Finding Ideal Landing Spots for NBA's Top Trade Deadline Targets
Neither NBA teams nor players can vocalize their true preference for what takes place between now and the Feb. 7 trade deadline.
Clubs would cost themselves leverage by making their desires known, and players must keep as many options open as possible at all times.
Even if it sounds like someone is tipping their hand, remember that we're in peak smokescreen season. All trade rumors should be digested with several grains of salt.
With that said, there's an ideal deadline for everyone. Weaknesses are well-defined by this point, so clubs should have a clear shopping list, and players can see which situations would offer the best combination of individual opportunity and team success.
We're taking both sides into account here as we try to align the market's top realistic trade targets with the best-fitting buyer. Again, we're talking realistic trade candidates only—no megastars, not even that unibrowed one everyone keeps talking about. (The New Orleans Pelicans shouldn't even consider dealing Anthony Davis before seeing how he responds to his upcoming supermax offer.)
If the basketball gods are keeping everyone's best interests in mind, this is where this season's best trade chips should land.
Nikola Vucevic: Los Angeles Clippers
Nikola Vucevic is playing the best basketball you aren't watching in the Eastern Conference. The Los Angeles Clippers are doing the same out West.
Pairing these kindred spirits together feels like a match made in hoops heaven.
Vooch isn't a star, but he's better than good. Long a tough cover as a post scorer with adequate midrange touch, he's now also a regular three-point shooter (1.2 makes per game at a 38.3 percent clip) and complementary playmaker (3.8 assists). Four players are averaging at least 20 points, 11 rebounds and three assists this season: Vucevic, Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid.
That isn't to suggest Vucevic suddenly belongs in the elite big man conversation, but rather to point out he's probably playing better than you think. Isn't that also the unofficial tagline of the 2018-19 Clippers?
Tobias Harris is suddenly a 50/40/90 candidate. Danilo Gallinari is shooting a career-best 44.6 percent from deep. Lou Williams, a two-time Sixth Man of the Year, has never been more productive on a per-36-minute basis. Montrezl Harrell owns the NBA's 12th-highest player efficiency rating.
When those four share the floor, the Clippers have been more efficient than the Toronto Raptors, Denver Nuggets, Oklahoma City Thunder and 23 other teams (plus-5.7 net rating, which would be tied for fourth).
L.A. might not be a contender, but this has all the makings of a postseason pest. Adding Vucevic would up the playoff odds and increase the difficulty for whichever first-round opponent it draws. Plus, he's playing on an expiring deal, which means the Clippers could improve their present without spoiling their massive dreams for the future—provided the Orlando Magic would have interest in a package built around 2018 No. 13 overall pick Jerome Robinson.
Marc Gasol: San Antonio Spurs
Ever looked at Marc Gasol's game and imagined how perfectly it could fit into the well-oiled machine that is the San Antonio Spurs' system? Well, he might have, too.
Remember last season when Gasol was butting heads with former Memphis Grizzlies head coach (now New York Knicks skipper) David Fizdale? Well, when Gasol reportedly questioned Fizdale's leadership skills, Fizdale replied, "I get it, you want Gregg Popovich, and I want LeBron James," a source told Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News.
Maybe Gasol could get what he wants now.
He finally might be nearing the end of his Grit-and-Grind tenure, as Memphis appears to be going nowhere as the 14th seed in the 15-team Western Conference. Marc Stein of the New York Times recently reported hearing a "growing belief" that Gasol may test the open market this season. Shortly thereafter, The Athletic's Shams Charania reported both Gasol and Mike Conley Jr. had met with Grizzlies owner Robert Pera "to discuss the direction of the franchise."
Gasol could use a change of scenery, and the Alamo City looks perfect.
The Spurs utilize more post-ups than any other team, and Popovich has formerly funneled his offenses through the elbows, a place where Gasol's Grizzlies record the most touches. In other words, he'd be put in his most effective spots, and he'd return the favor by greasing the gears of San Antonio's uncharacteristically sticky offense (17th in assist percentage) and shoring up its shaky defense (17th in efficiency).
Gasol's growth as a shooter would unclog the middle a bit, and his slick distributing could increase the potency of DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Gay. If Memphis would take an offer of Bryn Forbes, Pau Gasol and filler, San Antonio could raise its ceiling multiple floors.
Kevin Love: Utah Jazz
If all references to the Cleveland Cavaliers were erased from the image above, tell me that's not a moment Utah Jazz fans have dreamed about over the last year. Donovan Mitchell and Kevin Love embracing in front of the Larry O'Brien NBA Championship Trophy? If the sight doesn't give you chills, you're probably getting your Jazz Fan Club membership revoked.
