Trades to Rescue NBA's Ringless Stars
Winning an NBA championship is hard, in no small part because of the fact that it takes so many different pieces working in unison to make it happen.
First, the front office needs to ace roster construction through the draft, trades and free agency. Then, the coaches must correctly assemble the puzzle. Next, all the players have to buy into their roles and execute them almost flawlessly. Finally, luck typically enters the equation, whether it's avoiding injury, peaking at the right time (and not, say, while a dynasty controls the league) or getting unexpected lifts at exactly the right time.
Because there are so many factors at play, some of the league's brightest stars have yet to celebrate a championship.
We're here to change that. Whether it's relocating a ringless star to a contender or bringing championship-level help to his current club, we're brokering blockbusters to get these stars some championship bling.
Rudy Gobert to Boston
Boston Celtics receive: Rudy Gobert, Ed Davis, Georges Niang
Utah Jazz receive: Gordon Hayward, Daniel Theis, No. 14 pick (via MEM)
The Celtics almost skated by all season without being punished for failing to replace Al Horford's presence on the interior. Then Bam Adebayo physically overwhelmed them in the Eastern Conference Finals, and given the way he was just overpowered by the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 1, it was going to be impossible for Boston to mask this deficiency even if it escaped the East.
The Shamrocks need their Mario mushroom to literally size up against the competition. Rudy Gobert is the dream get. The two-time Defensive Player of the Year provides powerful muscle and punishing length. He's the ultimate interior anchor, ranking second in blocks and fourth in rebounds since becoming a full-time starter in 2015-16.
Boston fielded the fourth-best defense without him this season. Get him at the 5 spot, and this defense could not only climb to No. 1, but it could create a significant lead over No. 2. Gobert, Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown can all chase their first championship together, with the latter three handling the offense and the former serving as the physical answer to Adebayo, Joel Embiid and Anthony Davis.
While Ed Davis couldn't find his footing in Utah, his history suggests he's capable of holding a role in Boston's big-man rotation. Georges Niang could scratch an itch for second-team sniping as a career 38.7 percent shooter from deep.
The Jazz, meanwhile, decide they're less than interested in covering the costs of what could be a massive contract extension for Gobert, who's slated to reach unrestricted free agency in 2021. Instead, they reunite with Gordon Hayward and entrust him with being the No. 2 option to Donovan Mitchell. With the likes of Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic and Joe Ingles around them, Utah could have the recipe for a top-five attack.
Daniel Theis teams with Tony Bradley to man the middle in Salt Lake City, and the 14th pick ideally brings in a rotation player for next season.
Chris Paul to Milwaukee
Milwaukee Bucks receive: Chris Paul
Oklahoma City Thunder receive: Eric Bledsoe, Ersan Ilyasova, Donte DiVincenzo, D.J. Wilson, No. 24 pick (via IND)
Status quo isn't cutting it in Milwaukee. While the Bucks paced the Association in wins both this season and last, consecutive postseason exits ahead of the NBA Finals mean running it back isn't an option. Not with Giannis Antetokounmpo's franchise-altering 2021 free agency hanging a cloud of uncertainty over the entire Badger State.
The Bucks need more shooting and shot-creation in the half court. Frankly, they need Chris Paul, who is starving for a championship and just received MVP votes for his transformational touch on the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Now, the Point God is attached to one of the worst contracts in basketball, and word is that could scare off the Bucks, per The Athletic's Eric Nehm and Sam Amick. But this is not the time for Milwaukee to tighten the budget. If covering two years of bloated salary for Paul means keeping Antetokounmpo happy and committed to the franchise, then the $85.6 million owed to Paul the next two seasons is a small price to pay.
The Thunder don't bring back an army of assets here, but they can't expect to get too much given Paul's age (35) and contract. Still, they should have a long-term keeper in Donte DiVincenzo and maybe a second in D.J. Wilson, plus whatever the No. 24 pick can bring back.
Eric Bledsoe can dig in defensively as long as he resides in the Sooner State, but ideally the Thunder send him elsewhere for assets sooner than later. Once Ersan Ilyasova's $7 million salary is guaranteed, OKC has between then and the trade deadline to convince a contender to kick the tires on the 6'9" spacer.
Antetokounmpo, Lillard Get New Running Mates
Milwaukee Bucks receive: Bradley Beal
Portland Trail Blazers receive: Khris Middleton
Washington Wizards receive: CJ McCollum, Anfernee Simons, Nassir Little, No. 16 pick (from POR), No. 24 pick (from MIL via IND), 2022 first-round pick (top-three protected from POR)
Antetokounmpo is 25 years old, and Bradley Beal is 27, so they probably aren't the first names that come to mind when thinking of ringless stars, which often implies the urgency of a ticking clock. That said, they do already have a combined 15 seasons under their belts, so the label might fit better than you think.
The idea of them championship-chasing together is fascinating.
