Realistically Available NBA Players with the Most Trade Value This Season
Surefire trade bait is difficult to suss out this early in the NBA season. Teams are still trying to figure out where they stand. Disaster and resignation haven't made landfall in enough places to casually pluck out the most valuable chopping-blocking resources.
Short of thinly veiled subtweets, we must stretch our imagination and summon the right criteria to rap about worthwhile trade assets.
So, put on your thinking caps.
Players must have a discernible path to the for-sale rack to earn inclusion. That doesn't mean they're likely to get dealt. They can, and will, be long-shot candidates in most instances. But some scenario must exist in which they could be moved or deemed gettable—even if it's a last-ditch, worst-case outcome.
This line of thinking eliminates the obviously untouchable. Don't ask about the exclusions of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, et al. They don't belong here. Anyone left off this list doesn't have a half-fathomable route to relocation this season.
Interest will not be limited to the most targeted names or rumor-mill staples. This pecking order is solely dedicated to possible trade assets who will garner the best returns, be that an impact player, inbound superstar, pivotal salary-cap relief or some combination of everything.
Those selected are ranked according to their immediate curb appeal, which takes current performance, projected ceilings and contract situations under advisement.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Check back in 2020.
At the very least, shut up about this until 2019. Confirming he belongs in the untouchable category right now.
Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
Circle back in 2019—unless DeMarcus Cousins leaves this summer and the New Orleans Pelicans cannot conjure the cap space necessary to make another splash.
Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards
Bradley Beal is the Washington Wizards' most efficient path to a different kind of star. But the emergence of Otto Porter as a possible Big Three member renders all speculation less than moot.
The Wizards will try tacking onto their trio before busting it up.
C.J. McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers
Pretty much everyone wants to know whether the Portland Trail Blazers can cobble together a contender with both Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum in the backcourt. But this question, while totally fair, isn't worth asking midseason.
Breaking up this duo is an offseason project—if it becomes an undertaking at all.
Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic
Nikola Vucevic has long been serial trade bait, but the combination of his modest contract, the Orlando Magic's record and a slumping demand for big men makes it pointless to try shopping him. Disney World's team couldn't come close to adequately capitalizing on his value if it wished upon a star.
10. Amir Johnson, Philadelphia 76ers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 4.5 points, 4.8 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.5 blocks, 47.2 percent shooting
Contract (including 2017-18): Expiring at $11 million
Traded If: Philadelphia wants to take back more expensive impact player—effect on next summer's cap space be damned.
Amir Johnson's on-court value doesn't have much, if anything, to do with his asset status.
Sure, he can finish the occasional pick-and-roll. And yes, he'll out-jostle opponents for rebounds on both ends of the floor. He can even work as a rim protector when he doesn't have to make a ton of perimeter reads. But his contract is by far and away the main draw.
Expiring deals are particularly useful following last summer's market squeeze. Teams were, and still are, reeling from spending sprees in 2016. Buyers and rebuilding squads alike will welcome opportunities to get out from under certain salaries and dredge up extra cap space.
Only a handful of teams are uniquely positioned to roll the dice on investments that'll be sent out for breathing room. The Philadelphia 76ers could be one of them—or maybe not. They won't take on the Joakim Noahs and Omer Asiks of the Association. Getting them to absorb salary at all could end up being a tall task.
Letting Johnson's salary wash off the books is paramount to the Sixers' free-agency aspirations. But let's be honest: They don't need max cap space. Few players earmarked for the open market are worth that much coin, and they don't have openings for most of them. DeMarcus Cousins? Not with Embiid on the roster. Chris Paul? Not with Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons in the fold.
Targeting mid-end glue guys—Avery Bradley, Will Barton, their own J.J. Redick—makes more sense. And those players won't come close to sniffing max money. The Sixers can afford to acquire an impact player from a seller, even if it knives into their flexibility.