Love is a natural target for the Jazz, whom Sam Amico of Amico Hoops mentioned as a potential Love suitor back in October.
Utah, which ranks 20th in three-point percentage, needs more snipers. Love drilled 137 long-balls at a 41.5 percent clip last season. The Jazz need another scorer to ease the burden on Mitchell, who's set to become just the fifth qualified second-year player with a usage percentage north of 30. Love is averaging 18.3 points per game for his career and has booked All-Star trips as a primary scorer, sidekick and third wheel.
Assuming there's a Derrick Favors-focused offer Cleveland would accept—Love's trade value is...shall we say...not great—Utah might help Love as much as he'd assist it.
"Putting Love next to Rudy Gobert in Favors' place would give the Jazz a new scoring dimension without losing the rebounding Favors provided," The Ringer's Haley O'Shaughnessy wrote in June. "Being reunited with Ricky Rubio would mean Love would get the ball more often, and being paired in the same offense as Donovan Mitchell would lead to a lot of open shots."
With rangy defenders in front of him and Gobert manning the middle, Love's defensive limitations might be less harmful in Utah. The same could be true of his massive contract, since the Jazz aren't likely to add a player of his caliber through free agency. Oh, and the Park City superfan might even consider Salt Lake City a desired destination.
Bradley Beal: New Orleans Pelicans
Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis is on record as saying, "We will never, ever tank." That's either a renewed commitment to the flawed strategy of chasing immediate gratification at the expense of long-term growth or a last-ditch attempt to maximize the value of should-be-available trade chips.
For the sake of the Wizards, Bradley Beal and the NBA at large, let's hope it's the latter.
Washington needs a reset. Without doing something dramatic, the franchise will owe more than $92 million to Beal, John Wall and Otto Porter Jr. alone next season. If Porter exercises his 2020-21 option, the number would jump to $98.4 million the following year. Constructing a contender around that seems impossible, so it'd be best for the Wizards to embrace a teardown.
Trading Beal would be the most critical step of that process. Anyone could use what he brings: fiery outside shooting, lead (or support) scoring, secondary playmaking and feisty on-ball defense. He's 25 years old, cost-controlled through 2020-21 and perpetually elevating his ceiling. The bulk of his per-game averages this season are a new personal best, including 24.9 points, 5.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 1.4 steals.
The Wizards will undoubtedly seek the sun, moon and stars in a Beal swap, which is where the market gets murky. It'll take a desperate team to empty its treasure chest—say, a team needing another recruiting chip to convince Anthony Davis to ink a supermax extension, perhaps.
"Forking over multiple future picks is a monstrous gamble when Davis hasn't signed on the dotted line, and Beal doesn't solve everything wrong with the Pelicans," Bleacher Report's Dan Favale wrote earlier this month. "But this is the type of trade that gets Davis another All-Star running mate and elevates New Orleans' ceiling in a jam-packed Western Conference."
Davis-Beal pick-and-rolls might be unfair, and defenses could no longer throw the kitchen sink at the Brow. The two-way potential for a Beal-Jrue Holiday backcourt is tremendous, and the Pelicans could wreak temporary havoc by adding Elfrid Payton to the mix. Depth would be a major issue, but that's already the case for the Pelicans. Besides, stars matter most in the playoffs, and New Orleans badly needs another.
Kemba Walker: Indiana Pacers
But what's the long game if he does? The Hornets aren't likely to snag stars in free agency, and outside of Walker, they don't draft and develop them either. As ESPN.com's Zach Lowe broke down, Charlotte might be too flawed for Walker to fix:
"The Hornets do not have another top-50 player. Maxing out Walker would cramp their maneuverability in finding one. Walker will be 29 this summer. He's short—a defensive liability in the wrong postseason matchup. Paying a top-20 player into his 30s as if he were a top-eight player can hamstring a franchise for years. Charlotte can't tank with Walker on the roster. They might not be able to contend for anything with him on a max deal."
Walker needs an All-Star sidekick. Ditto for Victor Oladipo. So, why not put the two of them together on the Indiana Pacers, who have an elite defense but need another creator to ease the burden on their lone star?
Walker and Oladipo could split lead-guard duties, letting one attack while the other spots up and reverses to the opposite side if the first attempt falls flat. Indy already has spot-up snipers to spread the floor with Bojan Bogdanovic and Doug McDermott, plus high-level screeners in Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner. It'd be a pick-your-poison offense, which is perhaps the Pacers' key to reaching the conference finals.
As co-closers and off-the-bounce attackers, Walker and Oladipo would challenge defenses like few backcourts across the league can. If Indy could remain dominant on defense after the exchange, it should wind up with top-10 units at both ends of the floor, which history largely holds as a requirement for championship contention.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.