Ranking the NBA's Top 10 Trade Assets Entering 2017-18 Season
After two offseasons' worth of movement crammed into one, the NBA needs a trade-asset audit.
And so, here we are.
To keep the resulting pecking order exclusive and reasonable, inclusion will be limited to players, picks and cap flexibility that could feasibly be put to use sometime in 2017-18. The Golden State Warriors, for example, aren't trading Stephen Curry, so we needn't riff on his market value.
Similar axes will be used on commonly coveted names and tools that have a sub-zero chance of being dealt. A certain one-eyebrowed superstar knows why this rule exists.
Our scope is instead narrowed to realistic trade bait. These assets aren't guaranteed to shift hands. They're not even especially likely to get moved. But an easy-to-fathom scenario exists in which they could be.
Final rankings will be determined by the potential return for every asset, but the most well-known commodities are not assured of higher placement. The bigger picture matters.
A role player on a long-term contract who can be the cherry atop a blockbuster offer beats out a star on a shorter deal who will be moved for picks, prospects or a bundle of other role players. A high-end youngster years away from his next pact does the same. A team with ample cap space can finish behind another squad with less maneuverability if the latter will be more amenable to using its position for salary dumps. And so on.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
And it's moving slowly.
Antetokounmpo isn't slated for free agency until 2021, giving the Bucks three seasons before they must begin to panic—unless they'd want to deal him with multiple years left on his contract, in which case they have a two-campaign grace period.
Indulging his trade value from Milwaukee's side this early is futile, verging on dumb.
Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks
This disclaimer should not exist. Carmelo Anthony is 33, owed $54.2 million through 2018-19 and has a no-trade clause he's thus far used to limit the New York Knicks to a market of...the Houston Rockets...who won't include much beyond Ryan Anderson in any deal.
That says it all: Anthony is more albatross than asset.
Jaylen Brown/Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
Both Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum would fall inside the top 10 if we could reasonably imagine their inclusion in a deal for someone not named Antetokounmpo or Anthony Davis.
But we can't.
So they don't.
Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
The New Orleans Pelicans have no reason to shop Davis this season.
One more time, for the Celtics fans in the back: The Pelicans have no reason to shop their top-10 player this season.
Winds can change and tides can turn, and many of the forthcoming assets won't be cut loose without receiving a player like Davis in return. But he can't hit free agency until 2020 (player option), and the designated player exception could guarantee he stays in New Orleans longer no matter what.
The Pelicans will bail on DeMarcus Cousins long before they haphazardly negotiate a midseason trade for a megastar they don't need to jettison.
Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons
Andre Drummond's name meandered its way back into the rumor mill before he hits free agency, per Basketball Insiders' Michael Scotto. The Detroit Pistons' roster configuration demanded it—and still does. This isn't the last time we'll hear his name bandied about the chopping block.
But Drummond is on the docket for $105.1 million over the next four years. If you're a skyscraper making that much, you better shoot threes, defend wings, or at least make your team significantly better when on the floor. Drummond didn't do any of those things last season and isn't primed to top a list like this without effectively mirroring the role and trajectory of Rudy Gobert or DeAndre Jordan.
Paul George/Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
Both Paul George (player option) and Russell Westbrook (player option) are ticketed for free agency in July. If the Oklahoma City Thunder collapse at the start of the season and the latter hasn't signed an extension, they could decide blow it up.
They just won't.
Acquiring George as a rental isn't a move the Thunder make if they're not bent on giving his partnership with Westbrook an entire season to marinate. It would take an explicit trade demand from the reigning MVP, the franchise's rock, to send general manager Sam Presti into teardown mode—an uncharacteristic twist we can't presume, much less expect.
10. Phoenix Suns' Cap Space
Special Notes: How much cap space they have rests on Alex Len's restricted free agency.
Carving out cap space will come at a premium over the next year. The market continues to correct itself after 2016's spending spree, according to ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon and Bobby Marks, which paves the way for more lowball offers and disarmingly cheap deals in 2018.
Teams with flexibility are, for now, at a noticeable advantage. Cash-flush buyers won't have as much competition for marquee names, and bidding wars for more undefined talents shouldn't be as competitive.