Antetokounmpo is the NBA's most disruptive defender and has the hardware to prove it. Beal just became only the 12th player ever to average 30 points and six assists. The two-way magic they could work—Antetokounmpo is also unstoppable around the rim, and Beal can lock up when his energy isn't confined to the offensive end—should be championship-caliber.
The Blazers pounce on this opportunity to add the two-way wing they so desperately need. They figure they have taken the CJ McCollum-Damian Lillard train as far as it can go and understand the 30-year-old Lillard is fighting against the clock to bring a title to the Pacific Northwest. With Lillard in charge of the offense and Middleton connecting the dots at both ends, Portland could be a two-way force.
The Wizards don't abandon all hopes of competing during whatever is left of John Wall's prime, as McCollum can do a decent job of replicating Beal's scoring, shooting and shot-creating. The idea is to brighten tomorrow without totally torpedoing today.
Washington's biggest prize is probably somewhere among the incoming assets, which feature two picks and two prospects from Portland alone in part to help cover McCollum's contract cost. Anfernee Simons shows flashes of high-level off-the-dribble scoring and has the bounce to finish at the rim. Nassir Little is raw, but his physical tools should make him a project worth undertaking.
Paul George to Brooklyn
Brooklyn Nets receive: Paul George
Los Angeles Clippers receive: Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen, No. 19 pick (via PHI)
Admittedly, this carries some major overreaction vibes on the Clippers' side of the swap, since the first year of the Paul George-Kawhi Leonard tandem went largely as expected ahead of the stunning second-round collapse against the Denver Nuggets. But staying the course is tough when George and Leonard can both escape their contracts in 2021.
The Clippers already parted ways with head coach Doc Rivers, and more change could be coming. George did nothing to make himself untouchable and was particularly out of sorts in the playoffs, which he exited with a 39.8/33.3/90.9 shooting slash. He also got into multiple "verbal spats" with teammates who cited "a lack of accountability from him," per The Athletic's Shams Charania.
If George makes it to the trading block this offseason, Brooklyn should be all over him.
The Nets have been hunting for a third star to support Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, and George would be perfect. If he's willing to sacrifice some stats, he could almost be Brooklyn's version of Chris Bosh from Miami's Big Three era. George offers a similar blend of shooting and defensive versatility, plus he can run the offense when Durant and Irving are sitting.
Speaking of the trio, all three joined forces—along with Nets center DeAndre Jordan—to win Olympic gold in 2016.
The Clippers don't give up on their championship dreams, but they decide they can better support Leonard by replacing George with three high-level contributors (or four if they strike it right on draft night).
LeVert is the centerpiece. The 26-year-old is a tough cover off the dribble, can score from all three levels and creates for his teammates. Jarrett Allen supplies the size-quickness combo this frontcourt needs. Spencer Dinwiddie either handles spark-plug duties off the bench or adds more scoring punch to the starting five.
Even if L.A. becomes a one-star team—LeVert could blossom as the second star—it could be a more complete, cohesive club that's better positioned for postseason success.
James Harden to Philly
Philadelphia 76ers receive: James Harden
Houston Rockets receive: Ben Simmons, Mike Scott, Zhaire Smith, No. 21 pick (via OKC)
Despite some recent success, both the 76ers and Rockets could decide their rosters are broken beyond repair. Philly owes too much money to Tobias Harris and Al Horford to think either could be moved without a steep sacrifice by the franchise. Houston tried to make it work with Russell Westbrook but couldn't, and it has very few avenues of possible improvement between now and when James Harden can hit free agency in 2022.
The Sixers shouldn't abandon the championship race, since a healthy Joel Embiid could anchor a title run. But their dismissal of head coach Brett Brown and hiring of Doc Rivers, per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, could bring about some philosophical changes in the approach.
Could one of those changes involve splitting up the Ben Simmons-Joel Embiid duo? It seems possible if the franchise feels there's no other way to shake up this roster. If the target is James Harden, then Simmons could be the odd man out since both players are best on the ball. Embiid, on the other hand, could be a snug half-court fit with Harden, and they could both go ring-chasing together.
Harden is the NBA's best scorer since Michael Jordan, and defenses would be put in the impossible position of choosing whether to sell out on stopping Harden or Embiid. It's a pick-your-poison scenario, and that's before even accounting for the scoring prowess of Harris, Josh Richardson and the rest of the supporting cast.
The Rockets, meanwhile, might be ready to write a new chapter now that D'Antoni exited. If they don't think the championship window with Harden remains open, they need to start plotting their path to future contention. Getting Ben Simmons, the 24-year-old taken first overall in the 2016 draft, could give Space City its long-term centerpiece to build around.
He's a five-position defender who doubles as a wrecking ball in transition and an elite playmaker. He can set a team's entire identity—at least, he could if he ever gets away from Embiid's plodding post-up game. The future of the Rockets becomes running, gunning and switching everything defensively, a game plan that Zhaire Smith could fit and would be used to shape the 21st overall pick. Mike Scott might serve as a suitable stretch 4 for the final year of his contract, too.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.