Trades to Replace 7 Underperforming NBA Starters

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJune 10, 2020

Trades to Replace 7 Underperforming NBA Starters

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    NBA starters are supposed to be the best of the best, but in several situations across the league, first-unit performance could be a whole lot better.

    It's an achievement to nail down a starting gig, so keep some perspective as we're highlighting underperforming players; whatever their faults, they're still viewed as valuable enough to be on the floor for the opening tip.

    For this exercise, we're giving the kids a pass. Rookies and players in their early 20s show up consistently among the least productive starters, but that's to be expected. We can't fault a 20-year-old for struggling. If anything, it says more about his upside that his team sees enough potential in him to endure his growing pains while he faces the opponent's best players. 

    We'll make an exception or two, but the focus here will mostly be on more established players in need of replacement.

    Because so much is unsettled regarding next year's cap (not to mention the 2019-20 season needs to be finished), we're acting as if any hypothetical trade will take place once the league year flips to 2020-21. In addition, we're not necessarily zeroing in on specific, cap-legal trades. This is more about isolating a weak starter and targeting a possible replacement—even in cases that said starter is in line to hit free agency.

    Let's fix up some first units.

Brooklyn Upgrades Taurean Prince, Shows Kevin Some Love

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    The Starter: Taurean Prince

    Taurean Prince, 26, has the fifth-lowest true shooting percentage of any player with 30 starts in 2019-20. He's shooting an incomprehensibly poor 42.9 percent on two-pointers—not what you want from a nominal power forward under any circumstances, but even less desirable in a player who doesn't positively impact the defense.

    Worst of all, Prince has $25.3 million coming his way over the next two seasons, the result of an October extension that already looks like a significant mistake. Role players won't be asked to do much once Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are using up most of the Brooklyn Nets' possessions, but the organization needs more than this from its supporting pieces.


    The Trade Target: Kevin Love

    Prince and Caris LeVert will combine to make $28.5 million in 2020-21, which is under $3 million short of what the Cleveland Cavaliers' Kevin Love, 31, will collect. If Brooklyn is truly all-in, it could easily tweak this sort of deal on the margins to make the money work. Cleveland should be happy to move on from a massive veteran salary that doesn't belong on a rebuilding team while also getting the younger big wing it badly needs. Brooklyn would upgrade its shooting, rebounding and secondary facilitation.

    Losing LeVert would hurt in Brooklyn, but he's missed at least 25 games in three of his four professional seasons and needs the ball to be effective. A healthy Durant would further minimize his role in Brooklyn.

    Defense might also be a problem with Love stepping in at the 4, but Prince wasn't especially helpful in that role, and both Jarrett Allen and DeAndre Jordan offer good back-line help for when Love gets cooked by mobile power forwards.

OKC and Houston Go Back to the Trade Table

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    The Starter: Terrance Ferguson

    The Oklahoma City Thunder have a penchant for drafting raw, athletic wings and hoping they can teach them to shoot, defend or otherwise do more than run up and down the floor without making an impact.

    Terrance Ferguson is only 22, making him the youngest starter we'll highlight in this exercise, but the early results have been so lacking in promise that it feels fair to include him.

    No wing with at least 30 starts has a lower usage rate than Ferguson's 9.0 percent, and no one at any position has a lower player efficiency rating. He's shooting just 6.1 times per 36 minutes, attempts under one free throw per game, assists on just 5.0 percent of OKC's made baskets when he's on the floor, and his defense could most charitably be described as unremarkable.


    The Trade Target: Danuel House Jr.

    Nothing appeals to the tax-averse Houston Rockets like a few bucks saved, and OKC could sweeten a swap of Ferguson for 27-year-old Danuel House Jr. by giving the Rockets back one of the two first-round picks (with protections) or pick swaps it collected in the Russell Westbrook deal.

    Maybe Houston would be glad to trim a few pennies off its books, adding a player five years younger who might enjoy the same redemptive success as Ben McLemore in Houston's "just stand there and shoot if you're open" sets.

