Last February gave us Shaquille O'Neal, Shawn Marion, Mike Bibby and Jason Kidd changing teams in the days and weeks leading up to the trade deadline. Then there was Cleveland's three-team, 11-player blockbuster that reshaped LeBron James' supporting cast and became the impetus for the final piece -- Mo Williams -- to be acquired during the summer.
Buckle up for another wild six weeks of speculation, rumors, scenarios, proposals and stunners. You never know, some of them might actually happen before the Feb. 19 deadline.
If November, December and January were any indication, this could be one of the wildest trading periods in recent NBA history. The Nuggets traded a Hall of Famer (Allen Iverson), the Knicks cleared out their top two scorers (Zach Randolph, Jamal Crawford) with an eye on 2010 cap space, and the Suns sent Raja Bell and Boris Diaw to Charlotte for Jason Richardson ... all before Christmas. The first two weeks of 2009 have brought an influx of money-driven deals -- teams like Denver and Miami maneuvering under the punitive luxury tax, and the penny-pinching Clippers offering to make just about any trade that will bring cash in return.
Now it's time for the serious wheeling and dealing to begin. Most team executives believe at least a dozen players will change teams in the next six weeks. Falling revenue and league-wide fear about the economy could push that number higher as teams try to cut costs to make up for empty or heavily discounted seats -- not to mention years of largesse -- while simultaneously gearing up for the next two sparkling free-agent classes.
If you play for the Oklahoma City Thunder, for example, you should rent, not buy. Earl Watson thought he was headed to Dallas last week in a three-team trade in which the cap-clearing Thunder would get Jerry Stackhouse and likely buy him out to create even more room to go free-agent shopping next summer. Nick Collison, Chucky Atkins (who just got to OKC in a trade with Denver) and Joe Smith (an annual trade-deadline favorite) all could be on the move, too.
"This is a young team, a team in transition," Watson said after the Thunder lost to the Nets 103-99 in overtime Monday night, falling to 6-33. Watson said he told his agent, Dan Fegan, "'Don't call me unless I'm moving.' We talk about everything, but when it comes to that, I don't want to hear about scenarios because then you get into the waiting game."
So we don't need to wait any longer before revealing our list of the 10 players most likely to be traded before the deadline. We'll exclude Watson, Stackhouse, and DeSagana Diop, who still could be part of a reworked scenario once Charlotte's D.J. Augustin is ready to return from an abdominal injury that contributed to scuttling the Raymond Felton deal.
Here's the rest of the NBA's most appetizing trade bait. Bon appétit:
1. Shawn Marion, Heat: League insiders have been trying to figure out Miami's intentions with Marion for a couple of months. But every team executive I speak with now has the same impression: Marion is being seriously shopped.
No player finds himself in a more perfect trade storm -- a mammoth ($17.2 million) expiring contract combined with versatile talent on both ends of the floor that could push a contending team over the top or a borderline playoff team into the postseason. Marion, of course, could do the same for the Heat, but things obviously aren't working out in Miami. Marion's predicament is such that he was relieved to learn coach Erik Spoelstra hadn't benched him in the fourth quarter last Friday in Sacramento. Nope, Spoelstra just forgot Marion was on the team.
2. Mike Miller, Timberwolves: Who wouldn't want a 28-year-old, 40-percent career 3-point shooter on a short contract? The Timberwolves, who are heading nowhere but the lottery with or without him. Miller is getting healthy again after missing time with an ankle injury, and his shooting touch will be in demand. The Knicks need someone to make 3s to free up Mike D'Antoni's system, and Miller's contract ($9.75 million next season) satisfies the Knicks' desire not to add long-term money.
Just thinking out loud here, but couldn't the Celtics use Miller's shooting touch off the bench with losses and injuries mounting? If Doc Rivers could find a way to hide Miller's defensive deficiencies, his shooting and rebounding could be just what Boston needs to replace James Posey. Miller turns 29 on Feb. 19. What could be a better birthday present than a trade to the defending champs?
3. Raef LaFrentz, Trail Blazers: One thing is certain -- the Blazers will make a trade before the deadline, especially now that they're motivated by the financial implications of the Darius Miles debacle. And if the Blazers are dealing, LaFrentz will somehow be involved. His $12.7 million expiring contract is insured, making it even more appealing.
In addition to LaFrentz, the Blazers could package Travis Outlaw, Sergio Rodriguez, Jerryd Bayless and/or Channing Frye in a big deal.
4. David Lee, Knicks: This is just simple math. The Knicks can't clear the cap space necessary to make a run at LeBron James and/or Chris Bosh in two summers and re-sign Lee at $8 million to $10 million a year. "They will trade him," an Eastern Conference GM told me. It's just a matter of when.
Donnie Walsh is as shrewd and patient as they come. So if he doesn't get the ideal offer before the deadline -- say, a first-round pick to replenish the one going to Utah in 2010 from the ill-fated Stephon Marbury trade, plus a young player -- he'll wait until the summer and do a sign-and-trade.
5. Charlie Villanueva, Bucks: Milwaukee GM John Hammond would prefer not to trade Villanueva. But reality is what it is: The Bucks can't afford to re-sign both Villanueva and Ramon Sessions. One of them has to go, and Villanueva is a versatile, established presence who is attractive to a lot of teams. He's also a restricted free agent after the season, so a summer sign-and-trade is a possibility.
6. Luther Head, Rockets: If not for the Rockets' persistent injuries, Head would be gone by now. He's eager to find a new team because there aren't enough minutes for him in Houston with Rafer Alston and Aaron Brooks at the point. The Nets are looking for a backup point guard, so New Jersey could be a fit.
7. Rashad McCants, Timberwolves: Randy Wittman made McCants a reluctant sixth man, and his role hasn't changed much under Kevin McHale. McCants becomes a restricted free agent in July. His best chance to increase his value would be to find a new team before the deadline and prove he finally is ready to tap into his potential.
8. Gerald Wallace, Bobcats: Seen this story before. Larry Brown falls in love with Player X; persuades Team Executive Y not to trade him. Brown quickly falls out of love with Player X; inflicts a punitive benching on him (in the fourth quarter Saturday against Washington).
Wallace is expected to be actively shopped before the deadline, but economics stand in the way. Wallace's contract extends beyond the summer of LeBron and also beyond the current collective bargaining agreement, with big numbers -- $10.7 million in 2011-12 and $11.4 million in '12-13.
9. Josh Howard, Mavericks: Off-the-court distractions notwithstanding, the Mavericks finally appear ready to move Howard. Word throughout the league is that the Mavs are talking to everybody about everything, and Howard figures to be a pawn in every discussion. Despite his damaged reputation, Howard is low-risk; his contract has a team option for 2010-11.
10. Jermaine O'Neal, Raptors: Toronto is eager to make a high-impact trade and show Bosh it'll be worth sticking around. Yes, $23 million next season for a declining player is a mammoth number to move. But it's no coincidence that former No. 1 overall pick Andrea Bargnani has come on lately, shooting 53 percent over his last eight games with five 20-point games. The eight-game stretch coincides with O'Neal being out with a right knee injury instead of on the floor, clogging up the offense.
I would love to have David Lee on the Lakers.