Rebuilding squads with money to burn loom large in this conversation. They can absorb big-money deals to help another team create breathing room—and charge a hefty fee to do so.
Look no further than the Brooklyn Nets for inspiration. They snatched up D'Angelo Russell, a top-two pick, from the Los Angeles Lakers as part of the Timofey Mozgov salary dump. And then they extracted two selections—a first- and second-rounder—from the Toronto Raptors for taking on DeMarre Carroll. (Irrelevant-but-noteworthy aside: Not getting a little something extra in the Allen Crabbe trade remains weird.)
The Phoenix Suns should strive to follow this model. They cannot be as generous with their space, in part because they don't wield the maneuverability previously enjoyed by Brooklyn. They also don't have the same open-ended timeline.
Some of their kiddies will soon need raises. T.J. Warren is extension-eligible now, and Devin Booker will be right behind him next summer—at which time the Suns will be coming up on decision time for Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss, who will be extension-eligible in 2019. (Basketball tots grow up/become expensive so fast, don't they?)
Still, the Suns will chisel out around $17.6 million in room if they renounce Alex Len's $12.1 million free-agent hold. That number can climb even higher if they surf the market for lopsided Jared Dudley trades; he's owed a reasonable $19.5 million over the next two years.
Keeping Len won't necessarily obliterate the Suns' financial clout. His market isn't robust, and he's not good enough to command a late-summer Mason Plumlee agreement. They'll have more than $13 million of soak-up power, with the capacity to carve out a bit more by waiving non-guaranteed pacts, if Len signs his $4.2 million qualifying offer.
Suitors desperate to chase big-timers next July might fork over a mid-end first-round pick or prospect to rent that space. Getting what the Nets did to grab Mozgov is unlikely, and the Suns shouldn't touch Ryan Anderson- (three years, $61.3 million) and Evan Turner-sized deals (three years, $53.6 million). But with Matthew Dellavedova (three years, $28.8 million), John Henson (three years, $31.7 million), Meyers Leonard (three years, $31.8 million) and so many others clogging up the books for win-now units, general manager Ryan McDonough has the leverage and timeline to parlay wiggle room into a small ransom.
9. Boston's 2019 Memphis Grizzlies First-Round Pick
Special Notes: Top-eight protection in 2019; top-six protection in 2020; and unprotected in 2021.
This pick could be slotted higher. It could also be left off the list altogether. So much depends on how the Memphis Grizzlies fare this season.
That uncertainty sells, for now, courtesy of the Denver Nuggets and Minnesota Timberwolves. Both appear like they're headed for playoff berths, which forces two of the Western Conference's postseason participants from 2017 out into the cold. Three teams could be left to rot inside the lottery if the Pelicans' Twin Towers setup yields the intended results.
The Los Angeles Clippers, Portland Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz are all part of this debate. So, too, are the Grizzlies. And if they fall out of the playoff picture now, or should they get bounced in short order as the No. 7 or 8 seed, the front office has to consider pounding the reset button.
"There are unforeseen events, as always, in the NBA, both with basketball and with personalities and bigger picture decisions, that can shift these dynamics. George was thought of as 'untouchable' at this time last year, he's now with the Thunder. Kyrie Irving was thought to be 'untouchable' a year ago; he's a Celtic. These things are always fluid.
"Additionally, this situation looks much different next summer. If Memphis doesn't have an encouraging season, and Gasol is entering the final year before his early termination option in June of 2019, the Grizzlies would be in the same spot they were in with Gasol's brother Pau when they dealt him to the Lakers. Teams are getting ahead of the curve in dealing unhappy stars before their final year of free agency, and at age 33, he'll still be able to fetch good return. If Gasol indicates he's out in 2019, that's when the conversation about trading Gasol will shift dramatically."
Get to that point, and the Grizzlies are suddenly rebuilding; start rebuilding, and they'll either fall closer to a top-eight pick in 2019 or finish inside that range; end up there, and the owner of this commitment is looking at a tasty draft choice in 2019 or a potentially invaluable selection in 2020 or 2021.
