 first-round pick to San Antonio.
Los Angeles Lakers
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The Lakers continue to be patient in evaluating their roster and determining if they are a trade or two away from contention. With only two far-out tradable first-round picks, they have to be sure of that if they’re going to sacrifice a significant part of their future. On the bright side, Anthony Davis is playing at an All-NBA level and LeBron James continues to be extremely effective. There is definitely a path to being competitive this year with the right role players around them.
If the Lakers continue to struggle then they might not make any deal at all. At that point, it’ll be fair to question if they should continue blowing it up. They could get a haul for Davis in a trade with the way he’s been playing that could put them in good shape for a rebuild. They seem more likely to hold onto their stars and hope things turn around considering they don’t have their own first-round pick this year and in either 2024 or 2025.
Story originally appeared on HoopsHype