Johnson's salary, at $11 million, is the perfect size for this play—not too large, like Greg Monroe's $17.9 million hit, yet not so small it will be inconsequential now that they've burned through cap space to renegotiate and extend Covington. And the players they can try targeting with his contract as the anchoring sweetener include any number of names from potential sellers and competitive salary-dumpers: Moe Harkless, Joe Ingles, Courtney Lee, Wesley Matthews, etc.
9. Emmanuel Mudiay, Denver Nuggets
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 12.0 points, 3.3 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.1 blocks, 42.5 percent shooting
Contract: 2 years, $7.7 million (qualifying offer in 2019)
Traded If: Denver feels the urgency to upgrade point guard or wing rotation.
Emmanuel Mudiay is once again the type of prospect opposing teams can talk themselves into as a trade centerpiece.
His first two years with the Denver Nuggets left more questions than answers in their wake. Would he ever develop a reliable jumper? Turn into a good finisher around the rim? Learn how to play off the ball beside high-usage bigs? Be the impetus for an above-average offense?
Was he even an NBA player?
Some of these questions remain. Mudiay is barely shooting 51.9 percent inside five feet of the hoop, a bottom-15 mark among 120 players to flutter through at least 45 point-blank attempts. The Nuggets offense is flat-out bad when he's in the game—are-we-watching-the-Chicago Bulls terrible.
But encouraging signs aren't hard to find. Mudiay looks more comfortable firing away from downtown and playing off the action. His 47.6 percent shooting from beyond the arc feels unsustainable and comes on modest volume, but he's no longer a distinct liability when orbiting ball-dominant running mates like Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap.
Initiating pick-and-rolls isn't as much of a chore—or eyesore. He's committing fewer turnovers and getting to the charity stripe with greater frequency compared to last season. He needs to be a more efficient scoring threat in these situations, but that starts with honing his touch on driving layups. And Denver's offense is ready to rock when he plays with Jokic or Millsap—hardly an unreasonable disclaimer given the relative lack of proven depth coming off the bench.
Flipping Mudiay alone isn't enough to get the Nuggets a starrier wing or point guard. But they should now be able to pair him with salary fodder and secure a noticeable upgrade from prospective sellers. The Phoenix Suns, for context, must be kicking themselves after not pursuing an Eric Bledsoe-for-Mudiay-and-filler swap with more conviction over the summer.
8. DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 10.1 points, 14.0 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.5 steals, 1.2 blocks, 63.4 percent shooting
Contract: 2 years, $46.8 million (player option for 2018-19)
Traded If: Clippers don't want to pay for his next contract.
DeAndre Jordan's trade value is one part victim of a space-drunk NBA; one part damaged by the Los Angeles Clippers' roster setup; and two parts grated by his contract situation.
Losing Chris Paul to the Houston Rockets has stung him more than anyone. Patrick Beverley, when healthy, almost perfectly replaces his predecessor's defense, but he's not a primo orchestrator. He's always been more comfortable circling primary ball-handlers.
Blake Griffin and Lou Williams are now the Clippers' best pick-and-roll triggermen, which, well, yeah. Jordan isn't nearly as effective while driving toward the rim as a result. The number of possessions he finishes as the roll man has been slashed by almost 30 percent compared to last year, and he's shooting a more mortal 66.7 percent on these plays, down from 86 percent in 2016-17.
Los Angeles doesn't have the personnel to lean on Jordan's offensive forte with the necessary volume. And his defensive impact has been compromised by a lackluster collection of perimeter pests. He isn't contesting as many looks at the rim—just over three per game, down from seven last season—despite identical playing time.
Offenses are more cognizant of their shot selection with him on the floor, but the discrepancy is unsettling. The Clippers are allowing more points per 100 possessions when he's in the lineup, and non-shooting bigs who aren't leaving profound dents on the less glamorous end won't command hefty returns.
Switching locales could work wonders for Jordan. A team with craftier ball-handlers and a couple extra perimeter stoppers allows him to slide back into his ideal niche. But who wants to foot the bill for his next contract?
