The Pacers aren't mentioned so you might not be interested in continuing to read. However, the part of the article that I've highlighted shows how important it is for teams not to go over the luxury tax line. This should be required reading for those always complaining about the Pacers front office, and trades.

Trade Talk: Ten Teams to Watch

January 15, 2008 12:17 PM

The NBA calendar has two trade "hot spots." One of them is the summer, especially around the draft, in June. The other is the weeks before the NBA trade deadline, coming up on February 21. In other words, now.

So, as we enter that phase, the big question is: Who is going to be active? Which teams are actually going to pull the trigger on some trades? Below is a list of the ten teams that I think are most likely to make deals.

You might assume that such a list would include teams like the Knicks -- who have massive payroll and are terrible. Or perhaps the Nets, who aren't doing much with aging star Jason Kidd and Vince Carter and seem ripe for a re-tool. Certainly the Bulls would be here -- plenty of suckers (like the guy who runs TrueHoop) picked them to win the East, when in fact they have become something of an also-ran. The Magic might want to see if the expiring contracts of Carlos Arroyo and Pat Garrity can be swapped for guard help. The Grizzlies own the rights to one Pau Gasol, who might now be better known for appearing in trade rumors than for playing basketball. Or how about the trade-happy Mavericks, whose short-attention-span owner is always game for some roster tinkering?

All of the above are good candidates to appear in this list. But none of them do. Why? Because in conversations with team personnel, agents, cap experts, and various NBA insiders, we think there are ten teams that are more likely to make some kind of move in the next five weeks.

In the NBA -- a league with a collective bargaining agreement that abhors trades -- the teams that would seem most in need of a good trade or two often stand pat. Figuring out which teams really are likely to move requires more than basketball expertise. It also requires a sense of executives' current thinking, a grasp of which teams are ready to spend money, and salary cap insight (which has been helpfully provided in this instance by ESPN).

There are several types of trades that typically occur at this time of year, for instance:
  • Teams that now appear likely to make the playoffs might decide to add some salary, or sacrifice some draft picks, for a piece or two they think might push them over the top.
  • Teams that thought they would have a good shot at the playoffs, but have underperformed, might be willing to part with talented players in order to save money, get younger, and re-tool for another year.
  • Teams that are near the luxury tax line might mike some small moves and save themselves big money.
Let me explain that last one a little. The luxury tax line this season will be $67,685,000. Teams with salary under this amount will receive something in the neighborhood of $2.5 million from the league (essentially as a "thank you" for staunching the upward motion of salaries).

Teams with salaries over $67,685,000 will not get the $2.5 million, and in addition will pay one dollar for every dollar they are over. So if, for instance, the Lakers (who are $1.2 million over) could make a trade to lose $1.5 million in salary, they would save $1.5 million in salary and $1.2 million in tax payments, all while qualifying for additional income of $2.5 million. Bottom line: $5.2 million in cash.

MY EDIT} According to ESPN figures, the Pacers payroll is $66,871,836...........($993,164) under the luxury tax line.

There's not a business in the world that shrugs off that kind of dough lightly.

So, with team needs, luxury tax, and the direction of the league in mind, here are the ten teams that we think are most likely to make a move between now and February 21.

Miami Heat
When the team with the fifth-highest payroll in the league is among the worst anywhere, change is coming. The only way this team is getting better quickly is if Shaquille O'Neal finds a time machine and travels to the past (when he was healthy) or the future (when he retires). In the unlikely event that he decides to do the franchise a massive favor, as a thank you to the Heat for his fourth championship, he might want to consider retiring ASAP for a small buyout. The Heat would enjoy massive salary cap relief, and be on a course to build around Dwyane Wade for the duration of his career. Barring that, though, the Heat are a team featuring Wade and Udonis Haslem playing at a high level. It's a crime not to surround them with quality teammates. The Heat have long been in need of a point guard to make other underperforming pieces more effective. The Heat can offer expiring contracts like that of Jason Williams, Ricky Davis, or Alonzo Mourning. Teams sniffing around for salary cap flexibility, like the Sixers (who have a nice point guard in Andre Miller) or Kings (Mike Bibby) might be interested in some kind of Miami package.

Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets have the second highest payroll in the league, and have been humming along quite nicely this season. But when you are $15.5 million over the luxury tax, reducing salaries is never a bad thing, and this team has never been shy about making deals. They could certainly use a point guard to keep this machine oiled, and it's not clear how they are going to get one. Word is they would like Jose Calderon, who is an All-Star caliber point who might like to run his own team instead of splitting time in Toronto with T.J. Ford. Or, imagine this class A irony ... one of the only key Nuggets who does not have an exceedingly long contract (and is therefore more tradable) is Allen Iverson. One of the point guards who is available on the open market is none other than Andre Miller, who was traded for Iverson a year ago. It will never happen, but wouldn't that be something?

Cleveland Cavaliers
It's no secret that in the summer of 2010, LeBron James is a free agent. Between now and then the Cavaliers will have the chance to shed every one of their bad contracts (goodbye, Larry Hughes!) and should have a revamped roster. If, however, LeBron James is dissatisfied with the team at that point, it'll be trouble for Cleveland. It's no secret that keeping James happy is a major corporate mission for the Cavaliers.

How could LeBron James leave? All options are on the table. He could waltz as a free agent to one of the teams that is now maneuvering to have cap space that summer. He could theoretically sign with a major market team for the mid-level exception, and try to make up the income difference in endorsements. Or he could use the threat of either of the above to goad Cleveland into a sign-and-trade.

There's one other dark-horse scenario. In a year and half, in the summer of 2009, if James is totally unimpressed with the roster, he and his agent might be able to convince the Cavaliers they will leave in free agency in 2010 no matter what. We're just about two years away from Cleveland's last chance to trade James without letting him sniff unrestricted free agency.

Any way you slice it, the clock ticks on the Cavaliers' front office, and the team has the same needs it has had for some time. Despite high salaries ($8.6 million into luxury tax territory) GM Danny Ferry hasn't brought in meaningful new talent in ages. Last year's Eastern champs are treading water around the .500 mark.

The Cavaliers have long needed an improvement in the backcourt -- a point guard who can score, like Mike Bibby, is most people's prescription. If I'm Cleveland's front office, I'm thinking it's time to get LeBron James a scoring sidekick he can trust. And if they can't get a top-flight point guard, it might be worth seeing if they can goose up the roster by trading the expiring contracts of Shannon Brown and Ira Newble. Otherwise all that investment in this team, and all that luck in winning the lottery, could be for naught.

Sacramento Kings
Nobody I have talked to, anywhere in the NBA, thinks Sacramento plans to keep both Mike Bibby and Ron Artest for the long haul. The word is that they'd rather build around Kevin Martin, with players like John Salmons, Francisco Garcia, and Spencer Hawes in support. Both Bibby and Artest are free agents in the summer of 2010, so if you don't want them to walk for free, they should be traded now or next summer -- or else you risk selling at fire sale prices. Plenty of teams need point guards at the moment, so Bibby might be the first to go.

Seattle SuperSonics
Kurt Thomas makes a little over $8 million this season -- which is a lot for a player who is aging, and has a fairly limited game. But he is about to come off the books entirely, and players with decent-sized expiring contracts always look a little better near the trade deadline, as they are the surest way for a team to meaningfully reduce payroll next season.

Most importantly, as a bruising defender with a knack for slowing Tim Duncan, Thomas might be the kind of bauble a playoff-bound team like the Lakers will fall in love with. In addition, the Sonics have long been interested in dealing one of their excess point guards -- probably Earl Watson who has not been happy with his limited role on a bad team.

Portland Trail Blazers
Simple arithmetic dictates that the Blazers will be trading either now or this summer. They are so attached to the 15 players on their roster that they wouldn't cut anyone to make room for a much-needed big man after Greg Oden went down. So that's 15 players they like (although Raef LaFrentz could be bought out, Taurean Green's contract is not guaranteed next year, and James Jones has a player option). Add to that three first-round draft picks of recent years stashed overseas -- Rudy Fernandez, Joel Freeland, and Petteri Koponen. This summer the team has a first-round pick, and three high-quality second-round picks. That's 22 players in the mix. If Portland doesn't trade any of them away, they'll be forced to make painful cuts at some point, while letting the competition scoop them up for free. GM Kevin Pritchard is known to be crafty, and I don't think anyone expects him to let good players fall into the hands of other teams without compensation. The only remedy is to deal now or on draft day, and at the moment, thanks to a convincing winning jag, much of the roster is more valuable than ever.

