What Every NBA Team Can Do To Keep Its Best Player Happy
With star movement more prevalent than ever in today's NBA, it's become of the utmost importance to keep players happy.
While this is especially true for small markets that need star power to sell tickets, even destinations like New York and Los Angeles will have their shares of upcoming free agents to keep satisfied in the next few years.
Keeping players happy can hinge on a number of factors, of course. Money is capped for every team, and everyone (mostly) is at least trying to win.
Striking the right balance between allowing offensive freedom and not forcing a player to do too much is key. So is finding the right complementary pieces via either free agency or trade. For those who already have a running mate to make life easier, locking them up on an extension may be necessary.
Here's how every NBA team can keep its best (or most important) player happy.
Keep Their Sidekicks Around
Toronto Raptors: Pascal Siakam
The Raptors are off to a surprisingly strong 15-6 start, and Siakam looks like an MVP candidate given the amount of talent Toronto lost in the offseason.
While Siakam was rewarded with a four-year, $130 million max contract this summer, it's time to take care of the role players around him.
Fred VanVleet (18.7 points, 7.4 assists, 2.0 steals, 39.6 3P%) is priority No. 1, but Toronto should try hard to bring back Serge Ibaka (13.5 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.0 blocks) and Marc Gasol (6.4 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists), as well.
Detroit Pistons: Blake Griffin
The Pistons likely faced an uphill battle to keep Griffin happy from the moment they traded for him, given that he had just signed a five-year deal with the Los Angeles Clippers.
A playoff spot (albeit a brief appearance) helped keep any rumors of Griffin's potential unhappiness at bay, but losing Andre Drummond this summer might be a tipping point.
Drummond can opt out of his $28.8 million player option for next season and test free agency, something he'll almost certainly do given the weak free-agent market. Griffin and Drummond have a net rating of plus-1.6 this season, and keeping them together is the only hope for Detroit to maintain a playoff-caliber roster.
Los Angeles Lakers: LeBron James
As good as the Lakers have been this season, there's still the threat of Davis leaving next summer in free agency.
For James and the Lakers, that simply can't happen.
L.A. gutted its roster for Davis, clearly the right move given its 18-3 record. If Davis leaves for whatever reason, the Lakers would be left with cap space but no one worthy of earning it on the free-agent market.
James needs to let Davis have all the shots he wants now and be part of the presentation to ensure he re-signs in July. Davis is now forever intertwined with James' legacy, and an early net rating of plus-10.9 between the two proves, unsurprisingly, that the pair is working well together.
New Orleans Pelicans: Jrue Holiday
Especially with Zion Williamson not yet back from a knee injury, Holiday remains the Pelicans' best player even as Brandon Ingram enjoys a career year.
While little has gone right for the 6-16 Pelicans, the play of Ingram should provide encouragement as Holiday watches Anthony Davis go off for the Los Angeles Lakers thus far.
With averages of 25.2 points, 7.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.0 blocks and a .492/.423/.838 shooting line, Ingram is in line for a max extension from New Orleans. At least he should be if the Pelicans want to keep Holiday satisfied with the direction of the team.
Boston Celtics: Kemba Walker
While Walker is leading the Celtics in scoring this season, Jayson Tatum isn't far behind (21.9 points per game to 21.0). Keeping the pair together should be crucial to Boston's winning efforts, and thus Walker's happiness.
Boston is a whopping 19.4 points per 100 possessions better with Tatum in the game, and he's posting career-high marks in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals.
Like Jaylen Brown this year, Tatum will be extension-eligible next summer. Even if he plays well enough to earn a max deal, there's no way the Celtics can let him walk and risk the damage it would ultimately do to Walker and the rest of the team.
More Shots/Bigger Role Needed
Cleveland Cavaliers: Kevin Love
Love has repeatedly said he wants to stay with the rebuilding Cavs. But on Friday, ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Cleveland is "ready now to listen to offers on Kevin Love as we get to that December 15 date and then the February trade deadline."
With Love's name back in the rumor mill, it will be up to head coach John Beilein to try getting his numbers back up to All-Star levels.
For now, he's second on the team in per-game scoring to Collin Sexton (18.1 to 16.7) and taking fewer shots per game than Tristan Thompson. His 11.4 field-goal attempts per game are even lower than any season in which he shared the court with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving as the team's third option.
