Ranking the 10 Most Coveted Players on the 2016 NBA Trade Block

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 22, 2016

Ranking the 10 Most Coveted Players on the 2016 NBA Trade Block

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    NBA teams have until February 18 to extract as much value as possible from the trade market.

    That shouldn't be a problem for the clubs holding the most coveted chips. From floor generals to stretch forwards, rim protectors to post scorers, the names at the top of the rumor mill have something to offer teams of all types—and probably steep price tags to match.

    Some of these players are more likely to be moved than others, but all are connected to trade chatter.

    Talent is the biggest factor (both in terms of present production and future potential), but we've also considered items such as contract costs, age, upside and malleability to fit other systems.

Honorable Mention: DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings

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    "DeMarcus [Cousins] has shown at a high, high level that he's an All-Star," Sacramento Kings coach George Karl said, per Jason Jones of the Sacramento Bee. "Is there a better center playing basketball in the NBA right now? I don't think there is."

    The words alone aren't enough to shake the basketball world. Consider the speaker, though, and suddenly these oft-repeated sentiments have substantially more meaning.

    Every time Cousins' name has neared the trade rumor mill over the last calendar year, Karl's hasn't been far behind. In June, the skipper was reportedly trying to drum up support inside the organization to trade away Cousins, sources told Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski.

    By November, a story surfaced that Cousins had cussed out Karl in front of the entire team, via Jason McIntyre of the Big Lead. The relationship looked nothing short of toxic, which was important to note. Without that background noise, it was impossible to fathom why the Kings would even consider dealing Boogie.

    Cousins is, like Karl said, the league's best center. He paces the position in points (26.1 per game) and player efficiency rating (23.8). If the campaign closed today, Cousins would be the first player to average at least 26 points, 11 rebounds, 2.5 assists and one steal per game since former Kings star Chris Webber in 2000-01.

    Cousins is 25 years old. He's under contract through 2017-18. Players like him don't get moved.

    With Karl apparently on Cousins' side and the Kings forcing their way into the Western Conference playoff picture, the big guy is going nowhere. But there's been enough trade chatter about him to put him on this list as an honorable mention, especially considering he'd lead with ease.

    If he were actually available.

10. Terrence Jones, Houston Rockets

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    Officially, the Houston Rockets have until the offseason to decide which stretch big man to keep around: Terrence Jones or Donatas Motiejunas.

    Both fourth-year players are headed for restricted free agency at season's end. It seems highly unlikely Houston ponies up enough cash to keep both around, especially with Dwight Howard almost assuredly declining his $23.3 million player option for 2016-17.

    According to some reports, they may have already sped up their process. Sources told ESPN.com's Calvin Watkins that the Rockets have "engaged in discussions with several NBA teams" about moving Jones.

    That should be music to the ears of anyone needing a frontcourt boost. Jones' career per-36-minute marks highlight his glue-guy potential: 15.6 points, 8.7 rebounds, 1.8 blocks and 1.5 assists. The 24-year-old has also been a 35.8 percent three-point shooter since the start of last season, so he's still adding elements to an already well-rounded game.

    His box scores are more volatile than they should be. He's had 13 outings with 15-plus points and another 14 where he's been held to five or fewer.

    But consider the context. He's just one of many faces in Houston's overcrowded stable of bigs (which is growing with the addition of Josh Smith, per Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski), and he's nowhere close to the top of the offensive pecking order. Jones has also waged a couple of losing battles with the injury bug, which has limited him to only 166 appearances over his first three-plus seasons.

    So much of his NBA story still needs to be written, and savvy executives should salivate at the thought of helping to author his next chapter.

9. Taj Gibson, Chicago Bulls

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    The Chicago Bulls have a logjam on the interior and a glaring need for perimeter depth. As any NBA trade cookbook can attest, those are essential ingredients to get a deal done.

    League sources told Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher recently that the Bulls had dangled Taj Gibson, Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol on the trade market in search of "young talent." Noah's season-ending shoulder surgery changes things but doesn't necessarily close the door on every deal.

