Finding the Next Kawhi: NBA Superstars Most Likely to Be Traded NextSeptember 6, 2018
Finding the Next Kawhi: NBA Superstars Most Likely to Be Traded Next
Kawhi Leonard is the latest in a long line of NBA superstars to be traded prior to free agency or after becoming disenchanted with his current digs.
So, following his relocation from the San Antonio Spurs to Toronto Raptors, who's got next?
Another Kawhi Leonard debacle is always coming down the pipeline. Different superstars are getting one year closer to free agency every season. Teams stuck in the mud are squandering goodwill with incumbent stars each passing summer. Marquee names get the itch to play in glitzier markets or assume fresh roles.
It doesn't always seem like the next blockbuster is on the horizon. The rumor mill grinds to a relative halt and teams redouble their efforts to sidestep franchise-altering decisions. Make no mistake, though, there will be another trade involving a superstar this season.
In an attempt to find it, we've pored over the pool of top-25 stars, plucking out the ones in the most delicate situations. We'll go through them in increasing order of how likely they are to be shipped elsewhere by February's trade deadline.
The Not-This-Year Exclusions
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Contract Details: Free agent in 2021
Unless Giannis Antetokounmpo goes from "Bucks player most likely to have Milwaukee's area code tattooed on the inside of his wrist" to visibly frustrated that the team keeps signing Shabazz Muhammad, his situation won't reach DEFCON 1 until 2020, the year before he's scheduled for free agency.
Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
Contract Details: Free agent in 2020 (player option)
Let the Anthony Davis-Boston Celtics jokes fly. They're fun. But let the actual speculation die. The Pelicans shouldn't be kicking around Davis trades before next summer, when he's eligible to sign a massive designated veteran extension.
If he balks at accepting that five-year agreement worth north of $220 million, they'll have to solicit offers. For now, general manager Dell Demps should block Danny Ainge's cellphone number(s).
Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers
Contract Details: Free agent in 2023
The last time Kevin Love was a No. 1 option, in 2013-14, he averaged 26.1 points, 12.5 rebounds and 4.4 assists while garnering consideration as a top-10 player. Is Alpha Kevin still anywhere near that level? Do the Cavaliers plan on keeping him if he is? Or did they give him a four-year, $120.4 million extension merely to try increasing his trade value?
Whatever the end result, this doesn't feel like a situation fated to reach a resolution before next summer. You know, after Cleveland realizes its push to remain a playoff team only amounted to an 11-seed.
Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
Contract Details: Free agent in 2021
Damian Lillard created a not-so-miniature firestorm in July when he expressed one-character heartbreak over Ed Davis signing with the Brooklyn Nets. Then, after someone asked him on Twitter whether he'd be cool with the Portland Trail Blazers trading him to the Los Angeles Lakers to play with LeBron James, he wrote back, "I'm typically a happy camper"—a seemingly deliberate dose of ambiguity.
Lillard later downplayed his response, reiterating his love for the Blazers organization and the city of Portland, per the Oregonian's Joe Freeman. Not that it would have mattered if the All-NBA point guard stayed silent or anything.
Leverage isn't going to get Lillard out of Portland. He's not marked for free agency until 2021. He doesn't have the juice to force a trade unless Portland is easier to manipulate than the Cleveland Cavaliers were upon fielding Kyrie Irving's own trade request two years away from free agency.
Complacency is the more imminent threat to the Lillard-era Blazers. They finished third in the Western Conference last season, but they were only three games ahead of the ninth-place Denver Nuggets and suffered a first-round sweep at the hands of the Pelicans. The path to meaningful improvement is inaccessible. The Blazers won't have real cap space until 2020 at the earliest, and they'll likely need to wait until 2021, at which point both Lillard and CJ McCollum will both become free agents.
Another run-of-the-mill conference finish could invite a teardown or a shakeup. Portland will have an idea where it stands, and whether it's even a playoff team, by midseason. It wouldn't come as a surprise if general manager Neil Olshey reacted to a worst-case trajectory with a quasi-fire sale. But this assumes the Blazers are bothered by their standstill. They might not be.
