One of the cool things about a blockbuster trade coming early in the trade deadline period is how its aftershocks set up the rest of the trade window to play out much differently than it was expected to.
Here’s what I mean: both the Kings and Pelicans are in the group hovering around the Western Conference eighth seed; all of these teams—Denver, Portland, Sacramento, New Orleans, Dallas, and Minnesota—have between 22 and 25 wins and between 31 and 35 losses; each team has recently stated their intention of making the playoffs; no team in that group has done better than 6-4 in their last ten games; and no team in that group has done worse than 4-6 in their last ten games. The prize for finishing first in this particular race is an opening round series against perhaps the most stacked team in NBA history.
What you’ve got in there is a knotted-up tangle of wildly incomplete teams at wildly different stages of roster development. Denver and Minnesota are young teams already stuffed with recent high draft picks, who may not have much room for or interest in another top-priority youngster to bring along. Dallas is at the other end of that spectrum, desperately needing an infusion of young talent, but also riding out the final years of Dirk Nowitzki’s career and hoping to spend that time not tanking. I think we can probably scratch Sacramento right off any list of teams anywhere close to playoff contention, at least for the next 10 years.
The GMs of each of these teams now have a new landscape to navigate. With the Kings out of the picture, the pack chasing the 8th seed just got smaller, but it also now includes a team with two top-15 NBA players, and two of the top four or five big men in all of basketball. Realistically, this circumstance should convert one or two of these other teams from chasers to sellers. The obvious candidates would be Minnesota and Dallas. Minnesota can happily chalk this season up to internal player development, especially now that Zach LaVine is on the shelf with a busted ACL, and push back their playoff aspirations to next season. And Dallas still has a few rotation players who’d be of interest to other teams jockeying for playoff position—probably nothing that would return a very high draft pick, but here is where you should remember that Timofey Mozgov was once considered worth two first round draft picks, which is one more than the Kings got for DeMarcus Effing Cousins.
But a team obviously doesn’t need to become a seller in order for the Cousins deal to prompt them into action. The Nuggets have a whole new and happier look since Nikola Jokic took over as their starting center and immediately became one of the most exciting big men in basketball. They just traded Jusuf Nurkic to Portland a week ago, but they probably haven’t had a long enough look at Mason Plumlee to know whether that transaction really moves the needle either way. And though they’re presently under the NBA’s salary floor, they’re also holding a pile of useful perimeter players—Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Emmanuel Mudiay, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Jameer Nelson, and Malik Beasley—competing for minutes, many of whom stand to become pretty expensive over the next few years. The Nuggets are sitting in the West’s eighth seed today, but the Pelicans are looming larger than ever in their rearview mirror. Now would seem an opportune time to cash in the value of guys like Gallinari, Barton, and Nelson—useful and established players who don’t figure very prominently in Denver’s future plans.
And let’s not forget, with the Kings going into the tank, this presents a new set of realities for the few NBA teams who’ve already punted on this season and are angling for draft lottery position. The Kings are just a few games ahead of the Sixers, Lakers, Suns, and Magic, and probably don’t have more than a couple wins left in them without Cousins around to form a semi-coherent offense out of his own talent and willpower. Los Angeles’ 2017 first round pick is owed to the Sixers unless it falls in the top three—how confident can the Lakers be that they’ll finish with fewer wins than a Kings squad that won’t be favored to win any of their remaining games? For that matter, there are Eastern Conference teams whose playoff hopes are looking more and more remote (hi, Charlotte!), whose chances of converting this failure into draft lottery gold are now affected by a plummeting Kings squad.
Here’s a situation to watch: the Wizards have perhaps their best team in decades, a GM with a quick trigger finger and no love for draft picks, no salary cap room with which to do anything in free agency for several years, and a star point guard who spent All-Star weekend talking up his team’s intentions to make a move to bolster their anemic bench. If the Mavericks or Blazers or Hornets or Bucks start angling for future assets, there’s at least one hungry buyer with loose pockets out there. If the Lakers want to hedge against the loss of their own 2017 first round draft pick, they’ve got Lou Williams helping them soak up unwanted wins and absolutely no reason on earth to keep him. Expect the Wizards to deal away another first round pick, is what I’m saying.
The NBA trade deadline is Thursday at 3:00 p.m. There are no NBA games between now and Thursday night, which means no one gets to wait and see how things gel in New Orleans. If you’re an NBA GM and you believe the Cousins trade makes New Orleans the frontrunner for the eighth seed, that deal is the pop of a starting gun. Will Thibs have the stomach for shifting Minnesota into development mode, or will the suddenly powerful Pelicans turn the Timberwolves into buyers? Will the Lakers lurch into full-blown tanking? Are the Magic content to spend the rest of this regular season auditioning Elfrid Payton and Terrence Ross, even if their upcoming draft pick slides out of the top five? Will Adam Silver attack Vivek Ranadive with a cooking implement? Thanks to the chaotic Kings selling early and cheap on the league’s most valuable malcontent, we may be looking at 72 hours of hot deadline action.