NBA trade deadline: Why any deal this week comes with massive financial risk

ByTim Bontemps and Bobby Marks ESPN logo
Monday, February 5, 2024

The NBA trade deadline is Thursday, and contenders are putting finishing touches on their rosters ahead of crowded postseason pushes in each conference.

But while this week is significant every year across the league, this season has presented new restrictions for front offices to navigate. This is the first trade season since the league and the National Basketball Players Association ratified the current collective bargaining agreement last spring -- and it's the final trade deadline before onerous restrictions to rein in spending go into full effect this summer.

Add the more than 20 teams still trying to reach the postseason and there are storylines to dissect up and down the standings between now and 3 p.m. ET Thursday.

Bobby, what are you focusing on as the trade deadline approaches?

Marks: It has to be teams in the second apron -- or teams projected to be -- next season. After Damian Lillard was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks in September, a Western Conference executive joked to me that the high spending reminded him of getting to the buffet an hour before closing time. The comment was a reaction to major moves by Milwaukee and the Boston Celtics, who acquired guard Jrue Holiday days after the Lillard deal, before a set of harsh roster and trade restrictions begin this offseason.

ESPN projects nine teams -- the Bucks, Celtics, Denver Nuggets, Golden State Warriors,LA Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat, Minnesota Timberwolves and Phoenix Suns as second-apron teams in 2024-25. (TheMemphis Grizzlieswere a projected second-apron team before they traded Steven Adams to theHouston Rockets.)

The impending rules are why the Celtics, Bucks, Suns (who landed Bradley Beal in June) and Clippers (who acquiredJames Harden in October) made blockbuster trades. These two deals and those of the Bucks and Celtics would not have been allowed under the new rules.

Starting with the first day of the offseason, teams over the second apron in 2023-24:

  • can't take back more salary in a trade;
  • are not allowed to aggregate contracts;
  • are restricted from sending out cash in deals;
  • and are restricted from using preexisting trade exceptions to acquire a player.

The Timberwolves, for example, have been active in trade discussions, according to a league source, because this is the last time they are allowed to aggregate contracts in a deal. (The same rules apply for first-apron teams, except they are allowed to aggregate contracts and can send cash in a trade.)

Teams in the first and second apron had better like their own players and also have a strong pro personnel department, a team executive told ESPN, because it will become more difficult to add from the outside -- especially if teams do not control their first-round picks. (The Clippers, Bucks, Nuggets, Wolves and Suns are projected to fall into this category).

If a team finishes over the second apron after the 2024-25 season, its 2032 first-round pick is frozen and cannot be traded.

"Making a trade is not only about ownership signing off on a larger luxury tax penalty," a team executive told ESPN, "but now [dealing with] the consequences of the first and second apron."

Tim, how do you see the new rules impacting teams and trade targets leading up to Thursday's deadline?

Bontemps: The league is already seeing the impact, with the reticence of teams to chase big-salary players.

Take Chicago Bulls star Zach LaVine. Before LaVine injured his right foot, ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported there wasn't much of a market for the former All-Star, despite his status as a high-scoring wing and a potent 3-point shooter.

That's because he is owed roughly $138 million over the next three seasons, which is the kind of expenditure for a third star that virtually guarantees that team will hit the second apron.

For teams such as the Lakers and Sacramento Kings, making a move for LaVine would have basically locked in their cores moving forward, as having three players in that salary tier makes taking on additional money extremely complicated.

That dilemma is already playing out in Phoenix. After landing Beal to pair with Kevin Durant and Devin Booker, the Suns are all but locked into this current group. Many of the contenders listed above will be in the same situation next year or will be if they add significant salary.

That lack of flexibility is causing teams to be incredibly cautious as the league continues to wrap its arms around the new restrictions. Rather than rush into something this week and potentially miss on a bigger deal this summer, the changes are causing teams to wade carefully.

In the past, teams would have expected to acquire significant draft capital when moving All-Star-level players. Now, the goal might simply be getting out of long-term salary commitments -- and receiving whatever draft compensation they can along with it.

Bobby, how do you see the market for some of the top players potentially available -- LaVine and Atlanta Hawks guard Dejounte Murray, for example -- developing over the next few days? And how do you see teams constructing their rosters under the new CBA?

Marks: LaVine, who will have foot surgery and miss the next four to six months, can still be traded prior to Thursday's deadline. Yet any team interested must have a comfort level not only with the $138 million left on his contract after this season but now a significant injury.

"We have red-flagged him until he gets back on the court," one team executive told ESPN after Chicago announced LaVine's impending surgery.

Murray, meanwhile, has a $24.8 million salary for next season. That is $18 million less than teammate Trae Young's salaryand fits in perfectly for a team that does not want to add a third max-salary player.

