With the Christmas Day schedule behind us, the real NBA season has unofficially begun. The real NBA begins after Christmas as they say because the league has time to figure out who everyone is, and teams use these marquee matchups as a gauge on their chances before the trade deadline.
If changes are going to happen that will drastically affect the landscape of the league this season, then that change will have to occur between now and the February deadline. This season is a lot different than most because the entire NBA appears wide open right now. The Golden State Warriors are clearly facing complacency this season and if the addition of DeMarcus Cousins has a negative impact on the team that the Warriors could be more vulnerable than anticipated. The likelihood of Golden State's season playing out that way, however, is still a long shot. Fans can expect that teams will sense Golden State's window closing and with that, we can see some fellow contenders get aggressive as we approach the trade deadline. We can also see some high profile signings this summer, with free agency being so stacked.
For the teams that cannot improve this season and are more focused on the future, this summer has a few high-profile free agents that can change a franchise. In order to be prepared to be considered, teams must lay down the groundwork now.
Next, we'll take a more detailed look at 10 trades that will happen this season and 10 huge free agent signings that might take place this off-season.
The Phoenix Suns expected to be a much better team this season than the early results have shown. With such a young team, it may be better for the team to better position themselves for another lottery pick to complement Deandre Ayton and Devin Booker. One constant for the Suns over the past several seasons is the play of T.J. Warren. Warren is averaging around 18 points per game this season and shooting a career-high from three. A team like the Rockets who needs wing shooting could use a player like Warren. Phoenix may have interest in the expiring contract of Brandon Knight and draft compensation could be enough to get a deal done.
The coming offseason is the biggest in regards to free agency since...well, last year. All in all, the point still remains; this free agency class can perhaps shift the NBA in a way we could have never envisioned. The Golden State Warriors that we all assumed were building the most unstoppable team ever now appear to be waiting on DeMarcus Cousins to give them new life. The relationship with Draymond Green and Kevin Durant was strained, to put it simply.
KD possibly electing to leave Golden State is a real possibility. The New York Knicks can form a super-team in a large market and Durant would find the Big Apple perfect for his next chapter.
The Boston Celtics started the season off rocky but as of late they have seemed to figure things out a bit. Part of figuring out some of their issues was getting more from less. When there seems to be a player or two out of the rotation, the offense seems more fluid and the ball sticks less. The Pelicans want to make a move and the Celtics may be intrigued by an offer for Brown heading into his free agency. The Celtics also want Anthony Davis, but they know the Lakers are also a very viable option. In New Orleans, Brown could give Davis a vision for a future with the team to prevent a possible departure.
Coming into this season, everyone around the NBA was extremely high on the Boston Celtics but so far this season, the team has not lived up to those lofty expectations. Kyrie Irving has returned from knee surgery at the same level before the injury, making Kyrie clearly the team's most important player. Can the Celtics figure this thing out?
That question will answer itself as the season plays out, but in a scenario where the Celtics don't go on a deep playoff push, what's the upside in a backup role for Terry Rozier? A team like the Suns with young talent in need of a point guard can add Rozier this summer with a top lottery talent, and suddenly that team can make some noise in the West.
The Los Angeles Clippers are a big market team with the richest owner in sports, so expect them to be aggressive at the deadline and in free agency. Right now, the Lakers are in the lead for the battle of Los Angeles but the Clippers plan to change that. You may be wondering what that has to do with Rodney Hood, but they have reportedly been scouting him at Cavs games. The Cavs only want to give deals for players they see as a part of the future. Hood has been up and down in Cleveland and maybe the Clippers feel his skill set would complement whichever superstar they go after in July.
The Toronto Raptors made a deal for Kawhi Leonard knowing that there was a chance he would not return the next season. This is the single most important season in Raptors franchise history, and we would not consider that an overstatement. Trading away DeMar DeRozan was hurtful for Kyle Lowry and the Raptors have to make the NBA Finals in order to appear like a team that Kawhi should consider long-term.
In Los Angeles, Kawhi Leonard knows he will always be able to attract free agents. In Toronto, the team would be limited to trades and the draft. The supporting cast in Toronto is great, but the role players in L.A. are equally talented, if not more, with space to add another big name free agent.
The New Orleans Pelicans should be the most aggressive team in the NBA at the trade deadline with the free agency of Anthony Davis approaching swiftly. This trade may not make much sense but sometimes teams swing for the fences. Mirotic would likely be headed to Miami in exchange for a point guard. The Pelicans have not been the same team without Rajon Rondo this season and when they were good, it was with a healthy Elfrid Payton. The Heat would not have to re-sign Mirotic, opening up cap space for the team to re-build either in free agency or via the draft.
This season Kemba Walker is playing the best basketball of his professional career. Despite the dominant performances, Kemba Walker has failed to elevate the Charlotte Hornets into contention. If Kemba Walker is ever going to play on the big stage, this coming summer may be the best time for him to do it.
The Knicks will have money to spend, and if they end up signing Kevin Durant, the team doesn't need a megastar. With KD theoretically signed and Kristaps Porzingis hopefully healthy from injury, Kemba Walker placed into that mix with the young assets in place can be a lethal combination for the Eastern Conference.
The Los Angeles Lakers are expected to be active at the deadline and a logical candidate is Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, whom many think was re-signed to occupy cap space. The Washington Wizards traded for Trevor Ariza to help change a growing culture that was not conducive to winning. The buyout market is an option for the Lakers if they are looking for additional shooting for this season. That makes KCP expendable and the Wizards could use as much talent as they can if they plan on keeping things intact.