"This narrative that if you don't win a championship then it's not worth competing, that's a false premise," Olshey told SB Nation's Paul Flannery in April. "There's got to be an intrinsic joy of watching your team play well and compete. If it's just about the end result and not about the journey, then what's the point?"
Keep an eye on the Blazers if their 2018-19 campaign goes sideways. Even then, McCollum could be the first to go. Lillard's exit would signal a full-tilt rebuild, but they could spin moving a fringe star as part of a retooling process. He'd need to make life difficult behind closed doors as the Blazers regress amid the West's bloodbath for his situation to reach critical mass.
Teams to watch if Lillard becomes available: Lakers, Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Clippers, Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns
Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors
Contract Details: Free agent in 2019 (player option)
What if the NBA's next Kawhi Leonard is...Kawhi Leonard?
MindBlown.gif, am I right?
The Raptors traded for Leonard knowing they weren't on his list of preferred landing spots. He's heading to Canada with an "open mind," according to the San Antonio Express-News' Jabari Young (via TSN Toronto), but league sources have continually told ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski that Leonard is "primarily interested" in joining the Clippers or Lakers next summer.
Toronto has an entire season to sway its new star. Fighting for the top spot in the Eastern Conference and contending for an NBA Finals berth should appeal to the competitor—and champion—in him.
Even if things go belly up, the Raptors could balk at rerouting Leonard. The Oklahoma City Thunder are their role models. They retained Paul George after an imperfect year. Leonard could grow to love Toronto, Kyle Lowry and his defensive partnership with OG Anunoby.
If he's still lukewarm on his situation by January or so, the Raptors can lean on their ability to offer him a fifth year and higher annual raises than any other team. That security may win over a player who both lost most of 2017-18 to a quad injury and punted on a lucrative designated veteran extension by orchestrating his exit from San Antonio.
Splash in the squeaky-clean books they're positioned to enjoy in 2020 after jettisoning DeMar DeRozan, and the Raptors could be content to let the season play out and start from scratch if Leonard leaves. Then again, he made it perfectly clear he wanted out of San Antonio. He could express the same sentiments about Toronto closer to the trade deadline—in which case the Raptors would be obligated to see what, if anything, they can get when dangling him as a half-season rental.
Teams to watch if Leonard becomes available: Clippers, Lakers, Sixers, Boston Celtics, Miami Heat
Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics
Contract Details: Free agent in 2019 (player option)
Irving's future with the Celtics shouldn't be in question. They gave up a number of assets last summer to get him. They're set to dominate the Eastern Conference for the next half-decade, if not longer. Irving doesn't turn 27 until March.
This shouldn't be complicated. And yet, it kind of it. Irving's unidentified priorities make it so: Does he care more about winning another championship, syncing up with a superstar friend or being the face of a franchise?
Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes rolled with the latter while identifying Irving as his pick for the most likely top-25 player to be traded during an appearance on the Hardwood Knocks podcast (36:01 mark)
"He very clearly wants to be 'the guy' on his team. You don't leave LeBron James and say that's the reason, unless that's your whole M.O. Jayson Tatum's not there yet, but it kind of feels like Boston wants Jayson Tatum to be that guy. And if it's not him, it's Jaylen Brown. And Al Horford is better than Kyrie Irving.
"So, if you're just kind of scoring at home, Irving might be sort of fourth on the totem pole. And that's before they get Anthony Davis, or before they trade their [2019 Sacramento pick] for something awesome. So, I could see him angling to get out because he wants his team, and the Celtics are just not his team."
Leaving Boston to join forces with another star doesn't back this train of thought, but Irving is interested in playing beside Jimmy Butler, per ESPN.com's Zach Lowe. Maybe he sees someone older as less of a threat to his place in the pecking order. Or maybe he just wants to play in New York or Los Angeles.
The Celtics don't have to panic either way. Their stake in the championship conversation and open-ended timeline affords them a certain confidence.
Brown and Tatum do add to the dilemma, though. So, too, do Horford and Gordon Hayward. All of them will need new deals by 2022. Horford (player option) could join Irving in free agency next summer. Brown (restricted) and Hayward (player option) will follow suit in 2021, when Tatum is extension-eligible and one year from a major raise.
