At the very top of the league, where every team has at least one, but usually two, superstar-level players, winning a championship often comes down to the other players on the court. Regular season basketball is a strong-link sport – the teams with the highest top-end talent are often at the top of the standings, since their opponents likely don’t have that same top-end talent to match them. Playoff basketball is the opposite, particularly after the first round – once everybody has enough top-end talent to make it to the final eight teams standing, it becomes who can paper over their weaknesses. The weak-link nature of playoff basketball is what makes the trade deadline fascinating for those teams contending for a championship – it’s often their last chance to make a significant upgrade to their rotation ahead of the playoffs.
With that in mind, here are a few names on the wing and forward market teams should be asking about in order to upgrade their rotation and make their weak links stronger.
Marcus Morris Sr.
In terms of 3-and-D forwards, there might not be a better player on the market than Morris. He has turned himself into a very good shooter in recent seasons, with the sort of game-to-game and year-to-year consistency upon which a team can rely in the playoffs. Even this year on a dysfunctional Knicks team, he’s hitting the highest percentage of his 3s of his career on the highest volume of his career. And it’s not like New York has some sort of high-level distributor who’s getting him a whole bunch of wide-open looks from the corner. He can knock down tightly-contested jumpers and create his own shot at a pretty decent clip – he can get to his spots in pick-and-roll and generally has been New York’s best all-around offensive player. That’s not exactly a high bar to clear, but he’s been legitimately very good this season.
On the other end of the floor, he’s got the positional size and versatility to defend the strong-link superstars from a number of teams. He’s not going to shut down a LeBron James, a Kawhi Leonard, a Giannis Antetokounmpo, but if he’s defending those guys, it’s not a three-alarm fire. You don’t have to send panic help to Morris when he’s matched up with one of those guys, which has a ton of value for a team looking to upgrade their defensive prowess in those situations.
The salary cap ramifications are particularly important in Morris’s case. He makes $15 million on a one-year contract and will be an unrestricted free agent in July. A team landing in the tax would have to send out at least $11.92 million in salary to trade for him, while a team outside of the tax gets a slight break – that team would only have to send out $10 million. For the top-end title contenders, cobbling together the sort of money it takes to get Morris without trading any significant rotation players is difficult, but not impossible. Doing so while attaching an asset that entices New York to move him makes things harder.
Any team holding his contract at the end of the year will have Non-Bird rights as he goes into free agency – they can sign him to a contract starting anywhere below $18 million, assuming they don’t already have cap space. $18 million should be more than enough to re-sign him, but whether it’s the Knicks or another team, they run the risk of him walking away for nothing. Any conversations they can have with him now, months before that decision gets made, are hard to trust – we saw how he rejected the normal decorum of the league and spurned San Antonio after they traded Davis Bertans in order to secure him on a deal they had already verbally agreed. If you’re another team and you get word that Morris would be interested in re-signing, how can you trust him to keep that word in the summer? So much can change between now and then, both with that team’s on-court success and his motivations and desires.
Perhaps under normal circumstances, a team would trade a late first-round pick or two second-rounders far enough in the future that they might be valuable. However, there are a number of other quality forwards on the market who are easier to salary-match, won’t cost a first-round pick, and don’t come with the immense uncertainty of Morris’s impending free agency.
In many ways, Covington is Morris’s opposite. If you could combine the two’s defensive skillsets, you might have the best defender in the league – Morris holds up really well against the best forwards on the ball, but has a tendency to get lost when he’s not directly involved in the action. Covington is the opposite – he has an alarming number of blow-bys on his resume for a top-tier defender, but he’s always in the right spot in help defense and is one of the best close-out defenders in the league.
Covington also can’t match Morris’s shotmaking and shot creation on the offensive end. He struggles with the consistency that would make him a knockdown shooter, to the point that an acquiring team would have to worry that he’ll disappear in a playoff series. He doesn’t have an off-the-dribble game a team would trust in the playoffs, which gives him a very high variance in the small sample that is the postseason. It’s a make-or-miss league and Covington’s heavy reliance on spot-up jumpers makes him susceptible to the swings that comes with non-elite shooters (and even some elite shooters; just ask Nikola Mirotic).
Trading for Covington comes with a lot of long-term assurance, as opposed to Morris. In an era partially defined by short contracts, the two and a half years remaining on his contract represent one of the best bargain deals in the NBA today. He’ll make a paltry (in NBA terms) $25.1 million over the next two years, making him a particularly good target for a wider variety of teams. A club just outside the top tier of title contenders could easily talk themselves into Covington perhaps making the difference that vaults them into that tier this year, but with the added safety net of having two more years at a very cheap salary if things don’t come together this year.
Of course, Minnesota also knows they’re sitting on a gold mine. It’s going to take quite a bit more than a single late first-rounder to pry him loose. The Wolves might also want to compete at some point in the near future, as well, and having a cheap 3-and-D wing on the roster would help them do that. Surrounding Karl-Anthony Towns with capable role players on value contracts is the primary function of the Wolves’ front office and Covington fits that description perfectly, so it would take a hell of an offer to make them move him.
