Giannis Antetokounmpo and the NBA's Stealth Offseason Trade Candidates
With the NBA on pause because of the coronavirus pandemic, there's no telling when the 2020 offseason will actually arrive.
Maybe it's already here and we just don't know it yet. (Crossing our fingers that this isn't the case, but we're in uncharted waters, folks.)
But at some point, we'll get back to regarding basketball decisions that seem trivial now as being ultra-important. In the lens of a championship pursuit, that's what they are. Guessing right or wrong on a major roster move can make or break an entire season.
Because teams are always thinking about the big picture, they can execute a blockbuster swap with little or no forewarning. So, while we might have a handful (or more) of logical trade candidates every year, those aren't the only ones who can be moved at a moment's notice.
In fact, we've uncovered five sleeper trade candidates by examining everything from contract statuses and organizational fits to team trends and market factors. From there, we've ranked the players in ascending order of projected trade value based on reasonable expectations of return offers.
Golden State Warriors head coach, Steve Kerr, returns to “The Full 48 with Howard Beck” to discuss the postponement of the 2020 Summer Olympic Games, how the Warriors players are fairing and training during the COVID19 outbreak, his thoughts on what the league should do about finishing the season, Andrew Wiggins and Marquese Chriss, and the 25th anniversary of Michael Jordan’s 1995 return to the NBA.
Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic
Nikola Vucevic isn't new to the trading block. He essentially made annual visits there before inking a four-year, $100 million deal with the Orlando Magic last summer.
But that deal—preceded by Vooch's All-Star debut and Orlando's first playoff trip in seven years—was supposed to move him to franchise-fixture status. As Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman put it, "We look forward to building off that success for years to come."
Already, though, Orlando's journey has encountered turbulence. Despite several youngsters making developmental progress, the Magic have fared worse than last season—and that was true even before their prized centerpiece, Jonathan Isaac, went down with a knee injury. This squad is slamming into its ceiling and can only raise it with either a reset or at least a redesign around the youth.
Either path leaves no room for Vucevic, who's both the highest-paid player and a barrier to developmental minutes for Mohamed Bamba (or even Isaac, whose future might be at the 5 spot).
Win-now shoppers would surely have interest. Vooch has his warts—mainly connected to defense—but he's still one of three players to average 19 points and 11 boards both this season and last; Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid are the others. Vucevic has also ramped up his floor-spacing, ranking fourth among centers with 166 triples since the start of last season.
Increasing his appeal, Vucevic's contract has the team-friendly structure of descending annual salaries. He's making $28 million this season, but that number will tumble to $22 million by 2022-23. If a center-starved contender can work that into the budget, the Magic's top scorer and glass-cleaner could be on the move.
John Collins, Atlanta Hawks
John Collins already has his summer soundtrack set. It's a loop of a cash register's ring, signaling both his extension-eligibility and intentions on getting PAID.
"I definitely feel like I am in max contract contention," Collins told The Athletic's Chris Kirschner. "If I finish this season averaging 20 and 10, the other guys who are averaging 20 and 10 are max-caliber guys. I'm in that conversation and feel like I am worthy of being extended as such."
Considering where the Atlanta Hawks are in their rebuild—73-158 since the start of 2017-18—one might assume locking up Collins is a no-brainer. He is 22 years old, as productive as an All-Star (21.6 points, 10.1 rebounds) and as explosive as dynamite. He keeps adding new elements to his game, like his 40.1 percent three-ball or the 1.6 rejections he's tallying on a nightly basis.
But Kirschner reports there might be "hesitation" on Atlanta's side over rerouting every Brink's truck in the Peach State toward Collins' pad. He's not a great shot-creator for himself or his teammates, and there may be too much overlap with pricey newcomer Clint Capela. If the Hawks and Collins can't find the right number, trade exploration might be the next logical step.
Collins could have near-universal appeal on the open market. He's young enough to interest all rebuilders and productive enough to attract win-now buyers. And while he'll need a new deal eventually, he's a bargain now ($2.7 million) and still a restricted free agent next summer if not extended before then.
Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
Toronto Raptors fans might scoff at this selection and wonder why we haven't learned our lesson yet. Maybe they're right. Everyone counted Kyle Lowry as a trade candidate heading into this campaign, only to see him further ingrain himself into the franchise fabric while the Raptors played even better than before Kawhi Leonard left the North.