Sources told ESPN.com's Zach Lowe the Clippers kicked around the idea of moving him last year, presumably because he'll turn 30 this July and holds a player option worth $24.1 million. So even if he doesn't explore the open market, the additional security still comes at a supertar's premium.
Suitors should still fork over something to get Jordan. He is an ironman and can, in the right situation, buoy an above-board defense. But, at best, the Clippers are looking at a package built around a bundle of role players and a mid-end prospect or pick.
7. DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans Pelicans
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 27.1 points, 13.2 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 1.7 steals, 1.5 blocks, 46.7 percent shooting
Contract: Expiring at $18.1 million
Traded If: New Orleans falls out of playoff picture and gets the sense he'll leave.
Superstar auctions aren't a good business to get into right now.
Incumbent squads haven't been able to secure monster compensation for their marquee talents. Jimmy Butler and Paul George were shipped out for pennies on the dollar, and potential returns worsen when sellers are stripped of leverage (see: Bledsoe, Eric).
Unless they're dangling a 25-year-old with multiple years left on his contract, like Kyrie Irving, superstar peddlers are plum out of luck.
New Orleans faces a similar problem with DeMarcus Cousins. He enters free agency in July, and even the most aggressive buyers won't empty their war chest for a partial-season recruiting pitch.
It helps that Cousins is a top-15 player—one of the few bigs immune to a shifting center landscape. He has the three-point range to unclog lanes and off-the-dribble mettle to mime the offensive upside of wings. He'll effectively switch on defense when the mood strikes as well. NBA Math's Total Points Added rates him as one of this season's 10 most valuable players.
Some team, somewhere, will give up something for him. But what does that mean? A first-round pick and salary filler? A prospect and quality veteran? And then maybe a low-end first-rounder on top of that?
Cousins absolutely needs to be here, among the league's top trade assets. He's too damn good, and the Pelicans have to explore shopping him if they dip outside the Western Conference's postseason pileup. But the return on his services won't come close to matching his actual value.
6. Goran Dragic, Miami Heat
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 18.3 points, 4.3 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.1 blocks, 46.3 percent shooting
Contracts: 3 years, $54.3 million (player option for 2019-20)
Trade If: Miami decides to bail on mediocrity.
Stars don't get traded with more than two years left on their deal. It doesn't happen. Contracts, for starters, are getting shorter. Dealing someone with three seasons remaining on his pact often means selling when he's a year or two into the agreement. Teams don't tend to cut the cord that early.
Front-office execs seldom feel the pressure to act that soon anyway. They have all the leverage on long-term covenants. Players gain some sway when they're two years out from free agency, but they're not in irrevocable positions of power until the summer prior to their last season.
And when the stars in question aren't locks to decline players option at the end of their deals, forget it. They don't have the means to scare current employers into instant urgency, so they don't become available until teams are actually backed into a corner—if they're ever even pinned to a wall.
Goran Dragic is an exception to this rule. He doesn't hold more cards than anyone else who (probably) won't see free agency until 2020, but he's the rare marquee name whose timeline could soon run counter to his squad's while under lock and key for the foreseeable future.
If the Miami Heat don't start playing like a postseason formality, they'll have to look at shaking up a core that's too old to promise internal growth and too expensive to aid offseason spending. Changing out Hassan Whiteside would be preferable, but few clubs are looking to pay non-floor spacers and anti-playmakers $76.3 million over the next three years. The contracts given to James Johnson (four years, $60 million), Kelly Olynyk (four years, $50 million) and Dion Waiters (four years, $52 million) aren't immoveable—Waiters' might come close—but they're not netting enough to jumpstart a rebuild.
Dragic stands alone as this asset. His salary isn't unreasonable for a fringe star, and he will age well. He's already aging well. LeBron James and Kemba Walker are the only other Eastern Conference players clearing 19 points and four assists per 36 minutes while swishing more than 36 percent of their triplets.
Cast a broad enough net, and the Heat should be able to restock their draft-pick and prospect cupboard in any Dragic deal. They might even succeed in pawning off another contract alongside him.
