NBA Teams Best Positioned to Pull Off Blockbuster Trades
Is it too late to ask Santa for the NBA to host another blockbuster trade?
Unless you're still basking in Eric Bledsoe's early-November relocation, you're ready for the next big move. The trade deadline is Feb. 8, but the rumor mill is taunting us, regularly churning out hot-ticket speculation.
Hoops heads are a reasonable bunch. We don't need a landscape-altering deal this second. We just want to make sure the Association has another marquee-name migration before the deadline, lest our expansive Google search history be for naught.
No matter how many news items get pushed out between now and Feb. 8, though, we run the risk of a letdown. These teams have the power to make sure that doesn't happen—the assets and incentive necessary to chase major midseason splashes.
Prospective sellers have no place here. Only those those equipped to enter the mix for impact upgrades are being called to arms. And because ranking things is fun, they will be presented in an order that reconciles their asset collections with how likely they are to rough up their depth charts midstream.
Honorable Mentions: Nos. 10 to 6
10. Philadelphia 76ers
Untouchable Players: Robert Covington (trade restriction), Joel Embiid, Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons.
Notable Trade Assets: Justin Anderson; Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot; Richaun Holmes; Dario Saric; 2018 first-round pick.
Best Salary-Matching Assets: Jerryd Bayless (two years, $17.6 million); Trevor Booker (expiring at $9.2 million); Amir Johnson (expiring at $11 million); J.J. Redick (expiring at $23 million).
Should the Philadelphia 76ers be wiling to part with their own first-round pick, they have the capacity to throw out some attractive offers. Just don't hold your breath.
They have deliberately preserved their spending power for July. Knifing into it before a certain four-time MVP takes free-agency meetings runs counter to a trajectory they laid out last summer.
9. Orlando Magic
Untouchable Players: Jonathan Isaac.
Notable Trade Assets: Evan Fournier; Aaron Gordon; Mario Hezonja; Elfrid Payton; Jonathon Simmons; 2018 first-round pick.
Best Salary-Matching Assets: Terrence Ross (two years, $21 million; currently out with knee injury); Shelvin Mack (two years, $12 million with non-guarantee for 2018-19); Nikola Vucevic (two years, $25 million; currently out with hand injury).
The Orlando Magic could technically finish higher on this list. But the temptation to roll the dice on an established cornerstone type when they have yet to enter the next phase of their post-Dwight Howard rebuild was always flimsy.
Now that two of their best assets, Terrence Ross and Nikola Vucevic, are nursing injuries with extensive recovery timelines, they are more likely than ever to register themselves as sellers.
8. Phoenix Suns
Untouchable Players: Devin Booker.
Notable Trade Assets: Dragan Bender; Marquese Chriss; Josh Jackson; 2018 first-round pick; 2018 Miami Heat first-round pick (top-seven protected); 2018 Milwaukee Bucks first-round pick (protected Nos. 1 to 10 and 17 to 30); 2021 Miami Heat first-round pick.
Best Salary-Matching Assets: Tyson Chandler (two years, $26.6 million); Jared Dudley (two years, $19.5 million); Alex Len (expiring at $4.2 million); Greg Monroe (expiring at $17.9 million).
Almost everything about the Magic's situation can be applied to the Phoenix Suns. They are in the early stages of a rebuild after dealing away Eric Bledsoe. They could propose some lucrative packages if a star becomes available, but it would have to be another Kyrie Irving-type—a building block on the right side of 25 with at least two years standing between him and free agency.
And even then, the most ideal candidate doesn't equate to a no-brainer. Devin Booker will be extension-eligible this summer, and the Suns have already signed T.J. Warren to a new deal. Bringing in another expensive player accelerates their timeline. And short of Anthony Davis finding his way to the desert, they don't have the supporting cast to anchor those expectations.
7. Washington Wizards
Untouchable Players: Bradley Beal, Otto Porter and John Wall.
Notable Trade Assets: Marcin Gortat; Markieff Morris; Kelly Oubre Jr.; Tomas Satoransky; 2018 first-round pick.
Best Salary-Matching Assets: Jason Smith (two years, $10.7 million with player option for 2018-19).
Most of the Washington Wizards' best-possible trade offers are underwhelming at first glance. But they do have the tools to capitalize on sell-low auctions.
