The NBA trade deadline typically separates the haves from the have-nots. Teams in playoff or title contention tend to be buyers—they’re willing to send out young prospects and/or draft picks for win-now players—while rebuilding teams are often willing to send out veterans for future-minded compensation.

However, the NBA’s play-in tournament may alter the balance of trade deadline buyers and sellers, pushing more teams toward the former and fewer toward the latter. That creates an opportunity for the teams that do decide to cash in on some of their veterans.

Under the old playoff format, the eight teams with the best records in each conference would advance to the playoffs, while the seven teams with the worst records would be headed to the draft lottery. Now, the six teams with the best records are guaranteed a playoff spot, the five teams with the worst records head to the lottery, and the 7-10 seeds compete in a mini-tournament for the final two playoff spots.

Teams at the top of the conference would be buyers either way, and teams with little to no shot of making the play-in tournament figure to be sellers. But the play-in tournament has significantly expanded the middle class in each conference, which could convince more teams that they have a chance to make the playoffs.

Heading into Friday, the Houston Rockets are the only team in the Western Conference more than two games outside of the final spot in the play-in tournament. The Orlando Magic, Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers are the only three teams in the Eastern Conference more than three games behind the No. 10-seeded Boston Celtics.

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Now that the NBA appears to be through the worst of its omicron wave, teams are getting closer to full strength. Some of the bottom-feeders could get a new lease on life this season if they get hot between now and the trade deadline, causing them to pivot from potential sellers to buyers as well.

The sheer volume of players who wound up in health and safety protocols over the past month makes it difficult to get a read on most teams. The Phoenix Suns, Golden State Warriors, Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks are obvious contenders, while the Rockets, Pistons and Magic are heading straight toward the lottery.

But some teams sitting outside of the play-in tournament at the moment could convince themselves that they aren’t far away from a shot at the playoffs.

The New Orleans Pelicans, for example, have rebounded after a horrific 3-16 start to get within a half-game of the No. 10 seed in the West. If they believe Zion Williamson will return at some point this season—he’s already had several setbacks in his recovery from a foot fracture—they might be tempted to cash in some of their future draft picks for a potential second-half surge.

In mid-December, Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer reported the Pelicans were “expected to be buyers” at the trade deadline “with an eye toward competing for the play-in tournament.” They’re reportedly willing to dangle center Jaxson Hayes, the No. 8 pick in the 2019 NBA draft, in trade talks.

The Minnesota Timberwolves are also “expected to be buyers heading into the trade deadline,” Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic reported Wednesday. They’re currently ninth in the Western Conference at 20-22, but they’re currently 3.5 games ahead of the 10th-seeded Portland Trail Blazers, who may soon go into free fall with star guard Damian Lillard now out for at least the next six weeks.

The Sacramento Kings, who are 11th in the West at 17-27, are “highly motivated to make the kind of significant move(s) that would both bolster their postseason chances in the present while giving them a runway for sustained success in the future,” per Sam Amick of The Athletic. “No player is off the table in terms of potential talks,” Amick added, included guards De’Aaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton.

While the Pelicans, Timberwolves and Kings gun for play-in spots, teams that intentionally pivot toward retooling could find themselves the beneficiaries of a seller’s market.

Lillard’s injury should push the Blazers into that mode, especially with Robert Covington and Jusuf Nurkic set to become unrestricted free agents this summer. If the Blazers don’t plan on re-signing both of them, they should flip one or both for whatever they can get ahead of the trade deadline.

Anfernee Simons’ emergence in the absence of Lillard and CJ McCollum (collapsed lung) could force Portland to consider a bigger shake-up, too. Simons is set to become a restricted free agent this offseason, but the Blazers already have more than $90 million allocated to Lillard, McCollum and Norman Powell next season.

On Thursday, Fischer reported “there’s some belief that Powell would be open to a new destination,” as “negotiations over his five-year deal to re-sign in Portland this summer hit several snags.” He mentioned the Pelicans as one potential suitor, although he added “McCollum would seem to make more sense as a target for New Orleans.”

The Los Angeles Clippers, who currently sit eighth in the West at 21-22, could join the Blazers in an injury-fueled gap year. Fischer reported Wednesday that the Clippers are “operating under the possibility” that Paul George may not return this season in the wake of the UCL tear he suffered in his right elbow last month.

Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes recently reported there’s a “strong possibility” that Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard will return from his partially torn ACL at some point this season. But if George remains sidelined and the Clippers slide down the standings, they’ll have little incentive to rush either star back.

The Clippers do owe their unprotected 2022 first-round pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder, so they don’t have a draft-based incentive to tank this season away. However, they do have a $94 million luxury-tax bill, according to ESPN’s Bobby Marks, which they could look to trim with their title aspirations on life support this season.

Meanwhile, the Blazers owe their lottery-protected 2022 first-round pick to the Chicago Bulls. They have clear incentive not to push for a playoff spot this season, particularly since a high draft pick might help them expedite a roster retool around Lillard.

The East is even more muddled, with 12 teams realistically vying for 10 play-in spots. The Atlanta Hawks may be in for some bigger changes, particularly after trading Cam Reddish to the New York Knicks on Thursday for a heavily protected first-round pick, but the other 11 teams all in playoff/play-in contention all figure to be buyers at the trade deadline.

With the title race looking relatively wide open for now, more teams will likely seek win-now help as they pursue a deep playoff run. Since the demand for such players should be high and the supply may be low, the few sellers on the market may be able to drive up the price on whomever they’re willing to move.

Source: Forbes

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