Granted, this takes a lot of topsy-turvy projection. The Boston Celtics cannot use this pick and filler to land a star. But the forecast isn't a stretch, either. The Grizzlies' murky future might allow Beantown to use this selection as the finishing touch or co-headliner in a blockbuster deal—a splash the Celtics still have the overall assets to make even after acquiring Irving.
8. Chicago Bulls' Cap Space
Special Notes: How much cap space depends on Nikola Mirotic's free agency.
Take the Suns' situation, apply a thick layer of "More Blatantly Tanking" cream, add a few years to the timeline and presto!
You get the Chicago Bulls.
General manager Gar Forman and vice president of basketball operations John Paxson have more than $8 million in cap space to dangle in trades as of now—and that's with Nikola Mirotic's free-agent hold on the books. Renounce his $11 millionish hit, and they'll wield more than $19 million in room.
Mirotic isn't a free agent you just ditch, and the free-agent market doesn't look like it'll turn up an offer pricey enough for the Bulls to pass. But they have other options—namely $11.5 million left of their Jimmy Butler trade exception, and the inevitability of a Dwyane Wade buyout.
No one expects the 35-year-old guard to finish the season in Chicago. He runs counter to the Bulls' timeline, and their young players "can't stand" him, according to ESPN.com's Nick Friedell.
Neither side seems especially eager to hammer out a divorce. The latest has Wade hoping the team approaches him about a dissolution, per the Chicago Sun-Times' Joe Cowley. Once talks take place and get serious, the Bulls still have to see how much of his $23.8 million salary they can shave off the bottom line.
Whatever flexibility they wind up with should be enough to render Chicago a first-class salary-dumping wasteland. The Bulls don't have to worry about competing for anything special in the next few years, so not even Zach LaVine's impending restricted free agency should scare them out of leasing cap space.
Play their cards right, and they could have the head room to take on some of the NBA's worst deals without sending out anyone in return. At the least, they shouldn't need more than small-time filler pieces to make the money work.
What would the Blazers give up to offload the final three years and $53.6 million on Turner's pact? How proactive will the Lakers be in shedding Deng's remaining three years and $54 million before Paul George's coming-home party free agency next summer? Might the Washington Wizards consider paying what it takes to wash themselves of the three-year, $48.1 million commitment they have to Ian Mahinmi? How about the Orlando Magic and the $51 million they owe Bismack Biyombo over the next three years?
Some general manager somewhere will eventually feel the pressure lop off serious money. And when that happens, the Bulls' from-scratch rebuild positions them better than any team to set the sticker price on long-term cap-space rentals. They should be ready and willing to take up the mantle previously occupied by Brooklyn and Philadelphia.
7. DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans Pelicans
Special Notes: Free agent in 2018.
Gauging DeMarcus Cousins' trade value is a head-scratcher.
Top-15 players should command great-to-lucrative returns, and the 27-year-old big man hasn't done anything to torpedo his on-court value. He is now the only player in NBA history to clear 24 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and one block per game at least three times before his 27th birthday. His demeanor will remain a point of debate until he does enough to earn the benefit of the doubt, but in a vacuum, he's someone you build around.
Except, the Sacramento Kings already sold low on Cousins. The Pelicans scooped him up for what amounted to Zach Collins, Buddy Hield and Frank Mason III. And recent superstar trades haven't done much to push the bill.
The Timberwolves and Oklahoma City Thunder won their deals for Butler and George, respectively. The Cavaliers secured the world for Irving, but he's two summers away from free agency, and the Celtics were uniquely outfitted to "overpay" for his services. Isaiah Thomas' availability following last season's hip injury is at play here, too.
Cousins wouldn't net more than Butler or George under the most ideal circumstances. The NBA is a switchy wing's league now. Fewer teams are crafting their futures around bigs who don't play like Butler or George—even ones with the vision of a point guard and burgeoning three-point stroke.
Throw in Cousins' free agency, and the Pelicans have next to no leverage in negotiations. They won't move him unless his partnership with Davis fails to pan out and/or he lets them know he isn't coming back, and the market for him shrinks when potential suitors with cap space can try signing him outright.