Some other below-max-salary players that team executives told ESPN to watch: Malcolm Brogdon, Bojan Bogdanovic, Bruce Brown, Miles Bridges, DeMar DeRozan, Buddy Hield, Wendell Carter Jr., Jerami Grant, Kyle Kuzma, Tyus Jones and Kelly Olynyk.

"I could see any of [those] players getting traded before LaVine does," one team executive told ESPN before LaVine's injury.

Teams pointed to how the Indiana Pacers constructed their roster for next season as a blueprint under the new CBA: two players on max contracts (Tyrese Haliburton and Pascal Siakam) followed by nine players earning from $2 million to $19.9 million. Five of those players (Bennedict Mathurin, Jarace Walker, Isaiah Jackson, Ben Sheppard and Andrew Nembhard) are on rookie contracts.

"I am not going to tell my owner that we can't have three players on max contracts if all three impact winning," a team executive told ESPN. "We would just need to make sure there are roster resources available to put a supporting cast around them."

The Oklahoma City Thunder and Orlando Magic also could become players both now and in the offseason. Each has built its roster through the draft and has players on rookie-scale contracts (Chet Holmgren, Jalen Williams, Josh Giddey in OKC and Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner in Orlando). Neither team is in danger of the second-apron rules, and both have a financial window to take back a player who could help win now.

The Thunder have 14 first-round picks and 21 second-rounders across the next seven drafts, and they can build out the back end of their roster with young players even if Holmgren, Williams, Giddey and star guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander sign lucrative contracts. (If Giddey's next contract becomes too expensive, the Thunder can replace him with the rookie first-round contract of Cason Wallace.)

Bontemps: There has been so much attention in recent years on teams such as the Suns and Brooklyn Nets, who pushed in all of their chips to acquire win-now players. The Thunder and Magic are on the opposite end of the spectrum: rarely making moves outside of accumulating future draft capital and using it on draft picks; continually stacking their rosters with young, attractive talent; and patiently waiting to make a splash.

Of the two latter franchises, the Thunder might have the greater argument for urgency. Gilgeous-Alexander is one of the league's best 10 players and a bona fide MVP contender. The combination of Gilgeous-Alexander, Holmgren and Williams is quickly evolving into one of the league's best trios, and there's a real chance this team will be in the top two in the Western Conference at the end of the regular season. But don't expect Thunder executive vice president and general manager Sam Presti, who has been consistent in his roster-building approach, to make short-term moves at the expense of long-term assets.

The Magic are in a different place. This group has taken a significant step forward this season and looks like it will get a home game or two in the Eastern Conference play-in tournament. But there is no real expectation of Orlando winning a playoff series.

Orlando does face some roster decisions. Between Markelle Fultz, Joe Ingles, Jonathan Isaac and Gary Harris, Orlando has roughly $60 million in expiring contracts. Wagner andJalen Suggsare due what should be hefty contract extensions this summer, and Banchero, the 2023 Rookie of the Year, will be getting his extension the following year. Until then, there is a window for the Magic to add a significant player or two.

Shifting to major-market teams, the Lakers and Warriors have massive stars and big expectations and have so far been even bigger disappointments. What are the paths forward for them over the next few days?

Marks: Remember when Warriors owner Joe Lacob said he did not care what the new rules said?

"We are going to win no matter what," Lacob told reporters in May. "We are going to figure out a way to do it. That's what good organizations do. They figure out a way to win the game. And our game is to win games and to win championships."

Well, here we are, with the Warriors setting a record with a $400 million payroll and fighting to reach the West play-in. Their approach at the deadline is dependent on how much Lacob is willing to spend in the future.

Chris Paul has a $30.8 million non-guaranteed contract next season and, despite breaking his left hand, is still a desired trade candidate because the acquiring team has no salary obligation past this season. The question is whether Golden State would take back a contract that extends into 2024-25. The Warriors have $174 million in salary next season without considering free agent-to-be Klay Thompson.

The NBA has informed teams that the salary cap in 2024-25 is a projected $141 million, sources told ESPN on Tuesday, with the luxury tax level at $172 million, the first-apron level at $179 million and the second-apron level at $190 million.

The Lakers won't pursue trading for a third max player unless he is an All-NBA-caliber player, a league source told ESPN. There are no players of that ilk on the trade market, nor do the Lakers have the trade assets to get in the conversation.

They do have 13 players earning from $1.1 million to $17.3 million this season. But outside of Austin Reaves, is there a player on L.A.'s roster that is considered a desirable trade candidate by an opposing team without attaching a draft pick? The Lakers also only have one tradable first-rounder in 2029 or 2030.

Bontemps: The Lakers' situation is the same as many contenders face this season: They have limited avenues to improve their rosters now and moving forward, and they are being judicious in which paths they choose to pursue.

It's one of many reasons we enter the final few days before the trade deadline with uncertainty about how the market will shake out. Add the reality of dealing with the new CBA and the next 96 hours could reveal what team building will look like moving forward.

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