The NBA trade deadline is exactly one week from today. March 25 marks the final day of the season in which teams can execute transactions for players, picks, and cash. Usually this deadline comes sometime around the middle of February, but the season was pushed back after COVID derailed last season and so the deadline is later than we're used to.
Negotiations will be held in earnest over the next seven days. The Milwaukee Bucks already made a splash, trading for Houston Rockets forward P.J. Tucker to help with what they hope to be another championship push. In some ways, even though it's a month later, the trade deadline will be as it always is and always will be: teams with championship hopes acquire on-the-margins players who could make that little difference in a big postseason moment to make or break the hearts of fans, while other teams attempt to retool with a bigger acquisition in an effort to go from playoff hopefuls to championship hopefuls.
Organizations in those two roles are usually able to find willing trade partners in the form of teams on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, franchises that are terrible this season, know they are terrible, and would rather build up the asset cupboard than attempt to make a playoff push. This year is different. This is the first full season in which the NBA has instituted a play-in game for the eighth seed in both conferences. The league gave it a shot during the bubble playoffs in Orlando to help fix the fact that teams within striking distance of the playoff picture didn't get the last third of the season to make that push and to stir up more interest during a time when the league really needed eyeballs for revenue purposes.
It went fine. The Grizzlies ended up playing the Trail Blazers in the play-in game for the last seed of the Western Conference playoff bracket. Portland only needed to win one game to secure their spot and send Memphis home, which they did at the first opportunity. So intrigue and drama wasn't there, but everyone got to see Ja Morant get his first taste of "playoff" basketball, so we'll call it a success. Over in the East part of the bracket, it didn't work out so well because the teams below the eight-seed Magic were so bad that they couldn't even qualify for the play-in.
Regardless, it went over well enough with fans and teams to install it for this season, with some alterations. Come the end of the regular season, the seventh and eighth seed will play each other in one game. The winner will be the seven-seed. At the same time, the ninth and tenth seeds will play each other. The winner of the 9-10 matchup will play the loser of the 7-8 matchup, and the winner of that game will be eighth seed.
Got all that?
Okay, neither do I. But the important and relevant point for this discussion is rather simple: a team need only have the 10th-best record in the conference to have a shot at making the playoffs. If this new format existed last season, that would have meant the Hornets (before they were fun) and the Suns (before they were good) could have feasibly been in the playoffs. The Hornets finished the shortened season 19 games below .500.
Your team could be godawful and still squeak into the playoffs with two wins if the standings break your way. Fans know that, and the teams do, too. Which means there is a lot more wiggle room for front offices to convince themselves that any given year is a year that they could, in fact, make a postseason push. A 10-seed battling their way through two play-in games for the privilege of getting obliterated by the awaiting top conference seed is not exactly the same level of accomplishment as a Finals appearance, but it's a positive mark on resumes that bosses will be looking at after losing seasons.
That means that any team within a few games of the nine or 10-seed will reconsider selling off valuable pieces at the deadline. The Kings are a perfect example to use for this exercise in 2021. They are, by no means, a good team. They sit at 13th in the West right now with a 16-24 record. They have several pieces that contending teams would be very interested in trading for, like Harrison Barnes and Nemanja Bjelica. In previous years, having the third-worst record in the conference means a team is definitely trading at least one or two of its players to anyone who calls.
Not this year! Despite their paltry record, Sacramento is only three games out of the 10-seed. You can almost hear the wheels turning at the Kings building. They'll be getting guys back from injury, a few lucky breaks for a win here and there, and suddenly they're in the play-in game. Maybe they get hot and end up as the eight-seed in the postseason. Sure, they'll get run out of the gym, but that's playoff experience for De'Aaron Fox and a playoff drought technically broken that GM Monte McNair can take partial credit for and the RSN gets playoff revenue and everyone is happy!
It sure isn't likely, but that's the thought process going on for every team that isn't the Timberwolves or the Pistons over the next seven days. The Raptors, Cavs, Wizards, and Magic are all within four games of the 10-seed in the East. The Pelicans, Thunder, and aforementioned Kings are all within striking distance of the last spot in the West. The Rockets should tank, given they're eight games behind the current 10-seed Grizzlies, but they have an astronomical amount of money sunk into John Wall and Christian Wood and probably will not take my advice to pursue the single-season record for most consecutive games lost.
This is all bad news for teams like the Celtics, who are severely underperforming and need a bench acquisition to realistically make a deep playoff run, or the Nuggets who are once again a good team but need that one extra piece to truly be great and compete with the top contenders in the West. Basically every team that can't realistically win a title as currently constructed (which is... everyone other than the Lakers, Clippers, Bucks, Sixers, and Jazz) will be struggling to find a trade partner. Because the usual suspects are busy with optimism and believing that they're only a stroke of shooting luck away from a potential postseason appearance, or at least some excitement in the form of a play-in game.
The Tucker trade might be the biggest move of the deadline given all that. There just won't be as much movement with an expanded playoff field. Bad news for those who love the deadline and rumor-mongering. Even worse news for the teams that desperately need an injection of fresh talent with time running out on the season.