As the unquestioned best player on a young Cavs team, Love needs a far bigger role.
Memphis Grizzlies: Ja Morant
While the Grizzlies are happily feeding Morant for now (28.7 minutes and 15.2 field-goal attempts per game, 30.0 usage percentage), the 20-year-old phenom should be getting as much playing time as he desires.
A 6-15 record sounds about right for a rebuilding Memphis team, and the Grizzlies are 5.2 points per 100 possessions better with their young floor general in the game. With only Tyus Jones and De'Anthony Melton as backups, the Grizzlies need to lean on Morant when he returns from the back spasms that currently have him week-to-week.
Charlotte Hornets: Devonte' Graham
Graham is the 12th-highest-paid player on the Hornets, yet he leads the team in scoring (18.7 points per game) and passing (7.7 assists per game).
It took Charlotte until the 11th game of the season to insert Graham into the starting lineup, where he's outplayed Terry Rozier despite making over $18 million less this season.
Keeping Graham happy means keeping him in the starting lineup and letting him land a big contract when he's up for free agency in 2021.
Denver Nuggets: Nikola Jokic
While it's clear Jokic is still wildly out of sorts at this point in the season, the Nuggets need the ball in his hands to be successful.
Denver is 9.2 points per 100 possessions better with Jokic in the game, even in his current form. Despite his minutes being almost identical to last year's, the 24-year-old All-Star has seen a drop in shot attempts (15.1 to 13.4 per game) and usage rate (27.4 to 24.0).
Even with the Nuggets sporting a roster full of talent, Jokic's touches should be going up, not in the opposite direction.
Miami Heat: Jimmy Butler
While he wasn't yet an alpha, there's no question who the leader of the Heat is now.
He's being utilized more as a passer in 2019-20 with Goran Dragic coming off the bench, but Butler (6.5 assists per game) is still going to need his shots to be happy.
Trade Targets to Pursue
Minnesota Timberwolves: Karl-Anthony Towns
Though Minnesota is very much alive in the Western Conference playoff race thanks to Towns and the improved play of Andrew Wiggins, this roster still seems a piece or two away from making any real noise.
To please their superstar center and truly make this roster dangerous, the Wolves should do their best to trade for Golden State Warriors point guard D'Angelo Russell, a close friend of Towns and someone Minnesota tried to execute a sign-and-trade for in free agency, per Darren Wolfson of KSTP.
The Wolves could dangle No. 6 overall pick Jarrett Culver and veteran small forward Robert Covington as compensation, pursuing a Big Three of Towns, Wiggins and Russell, all of whom would be under contract for at least the next three years.
Philadelphia 76ers: Joel Embiid
Philly has size, scoring and quality defenders but still lacks shooters and spacing around Embiid. The Sixers are just 24th this season with 10.7 made three-pointers per game.
Trying to get a big-name shooter like Danilo Gallinari will prove difficult due to matching salaries. Instead, Philly should be looking for more low-cost options who could play a big role off the bench and give Embiid the space he needs inside to dominate.
That list could include Alec Burks of the Golden State Warriors or even Josh Hart of the New Orleans Pelicans, should executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin want to collect even more draft picks.
Indiana Pacers: Domantas Sabonis
With Victor Oladipo continuing to recover from a torn quadriceps tendon, the Sabonis-Myles Turner pairing will continue to be one of the Pacers' true measures of success this season. Thus far, data continues to show Indiana may be better with only Sabonis on the floor.
The Pacers have a plus-8.6 net rating when he's on the floor without Turner, but that number drops to plus-4.7 when the two big men share the court. Sabonis is also averaging more shot attempts (20.4 to 19.2) rebounds (20.1 to 15.8) and assists (6.1 to 4.1) per 100 possessions when he's the lone big on the floor.
Want to keep Sabonis happy? A trade of Turner may be the long-term answer.
San Antonio Spurs: DeMar DeRozan
With a looming player option and stuck on a 9-14 Spurs team, DeRozan may not be long for San Antonio.
A lucrative extension would certainly be welcomed, but this is still a roster that desperately needs an upgrade. While San Antonio typically doesn't make midseason trades, head coach Gregg Popovich and Co. aren't usually five games under .500 and sporting a 23rd-ranked defense, either.
