Desperation Trades to Get NBA's Worst 10 Teams to 2021 Playoffs
The 2021 playoffs are within the grasp of all 30 NBA teams—no matter how far they might seem to be from that threshold. Or, at least that's what we're out to prove with an unusual thought experiment.
Basically: What if the teams that ranked in the bottom 10 in pre-hiatus winning percentage scrapped whatever rebuilding plans they had and focused solely on making the 2021 postseason? Could they do it?
Don't ask whether they should take this approach. The answer to that is almost always going to be "no" because the deals we're proposing will be inherently shortsighted and geared toward winning in the present at the expense of future assets. If it helps frame the experiment, pretend Commissioner Adam Silver sent secret memos to each of these teams saying the NBA was going to institute relegation, and that they had to make one trade to avoid getting sent down to a hypothetical lower league reserved for lottery teams.
Some interesting paradigm shifts arise in this process. For example, Kevin Love is no longer a must-trade albatross for the rebuilding Cleveland Cavaliers. Instead, the veteran with championship experience becomes the one guy they shouldn't trade. Conversely, Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, two theoretical building blocks who aren't contributing to wins right now, are highly expendable.
These hypothetical trades will take place once the league year flips, using 2020-21 salaries. We'll match money and make the deals as close to cap-legal as possible, given the uncertainty surrounding next year's financials. And just to make things even more interesting (and probably harder), we'll make a rule against trading more than one draft pick. It'd be too easy to snare veteran talent by offering up three future unprotected first-rounders. That's cheating, and we won't have it.
One last thing. We're skipping the Golden State Warriors. They don't need to make any trades to put themselves in playoff position next season. Though their record was among the 10 worst in the league this season, they'll get all the help they need via returns to health from All-Stars and MVPs already on the roster.
Cleveland Cavaliers Get: Chris Paul
Oklahoma City Thunder Get: Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, Dante Exum, Kevin Porter Jr., Larry Nance Jr.
Chris Paul, Kevin Love and Andre Drummond isn't exactly the same as Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan...but it's fairly close. In the East next year, it should be enough to get the Cavs into the top eight.
Cleveland essentially dumps all of its young talent to the Thunder here, banking on Chris Paul having one more high-level season at age 35. Even if CP3 slips from this year's standout play, he should have enough to get the Cavs up around .500, which is all it should take to make the dance. Every team Paul has played for won at least 37 games, and his presence has generally meant a 50-win pace over the last decade.
The Thunder haul in no fewer than three young guards and wings on rookie-scale deals, and Sexton and Porter profile as solid off-ball options with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander stepping into the primary playmaker role. Exum is a flier on an expiring deal, and Nance is a rotation-level big at a roughly market rate ($11.7 million in 2020-21, with a declining salary through 2022-23).
The Thunder may think they can do better than this for Paul, and you could argue he becomes easier to move as the remaining years on his deal decrease. Except...he's only getting older and more likely to suffer decline or injury. It's hard to be sure which direction Paul's value is heading as time passes.
Minnesota Timberwolves Get: Al-Farouq Aminu
Orlando Magic Get: Jarrett Culver and Jacob Evans
This doesn't make any sense for the Minnesota Timberwolves unless you embrace the belief that 2019-20 was a lost year, and not the beginning of the end, for Al-Farouq Aminu. The 29-year-old combo forward saw action in only 18 games with the Orlando Magic this season, playing the worst ball of his career until a torn meniscus ended his season.
For most of the prior half-decade, Aminu was a highly useful glue guy, capable of defending multiple positions and hitting open threes. He peaked offensively in 2017-18, when he drilled 46 of the 97 corner threes he attempted with the Portland Trail Blazers.
The Wolves need defensive help around the double turnstile that is the Karl-Anthony Towns-D'Angelo Russell pairing, and Aminu's teams have consistently performed better on D when he's been on the floor. He'd slot in perfectly at the 4, offering intelligence, mobility and experience. Whether qualified as a "big" or "forward," Aminu's steal rates have always earned high marks on Cleaning the Glass, and he's a quality rebounder at his position.
Jarrett Culver's woeful shooting from literally everywhere on the floor (46.2 percent from the foul line!) means he's virtually unplayable on a team with designs on winning. His draft pedigree and potential for improvement would make him interesting for the Magic.
Minnesota's real growth should come from KAT and Russell leading a top-end offense, but Aminu helps where the need is greatest—on D.
Detroit Pistons Get: T.J. Warren
Indiana Pacers Get: Sekou Doumbouya, Svi Mykhailiuk, Thon Maker
The Indiana Pacers would be hesitant to give up T.J. Warren on his bargain contract. The 26-year-old used 2019-20 to not only validate the legitimacy of his three-point shooting—following up his breakout 42.8 percent conversion rate in 2018-19 with a solid 37.5 percent this year—but also to become a plus defender.
At this rate, Warren will add the power of levitation to his inexplicably expanding skill set by 2022.