And yet, Cousins belongs here. The Pelicans will get something from a team over the cap that believes he'll stay put. Maybe the Celtics dangle that Grizzlies pick, a young player and what limited financial fodder they have. Perhaps the Wizards will part with Kelly Oubre Jr., two firsts, Marcin Gortat and filler to reunite Cousins with John Wall.
It won't be much, but the Pelicans, if they have to, can extract enough from Cousins' expiring contract to ensure they're not left empty-handed as they begin retooling around Davis...again.
6. Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets
Special Notes: Extension-eligible in 2019.
Sift through every team's personnel, and you won't find many who both employ top-end prospects and have the motivation to move them. The Denver Nuggets are among the few, and with Nikola Jokic so obviously untouchable, that leaves Jamal Murray.
Though the Nuggets could use a high-profile performer at point guard, they are not itching to move Murray. They wouldn't include him in a deal for Irving, according to Cleveland.com's Terry Pluto, and may be more inclined to build packages around future firsts, one of their many frontcourt bodies, Will Barton and Emmanuel Mudiay. Gary Harris might even be considered more expendable. He'll enter restricted free agency next summer if he doesn't agree to an extension and could fetch more than the combined cost of fellow raise-seekers Barton and Wilson Chandler (player option).
Besides, the Nuggets can sell Murray to another team as a combo guard with the handles to make a full-time transition to floor general. They already trust him to initiate pick-and-rolls more than Mudiay and, barring over-reliance on Jameer Nelson, will need him to log a lion's share of his minutes as the de facto point man anyway.
Pairing Murray with a more expensive player—such as Chandler ($12 million) or Kenneth Faried ($12.9 million)—should get the Nuggets a borderline star. The Suns have to bite on that in a deal structured around Eric Bledsoe. If someone such as Conley, Goran Dragic or Kemba Walker becomes available after his team underachieves, Murray is the kind of centerpiece that gets sellers to pull the trigger.
This sticks if, against all logic, Antetokounmpo or Davis hits the chopping block before February. Attaching Murray's rookie-scale deal to picks, salary filler and some combination of Harris, Mudiay, Malik Beasley and Juan Hernangomez should hold weight in those (pipe-dream) scenarios.
5. Eric Bledsoe, Phoenix Suns
Special Notes: Free agent in 2019.
Bledsoe would be higher if he had more than two years left on his deal and, most importantly, the Suns possessed more leverage in trade talks. They don't have to flip him for chump change when he's not a free agent until 2019, but suitors know that, at 27, he no longer aligns with the team's window.
Sellers are usually holding auctions from a position of weakness, though. Teams still pony up the assets to get a deal done for the right player. Bledsoe can be that player to some team.
Put him in the Eastern Conference, and he's an automatic All-Star. He hits enough of his threes to play off ball-dominant wings—34.6 percent for the past half-decade—and doesn't need to be stashed away on the defensive end. Curry, Wall, Westbrook, James Harden and Kyle Lowry are the only other players averaging more than 20 points, six assists and 1.5 steals since 2015-16.
Best of all: Bledsoe will cost just $29.5 million through the next two seasons. Regular-old starter money for someone who ranks at the top 10 of his position is a bargain.
Yes, top 10. That might even be selling him short. According to NBA Math's Total Points Added, he checked out as the 28th-best player last season. Irving, by comparison, finished 31st.
Kitchen-sink metrics don't tell the whole story. Bledsoe isn't landing the Suns Irving's return. He's younger (25) and the more heralded scorer. But Bledsoe still belongs in the same tier—if not above it.
Other players receive more recognition, yet Bledsoe is, at his best, an established star hiding in plain sight.
4. Jae Crowder, Cleveland Cavaliers
Special Notes: Three years, $21.9 million left on his deal. Cannot be traded in combination with other players until Oct. 21.
Where else is one of the NBA's three best contracts supposed to rank?
Over 150 players will earn more than Jae Crowder this season. Think about that.
Better yet, think about this: Thirty-five players will take home more in 2016-17 alone than he'll make over the remaining life of his deal.