Making a deal for someone like Steven Adams, Tristan Thompson or even Myles Turner could help anchor the defense and make life easier for DeRozan.
Sacramento Kings: De'Aaron Fox
Sacramento doesn't possess a single big man who ranks in the top 50 for pick-and-roll roll-man efficiency this season, but help could be available on the trade market.
Adding a power forward or center with whom Fox could run pick-and-rolls or pick-and-pops would be critical in improving the team's half-court offense, and that area was a major struggle last season.
Either Danilo Gallinari (96.6 percentile, 1.67 points per possession) or Kevin Love (92.5 percentile, 1.58 points per possession) would make life far easier for Fox in Sacramento.
Load Management Needed
Houston Rockets: James Harden
After posting usage rates of 36.07 percent in 2017-18 and 40.47 percent last season (second-highest of all time), Harden's 39.57 mark this year would be the third-highest in league history.
While Harden may resist sitting some at first, the Rockets need to convince him it's for the best come playoff time, especially now that Russell Westbrook (owner of the all-time-highest usage rate in a season) is able to take over as needed. Periodic rest, especially considering his workload, should ultimately lead to greater happiness for Harden in May and June.
Los Angeles Clippers: Kawhi Leonard
The Clippers did exactly what Leonard asked by delivering Paul George via trade this summer. That move should buy L.A. time before he can become a free agent again in 2021.
Like the Toronto Raptors last season, managing Leonard's minutes and giving him the occasional game off seems crucial to his postseason success. Thus far, the Clippers have sat Leonard in six of their 22 games.
This maintenance plan has ensured that Leonard has yet to play both ends of a back-to-back thus far. To ensure his happiness, the Clippers should continue this plan all season.
2020 Free-Agency Help
Atlanta Hawks: Trae Young
With a league-low $33.4 million in salary committed for next season, the Hawks could be serious players in free agency. That's good because Trae Young looks very much like he's by himself on some nights for a 5-17 Atlanta team.
If Anthony Davis won't take a meeting, there's no other superstar to turn to. Andre Drummond and Montrezl Harrell would be nice additions at center, which is the Hawks' biggest position of need.
If both return to their current teams, the Hawks should save their money for future extensions and load up on useful veterans who can contribute on the court while serving as quality locker room presences. Goran Dragic, Serge Ibaka and Aron Baynes would be quality fits.
Phoenix Suns: Devin Booker
While Dario Saric has been fine as Phoenix's starting power forward, the Suns should use free agency as a chance to look for an upgrade.
Giving Booker a mobile big such as Montrezl Harrell would be ideal, and floor-spacers/defenders like Marcus Morris and Paul Millsap would help ease the pressure on him, as well.
Even without Deandre Ayton, Phoenix is firmly in the playoff mix out West thanks to the play of Booker and the key offseason additions of Ricky Rubio and Aron Baynes. They should once again be active in the summer of 2020.
New York Knicks: RJ Barrett
Barrett may not yet be the Knicks' best player—that honor belongs to either Marcus Morris or Mitchell Robinson for now—but he's definitely the most important.
Finding the 19-year-old a running mate either via the draft or free agency is of utmost importance, and thus far, players like Dennis Smith Jr., Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina don't seem like the answers.
Instead, the Knicks should throw a max contract at New Orleans Pelicans restricted free agent Brandon Ingram. The 22-year-old forward and Barrett could develop into a deadly offensive wing combo should the Pelicans choose not to match the elevated salary.
Chicago Bulls: Zach LaVine
Chicago could become players in 2020 free agency if Otto Porter Jr. chooses not to opt into his $28.5 million player option. If that happens, the Bulls will need a starting-caliber small forward to take his place.
Giving LaVine a wing such as Brandon Ingram, DeMar DeRozan or even Gordon Hayward would make the Bulls serious postseason contenders next year, given the star potential and/or playoff experience of all three.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Chris Paul
If Oklahoma City can't find a trade partner for Paul by summer, its best option may be to try winning with a roster built around him.
Assuming Shai-Gilgeous Alexander and Steven Adams are still around, the Thunder will be in the market for both forward positions. Adding a veteran like Paul Millsap would fill the power forward hole, as would Serge Ibaka in a return to OKC.
Of course, a trade out of Oklahoma to a championship contender would likely make Paul the happiest of all.
