The 1 Trade to Convince Every Top NBA Free Agent to Stay This Offseason
Keeping NBA stars happy enough to stick around isn't an easy job. Nor is it one that ever ends.
Teams can do everything right and still lose cornerstones to free agency. Winning isn't always everything, and loyalty is an outmoded concept. Money still talks, but it's also basically equal for the league's top players. Getting an additional guaranteed year and slightly larger raises from incumbents doesn't matter as much when everyone is signing shorter contracts.
Appealing to a player's best interests has never been more of an inexact science. Some prioritize location. Others care more about the prominence of their role. Plenty still care about basketball fit. A few just look for a change of scenery and a different challenge after tackling another for years at a time.
Bake in trade demands that often precede free agency, and franchises have never been under more pressure. Not even the best of them are above wandering eyes.
Fiddling with rosters in advance of free agency can help. Stars typically welcome the opportunity to play alongside other stars. And while not every player will be swayed by last-minute blockbusters, a few could-be goners just might.
Trades Won't Be a Deciding Factor
Jimmy Butler (Player Option)/Tobias Harris, Philadelphia 76ers
Cutting down the number of ball-handlers jockeying for offensive control certainly helps the Sixers pitch Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris on long-term fits. They have obliterated defenses in the regular season and playoffs when the duo runs with the starting lineup, but both disappear for long stretches behind the usage of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and sometimes even JJ Redick.
Restocking the roster with standstill shooters would go a long way toward establishing a more consistent balance. So would adding a more off-ball-friendly floor general and big.
Good luck figuring out how the Sixers acquire those players. They cashed in their best assets for Butler and Harris. They're not striking a meaningful trade without going nuclear.
Renounce Harris and Redick, and the Sixers carve out the wiggle room necessary to flip Simmons for a star such as Bradley Beal or Anthony Davis. Turning him into high-end complements—Gary Harris and Jamal Murray, for instance—works, too.
Or Philly could hold onto all its own free agents and explore Embiid deals. His salary fits within star-for-star swaps, or he can be divested into a combination of smaller pieces—Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow and other stuff, for example.
Butler and Harris aren't worth this trouble. Embiid is a borderline top-10 player, and Simmons will follow a similar trajectory even without the development of a consistent jumper.
Kevin Durant (Player Option), Golden State Warriors
Would Golden State consider moving Draymond Green if doing so keeps Kevin Durant in town? Absolutely. Green will be extension-eligible this summer, and parlaying him into a couple of impact players holds some appeal for a Warriors franchise with a top-heavy payroll.
But Golden State's roster makeup won't determine Durant's future. The outcome of his free agency is a matter of inevitability—or, at the very least, sales pitch-proof.
"Most people in the NBA don't expect Durant to re-sign with the Warriors no matter what happens in the playoffs," The Athletic's Tim Kawakami reported. "It's the tacit bargain that I believe the Warriors' headliners all made—hang together to give their shot for a three-peat and then if Durant leaves, he leaves with no apologies necessary. But there's inherent tension in that, too, of course."
Wooing Durant all over again is fine. He's a top-five player. Maybe the euphoria of a probable three-peat and the ensuing chance to win a fourth consecutive title resonates with him. Conversely, he might want to free himself from Green's brand of leadership and passion.
We're fooling ourselves, though, if we think a trade will impact Durant's thought process. The Warriors are not landing Davis by using Green as the centerpiece, and dealing the defensive ace for a package of, say, Robert Covington and Dario Saric doesn't have the influence necessary to invert what appears to be a preplanned exit.
No Trades Necessary
Khris Middleton (Player Option), Milwaukee Bucks
Khris Middleton doesn't have the superstar sway to coax the Bucks into drastic action. They only risk losing him if they pinch pennies during negotiations or he gets the itch for a more prominent role.
Neither roadblock is a major concern. The Bucks offloaded 2019-20 salary and signed Eric Bledsoe to a team-friendly extension, presumably with Middleton's next contract in mind. They'll pay what it takes before letting him walk for nothing.
And Middleton isn't finding a comfier gig. He's the second in command on a contender, and no team is signing him to be its No. 1.
Things get dicier if Middleton demands a fifth year, but that's a sweetener only Milwaukee can offer. If he leaves over that, he was already gone.
Kristaps Porzingis (Restricted), Dallas Mavericks
Dallas plans on offering Kristaps Porzingis a five-year, $158 million max deal, according to ESPN's Tim MacMahon. He isn't turning that money down. Nor does he have the leverage necessary to make the Mavericks think he might.
They can match whatever offer he receives from competing suitors, and he's not playing out next season on his $4.5 million qualifying offer after he missed all of this year with a torn left ACL.
Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors
Klay Thompson probably doesn't want to leave the Warriors. No one even expects him to shop around unless Golden State tries to re-sign him on a discounted contract.
"Guys, I don't think Klay even gives the Lakers a meeting," ESPN's Ramona Shelburne said on The Hoop Collective podcast (h/t Warriors Wire's Phillip Barnett). "If [the Warriors] don't give him the full max, I think he goes someplace else. I really don't think Klay gives the Lakers a meeting.”
Golden State isn't responsible for recruiting Thompson anymore. He lives in a glamour market, has championships, plays with superstars and doesn't have the personality of someone who needs to revalidate himself by taking the reins of his own team. As long as the Warriors pay him market value—a max contract—his future entails zero guesswork.