Would Denver balk at offering the short-term deals of Kenneth Faried and Darrell Arthur, plus Malik Beasley, Emmanuel Mudiay and a first for Dragic and Johnson (after Dec. 15)? Do the Charlotte Hornets consider Jeremy Lamb, Malik Monk, Marvin Williams and a heavily protected pick for Dragic and Waiters or Johnson? Might the Utah Jazz sell off expiring contracts (Joe Johnson, Derrick Favors) and Donovan Mitchell for the same package?
5. Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 14.1 points, 2.6 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.2 blocks, 43.5 percent shooting
Contract: 3 years, $11.5 million (qualifying offer in 2020)
Traded If: Denver really feels the urgency to upgrade point guard or wing rotation.
Dangling Emmanuel Mudiay gets the Nuggets in the conversation for players other teams are already shopping or have to move.
Brandishing Jamal Murray launches discussions that aren't yet taking place, for names who aren't necessarily available. He's the reason Denver fancies itself a threat to deal for the next "disgruntled" star, per ESPN.com's Zach Lowe.
Waiving Jameer Nelson only ever made a semblance of sense if the Nuggets trusted Murray to be their full-time point guard. The returns remain mixed on that front—though parting ways with Nelson remains an objectively bad decision.
Murray is shooting under 30 percent from three-point range and not getting to the basket as often, but he's flashed more control out of the pick-and-roll. He cannot ferry the offense on his own for protracted stretches, but that holds true for everyone on the roster not named Nikola Jokic. And anyway, Murray comes far closer to treading water than Mudiay; Denver is scoring like a top-three offense in the 108 minutes he's played without the Serbia superstructure. He goes from tallying a career-high 32 points while shooting 12-of-21 in a Nov. 11 victory over the Magic to committing six turnovers and going 0-of-7 from deep two days later versus the Blazers.
Roller-coaster production is part of the NBA's learning curve—especially for someone being developed as a point guard after entering the league as a full-time 2. Murray is still a top-seven prospect with another two years left on his rookie-scale pact after this one. And he's increased his efficiency from just about every area inside the three-point line.
Package him with any of the team's salary-filling options (Darrell Arthur, Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried), and the Nuggets have a blockbuster recipe—the kind fit for studs who haven't yet hit the chopping block.
Maybe the Hornets continue hovering around the bottom of the East and decide to—spoiler alert—sell extremely high on Kemba Walker ahead of his free agency in 2019. Perhaps the Milwaukee Bucks fear the impending crunch of paying Jabari Parker and consider shopping Khris Middleton. The Miami Heat could lament last summer's spending spree enough to steer into an impromptu rebuild and auction off Goran Dragic. Murray would be a conversation-starter (and, perhaps, finisher) for them all.
4. Kelly Oubre Jr., Washington Wizards
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 10.8 points, 5.6 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.5 blocks, 40.7 percent shooting
Contract: 2 years, $5.3 million (qualifying offer in 2019)
Traded If: Washington wants to lop off Ian Mahinmi's contract or needs a sweetener in deal for another star.
Kelly Oubre Jr. has arrived in a big way for the Washington Wizards and is now fit to headline all sorts of potential trades.
Markieff Morris' absence to start the year thrust him into the starting lineup, and the resulting five-man unit missed exactly zero beats. That combination of him, Bradley Beal, Marcin Gortat, Otto Porter and Wall is, even now, posting league-leading offensive and defensive ratings while pummeling opponents by more than 20 points per 100 possessions.
Returning to the second unit hasn't harshed Oubre's good vibes. He is still defending his tail off and was putting down more than 38 percent of his triples before an 0-of-5 egg versus Miami on Nov. 17—the latter of which is no small feat when he's not getting as much run with the starters.
Head coach Scott Brooks has boldly, if haphazardly, slotted Oubre as the focal point within an all-bench gaggle. That group is being destroyed, but Brooks' faith in his 21-year-old wing, alongside the Tim Fraziers and Mike Scotts of the rotation, says a lot.
