During this lockout-shortened season, the playoff race in the Western Conference is even more intriguing than usual. Although the Thunder sit comfortably atop the conference standings (their 4.5-game lead over second-place San Antonio is equal to the Spurs' 4.5-game lead over eighth-place Houston), they're not considered the overwhelming favorites to come out of the West. With plenty of basketball to be played and plenty of time for teams to improve their rosters, here are a few Western Conference contenders who could make a splash before the trade deadline:
- Thunder: While Oklahoma City hasn't been the subject of many trade rumors in recent weeks, GM Sam Presti has a history of striking unexpected deals. With the Thunder hoping to eventually lock up James Harden and Serge Ibaka to join Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook for the years ahead, I can't imagine them agreeing to take on a deal with years left on it. But if the club can find a shooter or offensive-minded big man on a short contract to upgrade its bench, I think they'd be glad to move Daequan Cook and Nazr Mohammed to make it happen. And as Steve Kyler of HoopsWorld pointed out yesterday, if the Thunder are concerned about the health of Thabo Sefolosha, they could explore a deal for a defensive wing player to replace him.
- Lakers: Unlike the Thunder, the Lakers have found it impossible to avoid trade chatter, so much so that Derek Fisher and Kobe Bryant held a players-only meeting to ensure no one was distracted heading into the second half. But the rumblings are justified — the Lakers hold a valuable $8.9MM trade exception and could be a player or two from becoming legit title contenders again. Point guard and small forward are the Lakers' most glaring needs, with the team eyeing Ramon Sessions, Raymond Felton, Kirk Hinrich, Leandro Barbosa, Michael Beasley and others. I don't expect a blockbuster Pau Gasol trade, but I'd be shocked if the Lakers stood pat. Sending one of their first-rounders to the Cavs for Sessions still makes the most sense to me.
- Grizzlies: They expect to get Zach Randolph back in the lineup soon, and have played very well even without their All-Star. The addition of Randolph will likely be the most significant move the Grizzlies make, but they're an intriguing club to keep an eye on just in case. Memphis currently sits slightly above the luxury tax line, and owner Michael Heisley has no desire to be a taxpayer, so the team figures to make a move at some point to get below that threshold. Could that mean moving O.J. Mayo? The fourth-year guard has been the subject of trade rumors for years, and as a potential restricted free agent, his $5.63MM cap figure represents an expiring deal.
- Mavericks: Caught between defending their title and preparing to make a run at marquee free agents this summer, the Mavs are trying to win now without compromising their future cap flexibility. While it seems as if they're reluctant to break up the team until after the season, you have to think that if they got an offer they liked for Shawn Marion, they'd take it. I don't expect the Mavs to be major players at the deadline, but it'll be interesting to see how they continue to balance their present and future goals.
- Rockets: When Jesse Blanchard of Hoops Rumors assessed the Rockets' stocks, he pointed out that, while the team lacks a star, it also doesn't possess any awful players or contracts. The Rockets have a number of players that could be interesting trade pieces, including reasonably-priced starters like Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, and Samuel Dalembert, and a plethora of expiring deals. I think GM Daryl Morey will make some sort of trade by March 15th, though it remains to be seen whether it'll be a move with an eye toward the coming postseason or the future. Houston would love to get its hands on Pau Gasol, but I don't think that's happening unless they include Kyle Lowry in a package.