Attach two of Kelly Oubre Jr., Tomas Satoransky and a pick to Marcin Gortat, along with necessary filler, and they have assembled a package worthy of unwanted stars (Marc Gasol?) or imminent flight risks who might go up for sale (DeAndre Jordan and DeMarcus Cousins).
6. Toronto Raptors
Untouchable Players: DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry.
Notable Trade Assets: OG Anunoby; C.J. Miles; Jakob Poeltl; Pascal Siakam; Fred VanVleet; Delon Wright.
Best Salary-Matching Assets: Jonas Valanciunas (three years, $49.6 million with player option for 2019-20).
Every team wants a cross-position wing who defends his heart out, doesn't dominate the ball and attempts most of his shots at the rim or from beyond the arc. And when that player happens to be on his rookie-scale deal, superstar sellers pivoting into rebuilds turn to putty.
The Toronto Raptors have found that high-end plug-and-play prospect in OG Anunoby. Roping him to one of their younger bigs, Delon Wright and Jonas Valanciunas' salary would make for a strong blockbuster overture. The Raptors aren't especially likely to prioritize a midseason shakeup, but they are among the scant few quasi-contenders with the resources to browse for big names like they mean it.
5. Boston Celtics
Untouchable Players: Gordon Hayward (injured) and Kyrie Irving.
Notable Trade Assets: Jaylen Brown; Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart; Jayson Tatum; 2018 first-round pick; 2018 Los Angeles Lakers or 2019 Sacramento Kings first-round pick; 2019 Los Angeles Clippers first-round pick (lottery protected); 2019 Memphis Grizzlies first-round pick (top-eight protected).
Best Salary-Matching Assets: Aron Baynes (expiring at $4.3 million); Marcus Morris (two years, $10.4 million).
Shocked the Boston Celtics aren't No. 1? Try proposing a trade that includes one of their prized assets, make it public and circle back afterward. You will understand.
Boston can pursue any available A-lister team president Danny Ainge fanciesin theory. But its situation is too specific for general star-chasing. Al Horford, Kyrie Irving and, eventually, a healthy Gordon Hayward offer enough marquee-name power between them. Turning over the roster yet again for anyone less than a top-10 star is out of the question.
That considerably limits the Celtics' scope. They are keeping tabs on players like Anthony Davis, according to ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski, but the New Orlean Pelicans don't feel the pressure to shop him now, more than two years out from free agency. The same can be said of Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks.
For argument's sake, though, let's say one of those studs reaches the chopping block. Or maybe DeMarcus Cousins and Paul George become available. Pick your star. It doesn't matter. The Celtics don't have the salary-matching tools to avoid emptying their treasure chest.
Jayson Tatum is their fourth-highest paid player. Landing a star without including him and Jaylen Brown, plus additional filler, verges on impossible. And good luck selling that to Celtics Twitter, which burns red with rage at the mere mention of even cutting ties with Terry Rozier.
Dangle Antetokounmpo or Davis in front of Ainge, and he would part with Horford to help make the money work. He isn't doing that for Cousins or George. Superstar sellers rarely want maxed-out players over 30 anyway, and acquiring all-world talent loses a bit of luster when it comes at the expense of another.
The Celtics belong here regardless. They have amassed too many assets not to be. Ainge forever has his ear to the ground. The word "untouchable" isn't in his vocabulary, even if Hayward and Irving are exactly that. Ask Isaiah Thomas. If the right opportunity presents itself, the Celtics will pounce. They just won't actively hunt down that move until next season, when they have built up their expendable-asset base.
4. Los Angeles Lakers
Untouchable Players: None.
Notable Trade Assets: Lonzo Ball; Josh Hart; Kyle Kuzma; Brandon Ingram; Larry Nance Jr.; Julius Randle.
Best Salary-Matching Assets: Corey Brewer (expiring at $7.6 million); Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (expiring at $17.7 million); Jordan Clarkson (three years, $37.5 million); Brook Lopez (expiring at $22.6 million; currently dealing with an ankle injury).
The Los Angeles Lakers find themselves in the same boat as the Celtics: armed to the teeth with assets but nearly devoid of the motivation to use them.