Not bad for a player who defends three positions (and some point guards), hits threes off the catch, attacks a little bit off the bounce and ranked 20th last year in ESPN.com's Real-Plus Minus Wins Added, eh? (He finished 26th in 2015-16, so this isn't some anomaly.)
Crowder isn't someone the Cavaliers are just going to deal. He means more important to them than Thomas. LeBron James no longer has to exclusively cover the toughest wings in the playoffs—aka Kevin Durant in the NBA Finals—and he's more than capable of manning the 4 within lineups that use the four-time MVP as the official point guard or small-ball center.
Cleveland only reroutes Crowder if James guarantees he'll re-sign next summer (player option). Even then, general manager Koby Altman could be more inclined to wait until the summer, when Brooklyn's pick turns into a player and the available-superstar landscape has taken full shape.
Then again, the Cavaliers have "fielded numerous" calls about that Nets selection, according to Cleveland.com's Joe Vardon. Combine it with Crowder and more salary, as the Celtics did, and they instantly have the means to enter the running for whatever All-NBA talent reaches the auction block.
Again: This scenario is a long shot without an ironclad commitment from James. But the Cavaliers' situation remains fluid because of him. Should they stand pat with his free agency on the horizon? Does working the trade market for another impact acquisition convince him to stay?
Either way, Crowder's value stays intact. He doesn't make enough money—or generate enough solo offense—to cage a superstar on his own. But the length and cost of his deal, along with his two-way value, makes him the perfect No. 2 for the only type of trade Cleveland would contemplate making by the February deadline.
3. Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks
Special Notes: Three years, $40.1 million left on his deal (player option for 2019-20).
Khris Middleton would not have made the cut without the Milwaukee Bucks' becoming a tangential footnote in the Irving sweepstakes. They were willing to give up him and Malcolm Brogdon to complete a deal, according to ESPN.com's Zach Lowe, suggesting he can be poached for the right player.
Who is that player? With Irving in Boston, we don't know. But the Bucks have the incentive to look for him.
Wojnarowski said on The Russillo Show back in July that "everybody in the league is trying to figure out how they are going to get" Antetokounmpo out of Milwaukee (h/t Heck). While the 22-year-old gizmo cannot reach free agency until 2021, the restlessness risk is real, and the Bucks have just two seasons before they must re-evaluate the relationship with their cornerstone.
Nabbing another star will go a long way toward rendering Antetokounmpo's long-term situation a non-issue. Middleton comes close on his own. One other player is averaging more than 17.0 points, 4.0 assists and 1.5 steals per 36 minutes while canning at least 40 percent of his threebies since 2015-16. You might have heard of him.
Because it's Stephen Curry.
At the same time, Middleton falls short of featured-option status. He can be timid when deciding between an open three or a driving lane and doesn't pose the same scoring threat when trying to manufacture looks off more than a few dribbles. He failed to shoot 40 percent in crunch time in 2014-15 and 2015-16, when he paced Milwaukee in total field-goal attempts in the clutch.
None of which comes close to denting Middleton's appeal. It just explains the Bucks' interest in Irving, a legitimate go-to scorer. It says something about their faith—or lack thereof—in Jabari Parker as well. He can be that one-on-one whiz when healthy, but as Parker recovers from his second ACL injury, with restricted free agency coming down the pipeline, the Bucks are smart to monitor the market for alpha alternatives.
Middleton is the player you don't trade unless it satisfies that half-need. With the Bucks' preliminary affinity for Irving as a benchmark, they shouldn't engage admirers or assemble bigger packages without the incoming target falling in the realm of offensive wonders such as Bradley Beal or C.J. McCollum.
2. Boston's 2018 Los Angeles Lakers/2019 Sacramento Kings 1st-Round Pick
Special Notes: If the Lakers' 2018 first-rounder ends up anywhere other than Nos. 2, 3, 4 or 5, the Celtics will receive the Sacramento Kings' unprotected 2019 first-round pick.
Stare at this pick commitment hard enough, and the Celtics' decision to trade the No. 1 selection in this year's draft doesn't feel so bold. Chances are, by June 2019, they'll have turned Markelle Fultz into Tatum and another top-five choice.