Another team wouldn't be so cavalier with Oubre's role. Not every coach places stock in backups-only arrangements, and Oubre profiles as a starter in a majority of rival rotations.
Washington has little incentive to deal him if nabbing a top-three playoff seed remains its obsession. But he's extension-eligible this summer, and the front office has already tied up max money in Beal, Porter and Wall.
What if the opportunity to save a ton of dough presents itself? Oubre is their ticket to getting Mahinmi's three-year, $48.1 million commitment off the books (looking at you, Bulls). Or what if a dare-to-be-greater gamble pops up? The Pelicans have to at least think about accepting Gortat and Oubre for DeMarcus Cousins if their season goes sideways.
Making Oubre untouchable, or close to it, only validates his inclusion. He has one year left on his rookie-scale deal after this season and has all the trimmings of a three-and-D A-lister—a player suitors can use as a No. 2 or No. 3 building block.
3. Brandon Ingram, Los Angeles Lakers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 14.8 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.7 blocks, 44.6 percent shooting
Contract: 3 years, $18.6 million (qualifying offer in 2020)
Traded If: Lakers are desperate enough to clear dual-max slots for Paul George and LeBron James.
Brandon Ingram fails to place any higher because he shouldn't, technically, be on this list.
Watch him, and you'll see the outline of an All-NBA talent. He covers a lot of ground on defense, assuming a steady stream of pick-and-roll and one-and-one assignments. He knows how to use his length on closeouts and corral players off screens.
Ingram doesn't always make the right reads when guarding pick-and-rolls, but his gambles and, at times, positioning can pay off. He forces turnovers on 20 percent of the isolation possessions he faces—a top-10 mark among 90-plus players to defend 15 or more of these plays. Los Angeles doesn't have the league's most surprising defense without his hustle.
Better efficiency will come on offense in due time. Ingram is already exceptional at getting to his spots. He's confident slicing through traffic with the ball in his hands and has upped his accuracy around the rim to 60 percent, according to Cleaning the Glass. He shoots a high enough clip on long twos to maintain belief in his three-point stroke, and head coach Luke Walton has him piloting more pick-and-rolls than any non-point guard on the docket.
Pulling the rip cord on his progression would be shortsighted. Rebuilding teams aren't supposed to trade top-two picks less than two years into their careers. Using him to acquire a superstar should even be considered taboo. One mega-duper name doesn't make a difference in the Golden State Warriors-owned NBA.
Except, the Lakers are itching to chisel out two max-contract slots this summer. They wouldn't have leashed D'Angelo Russell to Timofey Mozgov's pact over the offseason otherwise. Now they're looking to jettison the final three years (including this one) and $54 million left on Luol Deng's deal, per ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne.
"Deng and the Lakers are likely at a stalemate, however," the Orange County's Bill Oram wrote. "Unless the Lakers are willing to include a young star such as Brandon Ingram or Kyle Kuzma, it will be difficult to find a willing trade partner."
Waiting until the summer, when his next team will only be on the hook for his final two seasons, will ensure the Lakers don't give up as much to offload Deng. But it could also be harder for them to strike an agreement without taking back some 2018-19 salary in return.
Fasten Ingram to Deng now, and they'll have their pick of the NBA's expiring pacts and non-guaranteed salaries for next year. They might even succeed in extracting a temporary asset or pick out of Deng's new home—a la how they grabbed Brook Lopez in the Mozgov dump. These circumstances are incredibly specific, yes, but being valuable enough to outsource Deng's contract is a big friggin' deal.
2. Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks
2017-18 Per Game Stats: 18.9 points, 5.5 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.1 blocks, 44.4 percent shooting
Contract: 3 years, $40.1 million (player option for 2019-20)
Traded If: Milwaukee is worried enough about ducking the luxury tax while doling out a new contract for Jabari Parker.