Houston Rockets
Remember I said there are three kinds of teams feeling the pressure to deal? They were teams that are playing well who want help for the playoffs, teams that are playing poorly and want to retool, and teams that could do a little maneuvering and save a bunch of luxury tax? The Rockets hit the trifecta. They will likely be in the playoffs, where they will face brutally tough opposition against whom they could use help. On the other hand, with Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady in their primes, they should be winning more than they are. And the team continues their search for the right point guard to make these valuable pieces more valuable. They are also a mere $1.5 million over the luxury tax line. That means that, at a minimum, finding a taker for seldom-used Kirk Snyder (who makes about $2.35 million) could improve the team's bottom line by more than $6 million.

Los Angeles Lakers
When I first started thinking about this entry a few days ago, Kwame Brown was expendable. Not that the Lakers are the most money-conscious team, but shedding just $1.2 million in salary would turn the team from luxury tax payers into luxury tax players, and Brown's $9 million contract for something slightly smaller (remember we were talking about Kurt Thomas?) would have gotten the team close. However, now that Andrew Bynum is out for eight weeks with a trick kneecap, a youngish athlete like Brown -- think of him as a middle reliever/mop-up man -- could be worth one more try.

Nevertheless, if you're the Lakers, remember how this season started: with your superstar Kobe Bryant feeling an urge to win now, and feeling distraught at the poor quality of his teammates. Yes, the team has just won seven in a row for a share of first in the West. But in the Game 1 without the injured Bynum, they were almost knocked off by the lowly Sonics. If there is a chance to get something done to improve the roster this team will do it. Upping the chances they might deal is the reality that they are just barely over that all-important luxury tax line.

New Orleans Hornets
Even as the business of the Hornets flounders -- the people of post-Katrina New Orleans appear to have priorities other than their local NBA team -- the Hornets are one of the happy stories of the league this season on the basketball court. Chris Paul, David West, and Tyson Chandler are all among the league's finest at their positions, and Byron Scott's squad is a legitimate force in the West.

But if you think about players like Paul, West, and Chandler, their perfect companion would be a major-league long-range gunner. Peja Stojakovic is supposed to be that guy, but was never a clutch shooter in big games, and has now proven himself to be the opposite of durable. So, if New Orleans owner George Shinn decides that it's now or never for his team, he might negotiate for a younger shooter, like Portland's Martell Webster. The Hornets have low-dollar expiring contracts and draft picks to offer, and while Portland loves Webster, they also love Rudy Fernandez who will be arriving from Spain next year in need of playing time and a roster spot.

Golden State Warriors
Some NBA front office people think that to succeed in this league, you need five real deal NBA big men you can trust.

Unless you count light-duty rookie Brandan Wright, or dubious talent Patrick O'Bryant, the Warriors have one: Andris Biedrins. Sure, times in the NBA are a changin', but that's ridiculous. The Portland Trail Blazers are the worst team in the league at scoring in the paint, but against the Warriors this season, they have had a field day by feeding offensively challenged Joel Przybilla for easy buckets over smaller defenders.

This is a team with some players in their prime (Baron Davis, Stephen Jackson) that could use some heft to reinforce their mission in the playoffs, and the Warriors seem be designed to make some deals sooner rather than later. The team is $9.1 million under the luxury tax line, and even has room to operate under the salary cap thanks to a whopping $9.99 million trade exception resulting from the Jason Richardson trade. The team also has a $2.13 million trade exception, courtesy of Ike Diogu's traded contract, which expires this Thursday. On top of all that, Mickael Pietrus, the injured Troy Hudson, and O'Bryant are all ready to be desirable throw-ins: each is unlikely to be with the team for the long-term, and will be a free agent this summer.