Opening up dual-max slots this summer remains the presumptive goal. Orchestrating wholesale changes to their cap sheet before then jeopardizes what's left of the Paul George-LeBron James pipe dream—unless they are lopping off long-term salary in the process.
But the Lakers aren't particularly concerned with that. They won't fork over the sweeteners necessary to wipe off the three years and $54 million on Luol Deng's contract, according to Wojnarowski (h/t Bleacher Report's Maurice Moton). They are not even trying to complete tinier dumps a la Jordan Clarkson. As Wojnarowski explained:
"They believe they can trade Jordan Clarkson and get his money off. They prefer not to do it at the trade deadline. Clarkson has helped them win games this year, and because they don't have their pick, they want to win as many games as they can. But there's got to be a sequencing here. And it gets back to, are they going to chase one max-salary slot, or two?"
Waiting makes some semblance of sense. Coughing up assets for cap space the Lakers may not need can be detrimental. Likewise, in the event George (or Cousins) becomes available, they won't be tripping over themselves to relinquish value for a player they could poach outright.
Still, getting the inside track has its merits. And the Lakers have the combination of salary-matching tools and prime-time prospects to wedge their way into every superstar hypothetical.
They shouldn't hack up a Lonzo Ball or Brandon Ingram to reel in a Marc Gasol- or DeAndre Jordan-sized fish, but ponying up for the right stud—including Cousins and George—would go a long way toward getting them meaningful face time with another one in free agency.
3. Milwaukee Bucks
Untouchable Players: Giannis Antetokounmpo and Eric Bledsoe.
Notable Trade Assets: Malcolm Brogdon; Thon Maker; Khris Middleton; Jabari Parker; Tony Snell; D.J. Wilson.
Best Salary-Matching Assets: John Henson (three years, $31.7 million); Mirza Teletovic (two years, $21 million; currently sidelined with blood-clot issues).
As of early December, the Milwaukee Bucks ranked among the teams most aggressively pursuing a Jordan trade, according to Bleacher Report's Ken Berger. That they never progressed beyond preliminary interest (as far we know) either says something about their willingness to construct a package around their best assets or speaks to the Los Angeles Clippers' faith in a forthcoming turnaround.
Bet on the former because the Bucks are kicking around all sorts of tires elsewhere.
"They're looking for a physical center," one front office executive told the Racine Journal Times' Gery Woelfel. "They have [John] Henson and they got [Thon] Maker, but they don’t have that physical big.’’
Both JaVale McGee and Zaza Pachulia have most recently caught their eye, per The Athletic's Marcus Thompson—non-needle nudgers who appeal to bargain-bin shoppers. But the Bucks needn't peruse the clearance rack. They have just enough juice to remain in the Jordan sweepstakes or to make pitches for the Cousinses and Gasols of the world.
Reigning Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon and Maker don't do much to match salaries; they are earning a combined $4 million this season. But they carry the cachet of middle- to-upper-first-round prospects, essentially nullifying the Bucks' inability to flip this year's pick after sending it to Phoenix, with wonky protection, as part of the Bledsoe deal.
Where other teams must independently piece together salary filler and impact contributors, Milwaukee wields both in Khris Middleton and Tony Snell. Middelton plays like a fringe All-Star some nights and is a steal at $40.1 million over the next three years (player option for 2019-20). Snell is a quality three-and-D complement making market-level money (four years, $44 million).
Jabari Parker's mystique hasn't faded, either. He's working his way back from a second ACL injury and is due for a massive raise in restricted free agency, but last season's scoring average (20.1 points), polished three-point stroke (36.5 percent) and improved defensive mobility speak for themselves.
Pair Middleton or Snell with one or two of the younger assets, and the Bucks have a blockbuster-worthy offer. Whether they are open to going that route is an entirely separate issue, but they inherently expedited their timeline with the Bledsoe trade. They would have cause to embrace another shakeup if the right big-name gamble materializes.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers
Untouchable Players: LeBron James.
Notable Trade Assets: Jae Crowder; Cedi Osman; Tristan Thompson; 2018 first-round pick; 2018 Brooklyn Nets first-round pick.
Best Salary-Matching Assets: Channing Frye (expiring at $7.4 million); Iman Shumpert (two years, $21.3 million with player option for 2018-19); J.R. Smith (three years, $44.2 million with $3.9 million guarantee for 2019-20).
