NBA Stars 1 Trade Away from Becoming Superstars
The NBA isn't hurting for star power, but its superstar count could be higher.
A handful of players—the following five in particular—have that kind of ability, but they can't express it or aren't credited for having it.
One trade could change that. It might be as simple as routing a player from a bottom-feeder onto a winner or seeing his current club add more win-now support pieces to garner the global respect his game deserves. It could mean escaping the shadows of a more prominent teammate and stepping into the opportunities needed to send the stat sheet into the realm of the elites.
These players might not be on the move in the near (or even distant) future, but one trade might put them on the league's marquee.
Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
No sooner had Devin Booker's buzzer-beater to take down the Los Angeles Clippers slipped through the net than the jaw-dropped reactions took over NBA Twitter. But amid all the deserved praise came a line from veteran Jared Dudley that encapsulated Booker's challenge in the desert.
"The World needs to know how good [Devin Booker] is," Dudley tweeted.
Dudley isn't wrong, but why isn't this common knowledge already?
And yet, as Dudley observed, people still don't appreciate Booker's talent. He finally got his first All-Star selection this season, but even that came as an injury replacement for Damian Lillard.
Booker can't get the praise his game warrants, not even while upping his efficiency, improving his playmaking at a rapid rate—in five seasons, his assist average has ballooned from 2.6 to 6.5—and posting his best defensive box plus/minus to date. Judging by his handling at All-Star selection time, he could again be snubbed out of All-NBA talks, all while his numbers present a convincing case.
He deserves better, but it won't happen without a major trade—either one that puts him in a more prominent market or one that brings a difference-maker back to Phoenix. The Suns made strides this season, but they won't have a winning record, just like they haven't since his arrival in 2015.
If he's not suiting up for a playoff regular, he will never sniff superstar recognition.
Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics
The Celtics see Jaylen Brown as a superstar in training. They could have traded for Kawhi Leonard in 2018 but wouldn't put Brown into the deal, per SI.com's Chris Mannix.
That paints a crystal-clear picture of Boston's view of Brown, but it doesn't guarantee everyone else will hold the standout swingman in similar regard. In fact, he has been slept on despite being a 23-year-old cornerstone for a storied franchise who's averaging 20.6 points on 48.7/38.2/73.0 shooting while flashing near-elite versatility on defense.
He was left off the All-Star team, perhaps because "three Boston Celtics on the All-Star squad would've been too many," as NBA.com's Michael C. Wright opined. With all eyes now on Jayson Tatum's surge and Kemba Walker's health, Brown "might be flying under the radar yet again," as NBC Sports Boston's Chris Forsberg put it.
The Celtics, as currently constructed, mask Brown's star-level impact.
It's tricky to stand out on offense when Tatum, Walker and Gordon Hayward are all around and averaging more than 17 points, too. Similarly, there isn't a ton of defensive spotlight available when Marcus Smart is defending at an all-league level and Tatum is making a massive leap on that end.
Brown's recognition starts and stops with All-Star snub lists, which seems impossible given his immense two-way talent. But if Boston doesn't thin its ranks to move him up the pecking order or send him to a place where he'll be the unquestioned leader, the public will never recognize his leap from good to great.
CJ McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers
Portland's backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum is unique for a lot of reasons, starting with the pair's combined point-producing prowess. But it's their complete lack of drama that perhaps most stands out from basketball's most high-profile partnerships.
"Usually when you hear something's going [between two teammates], then something's going on," McCollum told The Ringer's Michael Weinreb. "But you don't ever hear anything about the two of us for a reason. ... There's a mutual admiration with us because we knew each other before we even got in the league."
Their chemistry is top-notch, but the established hierarchy is no help to McCollum.
Lillard is clearly the alpha in the relationship. He plays the most minutes, takes the most shots, scores the most points and earns the most accolades. He has five All-Star trips and four All-NBA selections under his belt; McCollum doesn't have one of either and probably never will as long as he occupies the passenger's seat.
But if he ever got behind the wheel—probably away from Portland, maybe in a swap for a perimeter stopper—he might match his running mate's production. Perhaps that seems ambitious given that Lillard is setting multiple career highs this season (including 28.8 points and 8.0 assists per game), but McCollum could be special in a featured role.
The eye test says as much. The 6'3" guard sports a drool-worthy blend of dribble moves, deep shooting range and razor-sharp scoring instincts. The stat sheet agrees. In the 783 minutes McCollum has spent without Lillard this season, he has averaged 27.8 points, 6.0 assists and 4.8 rebounds per 36 minutes. For context, only eight players are averaging 27 points, six dimes and four boards this season.
McCollum seems content with the setup, so it probably won't change. But he could get a ticket to stardom if it ever does.
Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
Ben Simmons should be someone's centerpiece.
He's a 6'10", 230-pound, athletic point guard and every bit as tough to cover as that label implies. He's also a 24-year-old two-time All-Star who has defended at an all-league level for the past couple of seasons, even though he somehow has yet to secure his first All-Defensive honor.
He should have a team built around him—one willing to race in transition and flood the floor with shooters while equipped with additional shot-creators to let him search out his own scoring chances. But in Philadelphia, he is instead asked to make the best of a tricky situation.
In a basketball sense, he's a bad fit with Joel Embiid.
They're uber-talented enough to make it work anyway with the right supporting cast—they had the second-highest raw plus/minus of any two-man tandem in 2017-18 (plus-436 across 1,306 minutes)—but it doesn't take a doctorate in hoops to realize they're a wonky fit. Simmons works best at high speeds. Embiid is best optimized in controlled, half-court possessions. Both could use more shooting than the other offers.
The Sixers half-acknowledged their logistical issues by moving Simmons to the 4 inside the bubble, which again seems a strange way to handle a primary building block. Coincidentally or not, he has posted Philly's worst net differential through two games in Florida (18.8 points worse per 100 possessions).
He might have too much star power and skill for the Sixers to trade him, but that only keeps him in an imperfect situation and blocks his leap to full-fledged superstardom.
Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors
Of all the players listed here, Klay Thompson might be the least likely to be traded away. And that's saying something since not one sits particularly close to the trade block.
No one is truly untradeable, but Thompson might be untradeable-adjacent. He's a five-time All-Star and three-time champion who might be the best possible complement to franchise face (and two-time MVP) Stephen Curry. So, Thompson's trade to potential superstardom is almost certainly not happening.
But it's fascinating to think about since his willingness to execute within his role has left him greatly underappreciated. Sure, the spotlight finds him every now and again, but he has played second, third and even fourth fiddle to Curry, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green at different times during his Dubs tenure.
"He never seeks the spotlight," Jerry West said on 95.7 The Game (h/t Warriors Wire). "He just plays the game. And he has gotten better and better, and frankly, he's one of the most underrated players in the league who gets not as much love as he should get."
There might be plenty of perks in being the sidekick of a mega-star, but this is one of the drawbacks.
There's no telling how subdued Thompson's stats have been by sharing the floor with Curry—the 2-guard is tied for the third-most games with 30-plus points in 32 minutes or less since entering the league—but it could be substantial. Between his fiery shooting, scorching hot streaks and improved handle, he could've dazzled as a go-to option.
That chance may never come, and he's probably fine with that. He has three championship rings for his willingness to play Scottie Pippen to Curry's Michael Jordan. But if Thompson ever left his sibling in splash, his scoring increase and defensive dominance might propel him to elite status.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.