As the 2023 NBA Trade Deadline approaches, I’ve been thinking about how few teams and fan bases seem happy about where they are at through the midway point of the season.
The NBA typically has a defined hierarchy at this point of the season. You have a few clear favorites, a handful of teams playing well enough to make fans believe with the right breaks they could go deep in the playoffs, the treadmill of mediocrity teams (those just happy to make the playoffs), and the rebuilders/tankers at the bottom. This year, those groups still exist, but there are far more teams that feel they should be in the top two that aren’t, which seems to have fans more on edge as trade season arrives.
The favorites tier doesn’t feature the usual suspects and proven commodities, aside from the Boston Celtics, and that creates a feeling of a void at the top, which means more fans believe this is the optimal year to strike. Every other preseason favorite beyond Boston seems vulnerable, and the teams that sit atop the standings are all otherwise unproven in the playoffs. Of the eight teams in top-4 position in each conference right now, only one has won a title this decade (Milwaukee), and the Celtics are the only other team to make a Finals appearance.
This only further breeds the belief for fans that if your team can just get in there, they could win it all, or at least make a conference finals run. The problem is, very few teams are taking advantage of this year of parity, and it’s driving fans insane. By my very unscientific measurements, there are eight fan bases that are probably happy where they are as the deadline approaches: the Celtics, Sixers, Nuggets, Grizzlies, Kings, Jazz, Thunder, and Pacers. There are another handful that are fine with how things are going, but aren’t exactly elated: the Bucks, Nets, Cavs, Pelicans, and Magic.
The Jazz, Thunder, Pacers, and Magic are all in the “playing with house money” tier, where they’re just thrilled to be in the mix and/or not in the cellar, winning some games and seeing positive impacts from their young players that figure to be in their long-term core. The Kings are enjoying their best season in literal decades, and they rightfully are relishing every moment of the Light The Beam era. Boston, Philly, Denver, and Memphis are all handling business and separating themselves from the chaos in the middle of the playoff races, while the Bucks, Nets, Cavs, and Pelicans are staying comfortably above water, but all have just enough injury concerns and/or have shown just enough uneven play to keep a bit of wariness.
Everyone else is desperate for a run, but can’t seem to put anything together, creating an awful lot of frustration. In both conferences, the difference between the 6-seed and out of the play-in is razor thin considering how much of the season is remaining, and it has people stressed. For how often we have complained that the NBA regular season doesn’t matter enough because of how long it is, this year feels as meaningful as I can remember on a night-to-night basis. The teams are still treating it as they long have, with rest for stars, load management, and all of that, but the losses feel more painful and the wins a little more important than we usually get in January.
In the West, the difference between the 5-seed Mavs and the 13-seed Blazers is three games (two in the loss column), which is outrageous this far into the season. Aside from OKC and Utah — again, they have a more long-term view on things — no one is happy to be in this predicament. The Mavs, Suns, Clippers, Timberwolves, and Warriors all believed they were contenders this season, and they’re now just trying to avoid the play-in, with fans wondering what trades might exist to turn things around. The Lakers and Blazers had slightly lesser expectations after missing the play-in a year ago, but with stars returning, they still figured to be in the playoff hunt but are again on the outside looking in.
In the East, the difference between the 6-seed Heat and the 12-seed Wizards is five games (four in the loss column), which is still very tight and, aside from Indiana, all of the teams involved had higher hopes for this year. Inconsistency is the hallmark of all of these teams. The Knicks and Hawks made big additions this offseason to try and push for contender status, while the Heat stayed pat after being the 1-seed a year ago, but all three can be infuriatingly hot and cold. At times they each have looked capable of a run to push them firmly into a playoff spot, but can’t help but always drop back into the morass with a cold spell.
Chicago, Toronto, and Washington are perpetually three losses in a row away from calls to blow it all up, with fans working overtime on the trade machine to figure out how they can change their fortunes on both the short and long-term. However, because the teams above them refuse to pull away and put them out of their misery, they find just enough wins to keep fans believing that maybe, just maybe, they can figure it out and put the pieces together.
Finally, there’s the tankers, as the Rockets, Spurs, Pistons, and Hornets have emerged as the four leading contenders for the Victor Wembanyama Sweepstakes. But even with a prize as big as Wemby, it’s hard for there to be too much excitement when those teams have shown such little improvement this season (and the smoothing of lottery odds means they still only get a 14 percent chance, at best, at Wembanyama).
All of this makes for a fascinating trade season, which got started in earnest on Monday when the Lakers flipped Kendrick Nunn and three second-rounders to the Wizards for Rui Hachimura. There is a sense that an awful lot of teams want to be buyers, which tends to create a flat market until someone decides to be a seller. For now, I expect a lot of posturing and very few significant deals until much closer to February 9, as teams are going to want every data point possible before they make their short and long-term plans.
The glut of near-.500 teams coupled with the outrageous prices we saw paid for All-Star talent this offseason has put a damper on trades, and it remains to be seen just how much it opens up. Until it does, the trade machine is going to work overtime and if teams are only able to really do work to improve their rosters on the periphery, the misery and frustration is going to continue building all the way up until the playoff field is set.