    Noah's trade value is shot, and his absence might make Gasol invaluable. But with youngsters Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic pressing for time at power forward, the Bulls could still view a Gibson swap as one that deals from a position of strength to help shore up a weakness.

    The 30-year-old isn't the sexiest name on the market, but what he lacks in sizzle, he makes up for in substance. For the past six-plus seasons, he's been a steady source of versatile defense, complementary offense, rugged rebounding and all kinds of blue-collar grit.

    "He's a rock-solid NBA rotation player," wrote NBC Sports' Kurt Helin. "He gives a team rim protection, he's strong on the glass, and he scores efficiently, plus he's under contract for another season after this at $8.5 million."

    Gibson has the lateral quickness to chase around the perimeter and the power to battle in the post. He's insatiable on the offensive glass, explosive around the rim and comfortable shooting out to the mid-range.

8. Brandon Jennings, Detroit Pistons

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    For Detroit Pistons point guard Brandon Jennings, the writing is on the wall—or on the five-year, $80 million contract inked by fellow Motor City floor general Reggie Jackson last summer, rather.

    With Jennings set to embark on his own free-agency venture this offseason, his future exists outside of Detroit. In the coming weeks, so might his present.

    While Pistons president-coach Stan Van Gundy has said "there's a very good chance that we don't move" any point guards, per MLive.com's David Mayo, other teams don't appear to be buying that stance. The New York Knicks, for one, are said to have Jennings in their sights, a source told Frank Isola of the New York Daily News.

    Jennings is still rounding into shape from the torn Achilles he suffered last January. But point guard-hungry squads remember precisely how he looked before he went down: 19.8 points on 43.9 percent shooting (39.4 from deep) and 7.0 assists against 2.1 turnovers over his final 16 outings.

    Still just 26 years old, his best basketball should be ahead of him. Plus, there's a chance his rough return could keep his price tag reasonable.

    He doesn't have a perfect skill set, by any stretch. He's prone to fits of offensive tunnel vision, his shot selection often leaves plenty to be desired, and he's not the sturdiest defender. But he can quarterback a fast-paced offense and knock down the long ball (career 35.0 three-point percentage), and he doesn't give the ball away (career 2.4 turnovers per game).

7. Rudy Gay, Sacramento Kings

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    Scoring is always a coveted commodity on the open market. And Rudy Gay is a professional scorer.

    For all the knocks on his overall game, it's impossible to deny his offensive ability. He's currently putting up 17.9 points a night. That's both the 32nd-highest mark among qualified scorers and his lowest average since his 2006-07 freshman campaign.

    His critics say he doesn't move the scoreboard as efficiently as he could, his three-point stroke is a hair below average (career 34.2 percent), and he favors the mid-range shot more than the number-crunchers say he should.

    Still, he's capable of creating his own looks and finishing them from all three levels. Plus, over this season and last, he's posted personal bests in assists (3.7 in 2014-15) and rebounds (6.8 this year). Teams won't overlook those stats—even if some analytical minds have over the years.

    "Gay would bring scoring and versatility with an ability to play small forward and 'stretch 4' in today's small-ball happy NBA," wrote Ronald Tillery of the Memphis Commercial Appeal. "He's also a clutch player and motivated defender against elite players at his position."

    Gay is owed $13.3 million for next season and holds a $14.2 million player option for 2016-17. While that's not a discounted rate, it's certainly reasonable with the salary cap ballooning this summer.

    The 29-year-old swingman is already stockpiling suitors. According to Jason Jones of the Sacramento Bee, Gay has been linked to the New Orleans Pelicans, Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Clippers.

6. Ryan Anderson, New Orleans Pelicans

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    Ryan Anderson has a very particular set of skills, and they've never been more valued across the league.

    He never steps inside the lines without his trusty three-point cannon. He's averaged at least two triples on 38-plus percent shooting five times since 2010-11. Reigning MVP Stephen Curry is the only other player who can make that claim (though he's done it in all six campaigns).

    Anderson is such a proficient sniper, he can balance the floor even when his outside looks aren't falling. Defenses would rather commit one player to shadow him all over the court than risk the marksman finding a clean shot. Having that type of gravitational pull on defenders helps the entire team. To wit, the New Orleans Pelicans lose 4.5 points per 100 possessions from their offensive attack when Anderson takes a breather.