Heaps of uncertainty are tethered to this projection, but if Boston really was going to take Tatum in the first place, then hot damn, team president Danny Ainge did well to broker this scenario.
The Lakers won't convey their 2018 pick unless it falls on or between Nos. 2 and 5. Wonky protection? Yep. But a core of Lonzo Ball, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Jordan Clarkson, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Brook Lopez, Larry Nance Jr., Julius Randle and Ivica Zubac has fireworks potential. The Celtics get to pass the bill for another year if that group is good enough to climb out of the doldrums.
Deferring would represent a substantial risk if the Kings' unprotected selection wasn't at the end of the rainbow. They aren't going to be good in 2018-19. They shouldn't be the worst team in the league, but a high choice in the 2018 draft, Willie Cauley-Stein, De'Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, George Hill and Skal Labissiere won't yank them from the bottom-five discussion.
Plus, if the proposed lottery reform is approved in time for the 2019 selection process, the pick gets yet another boon. In the latest submission, according to Wojnarowski, the league's three worst teams have an equal opportunity of grabbing the No. 1 choice. Knowing the Kings don't profile as the last-place squad at that time, the flattened-odds boost the value of this obligation.
The Celtics won't think of dealing this for anyone other than a patented star. And we know who they want. Their eyes remain "trained" on Davis, per Lowe. If the Pelicans inexplicably pull the ripcord before July, this pick is a worthy centerpiece—the main attraction of a package that also has to include an extensive combination of Brown, Tatum, Marcus Morris, Semi Ojeleye, Guerschon Yabusele and a bunch more picks. The same parameters apply to Antetokounmpo and the Bucks.
Things remain interesting on a smaller scale. The Celtics can use this selection to finagle a monstrous gaggle-for-one deal. They'll have the salary-matching power to take back more expensive players without disrupting the core after Dec. 14, when Aron Baynes is trade-eligible and can be smushed together with Marcus Smart, Morris and other non-Brown, non-Tatum players.
Another unlikely outcome, sure, but an avenue worth exploring should someone such as Cousins, Middleton or Marc Gasol become available.
1. Cleveland's 2018 Brooklyn Nets First-Round Pick
Special Notes: U-n-p-r-o-t-e-c-t-e-d.
Here we have yet another case of "Team X probably isn't going to trade Asset Y." That holds triply true for Brooklyn's unprotected pick. This selection is, per Lowe, the main reason Cleveland was so attracted to Boston's package for Irving.
As Vardon noted, though, rival teams have phoned the Cavaliers, because they know what we know: Anything can happen when James is part of your timeline. If they have a strong inkling he'll stay or the Antetokounmpo and Davis speculation morphs into real, live, full-fledged availability, all bets are off. Either occurrence will be enough to sway the Cavaliers into contemplation.
And you know what: That play would be rewarded in some way. It doesn't matter if trading this pick is the correct move (it's not). It retains the juice to get them another heavyweight—even though they don't have the ancillary assets, aside from Crowder, to meaningfully sugarcoat their most powerful offers.
Indeed, the Cavaliers will encounter enormous roadblocks in the—for the umpteenth-multiplied-by-kajillionth time—unlikely event Milwaukee and New Orleans accept calls for Antetokounmpo and Davis. But this pick by itself is enough to keep anyone at the other end on the line.
After all, the Nets won't be that much better. They're built to collect more than 20 wins, but even a five- to nine-victory bump keeps them in contention for a bottom-three record and decent-to-great shot at the No. 1 selection.
Adjust their scope a bit, and the Cavaliers can target a little less, while still getting a lot and without giving up too much. Does this pick-plus-filler persuade Phoenix to hand over Bledsoe and Josh Jackson? Could it net Cousins and another asset, such as Moore, from the Pelicans? Can they find a workable three-team trade that convinces the Bucks to unload Brogdon, Middleton and something or someone else?
Viable possibilities abound. The Cavaliers won't pillage through all of them, but the temptation to coddle James' window—and sell him on Cleveland, again—has to be there. And this pick, as the best asset among reasonably available ones, has the sticker price to keep them on red alert.