1 Offseason Trade to Push NBA's Most Legitimate Contenders Toward a Title
Front offices around the league always seem to be tweaking, rearranging or overhauling the teams they've been appointed to build.
Even the best squads often need one more addition or trade to push them over the top. In the NBA, title contention is preceded by various forms of building.
With that in mind, we'll look at a handful of contenders for the 2019-20 title through the lens of "What kind of trade would push this team closer to a championship in 2020-21?"
Determining the squads to consider for this exercise was left up to the projection system at FiveThirtyEight. It was simply the top four in "chance of winning Finals," which also happened to be the only four teams with at least a 10 percent chance:
- Philadelphia 76ers
- Milwaukee Bucks
- Los Angeles Clippers
- Los Angeles Lakers
With apologies to other teams and fanbases that may have an argument in today's wide-open league (such as the Houston Rockets, Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors, Denver Nuggets and perhaps a few others), here are some deals that could push the aforementioned four closer to a title.
76ers Break Up Embiid and Simmons
The Trade: Ben Simmons for CJ McCollum, Anfernee Simons and 2021 first-round pick
It's been an up-and-down season for the 76ers, and for the first time during Joel Embiid's and Ben Simmons' time as teammates, there's evidence that calls their fit into question.
On the season, Philly is:
- plus-1.0 points per 100 possessions when Embiid and Simmons are on the floor
- plus-2.6 when Simmons is on the floor without Embiid
- plus-10.8 when Embiid is on the floor without Simmons
Now, of course, throwing Al Horford into that mix seems to have been a terrible decision in hindsight. One could argue that all three are essentially centers (with Simmons perhaps being a modern point center) and that playing three 5s together in this era was doomed to fail.
But Simmons' and Embiid's both needing the ball might be contributing to the clash. And Simmons' refusing to shoot has made him close to a non-factor when he's off the ball. That can lead to crowding on Embiid's post touches.
What would happen if you swapped Simmons for a ball-handler who can shoot?
Cue the Portland Trail Blazers and the perennial discussions on whether they should break up the Damian Lillard-CJ McCollum backcourt. Their reluctance to do so makes sense. These two have been through plenty of battles together, and it's hard to replace that chemistry.
But Simmons would be an upgrade in terms of size, defense and raw talent. He might even fit better on paper.
First, in Portland, he wouldn't be the 1. That would obviously still be Lillard. So, imagine Simmons as a taller, more athletic version of Draymond Green at the 4. He and Lillard could have a bit of a Green-Stephen Curry connection. The comparison starts to fall apart here, but perhaps Rodney Hood could replicate at least a little of what Klay Thompson did for that duo.
Portland would have a reasonable facsimile of the Golden State Warriors, and Jusuf Nurkic is still there.
The Sixers would be giving up the best asset in the deal (and by a wide margin). Simmons is still just 23 years old. So getting back a first-rounder and an intriguing young player in Anfernee Simons would make this a bit more palatable.
Plus, if McCollum is your point guard, defenses won't be able to sag when the ball goes inside to Embiid.
The big man's ceiling will most likely be reached when he's surrounded by shooters, and McCollum is more than that. He's averaged at least 20 points in each of the last five seasons.
Bucks Add More Shooting
In terms of talent, this trade would be a lateral move between the league's top two teams. Eric Bledsoe is a much better version of Alex Caruso, while Danny Green is a much better version of Wesley Matthews (with the bigger gap being between Bledsoe and Caruso).
Here's why it still makes sense.
"Baby LeBron," as Bledsoe has been called, could fill L.A.'s need for another ball-handler when LeBron James is on the bench.
On the season, the Lakers are minus-0.9 when Anthony Davis plays without James, largely because he's not the kind of player who can singlehandedly carry an offense. And combining him with a well-past-his-prime Rajon Rondo has led to some dreadful minutes.
If the Lakers could hedge against James' rests with a better point guard, they'd be in much better shape.
