Realistic Deals for NBA's Least Tradable Contracts

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesFeatured Columnist IVAugust 2, 2022

Realistic Deals for NBA's Least Tradable Contracts

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    Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

    If we can put a man on the moon, we can figure out how to trade Russell Westbrook. Or, in Kevin Garnett's immortal words, anything's possible.

    A KG level of self-belief might be necessary to get deals done involving Russ and some of the league's other seemingly immovable contracts. It'll also help if we keep in mind that there are always deals that appear too onerous to move. Bradley Beal just signed one!

    Too soon?

    The Washington Wizards aren't looking to trade Beal, but plenty of other teams have succeeded in offloading their worst contracts. Westbrook has been traded three times on his current deal, once for John Wall. Even if it requires taking on somebody else's equally sketchy asset in exchange, teams pull off unlikely trades all the time. More recently, everyone was worried about how poorly Rudy Gobert's contract was going to age, but not only did the Utah Jazz trade him, they traded him for a mint.

    Some are harder to move than others, but there's no such thing as an untradable contract.

Russell Westbrook to the Orlando Magic

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    Tyler Ross/NBAE via Getty Images

    The Trade

    Orlando Magic Receive: Russell Westbrook, a 2027 first-round pick and a 2023 second-round pick

    Los Angeles Lakers Receive: Markelle Fultz, Gary Harris and Terrence Ross

    If I'm the Magic, I'm asking for both available first-round picks from the Lakers. That Westbrook remains in Los Angeles to this point suggests the Lakers aren't keen on surrendering their 2027 and 2029 firsts in tandem, so it seems like this deal is only getting done if Orlando is willing to accept just one of those. The 2023 second-rounder is a consolation prize.

    Harris and Ross both profile as trade chips for a rebuilding Magic team, but it's hard to be sure either of them would net a first-rounder at the deadline. Neither commanded such a return back in February. From the Magic's perspective, the only real sticking point might be Fultz, who looked about as good as he has at any point in his injury-hit career during the 18 stretch-run games he logged for Orlando last season. Remarkably, he posted a higher true shooting percentage than Westbrook in 2021-22.

    Paolo Banchero's ability to initiate from a forward spot makes Fultz—a poor-shooting, non-spacing guard who only has value on the ball—much less important going forward. A first-rounder from the Lakers is a more valuable asset than he is, particularly considering the upside such a pick would have if LeBron James doesn't return in 2023 free agency and Anthony Davis doesn't re-sign when his deal runs out in 2025. Future first-rounders from Los Angeles should be among the most prized commodities in the league.

    Westbrook's $47.1 million salary is substantial, but it's only about $6 million more than the combined total of Fultz, Harris and Ross. Orlando will still be in line to have over $50 million in cap space next offseason after Westbrook's contract expires. Ideally, the Magic would buy Russ out, pocket the picks and move on to the next step in their rebuild armed with more assets.

    The Lakers' side of this isn't complex. They finally jettison Westbrook, using their extremely limited pick equity to do so. As part of the bargain, L.A. also brings back three guards who will either start or figure prominently in the 2022-23 rotation. Harris is a steady two-way wing whose three-point shooting (38.4 percent last year) and on-ball defense are both in short supply on the Lakers' current roster, Ross is the spark-plug bench scorer L.A. lacks and Fultz is the defense-first distributor whose shooting limitations won't be any more painful than Westbrook's were.

    Fultz also comes with the upside still attached to his No. 1 pick status, which might be of value to the Lakers in their efforts to win the post-trade press conference.

    If there were better deals out there for Westbrook, the Lakers would have already agreed to them. Three playable pieces on reasonable contracts at the cost of a single first-rounder is about as much as L.A. can hope for.

Tobias Harris to the Utah Jazz

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    The Trade

    Philadelphia 76ers Receive: Bojan Bogdanovic and Patrick Beverley

    Utah Jazz Receive: Tobias Harris, Matisse Thybulle, a 2029 first-round pick, and second-round picks in 2023 and 2024

    The pertinent question here is whether Utah believes paying Harris' $39.3 million salary in 2023-24 is worth getting a distant first, two seconds and the chance to retain Thybulle as a restricted free agent. That's a solid haul, and when you factor in that the Jazz could trim some of that cost via a buyout, or even move Harris again as an expiring contract next year, the deal starts to make sense from their side.