Indy, though, is getting a trio of young, cost-controlled assets here. That matters for a historically tax-averse team set to pay four players—Victor Oladipo, Malcolm Brogdon, Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis—over $18.5 million apiece next season.
Doumbouya, still just 19 and selected 15th in 2019, showed flashes in his rookie year. Mykhailiuk shot 40.4 percent from deep as a 23-year-old this season. At worst, he's a useful spacing specialist. But there's also a possible scenario in which the athletic 6'7" forward becomes much more than that. Maker, due a qualifying offer, is...well, he's salary filler.
The Pistons could field a starting unit that includes Christian Wood on a new deal, Blake Griffin, Warren and Luke Kennard. Starting point guard is also a need, but assuming Derrick Rose continues his stellar play off the bench, the Pistons only need 20 or so minutes out of their starter. And Griffin's playmaking (not to mention Kennard's) opens up the possibility of putting a score-first shooter at the position.
This should be enough to produce a .500 record, with a massive health caveat applying to Griffin, Rose and Kennard.
Atlanta Hawks Get: P.J. Tucker
Houston Rockets Get: Cam Reddish, De'Andre Hunter
De'Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish might one day become great two-way wings, but that day almost certainly won't come before 2022. Supposing the Houston Rockets get cold feet about paying the tax—not just in 2020-21 but for the foreseeable future—they'll need some lottery tickets on rookie-scale deals. If those lottery tickets also happen to be big wings who could, potentially, defend multiple positions in a switching setup, all the better.
P.J. Tucker is critical to Houston's scheme. But if the Rockets flame out in the 2020 playoffs, it could prompt a reconsideration of centerless lineups. More broadly, how much longer can Houston expect the 35-year-old Tucker, only 6'5", to keep banging with 7-footers?
2021 could be the time for a roster refresh.
In this exercise, Atlanta's goals are entirely near-term. That means it could justify adding Tucker's veteran defense and grit to a rotation that lacks both qualities—at the cost of two very young first-round talents.
Tucker could play more 4 with the Hawks, or even some 3 in oversized groupings with John Collins and Clint Capela. A corner-three specialist who already knows how to operate with a ball-dominant lead guard and a rolling big man (specifically: Capela), Tucker would be a no-brainer fit. And if the Hawks wanted to double down and add another vet while also removing the anxiety of committing to Collins on a near-max extension, they could still ship him out in a separate deal.
Trae Young, Tucker, Collins and Capela should be enough to get Atlanta in the mix—especially if Kevin Huerter stays healthy.
New York Knicks
New York Knicks Get: Chris Paul
Oklahoma City Thunder Get: Frank Ntilikina, Kevin Knox II, Reggie Bullock
We're going back to the CP3 well, but this will be the last time. Promise.
The structure of this deal is highly flexible, as the New York Knicks can either renounce rights on several additional players to take Paul into cap space, or include those guys in the deal if the Thunder carve out room in other ways and want, say, Elfrid Payton.
At a bare minimum the Knicks have to include Ntilikina and Knox to get any interest from the Thunder. Both prospects have obvious flaws—Ntilikina doesn't have an offensive game, and Knox lacks defense and scoring efficiency—but they're both young and should get better with time. They won't help New York win next season, though, and that's the point.
Paul would give New York a pick-and-roll identity, and Mitchell Robinson would cram home lobs at rates bordering on the obscene. Julius Randle would be a tough fit, but maybe he could lead the second unit. If RJ Barrett comes along, New York would also have its secondary playmaker on the wing.
Chicago Bulls Get: Rudy Gobert
Utah Jazz Get: Coby White, Wendell Carter Jr., Thaddeus Young, 2020 unprotected first-round pick
This is a ton for the Chicago Bulls to surrender, but Rudy Gobert is a truly rare game-changing big who'll instantly give them a defensive identity—with the added bonus of forcing head coach Jim Boylen (or whoever takes over if new management moves on) to abandon an overly aggressive trapping scheme.
It'll be straight drop coverage with perimeter defenders funneling everything to the NBA's top rim-protector.
The Bulls' point guard situation is unsettled, but if Gobert's arrival signals a full-on commitment to defense, Kris Dunn might be worth retaining. Zach LaVine's constant space-outs would hurt less with Gobert on the back line. Same goes for Lauri Markkanen, who could actually survive at the 4 with an ace shot-blocker cleaning up his mistakes.
If Otto Porter Jr. stays healthy (and picks up his player option), Chicago has even more two-way punch.
Even if the package of young players and assets is enticing, Utah only considers this if, despite recent indications they've reached a tepid accord, Gobert and Donovan Mitchell simply can't coexist long-term. Also, don't overlook the possibility that the Jazz have already decided they don't want to commit the max to Gobert on an extension in 2021. If that's the case, this is an immense haul for a team that may not even want to keep the guy it's giving up.