    Of course, the defense also plays worse with him than without. He's neither very long nor athletic, so he can be targeted both on the perimeter and from point-blank range.

    But hide his defensive faults, and he can lift an offense around him. That's why a slew of potential suitors are already lined up, per USA Today's Sam Amick.

    However, there are two layers of Anderson's cost, which keeps him from ranking any higher. First is the Pelicans' asking price, which should be steep given the interest level. Second is what he'll command as an unrestricted free agent this summer. And that could be a max contract, one source told Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times.

5. Greg Monroe, Milwaukee Bucks

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    The Milwaukee Bucks shocked the hoops world by outlasting major-market competitors in last summer's Greg Monroe sweepstakes. Still only months into a three-year, $51.4 million pact, it feels premature to reverse course and put the Moose up for auction.

    The 6'11", 265-pound center has been exactly as advertised. His current production (15.8 points, 9.8 rebounds and 2.3 assists) is almost identical to the numbers he tallied over his final four seasons with the Detroit Pistons.

    Monroe knows exactly who he is. He can play the role of offensive fulcrum from the high post or the low block. He has more than enough moves to free himself in tight spaces, and he's a tremendous passer for his size.

    But he has some obvious faults, too. He's neither a floor-spacer nor a shot-blocker, so lineups require careful planning around him on either end.

    The Bucks have to decide what they're willing to live with. They can mask his defensive deficiencies, but they were hurting for spacing before his arrival. His lack of speed also limits how often Milwaukee can lean on its superior athleticism in the transition game.

    Monroe's strengths could attract suitors, perhaps those better equipped to take full advantage of them.

    "Monroe will draw interest at the trade deadline if they put him out there," wrote ESPN.com's Zach Lowe. "They haven't yet, league sources say. But Monroe can opt out after next season, and if the Bucks don't think he's a long-term fit, now is the time to gauge the market."

4. Thaddeus Young, Brooklyn Nets

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    Thaddeus Young plays like a walking adhesive—he just needs something to bring together.

    That's what unfortunately happens to those bouncing from one bottom feeder to the next as Young has these past few seasons: first the Philadelphia 76ers, then the Minnesota Timberwolves and now the Brooklyn Nets.

    Place him on a contender, and he's the type of across-the-board contributor who can positively impact winning on a nightly basis. He's one of only six players to average at least 15 points, six rebounds, two assists and 1.5 steals since the start of 2012-13.

    Consider the other five names on the list: LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins, Paul George and Paul Millsap.

    "Armed with an ever-growing offensive arsenal and a worker's mindset, the nine-year veteran has become the squad's most dependable two-way player," wrote Daniel O'Brien of Today's Fastbreak. "While he's not superstar material, any team would be lucky to add Young to their frontcourt."

    Young's name doesn't yet have direct ties to the trade market, but the dots are easily connected.

    The Nets are going nowhere fast, and their owner, Mikhail Prokhorov, has admitted they need "a small reset," per ESPN.com's Mike Mazzeo. Brooklyn has to find some assets to help replenish its depleted supply, and Young's versatility and cost effectiveness ($25 million over the next two seasons, $13.8 million player option for 2018-19) should command a substantial price.

3. Dwight Howard, Houston Rockets

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    It seems like ever since his uncomfortable exit from the Orlando Magic in 2012, Dwight Howard has been linked to something. His locker room relationships are dissected ad nauseam, and his personality has been analyzed to the point that some of his criticisms are starting to contradict others.

    "I don't want to smile too much because then I'm [said to] not take it serious," Howard said, per Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. "I don't want to not smile too much because then I'm [called] unhappy."

    Howard's comments were preceded by a report from Sheridan Hoops' Chris Sheridan in which his sources said Howard was "extremely unhappy" in Houston. ESPN's Chris Broussard also said he's heard Dwight "is not the happiest camper" during an appearance on Russillo & Kanell.