    Utah hoarded picks in the Rudy Gobert trade and will presumably continue retrenching by sending Donovan Mitchell and any other available veterans away for future-focused returns. If that's not the plan, then Harris and Thybulle could actually help the Jazz win games this season. Those two provide similar value as Bogdanovic and Beverley, and the draft capital is a sufficient sweetener.

    On the Sixers' side, this deal is mostly about keeping the talent exchange neutral while paying for cap space with draft picks. Bogdanovic and Beverley are both on expiring contracts, and bringing them aboard for Harris erases his whopping $39.3 million from the 2023-24 books. In that scenario, the 76ers could become major free-agent players next summer, and we know Daryl Morey never thinks his team has enough stars.

    Bogdanovic and Harris bring many of the same skills to the forward spot, with the former owning the edge in career three-point percentage (39.2 to 36.7) and the latter being the better rebounder. Beverley and Thybulle are also somewhat similar as defense-first rotation pieces. Beverley isn't the off-ball disruptor Thybulle is, but the young wing's nonexistent shooting makes him much harder to play in the postseason than Beverley, who has to be honored beyond the arc. You could make the case that Philadelphia is actually upgrading in present talent here, which is important. The Sixers should want to free up flexibility next summer, but they can't sacrifice a season of contention to do it. This trade doesn't knock them down in the East hierarchy.

Ben Simmons to the Atlanta Hawks

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    The Trade

    Atlanta Hawks Receive: Ben Simmons

    Brooklyn Nets Receive: John Collins and Onyeka Okongwu

    The most recent real-world trade involving Ben Simmons doesn't reveal much about his actual market value because it involved such unusual circumstances. Simmons wasn't going to play again for the 76ers, and James Harden was checked out with the Nets. So when the two exchanged spots in a deal that saw additional rotation players and two picks going with Simmons to Philadelphia, it might have indicated Simmons was an objectively negative asset. Or it might have meant that the Sixers, specifically, were over a barrel and had no choice but to sweeten the pot.

    Maybe the best way to make a sensible Simmons trade, then, is to involve him in another swap featuring Collins, a player the Hawks have seemingly been looking to trade for some time.

    The above deal would test the limits of the theory that Trae Young can captain a quality offense with any personnel around him. A potential starting five of Young, Dejounte Murray, De'Andre Hunter, Simmons and Clint Capela would be dangerously short on spacing. Bogdan Bogdanovic could replace Capela in smaller lineups, leaving just Simmons and Murray as suspect shooters. The playmaking those two bring could make the downsized unit work offensively, especially if Young improves his off-ball game.

    The real draw for the Hawks is the defensive upgrade Simmons brings over Collins. It'll cost them Okongwu, a tantalizing prospect who could still develop into a highly valuable switching center, but Simmons already does most of what Okongwu might someday theoretically do on D. Maligned as he's been for wilting in the playoffs, Simmons earned his pair of All-Defensive team nods fair and square. With him, Murray, Hunter and Capela rounding out the first unit, Young would be surrounded by four defenders ranging from very good to elite. That's the kind of all-hands-on-deck approach necessary to improve a defense that has ranked 26th or worse in four of the last five years.

    The Nets' interest in this deal would hinge on whether they're comfortable going forward with Simmons as a core piece. In the wake of Kyrie Irving's half-available season, one could forgive Brooklyn for wanting to rid itself of players who might or might not play because of reasons other than injury. Simmons' mental health-related holdout in Philly may still loom as a concerning variable for the Nets.

    Collins is a quality starter making an average of $25.5 million over the next four years, about $12.5 million less per season than Simmons will get over the final three years of his deal. With Okongwu on a rookie contract, Brooklyn leaves this exchange with two quality assets on movable salaries. As long as the Nets and Hawks have differing opinions on Simmons—with the former believing the cost and hassle aren't worth the on-court output and the latter disagreeing—the logical underpinnings of a trade are in place.

    Even if Brooklyn doesn't eventually move Kevin Durant and Irving, it could justify bringing aboard two useful pieces to replace one in Simmons that it doesn't trust in big playoff moments.