Khris Middleton flirts with leaving this territory altogether following the arrival of Eric Bledsoe. He was most useful as a superstar magnet, and the Milwaukee Bucks managed to beef up their rotation without including him. But their salary-cap outlook is juuust precarious enough to keep him here.
Landing Bledsoe actually saved the Bucks close to $3.5 million this season. That excess won't last. Jabari Parker is up for a new deal this summer in restricted free agency. The Bucks will have more than $125 million committed to the bottom line after accounting for his $20.3 million cap hold. That number climbs if a rival slings an over-the-top offer sheet and they're not willing to let him walk for nothing.
Shirking next year's luxury tax shouldn't take much effort on the Bucks' part. They might be able to pay Parker while staying under the line and can always stretch or try trading Matthew Dellavedova, John Henson or Mirza Teletovic to create extra room.
Things get hairier when moving beyond next season, to the summer of 2019. Middleton holds a $13 million player option he's going to decline. Bledsoe is a free agent. Malcolm Brogdon is a restricted free agent. Milwaukee won't be able to afford all of them, plus Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Middleton isn't the easiest to replace, but he could be the most expensive re-investment, and Bledsoe's playmaking fills a bigger hole. The Bucks can probably keep Brogdon and Tony Snell for what it'll cost to retain Middleton. Both help pick up the defensive slack he leaves behind while providing similar-to-superior spot-up value on offense.
Exploring this route now is premature. The Bucks are trying to make waves in the East. They'll get time to reevaluate their situation over the summer, when they have a better idea of who they are as currently constituted and how much it'll cost to re-sign Parker. But they'll glean more from the hyper-switchy Middleton this season, even as his three-point clip sits miles south of his career average, before he's treated as a quasi-expiring deal in 2018-19.
1. Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 23.5 points, 3.6 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.2 blocks, 45.7 percent shooting
Contract: 2 years, $24 million
Traded If: Charlotte hovers outside playoff picture long enough to initiate full-fledged reboot.
First, a disclaimer, aimed primarily at the people of Charlotte: Relax. Sort of. Consider this nothing more than a compliment to Kemba Walker and the fickle situation in which your team finds itself.
Walker is a star. End of story. The Hornets won't just give away a star. They have traveled great lengths to avoid a full-tilt rebuild over the past few years. The last thing they'll do is trade their franchise cornerstone, who is playing out one of the NBA's best contracts, on a lark.
"His finishing has obviously improved a bunch, but his jumper has really made his game to where he's really hard to guard," Hornets assistant coach Stephen Silas told CBS Sports' James Herbert. "He used to be someone who would just go, go, go. Now he can play different paces, he can shoot the tree, he can get in the paint, he can finish. He does it all."
Three players since 2015-16 are clearing 20 points and five assists per game while hitting more than 38 percent of their treys: Stephen Curry, Kyle Lowry and Walker. So, no, the Hornets wouldn't move him as anything more than a last resort, as the inception of a ground-up rebuild—and maybe not even then.
That day of reckoning could be en route. The Hornets are dwelling outside the East's early-season playoff picture. They're scoring like the league's worst offense whenever Walker steps off the court, and Nicolas Batum's recent return from a shoulder injury is all that prevents far-flung calls for panic.
What happens if things don't change? What if the Hornets remain on the outskirts of the playoff picture? It sounds unruly, but they have a thin margin for error after tabbing the Bucks, Wizards, Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors as locks. Which teams among the Magic, Sixers, Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat and New York Knicks are the Hornets guaranteed to beat out?
Slip deep enough into unknown territory, and they have to consider taking a stick of dynamite to their infrastructure. Walker will be a free agent in 2019, and they're essentially locked into the current core even after Dwight Howard slinks off the books next year.
Full-blown demolition is unlikely. The Hornets have too many contracts they must move to clear the decks. But Walker's stock has exploded enough for teams to mortgage their futures. He'll net a collection of picks and prospects while allowing Charlotte to ax one of its less savory deals—an ideal launching point for any reluctant reset.