Kyrie Irving (Player Option), Boston Celtics
Boston Celtics Receive: Anthony Davis
New Orleans Pelicans Receive: Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Boston's 2019 first-round pick, Memphis Grizzlies' 2019 first-round pick (top-eight protection in 2019; top-six protection in 2020; unprotected in 2021)
Landing him isn't a given. The Pelicans are not operating with a sense of desperation under new vice president of basketball operations David Griffin. He spent a portion of his introductory press conference projecting hope the organization's relationship with Davis is not beyond repair.
That might be obligatory executive-speak—an attempt at creating leverage where none exists. And, well, it could work. Griffin has a working relationship with Davis' agent, Rich Paul, dating back to the time he spent overseeing LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers. The Pelicans are not trading one of the NBA's seven best players for a hug and a song under his watch.
Aside from whichever team lands Zion Williamson in the draft, the Celtics are the only prospective suitor that doesn't have to fear the asking price. They have one of the most attractive building-block assets in Jayson Tatum and a slew of other goodies to throw New Orleans' way.
Exact parameters will be a sticking point. Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge will concoct permutations that don't include Tatum. If and when that fails, he'll aim to avoid giving up Jaylen Brown. So on and so forth.
New Orleans will push for everything and the kitchen sink. Boston has a responsibility to resist but needn't worry about overpaying. Davis, Irving, Gordon Hayward, Al Horford and whatever's left over is a contender.
And remember: The Celtics aren't just trading for Davis. They're acquiring the chance to turn Irving's free agency into a non-issue, and for the right to retain both long-term. Per The Athletic's Jay King, "The two have already spoken about what it would be like to play together in Boston."
Noise to the contrary matters, and more will follow. But a trade for Davis seems tantamount to the Celtics having and keeping two superstars.
Kawhi Leonard (Player Option), Toronto Raptors
New Orleans Pelicans Receive (after 2019 draft): OG Anunoby, Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam, 2020 first-round pick (unprotected), 2022 first-round pick (lottery protection; turns into two seconds if not conveyed)
Toronto Raptors Receive: Anthony Davis
Making a trade to keep Kawhi Leonard may be pointless. He might want to play on the West Coast that badly.
"Kawhi kind of wants to be on the West Coast," ESPN's Brian Windhorst said on The Jump. "The difficulty is that he doesn't really articulate his feelings to people."
One might wonder how we know of Leonard's feelings about the West Coast when he doesn't divulge said feelings. That's fair. But Toronto was not on his list of preferred trade destinations, and he's been linked to the Los Angeles Clippers since before he left the San Antonio Spurs.
Credit the Raptors for establishing themselves as a viable threat. They've joined the Bucks as Eastern Conference co-favorites, and Pascal Siakam's emergence diminishes the likelihood they're in for a short stay at the top. If Leonard leaves, it won't be because they didn't give him enough basketball reasons to stay.
Still, another one wouldn't hurt.
Siakam's transition into fringe stardom arms the Raptors with one of the most attractive (hypothetical) Anthony Davis trade packages. No team is beating the Celtics' all-in offer, but second place is up for grabs. Toronto has the extra juice with OG Anunoby, picks and expiring salary filler to overtake just about any other suitor that isn't dangling Zion Williamson.
Taking this swing is tough to stomach when the Raptors don't know whether Davis will be interested in sticking around. And they cannot surrender the moon for him without first knowing where Leonard stands.
Davis may guarantee Irving's loyalty to Boston. It won't work the same way for Leonard in Toronto. The Raptors need to have an ironclad(ish) inkling this trade wins him over, or they'll have mortgaged the future and weakened their big-picture pitch to Davis at the same time.
Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets
Charlotte Hornets Receive: Mike Conley, CJ Miles
Memphis Grizzlies Receive: Bismack Biyombo, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Malik Monk, 2019 first-round pick (30 days after the draftee signs), 2020 first-round pick (lottery protection)
Mike Conley sounds like he wants to leave Memphis. As he told The Athletic's Peter Edmiston, "I honestly think my ultimate goal of winning a championship, I don't know if it's going to happen in my next two years here."
Kemba Walker, by comparison, seems like he's looking for a reason to stay in Charlotte: "This is where I want to be. That hasn't changed."
Why not put these two stars together?
No, Charlotte doesn't become a championship contender by adding Conley. And sure, playing him with Walker amounts to a wildly undersized backcourt. But their shared ball-handling is an offensive dream, and Conley remains pesky enough to battle certain 2s.
Both hit enough of their catch-and-shoot threes that chemistry shouldn't be a lasting concern. Walker put down under 35 percent of his spot-up treys this season, but he's converted more than 40 percent of his standstill triples since 2015-16. Conley drained 39.8 percent of his catch-and-fire threes this year.
The Hornets fly into the tax with this trade after baking in Walker's next contract. They'll have little to no hope of ducking it over the course of the season if they also re-sign Jeremy Lamb. That's a problem for a later date. They need to pair Walker with a star and figure out the rest as they go.
Charlotte's resulting product would be a problem in the Eastern Conference. CJ Miles would give them another shooter on the wings. Miles Bridges is going to be really good at both ends (underrated half-court scorer alert). Dwayne Bacon and Devonte' Graham are coming along nicely.
Cody Zeller is a net rating king when healthy. Marvin Williams provides steady spacing up front. Don't give up on Willy Hernangomez. Imagine what happens if the Hornets get anything out of Nicolas Batum, who posted a 4.2 usage rate—yes, 4.2—over his final 10 games.
Memphis shouldn't need much convincing after overhauling its front office and coaching staff. The time to start anew is here. The Grizzlies are lucky to get as many first-round treats as this deal contains, and Conley isn't a net-positive asset with two years and $67 million left on his contract. They should consider pulling the trigger even if the Hornets yank their 2020 first-rounder from the table.