Kyrie Irving to the Los Angeles Lakers

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    The Trade

    Los Angeles Lakers Receive: Kyrie Irving*

    Brooklyn Nets Receive: Russell Westbrook, a 2027 first-round pick and a 2029 first-round pick

    Usually, the length and the mounting cost of a player's contract is the reason he's hard to trade. Not so for Irving, whose deal expires after the 2022-23 season and will pay him a completely reasonable (if he actually plays) $36.5 million. The finances have little to do with Irving landing on this list. He's here because so few potential acquiring teams believe he'll a) commit to playing a full season for them, and b) re-sign in 2023 free agency.

    This is why the Lakers are the lone realistic option. Irving has been flighty and less than stellar in the locker room at every stop since leaving LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers. There's no guarantee Irving would become a model teammate with the Lakers, but James' presence might be the only influence powerful enough to make such a development plausible. Yes, Irving asked to leave the last time he and James were together. But he's since made amends.

    The sticking point in this deal has long been the Lakers' reluctance to give up their only two available first-round picks. Perhaps they believe they can just sign Irving outright next summer, and that's why they're so tightly clutching the last draft assets they've got. But how can L.A. justify wasting another year of James' career? He might only have one more great one left, and the franchise is going down the tubes when he retires or leaves anyway. Los Angeles' lack of control over its first-rounders through 2026 assures that.

    A full, All-NBA season from Irving is absolutely in the cards, and that's the only path to making the Lakers relevant in 2022-23.

    Westbrook would be a buyout candidate for the Nets, just as he was when we sent him to Orlando. And those future firsts from the Lakers are about as juicy as down-the-road assets get. If Brooklyn has no interest in living out another year with Irving and wants to rebuild, collecting two first-rounders and paying Westbrook some portion of his salary to go away makes plenty of sense. Worst case, Russ won't accept a buyout, and the Nets can mimic the Houston Rockets' tack with John Wall by paying him to stay home for a year.

    If the Nets are serious about staying competitive in the short term, and if they don't trade Durant, this deal is dead. But until Brooklyn makes its big-picture plans clearer, this remains the most obvious big-name trade out there.

    *Technically, the Nets would also have to send a minimum salary to the Lakers to make the deal work.

Julius Randle to the Charlotte Hornets

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    The Trade

    Charlotte Hornets Receive: Julius Randle and a 2024 first-round pick*

    New York Knicks Receive: Gordon Hayward

    Last year, Hayward created nearly as many EPM Wins in 49 games (4.1) as Randle produced in 72 (4.3). Though the injury issues that have limited him to an average of 48 games a year over the last three persist, there's a real possibility Hayward is a more productive player than Randle going forward. And the key here for the Knicks is that "going forward" only encompasses the two remaining seasons on Hayward's deal, which will pay him a total of $61.6 million.

    Randle is due $117.1 million over the next four years.

    New York has loads of future first-rounders, and some of them are probably earmarked for a Donovan Mitchell deal. The Knicks can still spare one here in exchange for significant long-term savings and the chance to get Randle out of Obi Toppin's way in the rotation. Plus, with Jalen Brunson on board to run the show, Randle's facilitation, which includes some unhelpful ball-stopping tendencies, is no longer necessary. Hayward's brand of ball movement is quicker, more decisive and far less disruptive to the offensive flow. He averaged fewer seconds and dribbles per touch than Randle last season, which will help supplement Brunson and RJ Barrett's playmaking, not obstruct it.

    The appeal for the Hornets resides mostly in that first-round pick, the protections on which will be a point of discussion between these teams. There's also the upside of Randle possibly regaining his All-NBA form and his lower average annual salary. It's not out of the question that Randle will be a positive asset in two years, which is how long the Hornets would have had Hayward under contract anyway. Maybe a fresh start on a new team is all it'll take for Randle to find his form and rehab his market value.

    It also doesn't hurt that Randle can log time as a small-ball center. Charlotte drafted Mark Williams out of Duke and has Mason Plumlee entrenched as the starter, but the former won't be ready to help for a while, and the latter is an enormous drag on offensive efficiency.

    Randle's value is as low as it's been in years, but he can help the Hornets, who have their own distressed asset to exchange.

    *The Knicks are about $200,000 short of matching salary in this construction. They'll have to include a minimum salary to make it work.

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through 2021-22 season. Salary info via Spotrac.

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