Just two years ago the Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks, and Memphis Grizzlies looked poised to contend in their respective conferences for many seasons to come.
That was before Derrick Rose’s double dose of knee injuries, New York’s playoff struggles and doubts surrounding Carmelo Anthony’s expected free agency tour, and the Grizzlies' Zach Randolph also eyeing a multi-year deal next summer.
At this early juncture of the season, all three teams still have a chance to make the playoffs, but how they play the trade market over the next two months will determine their near and long-term futures.
Bulls forward Luol Deng has been the subject of intense trade speculation in the wake of Rose's injury, and of all the players on the Bulls roster, Deng appears the most likely to be dealt. Deng has repeatedly said he wants to remain with the team that drafted him, and has pushed aside trade rumors with the Bulls essentially a game out of the final playoff spot in the East.
For any contender, Deng represents a versatile scorer and defender and a $14 million expiring contract. According to CSN Chicago, as many as seven teams, including the Lakers, Spurs, Cavs, and Mavericks, are very interested in Deng’s services. Toronto, Memphis, and Brooklyn have also expressed interest.
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Even though the Bulls have reportedly decided to re-sign Deng, considering the condition of Rose’s shaky knees, a trade for picks or expiring deals could quickly catapult the Bulls back to the top of the East with a litany of stars available over the next two summers and top college prospects expected to turn pro.
The Grizzlies are steering a similar boat with Randolph reportedly mulling the use of his opt-out clause next summer for one final multi-year contract, according to CBS Sports. The Grizzlies are reportedly resting their future on a core of injured center Marc Gasol and point guard Mike Conley. If they believe Randolph will test free agency, Memphis officials will trade him for some assets rather than end up empty handed.
Earlier this season, Randolph was tied to a move to the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for shooter Ryan Anderson, but that was later dispelled as erroneous. As of now, no new team has emerged for Randolph, but many will hesitate if they also believe he will opt-out next summer.
However, contenders and careful salary-cap tenders would certainly hope for an opt-out from Randolph, otherwise they are stuck with his $16.5 million salary in 2014-15. But that $16.5 million comes off the books with stars like Kevin Love, Tony Parker, Roy Hibbert, and LaMarcus Aldridge possibly available in 2015.
Then there’s the injury plagued, coach-on-the-hot-seat, 9-19 Knicks, who were reportedly told by owner James Dolan on Thursday that no trades or changes to the coaching staff were in the works. That sitdown was after the 29-point Christmas Day loss to Oklahoma City, but it apparently had little effect as New York fell to Toronto in the subsequent game and are now 4-11 at Madison Square Garden this season.
Keeping Anthony happy ahead of next summer and beyond has been New York’s plan since they traded for him back in 2011. But with the 29-year-old all but guaranteeing he will test free agency next summer, the Knicks are being pushed to make bold moves now.
The Knicks were also tied to Love in 2015, but in the near future a move for injured Boston point guard Rajon Rondo seems to be on Anthony and New York’s mind.
Several reports indicated Anthony was lobbying Rondo to come to New York, and before Dolan’s chat with the squad a story by ESPN stated the Knicks are hoping one of the NBA’s top assist men forces his way out of the Celtics locker room to the Knicks just like Anthony did out of Denver.
The Celtics have always denied they were dangling Rondo for a trade, but it was initially believed Rondo wanted no part of the Celtics rebuilding efforts after they traded away stars Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.
Rondo has been out since February as he recovers from a torn ACL, but his ability to run a team and make teammates better has earned him the reputation as one of the more valuable players in the league.
Rondo signed a very cap-friendly five-year, $55 million extension in 2009, of which more than $24 million remains, so the cap-strapped Knicks will have to give up several players in order for salaries to match.