And yet...we can't help ourselves. With so little of this roster set in place beyond this season, our crystal ball still envisions a scenario in which Toronto trims some of its veteran nucleus this offseason to build around Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and free-agent-to-be Fred VanVleet. (Oh, and if everything breaks right in 2021, Giannis Antetokounmpo, too.)
VanVleet, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka are all ticketed for the open market this offseason. If Toronto wants to keep VanVleet—who shares his natural position with Lowry—it could cost a fortune. Any changes to the salary cap could alter this prediction, but The Athletic's Blake Murphy estimated VanVleet could fetch an annual salary in the range of $17 million to $20 million.
Would the Raptors really want to pay that and Lowry's $30.5 million salary for 2020-21? If they're already making sacrifices elsewhere—at least one of the vet bigs, if not both—then it might make sense shopping Lowry, too. He plays both ends, is as tough as they come, offers loads of experience and remains a premier talent. ESPN's real plus-minus places Lowry 11th overall and fifth among point guards.
Teams in or around the championship race could picture the seasoned floor general being the final piece that pushes them over the top. And they might be right. Even if his salary isn't the easiest to match, he could spark a bidding war among all the contenders who can afford it.
Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers
The Indiana Pacers learned to play without Victor Oladipo as he missed more than a calendar year with a ruptured quad tendon. Could that lead the Circle City to consider a future without him?
Well, his contract is up after next season. While many expect him to sign a long-term deal with the Pacers, ESPN's Tim Bontemps noted this situation is one "to monitor between July and the 2021 trade deadline."
If the Pacers have reasons to think Oladipo is a flight risk—or if they have basketball reasons to consider alternatives to giving him max (or near-max) money—then maybe they see what the market would bear. He can be a two-way force at this best, but he really has one season of elite production over his seven-year career.
His 2017-18 breakout featured a slew of stellar marks, including per-game contributions of 23.1 points and 2.4 steals, plus a 47.7/37.1/79.9 shooting slash. In the two seasons since—of which he's played only 49 games—he's down to 17.4 and 1.4, respectively, with a 41.7/33.3/74.2 slash line. That's more or less where the numbers stood through his first four seasons: 15.9, 1.5 and 43.4/34.6/80.0.
Maybe the Pacers saw enough during his breakout to convince them he'll definitely return to that level. Or maybe his recent woes (combined with his pre-breakout play and knee injury) are enough to make them wary of throwing major coin his way. They might think there's enough to cover his absence in-house between the likes of Malcolm Brogdon, Jeremy Lamb (once he's back), Aaron Holiday and TJ McConnell.
If Oladipo hits the trading block, he'll have no shortage of suitors. There aren't many other players who can successfully juggle primary scoring and secondary distributing duties, all while locking horns with the opponent's top perimeter player at the other end. If the Pacers have any reservations about ponying up for Oladipo, another club will be ready to sign that check.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Sorry, Milwaukee Bucks fans, but you know we had to do it. It's a nightmare scenario, sure, but even you all should admit there's a non-zero chance Giannis Antetokounmpo balks at inking a supermax extension and creates this doomsday dilemma for the Deer.
Potential poachers always dreamed this would be the case, and now Milwaukee's own sales pitches could be losing steam. The Bucks' best bet always seemed to be winning a championship, but this season may not resume. They also had an ace up their sleeve in being able to offer him a richer contract than anyone, but as B/R's Eric Pincus explained, the work stoppage could eat into that advantage:
"Before the current national emergency, the league's projection for 2021-22 was $125 million, which would enable the Bucks to give Antetokounmpo a massive $253.8 million extension starting at $43.8 million. The most another franchise could give him in free agency would be four years and $161.3 million ($37.5 million in the first season).
"... But if the cap takes a significant hit, the financial difference between Antetokounmpo staying and going would drop along with it."
None of this matters if Antetokounmpo is as loyal to the franchise as Milwaukee fans hope. But if he turns down the team's best offer and indicates a willingness to test the market, the Bucks will be painted into the pick-your-poison scenario of either trading away the reigning MVP or risk losing a generational talent for nothing next year.
Back in October, 86 percent of general managers picked Antetokounmpo as their preferred centerpiece in the annual NBA.com GM survey. Interest in an Antetokounmpo trade would be astronomic. He's one of the few players who can shift the league's balance of power by himself. Whenever the NBA returns, his future will be the story to watch until it's settled.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.