Another 3-and-D forward with more positional size than Covington but less consistent three-point shooting than Morris, Crowder would be a seamless fit on numerous top-end playoff teams, but the Grizzlies might want to hold onto him for their own playoff run. Traded three times on what has been one of the league’s best contracts over the last four and a half years, Crowder was poised to be on the block once again when he moved from a contender in Utah to a rebuilding team in Memphis this past summer. The results this year have perhaps tabled those talks, as the Grizzlies are in a fight for the eighth and final spot in the Western Conference Playoffs, with Crowder playing an important role for a team led by rookie Ja Morant.
Crowder’s $7.8 million expiring contract makes it much easier for another team to match in a trade, should Memphis want to move him in the next week or so. He also comes with full Bird rights, so an over-the-cap team could pay up to retain him this summer, should he want to stay in his new home. He doesn’t have the talent and consistency of a guy like Morris nor the contractual certainty of a guy like Covington, but if Memphis is looking to cash in on Crowder, contenders with smaller salaries to send out would do well to be on the phone with the Grizzlies before the deadline.
Since acquiring him in the summer, the Grizzlies have continuously let the league know that he would not be bought out and that a team wanting Iguodala would have to meet their asking price, but as the deadline approaches, that price will almost certainly have to come down.
The issue is that he is hardly gettable for the teams he would actually help. $17.2 million is a lot of salary to match during the regular season for top-tier contenders – those teams don’t often have between $12.2 and $13.7 million in “dead” salary lying around that they can send out for a guy making that much money.
He’s a capable ball handler and passer for teams needing a bit more secondary playmaking to juice their offense and, despite his advanced age, should still be the all-world playoff defender he’s been for the last several years. There’s a chance that this many months away from NBA basketball has softened him, but any team acquiring him would have multiple months to get him back into fighting shape before the later rounds of the playoffs begin.
At this point, it seems the top teams are waiting out the Grizzlies and will target Iguodala on the buyout market – even if one of the Los Angeles teams, Milwaukee, or Philadelphia could meet Memphis’s draft pick asking price, getting the salaries to match could be difficult.
Langston Galloway, Tony Snell, and Markieff Morris
In a bit of a lost season for Detroit as a whole, Galloway, Snell, and Morris are putting together strong seasons in supporting wing and forward roles. It’s unfortunate for the Pistons that Blake Griffin’s phenomenal 2018-19 season hasn’t overlapped with the great play they’re getting from these three this year, but the fact of the matter is that the Pistons are thinking of a longer-term rebuild and should see what they can get on the market for them.
For teams looking for more shooting punch off the bench, Galloway would be a good target. He’s having a phenomenal year, hitting 39 percent from deep and 58 percent true shooting overall. Beyond the arc, he’s not just a floor spacer – creative coaches will find ways to work him off screens and dribble handoffs to put significant pressure on a defense. He takes something off the table defensively and would be targeted by teams in the later rounds of the playoffs, but the shooting would bring a lot of value to the right team. Galloway makes $7.3 million and comes with full Bird rights, should a team want to retain him this summer.
Snell is a deadeye knockdown shooter…when he decides to shoot the ball. For a guy who’s been a 40 percent three-point shooter for four years, it’s a little disturbing that he sports a four-year usage rate under 12 percent. He’s a very strong spot-up threat who has to be guarded outside the arc, though his shooting off movement is limited and he has very few ball skills if a team runs him off the three-point line, which contributes to that basement usage rate. Snell’s contract is somewhat onerous for what he brings to the table – he makes $11.4 million this year and has a player option he’ll almost certainly pick up for $12.2 million next season.
Morris has more defensive chops than his teammates and comes on a much cheaper contract. He makes just $3.2 million this year and has a player option for $3.4 million next year, making him a very, very easy player for another team to acquire – teams with a large enough trade exception could simply take Morris in without having to send out any salary, which may be ideal for a Detroit team that currently stands less than $4,000 from the luxury tax threshold. He’s also hitting better than 40 percent of his threes and comes with a more varied offensive game, though that variety often comes as a major loss in efficiency. However, when things slow down in the playoffs, Morris’s ability to create his own shot in the post could be useful.
Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez
The emergence of Michael Porter Jr. has pushed these two even further down the Nuggets’ long-term pecking order as they both approach restricted free agency this summer. Beasley turned down a three-year, $30 million extension that looks like a poor decision as things currently stand, but if he were to get out of Denver and have a bigger role with another team, he could prove to have that sort of eight-digit market after all. Hernangomez plays even less than Beasley does, with just 347 minutes on the season to this point, and hasn’t found his rhythm offensively – at this point, he’s in danger of Denver or another team not even tendering a qualifying offer at all.