The trade deadline is a week away, and that means decision time for a number of teams. Bradford Doolittle has looked at the needs for every team by division, but I want to focus on a more fundamental question. In order to determine its strategy at the deadline, each team must know where it stands. Is it time to rebuild, load up or stay the course? This self-assessment is most important in the Western Conference, where as many as 13 teams still harbor playoff hopes. Let's take a look at the four that seem to most be on the bubble, going from least likely to make the playoffs to most likely.
Utah Jazz (21.4 percent chance by Hollinger playoff odds / 12.5 percent by Basketball-Reference.com
With three wins in the last four games, Utah has put itself back on the fringe of the playoff picture after a rough month of February. Still, the Jazz has been outscored on the season, and also came into the campaign with the lowest expectations of the group. If there were fewer contenders, Utah might have a more legitimate chance to make a run, but there are too many teams the Jazz will need to pass.
Even if Utah isn't active at the trade deadline, recognizing the futility of a playoff push at some point within the next few weeks will still be important because of the possibility of getting young players more minutes. I caused a bit of a stir on my most recent Mythbusters podcast with David Locke by answering off hand that switching the minutes of starters Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap with youngsters Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter would merely cost the Jazz 2-3 wins the rest of the season, so let me explain that. First, I ran some numbers using the plus-minus of the various frontcourt combinations that seemed to confirm this assessment. If that difference seems low, remember that we're talking about 30-some games (now down to 28); over a full 82, the drop would be somewhere between seven and nine wins, which is a ton. Also, we're not talking about benching Jefferson and Millsap entirely; the hypothetical would shift about 15-20 minutes a night from the starters to the reserves.
I think there's an opportunity for Tyrone Corbin to get a bit more playing time for the raw Favors and Kanter when Utah falls out of the playoff race. However, Jefferson and particularly Millsap are still part of the Jazz's future, so I have no issue with starting them. I do have an issue with starting past-their-prime Raja Bell and Josh Howard on the perimeter. Gordon Hayward ought to be playing 30 minutes a night and rookie guard Alec Burks has shown enough to merit 20-25 minutes on a regular basis, as I see it.
Houston Rockets (41.9 percent Hollinger / 33.0 percent Basketball-Reference)
The numbers don't really offer a clear prescription for the Rockets, who could easily find themselves on either side of the playoff debate. Houston's first order of business is to maintain $10 million-plus in cap space this summer. So the Rockets won't be in position to take on any long-term contracts unless they provide a significant talent upgrade.
Houston could still get creative with its existing assets, most notably shooting guard Kevin Martin. Because of Martin's defensive shortcomings, he's been on the bench to finish games at times, including Tuesday at Boston. Martin remains one of the league's most efficient scorers, so a team with a superior wing defender to partner with him might be able to take more advantage of Martin's skills.
Or the Rockets could just trade for Earl Clark to complete the set of disappointing 2009 lottery picks.
Minnesota Timberwolves (48.6 percent Hollinger / 36.5 percent Basketball-Reference)
The difference between the two assessments of the Timberwolves' playoff chances can be explained by the weight Hollinger's power rating puts on recent performance. Minnesota has won eight of its last 11 games, including a pair of wins over both the L.A. Clippers and Portland. The Timberwolves are surging despite Ricky Rubio's shooting regressing badly to the mean and both Kevin Love (flu) and Nikola Pekovic (sore right foot) missing time.
Minnesota is in a unique position to upgrade because so much of the team's success can be traced to the Rubio-Love-Pekovic trio. They've combined for 14.3 WARP; the rest of the team has collectively rated below replacement level (-1.9 WARP). So any newcomer, particularly on the wings, is likely to help. And since rookie Derrick Williams is the only youngster who has shown much promise, the Timberwolves could add without doing much to sacrifice their future. For a team that hasn't reached the playoffs since Sam Cassell started at point guard, this might be the time for a bold, win-now move.
Portland Trail Blazers (43.6 percent Hollinger / 57.5 percent Basketball-Reference)
A focus on recent play hurts the Blazers, who have slumped badly since early February. Portland has found an unfortunate situation to its poor record in close games: losing by double-figures instead. Just one of the Blazers' past five losses has come by fewer than nine points, and that game (last Thursday vs. Miami) required a futile late rally. These decisive losses, especially at home, make it much more difficult to argue that Portland is likely to rally in time for a playoff run.
At minimum, the Blazers are sure to make changes at the point, where newcomers Raymond Felton and Jamal Crawford have both had disastrous seasons. Felton desperately needs a change of scenery after his poor shooting and turnovers caused everyone in Portland to lose faith in him, while Crawford is being asked to play out of position as a point guard with predictable results.
The real question is whether the Blazers will also sell off expiring contracts like Gerald Wallace (who can opt out of his contract this summer) and Marcus Camby. The next week will determine whether Portland ought to try to stay in the playoff chase or get value for these players before the deadline. At this point, it seems possible that the Blazers could clean house this summer and rebuild around a core of LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum and possibly Wesley Matthews.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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