Prove There's a Long-Term Plan
Washington Wizards: Bradley Beal
Agreeing to a two-year, $72 million extension shows that Beal has some faith in the Wizards turning around a predictably awful 2019-20 season.
However, the 26-year-old could ask out after this year, much like Paul George did with the Oklahoma City Thunder this past summer. Washington needs to prove it has a long-term plan in place, especially when John Wall makes his likely return from an Achilles injury next season.
Thomas Bryant looks like he can be Washington's center of the future, and the Wizards' fourth-ranked offense has been shockingly good. Showing defensive improvement as the season progresses—the Wizards are allowing a league-high 115.9 points per 100 possessions, should help Beal feel confident about the team's trajectory in 2020-21 and beyond.
Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo
The Bucks have done well by Antetokounmpo to this point. From the coaching staff to the surrounding talent, Milwaukee's league-best 19-3 record isn't a mirage.
However, the true test of Antetokounmpo's future happiness will come in the postseason.
If the Bucks fall short of a Finals trip, the Greek Freak's 2021 free-agency clock will only grow louder. Young talent and draft picks are nice, but Milwaukee needs to do everything in its power to make this team a title favorite now.
Portland Trail Blazers: Damian Lillard
Lillard is playing a staggering 36.6 minutes per game, the fifth-highest mark of any NBA player this season. Although he might benefit from some rest, but the 9-13 Blazers probably can't afford it.
Portland is in a dangerous situation. It's trying to build on the momentum of a trip to the Western Conference Finals last year while also fighting against the possibility of falling back into the lottery.
As loyal as Lillard has been to the Blazers, the team needs some serious help at forward to avoid missing the playoffs for the first time since his rookie year. Trading for someone like Kevin Love or another stretch-4 would help prove there's a long-term plan in place.
Brooklyn Nets: Kevin Durant
Brooklyn faces the nearly impossible task of keeping both Durant and Kyrie Irving happy. Thankfully, both can't become free agents again until 2022.
Avoiding the Warriors' mistakes with KD would be a good start. That means the Nets don't joke about giving Spencer Dinwiddie, who was there first, a bigger contract, and Joe Harris doesn't have a locker room altercation in which he dares Durant to leave.
Both should be obvious, right?
Orlando Magic: Nikola Vucevic
Fresh off signing a four-year, $100 million contract, Vucevic is stuck next to two other big men in the starting lineup.
The Magic insist on starting both Jonathan Isaac and Aaron Gordon, even though they are career 32.7 and 31.9 percent three-point shooters, respectively.
Isaac and Vucevic have the most problems fitting together. When playing with rotation members, Vucevic has his lowest net rating (plus-3.0) alongside the 22-year-old.
If the Magic want to keep their star center happy, they may need to trade Isaac for a point guard upgrade over D.J. Augustin.
Dallas Mavericks: Luka Doncic
Private jet? Statue? Lifetime subscription to Disney+?
Is there anything Doncic could ask for that the Mavericks would say no to? They are sitting at 15-6 and a top-four seed in the West, and the 20-year-old has smashed already high expectations and become a walking triple-double with an array of seemingly unstoppable offensive moves.
Mark Cuban has experience keeping a superstar (Dirk Nowitzki) happy for 20-plus years. Doncic is in good hands.
Golden State Warriors: Stephen Curry
The NBA's worst team at 4-19, the Warriors are in no position to argue over anything Curry requests. Already on a max deal, the two-time NBA MVP is taken care of. Titles have been delivered. The only thing left for Curry to do is build on his legacy and perhaps win back some of the doubters who point to Durant first for the Warriors' success.
Golden State shouldn't push Curry to come back before he's 100 percent. The long-term pairing of Curry and D'Angelo Russell could be an infringement on Steph's happiness should the younger point guard become too ball-dominant in the Warriors' spread-it-around offense, although we may not see them together again until next season.
Utah Jazz: Donovan Mitchell
No disrespect to Rudy Gobert or Mike Conley, but Mitchell is the most important member to keep happy. The 23-year-old shooting guard is Utah's leading scorer and the only player with superstar potential.
In the summer, the Jazz will be able to extend his contract. This should be a swift process.
With Ben Simmons, Pascal Siakam and Jamal Murray all getting max rookie extensions, the Jazz should be quick to offer Mitchell the same and keep him in Utah for as long as possible.