With teams around the NBA doing their diligence in advance of the Feb. 7 trade deadline, the situation at the bottom of the Western Conference continues to put a hiccup in the process.
For the first time since 1997, a losing team could end up making the playoffs, forcing the six teams vying for the final spot in the West to decide just how much it matters to make the playoffs and, probably more importantly, how badly they want to be there.
New Orleans, currently second to last in the conference, is still in the race, and with No. 1 pick Zion Williamson set to debut sooner rather than later, making a playoff push is not out of the question. If the Pelicans start winning, point guard Jrue Holiday’s availability will dry up, pulling one top player from the trade market.
Veteran teams like San Antonio and Portland, with year-in, year-out playoff expectations, haven’t given teams notice that they’re ready to make massive changes while they chase the last spot in the West.
That leaves the Minnesota Timberwolves, Phoenix Suns, Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings as potential sellers in the West.
Timberwolves point guard Jeff Teague, who has a $19-million contract expiring after this season, is worth monitoring. Teague has put together a nice low-volume season off the Minnesota bench. His 13.8 points and 6.3 assists have come with him making nearly 40% of his three-point shots. One rival executive said Teague is “very available” even if his days as a starting point guard might be over.
Another name in Minnesota that should be in consideration for contenders — Robert Covington. He’s the kind of all-around player who doesn’t need the ball and could be a natural fit for teams with top-line talent.
The Suns’ most attractive piece might be big man Aron Baynes, who could push back against the big men the Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers have. He’s a free agent after this season, and with a cap number slightly less than $5.5 million, he’d be the kind of player a team could get without having to send out a lot of salary.
The Warriors don’t really have any needle-moving pieces to deal unless Alec Burks is the kind of big wing that you need.
The Kings, though, are in an interesting position. While a Kyle Kuzma-for-Bogdan Bogdanovic deal didn’t pass muster with a lot of Western Conference evaluators who far prefer Bogdanovic’s game, the Kings probably need to listen to inquiries for the future restricted free agent. With multiple years left on their contracts, veterans like forward Trevor Ariza and guard Corey Joseph have not inspired much passion among suitors.
The wild card in the West? Darren Collison. Teams including the Lakers and Clippers are definitely monitoring the former Etiwanda High and UCLA star for a possible return after he abruptly retired last summer. Collison is the kind of plug-and-play point guard that would bolster any contender’s rotation.
Brooklyn guard Kyrie Irving has been listed as probably to play Sunday, ending a nearly two-month absence because of a shoulder injury. The Nets (17-20) stayed in the playoff race without Irving and could pass seventh-place Orlando (18-21) without a lot of resistance if Irving can stay on the court. … Speaking of returns, after being out for a year rehabbing a horrific leg injury, Indiana guard Victor Oladipo told Stadium that he’s eyeing Jan. 29 for his return. … No team in the NBA is hotter than the Utah Jazz, who have won 13 of their last 14 games. While Utah is talented, only one of those wins, Dec. 28 against the Clippers, came against a winning team.