Charlotte Hornets Get: John Wall
Washington Wizards Get: Terry Rozier
The Charlotte Hornets are one of the few teams projected to have substantial cap room this summer, which makes them a candidate to take a hefty salary, via trade, into that space. This could get complicated if the cap drops below the projected $115 million pre-pandemic figure, but you get the idea.
If Charlotte wants to add a costly veteran talent that provides an immediate, playoff-chasing boost but cripples its books long-term (which it definitely does for purposes of this project), it can.
John Wall professed his good health earlier this summer, though there's clearly risk in committing to a player whose bone spurs and torn Achilles have kept him off the floor since late 2018. This is a "nothing ventured, nothing gained" situation for the Hornets, and the chance to get significantly better by upgrading from Terry Rozier to Wall is enough to justify this swap.
Washington would be elated to get off a deal that might be the worst in the league, and the Hornets, uniquely desperate in this made-up scenario, could get up to some intriguing things with a (theoretically) healthy Wall, Devonte' Graham, Miles Bridges and P.J. Washington.
Washington Wizards Get: Myles Turner
Indiana Pacers Get: Rui Hachimura, Troy Brown Jr., Thomas Bryant, unprotected 2021 first-round pick
Another postseason-starved team turns to the Pacers for help, as the Washington Wizards have no choice but to surrender their only cost-controlled, quality assets in Brown and Hachimura in a package for Myles Turner. And it still takes a ridiculously valuable future first-rounder to make the Pacers' side of the deal remotely plausible.
Turner, a healthy Wall, Beal and Davis Bertans would give Washington a playoff-ready quartet, though the rest of the roster looks sparse around them. But if Beal and Bertans had Washington within 5.5 games of the eighth spot on their own, adding Wall and Turner should be enough to get the job done in 2021.
We're stretching an extra-long way here, and it's easy to imagine Indiana deciding Hachimura and Brown—maaaaaaybe rotation players on a good team in a year or two—just aren't enough to surrender Turner, even with an unprotected first attached.
At the same time, we banked on the Pacers' tax aversion to justify trading T.J. Warren to the Pistons earlier. Turner is a much more valuable asset, but he's also a bigger contributor to the team's cap crunch, and the return package here is more enticing than what Detroit gave up for Warren.
Phoenix Suns Get: Draymond Green, lottery-protected 2022 first-round pick
Golden State Warriors Get: Kelly Oubre Jr., Mikal Bridges
Spacing would be an issue with a Deandre Ayton-Draymond Green frontcourt (not to mention Ricky Rubio at point guard), but this deal would give the Phoenix Suns the defensive backbone they lack. Though Ayton improved as a sophomore, he's still not the kind of anchor Phoenix needs to reach the playoffs in the West.
Green could cover for Ayton and act as a secondary playmaker on offense, freeing up Devin Booker to focus solely on scoring.
From the Warriors' perspective, this is a bet that Green is done as a real difference-maker and that his down 2019-20 had as much to do with physical decline as the absence of his All-Star teammates. That's part of the reason they have to sweeten the deal by agreeing to give Phoenix a protected 2022 first-rounder. It's still a value add that should offset the fact that Green's deal will age badly.
Again, though, the Suns don't care about anything but 2021 for purposes of this trade. So unless they believe Oubre and Bridges mean more to a postseason push than a three-time champ who won DPOY in 2016-17 and was still excellent in the 2019 playoffs (13.3 points, 10.1 rebounds, 8.5 assists), this makes sense for their newly shortsighted outlook.
San Antonio Spurs
San Antonio Spurs Get: Tobias Harris
Philadelphia 76ers Get: Patty Mills, Rudy Gay, Derrick White
The San Antonio Spurs have two aging, overpriced assets in LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan (we're assuming he picks up his 2020-21 option here) that are, in this scenario, suddenly untradeable. Those two hold San Antonio's playoff window open a crack, and they need a third star to widen the gap and let in a little more air.
Patty Mills and Rudy Gay are also win-now vets, but that's whey they might have some appeal to a Philadelphia 76ers team built to chase rings. The bonus for the Sixers is that they both come off the books after next season. Plus, it's been over a year since Tobias Harris changed teams, which feels like too long. He's been with five organizations in nine seasons and has already played more games for the Sixers than he did for the Clippers or Bucks. He's due to move again.
Mills would give the 76ers spacing at the point, which would make it easier to use Ben Simmons at the 4, a new thing they're trying. And Gay, as fourth or fifth options go, might not be all that much worse than Harris, who deserves more opportunities than he's getting with the Sixers. He'd get them with the Spurs, who need a combo forward who can space and score off the bounce.
White's loss would hurt for the Spurs, but less than you might think. If Dejounte Murray is ready to ascend to fringe All-Star status, White would only be further marginalized.
This is a tough one, but the Spurs' roster situation is brutal. They're basically already built to win now, and adding another big-name vet costs them flexibility and a key young piece. Looking at this hypothetical San Antonio roster, it's hard to argue its short-term prospects improved all that much.
We do what we can.