The NBA’s race for Victor Wembanyama, Scoot Henderson and the top prospects of the 2023 draft class is…well, less crowded than expected.
Despite the allure of these potential fortune-changing talents, most teams have avoided the temptation to tank. Maybe that’s due to flattened lottery odds or the chance to compete for a play-in tournament. Perhaps others think there’s still enough season remaining to pull the rip cord later and hope the ping-pong balls bounce their way.
Whatever the case, there are really only five clubs in the hunt right now: the Orlando Magic, San Antonio Spurs, Detroit Pistons, Charlotte Hornets and Houston Rockets. They are the Association’s only teams with sub-.400 winning percentages. They are, not coincidentally, also the only ones with a net efficiency rating worse than minus-2.0 points per 100 possessions.
It’s possible more teams enter the race going forward, and we’ll examine that possibility a bit here. However, the heart of our focus will be on these five cellar dwellers and the top trade candidates they could shop around to buyers leading up to the Feb. 9 trade deadline.
Despite still being without Lonzo Ball and owing a top-four-protected pick to the Magic, the Bulls don’t seem interested in racing to the bottom. A sleepy trade season is expected in the Windy City, per Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times, which is surely a bummer for buyers to hear. If Chicago blew it up, then Nikola Vucevic, Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan would rank among the most coveted players on the market.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Thanks to MVP-caliber play by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, nightly triple-double pursuits by Josh Giddey and a supporting cast that is generally trending up, the Thunder, winners in 10 of their last 15 games, are playing more like buyers than sellers. Still, a rocky next month could leave the franchise to hunt draft assets, though Mike Muscala and Kenrich Williams might be the only realistic trade candidates in the Sooner State.
The Raptors came into this campaign with at least a puncher’s chance of escaping the Eastern Conference. Now, though, there’s a chance this group won’t even have a play-in invitation in hand when the deadline hits. Maybe that’s not reason enough to dismantle the core, but if the front office feels otherwise, then O.G. Anunoby, Gary Trent Jr. or even Fred VanVleet might be obtainable at the right price.
Utah bulked up its asset collection in the offseason, so it may not see any need for additional wheeling and dealing. Still, the Jazz are just 12-21 since their surprising 10-3 start, so ruling out the possibility of more selling doesn’t seem right. If Utah takes the plunge, then Mike Conley and Malik Beasley are the most obvious trade candidates with Jordan Clarkson and Jarred Vanderbilt potentially being on the move if the return is rich enough.
Statistically speaking, the Wizards come closest to our group of designated tankers, as they sit just 25th in winning percentage (.419) and net rating (minus-1.4). For whatever reason, though, Washington seems wholly disinterested in accepting its fate. For instance, Kyle Kuzma, its most obvious trade candidate (whispers: other than Bradley Beal), is someone the team doesn’t want to move and actually hopes to re-sign this summer, per Marc Stein.