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Five potential game-changing names to watch as NBA trade deadline nears

Kurt Helin and Corey Robinson pick their NBA MVP for the first half of the season, featuring the Nuggets' Nikola Jokić and the 76ers' Joel Embiid.

We are just 15 days away from the NBA trade deadline, and while there is no more gathering of general managers around the All-Star Game — there was no NBA gathering of any kind in Atlanta this year, that appeared to be in Miami — the trade buzz is getting louder around the league.

A lot of the deadline deals will be more about moving money around — shedding it, or taking it on to get picks/young players — however, there are a few potential game-changers out there. Maybe not the kind of mind-blowing blockbusters we have come to expect, but certainly trades that can shift the balance of power among contenders.

Here are five names to watch as the trade deadline approaches.

1) Kyle Lowry (Toronto Raptors)

Potential landing spots: 76ers, Heat, Clippers, Nuggets, Raptors

Kyle Lowry is the greatest Toronto Raptor ever. He has been the face of the franchise, an elite player, and a locker room leader through the greatest years in Toronto basketball history — including winning a championship. Someday they will retire his jersey and maybe put a statue of him outside the Scotiabank Arena.

However, this relationship may have run its course. The Raptors are still a good team, but they are retooling the roster for the future around Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and OG Anunoby. Lowry, at age 34, may not be part of that future. Still, he is scoring 18 points a game, dishing out seven assists a night, and shooting better than 40% from three this season — Lowry could help a lot of teams.

He has reportedly told people around him that he expects to be traded — although he has denied that.

If Lowry does get traded, it would be a mutual decision between him and Toronto. His hometown of Philadelphia gets mentioned first as a destination and he would be a huge boost for the 76ers, providing more shooting and shot creation on the perimeter. Philly is not alone in having interest: Miami could use more shot creation as well, Lowry would be a perfect backcourt fit next to Jamal Murray in Denver, and the L.A. Clippers need point guard depth.

The challenge is Lowry makes $30.5 million and will be a free agent after the season — that’s a lot of money to match for a potential rental (teams would want back-channel assurances from Lowry he would stay). For example, for Philadelphia to make the trade it would require Danny Green, Mike Scott, and some combination of Seth Curry and picks, or Tyrese Maxey and Matisse Thubulle (or some other combination of those players). That’s a lot of roster depth to send out.

Because of that, Lowry may finish the season in Toronto, and that makes the Raptors a more dangerous playoff team.

However, if Lowry does get traded to any of these teams, they instantly jump up the ladder in contender status. Lowry is both a high-quality point guard and a proven champion.

2) P.J. Tucker (Houston Rockets)

Potential landing spots: Nets, Lakers, Jazz, Nuggets, Bucks, Heat, Timberwolves

It might be easier to list teams not interested in veteran forward P.J. Tucker. He is seen as a plug-and-play ceiling raiser for contenders, a player who can hit threes and help on defense. Whether or not the expected fire sale in Houston comes to pass, it is widely expected around the league that Tucker will be on the move.

The question is, would teams get the Tucker we have seen in previous playoffs? Tucker, 35, has struggled this season and is averaging 4.4 points a game and shooting 31.4% from three. Tucker’s supporters will say that his struggles are more about being on the Island of Misfit Toys that is the Houston Rockets this season, and once plugged back in with better players he will revert to form. But that is a risk.

Tucker makes $7.9 million this season, making it relatively easy for most teams to trade for him (the Lakers and Bucks, both up against the hard cap, will have to send out more salary than they take back, making it a little more tricky). Houston wants young players to fit with their rebuilding timeline, not just picks, in any deal, according to reports.

3) Harrison Barnes (Sacramento Kings)

Potential landing spots: Boston, Miami, Denver

Sacramento came into this season dreaming of ending their 14-year playoff drought. That’s not happening — they are four games back of the 10 seed and the final play-in spot in a stratified Western Conference — and the buzz around the league is they have seen the light and will be sellers at the deadline. Sacramento is reportedly looking to get picks and players to speed the rebuild around De’Aaron Fox.

Stretch four Harrison Barnes is a primary target of other teams, and it’s no secret the Boston Celtics want him.

Barnes — who has championship experience with the Warriors — is having the best season of his career, averaging 16.7 points and 6.1 rebounds a game, shooting 39.2% from three while playing respectable defense. It’s easy in Boston to see him plugging right into a closing lineup with Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, Jason Tatum, and Jaylen Brown. It’s also easy to see Barnes playing key minutes at the four in Miami (taking some of Kelly Olynyk’s run) or playing next to Nikola Jokic in Denver.

Barnes makes $22.2 million this season and is on a declining contract ($20.3 million next season, $18.4 million in 2022-23). This is where Boston has the advantage, they have the Gordon Hayward trade exception and don’t have to send matching salary back — however, the Celtics are hard-capped and would need to send out more than $9 million to stay under the tax line, but they can easily do that sending out players such as Aaron Nesmith and Romeo Langford to Sacramento (or in separate deals with other teams). Boston also has its first-round picks to sweeten a trade but may have to give up a player it likes, such as Payton Pritchard, to make the trade happen.

4) Buddy Hield (Sacramento Kings)

Potential landing spots: Any team that could use more shooting

If Sacramento is selling, Buddy Hield should be part of that.

Fox and rookie Tyrese Haliburton are the backcourt of the future for the Kings, and Hield has clashed with coach Luke Walton in the past (Hield does not want to come off the bench). It’s time to move on. There would be demand for Hield, who is averaging 16.4 points a game this season and is a career 40% shooter from three.

Is there a contender out there that couldn’t use more shooting on the roster?

The challenge is Hield is in the first year of a four-year, $86 million contract, although it is a declining contract that makes it easier to trade down the line if a team wishes to do so. There hasn’t been a lot of smoke around a Hield trade yet (not like Barnes rumors), but if Sacramento is looking to the future, it should look to find a Hield trade.

5) George Hill (Oklahoma City)

Potential landing spots: Clippers 76ers

If you’re going to bet on one guy on this list getting traded, it should be Hill. It is assumed he will get moved before the deadline around the league — and more than a few teams could use a solid veteran ball-handling guard.

Hill, 34, is a rock-solid veteran, but one who has missed time this season with a hand injury (he is expected to be healthy and back in the next week). He can play the one or the two, is averaging 11.8 points a game this season, and is hitting 38.6% of his threes (and that’s down from the ridiculous 46% he shot last season from deep).

While we only list the Clippers and 76ers as landing spots above because they have reported interest, a lot more teams are calling Oklahoma City to kick the tires on a trade.

Hill makes $9.6 million this season and $10 million next season, but with only $1.27 million of that guaranteed. Teams are not committed long-term to Hill if it doesn’t work out.

In OKC, Sam Presti has gone full Hoarders episode on draft picks and likely would take more, but they will also be open to young players that fit on the timeline of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Luguentz Dort.