Boston isn't paying everyone. It can't. Re-signing Irving and then figuring out the rest later is a sensible play, but if he isn't fully invested in the program by midseason, the Celtics have an army of playmakers and a cheaper alternative in Terry Rozier (restricted in 2019). Things could get interesting in Boston as February approaches, no matter how much of a lead the Celtics have in the East.
Teams to watch if Irving becomes available: Clippers, Heat, Nets, Spurs, New York Knicks
Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets
Contract Details: Free agent in 2019
The Charlotte Hornets reportedly made Kemba Walker "available in trade discussions" ahead of last year's deadline, according to Wojnarowski. But he's no longer up for grabs—at least not yet.
The Hornets made that eminently clear when they switched out the final season of Dwight Howard's contract for Timofey Mozgov, who they used to re-acquire Bismack Biyombo, and then signed Tony Parker to a two-year deal. A team interested in building from the ground up under rookie head coach James Borrego would have acted differently. Charlotte is focused on busting out of its 36-46 rut and ending a two-year playoff drought.
Dealing Walker runs counter to that aim, but the Hornets are not assured of a postseason spot even with him. Rookie Miles Bridges, sophomore Malik Monk and a healthy Cody Zeller are their best shots at noticeable improvement. None of their other moves stand out. Neither Biyombo nor Parker elevates their ceiling, and viewing Howard's departure as addition by subtraction only does so much.
Charlotte finds itself in the same boat as the rest of the East's fringe playoff squads. And there will be room for only two of the Hornets, Cavaliers, Heat and Detroit Pistons in the postseason dance. A slow start, or even seesawing between eighth and 10th place, could prompt another round of reflection that ends in an overhaul.
Granted, the Hornets do not have to worry about missed expectations ruining their chances with Walker. He is not a max-contract formality. The fifth year and higher annual raises they can offer will matter to a point guard who has played the past four seasons on a below-market deal.
Still, Walker's timeline doesn't jibe with a lesser version of the Hornets. He turns 29 in May. If they aren't playoff material now, they won't have the means to make a dent in the East's hierarchy before he's into his 30s. They're light on trade chips beyond him and aren't slated for cap space until 2020—wiggle room that a near-max salary for Walker would compromise.
Swindling suitors is out of the question. The Hornets missed that boat by more than a year. They'll be lucky to get a mid-first-rounder while escaping a bad contract. That could incentivize them to let him hit free agency, but unless they're entrenched as a playoff team when the calendar flips to 2019, the call for them to move him and start anew will only grow stronger with time.
Teams to watch if Walker becomes available: Knicks, Nuggets, Suns, Indiana Pacers, Utah Jazz
Jimmy Butler, Minnesota Timberwolves
Contract Details: Free agent in 2019
Is this giving Minnesota Timberwolves coach-president Tom Thibodeau too much credit? Because it sure feels like this is giving him too much credit.
Thibs gave up a handful of serviceable assets to get Butler, and the Timberwolves are dead set are rattling the Western Conference's cages right now. Jettisoning him may end up being the prudent move, but it would entail a complete 180.
Plus, Butler is a former member of Thibodeau's Chicago Bulls. Does Thibs possess the foresight to discontinue a reunion that already has Taj Gibson and Derrick Rose in attendance and could soon include the recently waived Luol Deng and might-be-stretched Joakim Noah?
Butler would have to make it clear he has no intention of returning to Minnesota for the Timberwolves to get fidgety. Then, and only then, will Thibs maybe, potentially, possibly be coaxed into taking action. And for his part, Butler doesn't seem that far off from preemptively dissing the Timberwolves.
His interest in playing next to Irving is real, per Lowe. A source also told Bleacher Report's Eric Pincus that Butler is "open to the idea" of joining LeBron James on the Lakers. And then there's his purported distaste for Minnesota's kiddies, including Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, according to the Chicago Sun-Times' Joe Cowley and Sporting News' Sean Deveney.
Mash this all together, and the Timberwolves are shaping up to be one of this season's best theatrical draws. They may be more against trading their star than any other team featured here, but Butler has the stewing leverage to leave them with no choice.
Teams to watch if Butler becomes available: Blazers, Clippers, Lakers, Raptors, Sixers
Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com or Basketball Reference. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders and RealGM.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.