The Milwaukee Bucks are a prime championship threat. The Indiana Pacers are solid as always. The Detroit Pistons are slowly crumbling and the Chicago Bulls are still fighting incompetence. The Cleveland Cavaliers, meanwhile, are a sad laughingstock.
Nothing about the NBA’s Central Division is surprising relative to preseason expectations. Its teams, broadly speaking, are exactly who we thought they were. But that hardly means there’s no intrigue in flyover country, especially as the most active days of trade season dawn.
These are the six players from the Central Division who competing teams should be looking at hardest.
Kevin Love – $28,942,830
Don’t read too much into Love’s heartfelt, honest apology for his behavior on either side of the New Year. It’s safe to say he would still rather play for almost any team in basketball than the Cleveland Cavaliers. Less clear is what type of deal it would take for him to find his way out of Cleveland by Feb. 7.
There’s no doubting Love’s bonafides from beyond the arc, ability to punish smaller defenders on the block or his supreme impact as a rebounder. He’s just not dynamic enough to be the hub of an elite offense, though, a reality that makes his utter lack of versatility on the other end even more debilitating than it would be otherwise. Collecting the money to match his exorbitant salary, plus the three full seasons remaining on his $120 million contract extension, are factors just as prohibitive as the on-court ramifications of any potential trade for Love, too.
The Cavaliers’ ongoing and worsening dysfunction shouldn’t make finding a deal easier. It’s no secret Love wants out, and any expectation general manager Koby Altman had of netting even one objectively attractive trade chip in exchange for the veteran big man is growing less realistic by the day. Regardless, the dual pitfalls of Love’s game in a more limited role, and the massive salary slot he’ll occupy through 2022-23 will scare off the majority of playoff teams who could use some tertiary scoring punch.
If his hometown Portland Trail Blazers stay patient during a lost season, Love seems bound to remain in Cleveland for the remainder of 2019-20. Even beyond that timeframe, it’s difficult to conjure a theoretical trade that would make sense for Love, the Cavaliers and any team bold enough to take on an injury-prone thirty-something who’s an imminent defensive liability and doubles as a salary albatross.
Andre Drummond – $27,093019
It would be in the Detroit Pistons’ overwhelming best interest if they found a way to move Drummond before the trade deadline. Blake Griffin’s increasingly fragile health status and ESPN’s recent reporting that the team has already engaged in “serious talks” with the Atlanta Hawks about a potential Drummond deal suggests his departure from the Motor City is a formality.
The Pistons are going nowhere as currently constructed, and Drummond will likely opt out of the final year of his contract this summer. Moving him is a no-brainer. The problem for Detroit is that Drummond is a borderline negative value on his existing contract and will surely command a similar starting salary in free agency to the one he’s earning this season.
Acquiring his Bird Rights would be a boon for a cash-strapped team that needs help in the middle if Drummond is a good stylistic fit. But he’s clearly miscast as anything close to a primary offensive option and lacks both the playmaking feel and shooting touch to thrive in a more defined offensive role. Drummond is a helpful defender when engaged, but hardly an interior panacea around which an entire defensive system can be built.
Where does that leave his trade prospects? If the Hawks – who should be extremely wary of pairing him with Trae Young for the long haul – don’t bite, odds are that Drummond plays out the season’s remainder with the Pistons before entering free agency, where his next destination could prove just as vexing to find.
Tristan Thompson – $18,539,130
Thompson is quietly enjoying another standout campaign after it seemed like he may fade forever into mediocrity during LeBron James’ final season in Northeast Ohio. The question isn’t whether he’d be useful for a playoff team that could use some quality depth up front, but what that suitor would be comfortable giving the Cleveland Cavaliers in a trade.
His salary makes those matters tougher in a straight-up deal where he’s the centerpiece. If there’s a blockbuster potentially involving three or more teams, though, Thompson’s steep expiring contract could come in handy as a facilitator.
Wherever he may end up, Thompson’s time as a rotation player certainly isn’t over. He’s perfectly suited as a third or fourth big depending on incumbent personnel, and, at 28, isn’t declining as quickly as it appeared two years ago. It’ll be fascinating to gauge his market in free agency come July.