    House is a more proven shooter than Ferguson, and he'd be of more short-term help if Oklahoma City intends to keep competing for the playoffs over the final two full years of Chris Paul's contract (player option for 2021-22). Though he's not particularly high-usage himself, House would still be a significant upgrade over Ferguson.    

Orlando Moves Aaron Gordon, Alleviates Logjam

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    The Starter: Aaron Gordon

    Among the 64 players with 30 starts and at least 700 attempts from the field, Aaron Gordon has the fourth-lowest true shooting percentage. While it may seem strange to label someone averaging 14.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game a disappointment, that label is relative.

    Gordon is exceptionally talented and athletic. Efficiency numbers like his are disappointing because they represent production that falls so far short of what a player like him should be capable of. And though it's possible Gordon deserves most of the blame for his underwhelming efforts, his role in an Orlando Magic frontcourt devoid of quality spacing has plenty to do with it.

    Either way, a Gordon trade seems best for all parties involved.


    The Trade Target: Jarrett Culver

    Gordon will make $18.1 million in 2020-21, which is $12 million more than Jarrett Culver. Completing this deal will require (bad) money to go Orlando's way or a third team to get involved, but there's at least a viable framework.

    This is also an instance in which the Magic aren't directly replacing their disappointing starter via trade. A healthy Jonathan Isaac (knee) will simply backfill the vacancy. Isaac's ideal future involves his playing center, but with Nikola Vucevic on a $100 million deal and Mo Bamba still representing a major draft investment, Isaac can spend some time at the 4 (hopefully) while improving his three-point shot and defending five positions at an All-NBA level.

    Meanwhile, Orlando gets a 21-year-old wing whose playmaking potential was a huge reason he climbed into the 2019 lottery.   

Melo Was a Nice Story, but Portland Can Pivot

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    The Starter: Carmelo Anthony

    Carmelo Anthony proved his career wasn't quite over this season, averaging 15.3 points in 50 games on his most efficient scoring (51.7 TS%) since his last year with the New York Knicks in 2016-17. That's different than saying he was an objectively helpful starter.

    His minus-3.7 box plus-minus is the worst of any player's over 25 years old with at least 50 starts in 2019-20.

    Melo, 36, will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason, so the Portland Trail Blazers will have to use other assets if they're going to improve their starting 4 via trade.


    The Trade Target: D.J. Wilson

    Zach Collins' shoulder will be healthy in 2020-21, and he should be ready to start at the 4 and pick up spot minutes as a backup 5, but Anthony still leaves a vacancy in the frontcourt—one a 35-year-old Trevor Ariza may not be able to fill (assuming Portland guarantees his $12.8 million salary for next year).

    D.J. Wilson's role with the Milwaukee Bucks has shrunk, but there's no shame in a 24-year-old failing to carve out major minutes on a title threat. The 6'10" power forward shot 36.2 percent from deep in 2018-19 and was even more accurate in limited minutes as a rookie in 2017-18. He'd add size to a smallish Blazers roster and help spread the floor alongside either Collins or a healthy Jusuf Nurkic.

    Following a torn Achilles in December, Rodney Hood will almost certainly opt in to his $6 million salary for next year. If Portland attaches a pick, the Bucks could bring him aboard and either buy him out or wait to see if he might have something to offer down the stretch in 2021.

San Antonio Buys Low on Gary Harris

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    The Starter: Bryn Forbes

    Bryn Forbes has the third-worst box plus-minus among regular starters over age 25. Yes, the 6'2", 205-pound guard can stripe it; he's at 38.8 percent from deep this year and sits at a clean 40.0 percent for his career. This, though, is a rare case in which a high-end shooter still doesn't do enough in other areas to help his team.

    See his minus-7.0 on-court net rating for evidence.

    Forbes is small by point guard standards but isn't quick enough to stick with matchups at that position. His frame makes him even more of a defensive liability as a 2. If San Antonio's offense weren't so bogged down by DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, Forbes might be more helpful, but to lean on a hack cliche, the Spurs' situation is what it is. And with both veteran scorers likely back on fat salaries in 2020-21 (player option for DeRozan), it'll probably stay that way.

    Forbes is an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Whether he comes back or not, the Spurs need some juice at the 2.