    Whether Howard is pushing for a deal or not, the Rockets could still have motivations to move him. Their championship ceiling from last season has seemingly fallen all the way to a first-round exit. Their roster could need an overhaul, and an oft-injured 30-year-old who's almost certainly heading to free agency this summer may not be viewed as a long-term keeper.

    But the same player could be seen as the missing piece for some club further ahead in the race. He's still capable of two-way dominance, as he's tallied 17.5 points, 13.0 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per 36 minutes over this season and last. He's currently nursing a sprained ankle but erupted for 36 points and 26 boards during his last outing before the injury.

    He might have the best game of anyone on this list (not including Cousins). But his age, recent health concerns and uncertain future keep him out of the top two spots.

2. Hassan Whiteside, Miami Heat

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    Hassan Whiteside has made just 108 career appearances, and the first 20-odd outings were made in mop-up duty. This is his first complete campaign in a featured role, and it could be among the toughest to assess.

    He's been individually brilliant (12.3 points, 11.2 rebounds and 3.9 blocks in 28.9 minutes per game), but the Miami Heat have fared 1.2 points better per 100 possessions when he's not in the game. Whiteside sometimes hunts for blocks, which can leave his man open for easy scoring and offensive rebounding chances. There are also questions of how well the 7-footer fits today's NBA, since he's had trouble defending pick-and-rolls and perimeter-oriented bigs.

    But his numbers are so hard to get over. He's swatting shots at a rate unseen in nearly two decades. He's tied for 17th in double-doubles (17) and is the only player in the top 20 averaging fewer than 29 minutes. He's 12th overall with a 23.5 PER and would have ranked fifth last season with a 26.2 had he qualified.

    How could anyone let an unpolished 26-year-old with elite stats like these go? Conversely, how could anyone give a max (or near-max, at least) deal to someone with maturity concerns, a potentially antiquated skill set and almost no track record to speak of?

    The Heat could wait to decide until this summer when Whiteside hits unrestricted free agency, but without holding his Bird rights, Miami has no real advantages over his other suitors. Would that push the team to consider trading him? Chris Sheridan of Sheridan Hoops says yes; Heat president Pat Riley has unequivocally said no, per Manny Navarro of the Miami Herald.

    But with the Heat's season threatening to slip away because of mounting injuries and a stiffening schedule, Riley may have to cash in his largest trade chip. It's the second-best this market has to offer, only a little less certain and a lot more expensive than the top target.

1. Nerlens Noel, Philadelphia 76ers

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    The Philadelphia 76ers are sitting atop an impressive collection of assets, but the pieces don't all fit the same puzzle.

    Their biggest additions during their trip to the cellar are all frontcourt players: Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor, Joel Embiid and Dario Saric. The first three all fit best at centerassuming Embiid eventually gets healthy enough to fit anywhere—so this roster is in desperate need of better balance at some point.

    "If Embiid can't play, then they have to decide whether to keep both Noel and Okafor," one executive told Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer. "But the combination hasn't worked out. Or they can trade one of the two and see if they can get strength at another position because, basically right now, they have three centers."

    If Embiid has any trade value, it's far too low for Philly to recoup some of its investment in the former No. 3 pick. If the Sixers want to maximize their trade take, they're probably better off dealing Noel and hoping Okafor can build around his absurdly advanced scoring skills.

    Noel, remember, likely would have been the top selection in 2013 had he not torn his ACL during his lone season at Kentucky. His intrigue was always tied to his potential to become a transcendent defender—and it looks like that's precisely what he'll become.

    Last season, he joined Hall of Famer David Robinson as the only rookies to average at least 1.5 steals (1.8) and 1.5 blocks (1.9). Noel offers the rim protection of a true center and the athleticism of a wing, which is a devastating defensive combination to stop today's uber-versatile, positionless scorers. His offensive arsenal is limited, but he still has value as a screener, lob finisher, rim-runner and rebounder.

    Noel is only 21 years old, so there's every reason to believe his game will keep expanding. And since he won't reach restricted free agency before 2017, he's easily the most intriguing player of any potentially on the trade block.

    Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com. Salary information obtained via Basketball Insiders.