Strike the Brooklyn Nets selection from the record, and the Cleveland Cavaliers aren't working with anything spectacular.
Jae Crowder has more pep in his step these days, Cedi Osman has developed a nice rapport with LeBron James and some members of the second unit and having the flexibility to trade their own pick (if they keep Brooklyn's) matters. Make no mistake, though: The Cavaliers' clout at the bargaining table is rooted almost solely in the Nets choice.
Brooklyn would be in a four-way tie for the NBA's seventh-worst record if the season ended now. That precludes Cleveland from hawking this first-rounder as a top-three prospect in waiting. But peddling a top-seven newcomer isn't nothing—not in this draft, which boasted as many as four possibilities at No. 1 before Michael Porter Jr.'s injury, per The Undefeated's Marc J. Spears.
The Cavaliers know this. They are actively planning around this. As one general manager phrased it to Sporting News' Sean Deveney: "That's the Plan B for the LeBron stuff, and from what I know, they don’t want to budge on it."
Budging on future ambitions is part and parcel of employing James, even when he's barreling toward free agency. The Cavaliers can hold on to this selection as a worst-case safety net, but they are at the same time obligated to explore all their options—especially now.
No James-led squad has ever looked deeper. Cleveland's bench owns the fourth-best point differential per 100 possessions—and the third-best since the team's 5-7 start. Isaiah Thomas' return will only deepen the rotation. And while that depth will fare the Cavaliers well in pursuit of a fourth consecutive NBA Finals appearance, it doesn't quite do enough to give them an airtight case against the Golden State Warriors.
Can they really pass on the chance to consolidate supporting-cast members and salary-cap feed into another impact player if it presents itself? Never mind Gasol or Jordan. What if George becomes available? Or what if the Charlotte Hornets hit reset and are willing to broker a Kemba Walker-Michael Kidd-Gilchrist twofer?
Planning around James' departure calls for Cleveland to do one thing, but the pull to win with him—and ultimately keep him, figures to be stronger.
1. Denver Nuggets
Untouchable Players: Nikola Jokic.
Notable Trade Assets: Will Barton; Malik Beasley; Juan Hernangomez; Trey Lyles; Emmanuel Mudiay; Jamal Murray; 2018 first-round draft pick.
Best Salary-Matching Assets: Darrell Arthur (two years, $15 million with player option for 2018-19); Wilson Chandler (two years, $24.8 million with player option for 2018-19); Kenneth Faried (two years, $26.7 million).
Paul Millsap's wrist injury doesn't change much for the Denver Nuggets.
They have the win-now pieces to ride out developments for Trey Lyles, Emmanuel Mudiay and Jamal Murray, among other youngsters, while snagging a playoff berth. They also have the experience, star power (Millsap and Nikola Jokic) and role-player depth (Will Barton, Wilson Chandler and Gary Harris) to talk themselves into doubling down on this season.
Given the commitment they have shown to grooming Murray, the Nuggets appear content grinding through the season. They jettisoned Jameer Nelson, last year's most used floor general, before the start of 2017-18 and haven't hesitated to diminish Mudiay's role, even when he's healthy.
If they were obsessed with making an immediate splash, they would have factored more heavily into the Kyrie Irving trade bonanza over the summer. Then again, they might just be that bullish on Murray or perhaps that afraid of Irving's foray on to the open market in 2019 (player option).
Either way, the Nuggets don't have to sacrifice their sophomore for a large-scale move, hence their top billing.
So many of their other most prominent assets are dispensable. Barton has played some point and is in the running for Sixth Man of the Year, but his impending free agency renders him far from untouchable. Mudiay remains a top-seven prospect, yet they have hardly used him since his return from an ankle injury.
Kenneth Faried is on a semi-reasonable contract and has fallen out of the rotation following Trey Lyles' detonation. And Lyles himself hasn't played himself into the off-limits section. Denver has a ton of other options to test out up front, including Juan Hernangomez and Mason Plumlee.
Combine one of the Nuggets' best salary-matchers with Mudiay, this year's pick and another prospect or two, and they would have an interesting starting point for just about any deal. And if a talented enough star comes along, such as Walker, they always have Murray as the trump card.