    The Trade Target: Gary Harris

    The solution in San Antonio should be internal: Just start the 6'4" Derrick White or 6'5" Lonnie Walker IV, a pair of bigger, more versatile options. White's defense, in particular, would be an enormous upgrade. We're committed to trades, though, so how about Rudy Gay and Walker for Gary Harris?

    Harris has been a bit of a disappointment with the Denver Nuggets this year, but he's a solid defender who, as recently as 2017-18, shot 39.6 percent from three and averaged 17.5 points per game. 2020-21 will be Harris' age-26 season, so it's reasonable to believe he can rediscover his stroke.

    Denver would need a pick as a sweetener, even though Walker is a tantalizing prospect whose rookie deal will keep him cheap through 2022-23. Gay's deal is practically $14.5 million of dead money, and the Nuggets' best course with him might involve a buyout.

    Then again, back on a winner, Gay might start playing like the guy who averaged 13.7 points and shot 40.2 percent on threes in 2018-19. Either way, Denver has to consider the potential future cost of a big extension for Michael Porter Jr.

    Getting Harris and the $39.6 million he's due through 2021-22 off the books would make that easier to tolerate.

The Wizards Stabilize Their Backcourt

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    The Starter: Shabazz Napier

    Shabazz Napier started 22 games for the Minnesota Timberwolves before a February trade sent him to the Washington Wizards. Before the season shutdown, he'd started Washington's last eight games at the point. Always a high-turnover player, Napier really lost control this season, posting an 18.9 percent turnover rate that ranks third among point guards with at least 30 starts.

    His 32.0 percent hit rate from deep didn't help matters either.


    The Trade Target: Patrick McCaw

    Washington will get John Wall back next season, and Ish Smith is still under contract for one more year, but those two don't exactly combine to create a sense of stability at the point. Who knows how diminished Wall, a player whose pre-injury career depended largely on end-to-end speed, might be upon his return from a torn Achilles?

    Smith has been a capable backup at times, but he's not a consistently reliable shooter and isn't likely to improve on a minus-1.1 defensive box plus-minus in what'll be his age-32 season.

    Patrick McCaw resides among the top 10 guards in defensive box plus-minus (among those who've logged 500 minutes in 2019-20), and though a lot of that stems from time spent on the floor with defensively dominant teammates, he's had high steal rates throughout his career, has great size at 6'7" and could fit alongside either Wall or Bradley Beal in different backcourt looks.

    There may be some untapped potential ahead of McCaw's age-25 season. That he's been sought by two championship-winning organizations in Golden State and Toronto must mean something.

New York Spaces Out...In a Good Way

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    The Starter: Taj Gibson

    The New York Knicks were bad across the board before the hiatus, but they were markedly worse with Taj Gibson on the floor—8.7 points per 100 possessions worse, to be precise.

    On-off splits always come with noise. Gibson looks worse because Mitchell Robinson, his primary replacement at center off the bench, is arguably New York's best player. Robinson looked even better because he spent significant time playing against overmatched backups.

    Still, Gibson averaged just 6.5 points and 4.5 rebounds in 56 starts, and his minutes coincided with the Knicks allowing 3.4 more points per 100 possessions than their overall defensive rating.


    The Trade Target: Gorgui Dieng

    In a perfect world, Robinson would continue to cut down his foul rate and slide into the starting spot he deserves. But if New York has to address the Gibson issue with a trade, it might want to look at the Memphis Grizzlies' Gorgui Dieng. He'll be in the last year of his deal in 2020-21, and though his $17.3 million salary is nearly double Gibson's nonguaranteed $9.5 million, Dieng seems like a better fit alongside Julius Randle.

    Though not a true panic-inspiring spacer, Dieng is at least willing to fire from distance. He's shooting 35.9 percent on treys this season and is at 34.3 percent for his career. With Randle still getting the "We dare you" treatment on his own three-point attempts, Dieng's respectable shot could ungum the Knicks offense.

    He's also nearly five years younger than the 34-year-old Gibson, making him a more sensible piece of a rebuilding roster.


    Stats courtesy of, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Salary info via Basketball Insiders.