Unlikely NBA Stars Who Could Be Traded This Season
Everybody loves a good blockbuster trade. The NBA's rumor mill has mutated into a sideshow, a league, all its own.
Anonymously sourced reports, contract situations, free-agent flight risks, locker room theatrics and outright trade demands are the lifeblood of NBA Twitter. But nothing beats the moment a star player initially reaches the chopping block. Everything else that comes after is to some degree predictable, even when a surprise suitor emerges or a practice is hijacked by one disgruntled, All-NBA-caliber, previously estranged employee.
The advent of chatter, while sometimes a confirmation for pre-existing suspicions and conspiracies, carries a hypnotic suddenness.
Remember when Kyrie Irving's unhappiness with the Cleveland Cavaliers became consensus knowledge? And when it first became clear that the relationship between Kawhi Leonard and the San Antonio Spurs wasn't hunky-dory?
That next smack-us-in-the-face, tough-to-envision A-list trade candidate is out there. He is always out there. Trying to find him is, as consumers of chaos, our civic duty.
This space is not for everyone. It ignores the most common subjects, including Jimmy Butler, CJ McCollum, Kemba Walker and even Kevin Love (trade-eligible in January). Some of these names have been bandied about in loose terms, but they're not considered currently or eventually available. Most, if not all, of them won't be up for grabs this season. They're not supposed to be.
Spotting the next surprising blockbuster-trade centerpiece demands a more flexible imagination—a willingness to go beyond the ultra-obvious big names and indulge long-shot and worst-case scenarios that, for whatever reason, might necessitate high-profile divorces.
Notable Exclusions: Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis
Soapbox rant time!
Living in the bold, clickbaity lane doesn't call for stupidity. The emphasis here is on the 2018-19 season. Anyone spinning Giannis Antetokounmpo or Anthony Davis as a semiplausible trade candidate is at least one year ahead of themselves—and likely on the Boston Celtics' payroll.
Contract situations matter. The New Orleans Pelicans could stink something awful for the next three months and whiff on the most basic expectations, and they still wouldn't have to worry about Davis' future until this summer, when he'll either accept or decline a five-year designated veteran extension worth north of $220 million.
The Milwaukee Bucks have even more time with Antetokounmpo. Assuming he qualifies (he will), he won't be eligible for the supermax until 2020 and isn't scheduled for free agency until 2021. Real urgency needn't set in for almost another two years.
And who's to say the Pelicans or Bucks ever submit to free-agency jitters? Should the Oklahoma City Thunder be crucified for not dealing Kevin Durant in 2015-16? Should the Cavaliers have tried to get LeBron James to waive his no-trade clause last season? Some players are worth the risk of losing for nothing if they're not actively angling for early exits, a la Butler and Paul George.
The calculus is different for non-contenders in small markets but only by so much. (Also: The Bucks might be contenders for years to come in the Eastern Conference.) Antetokounmpo and Davis are best-player-on-a-championship-team material. The Bucks and Pelicans wouldn't be wrong to try turning their stars should they flinch at making long-term commitments before exploring free agency.
At the bare minimum, Antetokounmpo and Davis are irreplaceable transcendents teams shouldn't surrender until—and unless—they absolutely have to move them. And neither Antetokounmpo nor Davis is remotely liable to denounce his allegiances this season. Milwaukee and New Orleans have time before they reach that point of no return, if they ever even get there.
Let's Get Weird: Gordon Hayward or Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics
Kyrie Irving plans on re-signing with the Celtics this summer (player option), according to The Athletic's Shams Charania...and Kyrie Irving. Boston plans to resume contract talks with Terry Rozier this summer, per ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski. Al Horford will be a free agent in 2019 (player option) or 2020. Jaylen Brown is extension-eligible next summer. Jayson Tatum is right behind him the following year. Gordon Hayward can explore free agency in 2020 (player option).
Keeping this core together will eventually be untenable. For now, the Celtics may not care. Their tax bill will be relatively manageable through the 2019-20 season. Drastic decisions come later.
Except, what if they come sooner?
