The trading deadline isn’t exactly over. While teams can no longer trade for players, they can sign free agents up until March 1st and still have them eligible for a playoff roster spot. This means that if a team buys out a player’s contract before March 1st, then a contender can try to sign him.
The disadvantage to this is that the players that this historically applies to are older, lower impact players who don’t fit into their current teams’ long term strategies, so they’re more of a band-aid than a long term addition. An example of this is Sacramento Kings. They have a 22 year old power forward named Jason Thompson, and a 32 year old power forward named Mikki Moore. Because they’re not making the playoffs, Mikki Moore will probably agree to the Kings buying out the remainder of his contract for less money, so he can try and win a championship with Cleveland or Boston. Usually Moore can expect to recover any money he lost in the buyout by signing a deal with a new team for the remainder of the season. And if he plays well, this often leads to him getting a better contract offer this summer from a new team who saw him make an impact in the playoffs.
Every team (Celtics, Lakers, Spurs, Cavs, etc.) can also try and sign the same players, so no one has first dibs on guys the way they did at the trade deadline when teams like Cleveland and Portland could offer Wally Szczerbiak’s and Raef LaFrentz’ expiring contracts around the league.
But there is one more card to play, which is called the “Mid-Level Exception”. The mid-level exception is a clause that was implemented to give teams who are over the salary cap an extra $5 million of salary cap space. It was put in place so teams can still improve a bit, even when they would normally be out of options.
This exception is normally used to sign a free agent in the offseason, but the Cavs didn’t use their exception over the summer, while Boston, LA and San Antonio did. So Cleveland can actually offer more money than anyone else in contention for the title.
So there’s about a 50-50 chance the Celtics, Spurs and Cavs still pick up one more piece. The biggest catch is Joe Smith, the power forward from Maryland who played power forward for Cleveland last year and is currently stuck in Oklahoma City. Smith played with Kevin Garnett for a few years in Minnesota, and the two are friends. So we’ll see who he signs with, but Boston needs his services more than Cleveland does, so he could end up being that eyelash that either Cleveland or Boston wins by.