For Milwaukee, Giannis Antetokounmpo is already running plenty of possessions. And, unlike with Los Angeles, his No. 2 can actually run the show. The Bucks offense is in the 94th percentile when Khris Middleton plays without Antetokounmpo, and Middleton averages 29.2 points per 75 possessions in those situations.
Replacing Bledsoe with a bigger defender who's also a much better shooter would likely raise the team's ceiling.
And since Bledsoe is the best talent in this trade and Milwaukee probably can't have Antetokounmpo and Middleton running the offense for all 48 minutes, Caruso would probably have a chance to make the Bucks' already stellar rotation.
Clippers Add More Switchability
The Trade: Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, 2020 second-round pick and 2022 second-round pick (via Atlanta Hawks) for Aaron Gordon
The Clippers are already in title-or-bust mode. Each of their next seven first-round picks are implicated in trades, whether as straight-up compensation or pick swaps.
Whether they win the title this season, they'll enter 2020-21 with both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George on the verge of free agency.
If they don't win a championship and the star wings leave, L.A.'s dearth of assets could make the 2013 Boston Celtics-Brooklyn Nets trade look tame.
So, even if it means moving a culture-setter such as Patrick Beverley, the Clippers might have to think about more win-now moves this summer if they can't win it all this season.
Losing Beverley's defense would hurt, but Leonard and George can effectively contain most perimeter players. And Aaron Gordon would make the frontline defense even more versatile.
Small-ball lineups with George, Leonard, Gordon and Marcus Morris Sr. (if they can re-sign him to a reasonable deal) at 2 through 5 would be a nightmare to score on. And there'd still be plenty of offense coming from the megastars.
The Orlando Magic would give up the best asset in this deal, but they'd have a rising Jonathan Isaac and a healthy Al-Farouq Aminu to fall back on at that position. And the Magic should be desperate for offense.
They have now had a whopping eight straight seasons in which it failed to post a league-average offensive rating. And Gordon is just barely above average in offensive box plus/minus for his career. Barring a mid-career leap on that end, he is likely not the savior.
Lou Williams may not be either, but he's more of a bucket-getter than anyone on the roster.
In November, The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor reported Orlando was "scouring the trade market for scoring help."
Williams may be reaching the twilight of his career, but minutes led by he and Nikola Vucevic could finally give the Magic an attack that would put some points on the board.
Lakers Stay Big
The Trade: Danny Green and Kyle Kuzma for Myles Turner
Of course, this hypothetical only exists in a world in which the previously detailed Bucks trade doesn't. L.A. wouldn't trade AD or LeBron, which leaves Danny Green as the organization's best salary-matching asset.
And if the Lakers really want to add top-end talent to their already ridiculous lead duo, they'd have to think about pairing Green and his money with Kyle Kuzma, the last young(ish) piece left from the team's previous iteration.
Losing Green's perimeter defense wouldn't be ideal, but if you can replace it with probably the best defensive frontcourt in the league, it might be worth it.
Among players with at least 1,500 minutes over the last three seasons, Myles Turner and Davis rank fifth and 10th in block percentage. Both can protect the rim, and both are nimble enough to switch onto the perimeter.
Plus, Turner can stretch the floor out to the three-point line. Over that same span, he's hit 35.9 percent of his attempts from deep.
In 2019-20, the Lakers are plus-7.2 points per 100 possessions with AD at the 4. And that has been mostly alongside JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard, both of whom are closing in on the final stages of their careers.
Having Turner would allow L.A. to continue playing Davis as a power forward while raising the long-term ceiling of the old-school frontcourt.
Meanwhile, the Indiana Pacers' perimeter defense would get a boost from Green. And Kuzma would give them a wild card to play some 4 alongside Domantas Sabonis.
On the season, Indiana is:
- plus-1.9 points per 100 possessions when Sabonis and Turner play together;
- minus-0.2 when Turner plays without Sabonis; and
- plus-4.9 when Sabonis plays without Turner.
The Pacers have an All-Star 5 in Sabonis. And it appears that pairing him with a more modern 4 raises the team's ceiling.