As Warriors head coach Steve Kerr put it earlier in the season, the reality is that the Warriors have one season with DeMarcus Cousins before they can no longer afford him. The goal is in Golden State is to win one for Cousins this season. Next year, Cousins will have a chance to go to any team he chooses. The Pacers are a team you wouldn't immediately think of, but Indiana has Victor Oladipo, one of the better players in the league. Paired together, a DeMarcus Cousins and Victor Oladipo-led Pacers team could challenge for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
A team like the Phoenix Suns is in position to take a chance on a former number two overall draft pick to see if a new start could revitalize his career. If not, Parker can be waived, so if the Suns were to possibly receive a draft pick to take Parker, then the deal could make sense.
While at Duke, Parker was expected to enter the NBA draft and develop into an elite scorer but injuries slowed down his development. The Bulls know Parker is not going to return to the team so there is a chance the team takes a deal that isn't eye-popping.
Over the last two seasons, Khris Middleton has really thrived as a number two option alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee. The Bucks are facing the reality that Middleton is going to be a free agent in a year when a lot of teams will have money to spend and not enough free agents. This makes Middleton a prime target as a player a team with max money will be willing to overpay for.
This would force the Bucks to make a decision on if Middleton should demand such a high percentage of the salary cap. A team like the Dallas Mavericks with Luka Doncic could be looking for scoring help, as well as great catch-and-shoot players.
The Orlando Magic have Nikola Vucevic under contract until this season comes to an end. It may be more logical for the Magic to make a deal that sends Vucevic out to open up playing time for first-round pick Mo Bamba. The Portland Trail Blazers would take on Vucevic to be a legit backup center option for a playoff team, and add scoring to a bench and overall roster makeup that relies heavily on guard play. Jusuf Nurkic is a presence for the Blazers at times but his impact is far too inconsistent for the Blazers to take the next step this season.
In the offseason, Julius Randle took a gamble on himself and accepted a one-year "prove-it" deal so he could re-enter free agency again in 2019. The New Orleans Pelicans are in a tough position because Randle is everything they were expecting and more, but Anthony Davis's impending free agency is approaching fast. What is the future of the Pelicans? We will have to wait and see how well the team plays over the next several months.
The Nets will have cap space and the New York market speaks for itself. His former teammate with the Lakers, D'Angelo Russell, is also in place and can give him some form of familiarity.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and J.R. Smith agreed to part ways this season, as the team works on ways to make a trade with someone for Smith's contract. A contract buyout is less likely for Smith because his contract is a $14M cap hit this season, but only a $3M cap hit next season, which makes him a trade asset. The Rockets want to play a brand of basketball that is conducive to more three-and-D players. The Rockets' general manager, Daryl Morey, will not be fine with the status quo and a reinvigorated Smith could pay huge dividends for Houston in the short term.
The Denver Nuggets have been the surprise team of the early NBA season, as they have spent time at the top of the Western Conference despite dealing with injuries to several key rotation players. Denver signed Paul Millsap for three years and his Nuggets stint, although somewhat out of his control, has been a letdown. A new situation may be the only saving grace and the Dallas Mavericks are attempting to drag themselves out of the bottom of the West. Due to necessity, Luka Doncic often plays out of position at power forward, but Millsap and Doncic would work together well in the frontcourt for Dallas.
The Markelle Fultz situation has been a failure if you're grading a number one overall pick. At this point, the Philadelphia 76ers know that number one overall pick expectations should be eliminated and the focus should be on getting him healthy. What does a healthy Markelle Fultz look like? The answer to that question is the selling point for the Sixers in a move for a team betting on Fultz's long-term potential.
The Suns are a perfect situation where Markelle can focus on basketball outside of the spotlight for a team that doesn't have expectations to compete for a conference Finals, or even a playoff, appearance.
The Los Angeles Clippers are big game hunting in free agency this summer just like the hometown rival Lakers. Tobias Harris has been great this season for the Clippers, but the front office knows that if the team has to relinquish Harris to sign a big name free agent, then so be it. The Spurs lost Kawhi Leonard without any real replacement in place. As great as DeMar DeRozan has been, he is now forced to help replace the loss of Kawhi, but Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili as well. Harris is a perfect fit in a San Antonio system and the signing would take pressure off DeRozan.
This summer the Los Angeles Clippers want to enter their name in the discussion for top free agents looking to form super teams. The Minnesota Timberwolves are a team that has to focus on building their team through trades and the draft. The Clippers could potentially open up more cap space by trading away Avery Bradley to the Minnesota Timberwolves, who would love an extra three-and-D wing. Gibson will be a free agent at the end of this season; the Timberwolves traded Jimmy Butler and received Dario Saric in exchange. This leads to the belief the team will move forward with Saric as the starter.
In a surprising turn of events, Jimmy Butler might do what everyone in Philadelphia would never expect and sign with the Los Angeles Clippers instead of re-signing with the Sixers. The Sixers are no doubt one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, but they were supposed to be that good before adding Jimmy Butler. Butler has assumed the role of closer for the Sixers and Joel Embiid hasn't exactly been excited about that shift. Teaming up with Kawhi Leonard on the Clippers could make them a real challenger for the best team in Los Angeles and the entire NBA.