Ainge isn't known for making players untouchable. The Celtics have shown restraint in the Butler and Leonard sweepstakes, but a superstar with more than a year left on his deal could invite action. They might also like the idea of divesting a monster salary into complementary pay grades so they're not up against the repeater tax when new deals for Brown and Tatum kick in.
Hayward would seem to be the more at-risk of Boston's two stars. Irving becomes an interesting centerpiece in packages for Antetokounmpo and Davis, but both are off-limits for this season. It doesn't make sense to move a 26-year-old superstar if the Celtics aren't getting a younger upgrade in return.
Shipping out Hayward isn't something to be taken lightly either. But Boston doesn't have to be as choosy with him. Brown and Tatum could render him expendable, and Hayward is more likely to throw off last year's dynamic than anyone on the team.
Let's say the Celtics are underachieving by midseason. Hayward is healthy and producing, but the introduction of another A-lister overdilutes the product. Turning him into more complementary weapons and cost-controlled assets wouldn't be the most absurd thing in the world, particularly if teams want him—which they will.
The Miami Heat could dangle packages built around Josh Richardson if they never get Butler. The Phoenix Suns have cost-controlled assets galore. The Philadelphia 76ers could get weird with Robert Covington-and-other-stuff offers (a pick, Dario Saric, salary filler, etc.).
None of this is likely. It's also not rooted in complete inanity. Ergo, it jibes with the theme of this early-season exercise.
Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards
Roster overhaul will be unavoidable if the Washington Wizards remain on their treadmill of underachievement. They may not about-face into a total rebuild—their payroll won't allow it—but they cannot keep redressing the margins while preserving the nucleus and declaring themselves different enough.
The current iteration of the Wizards may have already overstayed their welcome. Last year's playoff push was underwhelming, almost damning. This season is their last, last chance to rage against the notion that they've peaked as constructed.
If it becomes clear earlier than expected they don't have the depth or 24-carat star power to scrap with the Celtics, Bucks, 76ers and Toronto Raptors, the front office has to consider going nuclear. That begins with reassessing Washington's three highest-paid players: Otto Porter Jr., Bradley Beal and John Wall.
The all-business approach would beg Washington to shop Wall. Maybe that happens. But his four-year, $170.9 million extension doesn't take effect until next season. The Wizards aren't netting a top-shelf return if they're hocking him around the league before bankrolling the first year of that deal.
Porter is plug-and-play divinity. Teams will trip over themselves to land a switchy wing who doesn't hold the ball hostage on offense. But Porter is overpaid with three years and $81.8 million remaining on his deal (player option for 2020-21). Prospective suitors won't gobble up that money and send back a king's ransom for a non-star.
Beal is the default choice. He is the middle ground between Porter and Wall. He's not a top-20 player, but he's an All-Star who can survive as the central offensive focus while playing off other ball-dominant leads.
Most teams won't see the $81.3 million he's owed over the next three years as a detriment. That's right around market value for a legitimate 1B, which should make it easier for the Wizards to extract more than salary-cap relief out of interested parties.
Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies
Breaking up the band isn't in the Memphis Grizzlies' immediate plans. From signing Kyle Anderson to acquiring Garrett Temple, they spent the entire offseason trying to squeeze another postseason bid out of the Mike Conley-Marc Gasol era.
Memphis' lone emphasis on the bigger picture this summer was drafting Jaren Jackson Jr. instead of using the No. 4 pick to offload Chandler Parsons' deal.
Still, the Grizzlies must be prepared to embrace another tank—and an actual rebuild—on a whim.
Misfortune in San Antonio (Dejounte Murray's torn ACL) and Minnesota (whatever the hell is happening with Butler) opens the door for fringe-postseason hopefuls like Memphis, but plenty of other squads will be vying for the final spots, too. Twelve of the West's 15 teams started the season with postseason aspirations. That number could climb to 13 if the Dallas Mavericks go boom.
Falling behind in the playoff race prior to Jan. 1 would demand the Grizzlies consider a teardown. More obvious trade candidates include Parsons and Marc Gasol (player option for 2019-20), but they both come off the books by 2020.