Myles Turner – $18,000,000
The first few weeks of 2019-20 made it seem like Turner’s days with the Indiana Pacers were numbered. He missed eight games with a sprained right ankle in early November, during which the Pacers rebounded from a dreadful start to the season by going 6-2 behind strong play from Domantas Sabonis. Widespread concerns about the viability of Indiana’s new starting tandem up front, it appeared, had already been confirmed.
Turner hasn’t done all that much individually in the interim to put those worries to rest. He’s been an abject disappointment defensively, failing to live up to the immense promise he showed last season as a rim-protector while remaining an abject weakness on the defensive glass. But his net rating next to Sabonis is up to a solid plus-6.4, which should give Kevin Pritchard enough hope that Indiana’s two-big alignment could work long-term – especially given a Victor Oladipo return from injury is officially set.
Teams will inquire about Turner regardless. Young seven-footers with shot-blocking instincts and still-burgeoning proficiency from long range don’t grow on trees, and there’s enough doubt about the ceiling of Turner and Sabonis’ partnership that the Pacers should pick up the phone. The same two-way traits, confined as they are, that attract other teams to Turner are why he’s a valuable member of Indiana’s core, though.
Unless a competing team makes Pritchard a Godfather offer, Turner will almost surely remain with the Pacers past the trade deadline. His future beyond that could still be subject to change.
Thaddeus Young – $12,900,000
Young made it clear last month that he’s unhappy with his role, and it’s fair to assume that the Chicago Bulls are almost equally unhappy with his play.
At least some justification for optimism about the Bulls leading up to the season can be chalked up to Young’s expected impact as a de facto sixth starter. Instead, he’s getting the fewest minutes since his rookie season and shooting a hideous 51.2 percent in the restricted area – dead last among bigs who take at least two shots from there. As disruptive as he remains at times defensively, the on/off data suggests Chicago wouldn’t take a major step back on that end without him.
But just because it hasn’t worked out for Young with the Bulls doesn’t mean it wouldn’t with a contender. Any team with aspirations of playing deep into spring could use the additional lineup flexibility and defensive versatility provided by his presence, and his salary – right in the sweet spot of easily-movable contracts that the league at large is currently lacking – makes him a helpful salary-matching fit in a potential blockbuster trade.
What would it take for an interested team to acquire Young? In addition to draft fodder, Chicago would probably want someone to replace him in the rotation, decreasing the odds he’s dealt. Players who can check most bigs and wings almost seamlessly are at a premium – which is also the biggest reason why Young should be chased by teams with dreams of May and June.
Derrick Rose – $7,317,074
Rose’s value to Detroit almost certainly wouldn’t be matched elsewhere. The Pistons’ offensive rating spikes by more than 10 points with him on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass, an easy team-high. With Griffin ailing, he’s their only reliable source of independent offense in the clutch.
Rose is a far cry from his MVP heyday. But with a renewed air of athletic oomph and improved shot-making from the perimeter, he’s been one of the most explosive reserves in the NBA this season – a role most any contender would be lucky for him to fill.
The contractual complications that inhibit Detroit in trade talks for Drummond don’t apply to Rose. He makes just below the league-average salary this season and is under contract at a slightly higher number through 2020-21. There will definitely be many teams interested in acquiring him. What the Pistons must decide is what they’re willing to accept from those that come calling.
As good as Rose has been in 2019-20, he’s still too big an injury risk for suitors to part with ultra-valuable assets. But if Detroit is comfortable moving him for a heavily-protected first-round pick that’s likeliest to convey to second-round compensation, don’t be surprised to see Rose donning a different jersey soon.
Not all of these players will be moved, and there’s even a chance that all stay put.
Love and Drummond are arguably the two biggest-name players most likely to be dealt by the deadline. It would be a minor shock if the Pacers traded Turner, and Thompson might even be a buy-out candidate. The Bulls and Pistons could decide losing Young and Rose would be pills too tough to swallow.
Nevertheless, their names will continue swirling in trade winds as Feb. 7 fast approaches.