Mike Conley's contract spans an extra year (early termination option for 2020-21). Moving him would do more to help Memphis decongest its books, and when healthy, he holds more value than either Gasol or Parsons.
Yes, he's overpaid. But a team like Phoenix or San Antonio could see Conley as its answer at point guard, and suitors who don't appeal to marquee names in free agency might view the length of his contract as an asset.
Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors
Toronto Raptors fans should not feel jilted by Leonard's inclusion.
Team president Masai Ujiri acquired him as a rental, so the prevailing assumption remains that this marriage is temporary. We can say this while also acknowledging that the Raptors have a legitimate chance to re-sign Leonard.
"Danny Green said today he has never seen Kawhi Leonard this vocal," the Toronto Sun's Ryan Wolstat tweeted in early October. "[Head coach Nick] Nurse had talked yesterday of Leonard's leadership. Green isn't sure if it is a seniority/age thing—wasn't going to say much around [Tim] Duncan, Manu [Ginobili], [Tony] Parker, etc.—but said he definitely seems comfortable here."
Things change, though. Perhaps the Raptors won't march into 2019 as the toast of the East. Maybe Leonard ever so conveniently gets that Los Angeles itch again closer to the trade deadline. Or perhaps he realizes Toronto isn't for him and informs the team of his intention to leave in free agency (player option).
Whatever the case, the Raptors have a decision on their hands if Leonard looks like a goner.
Carrying on as planned is fine. They can hope for late-season magic and shoot their shot over the summer. If Leonard leaves, they'll get cap relief and a clearer path to starting over. But abandoning ship early has its advantages as well.
Thirsty admirers will give up something for Leonard. It doesn't matter if he's a months-long placeholder. He's a top-five player at full strength. He tips the scales of a championship pursuit, even if only in the interim. And confident front offices will find value in controlling his Bird rights heading into free agency.
The Raptors need to know Leonard is checked out or failing to buy in for them to alter course. Even then, cutting this experiment short might not be in the cards. But Ujiri is nothing if not resourceful. Anything resembling a definitive sign of Leonard's exit should be enough for him to mull the offers that will be out there.
Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
Damian Lillard is the closest we come to a cliche candidate. General manager Neil Olshey has thus far resisted calls to blow up the Portland Trail Blazers, but starting anew was at least on the table over the summer. As ESPN.com's Zach Lowe wrote:
"Please stop trumpeting Portland earning the No. 3 seed last season as proof they are immune to a lottery appearance. They finished two games ahead of the No. 8 seed before the Pelicans humiliated them. That sweep teetered the Blazers on the edge of organizational upheaval. It always makes me nervous when a team nears that precipice and turns back, confident it can stay the course. Once certain tensions come out in the open, it can be hard to forget they are there."
All the will-they-won't-they speculation isn't going away. The Blazers are not postseason formalities. Dip far enough outside the playoff picture over the next couple of months, and the temptation to shake things up becomes impossible to ignore.
McCollum is Portland's most regularly referenced trade bait, and his relocation could be part of any wholesale pivot. But his departure doesn't initiate a meaningful redesign. No team is forking over the moon to pay the balance of his contract (three years, $82.8 million). McCollum is someone the Blazers flip if they think a slightly different look elevates their position in the West.
Damian Lillard's market value is a different story altogether. Teams rarely have the chance to trade for top-10ish players with three years left on their deal. Lillard is signed through 2020-21, so his next team would get more face time with him than the Celtics are receiving with Irving.
Granted, this same logic applies to the Blazers. They don't have to worry about Lillard leaving before 2021. They have time to try figuring things out if anything goes wrong. But they aren't the Bucks. They aren't even the Pelicans, who can sell Davis on a path to cap space in 2019.
The Blazers do not have a clear path to the top of the conference. If they tire of their place in the middle—a big-friggin' if so long as Olshey runs the show—Lillard is the kind of asset who can net cap relief, picks and prospects all at once.