Blockbuster NBA Trades That Actually Make Sense
Blockbuster NBA trades are supposed to strike a chord of disbelief, which makes concocting sensible ones tricky.
Fortunately, this offseason will see several teams in desperate situations. The Milwaukee Bucks must appease Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Denver Nuggets have to feel like they're close enough to a championship to justify a massive swing, and all bets are suddenly off for the Houston Rockets.
It helps that several squads also have high-profile players they should want to move—whether because there's a risk of losing said players for nothing in free agency or because a major change could speed up the rebuilding process.
Finally, some clubs, like the New York Knicks, are forever in search of a headline-grabbing move.
Those conditions give us enough leeway to justify massive trades from both sides. Let's bust some blocks.
The Nuggets Go All-In
The Trade: Denver Nuggets acquire Bradley Beal from the Washington Wizards for Michael Porter Jr., Gary Harris, No. 22 pick in the 2020 draft and a top-10 protected 2022 first-round pick.
The Denver Nuggets just made the conference finals, and they already have two players, Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, set to make an average of over $30 million over the next three seasons. Murray's deal actually has a fourth year on it that'll pay him $35.9 million in 2023-24.
This is no longer a team on the come-up. The Nuggets are here.
So while Michael Porter Jr., the centerpiece of this deal, has immense value because he projects to put up big scoring numbers on a cheap rookie deal, Denver might not want to wait on his development (particularly on D) when it could import a star veteran at a position of need.
Bradley Beal averaged 30.5 points per game last season, despite being the sole focus of every opposing defense. Imagine the improvement in shot quality he'd enjoy with Jokic spoon-feeding him several times a game and Murray commanding just as much of the opponent's attention.
The Nuggets will go into the 2020-21 season as a contender if they do nothing. Adding Beal could nudge them into the league's true top echelon—and they'd have their core entrenched for at least one more year, possibly two if Beal picks up his $37.2 million player option for 2022-23.
From Washington's perspective, this is a value play. John Wall's contract is immovable, and the team is not poised to compete in the near future. Beal is clearly the Wizards' best player, but he'll be toiling for a squad lucky to crack .500.
Porter is the lottery ticket here, a potential star on a team-friendly deal. Those two first-rounders may not seem like much given the weak crop of talent in 2020 and the protection on the 2022 pick, but they're more than enough to incentivize the Wizards to take on Gary Harris' contract.
And who knows, Harris might rediscover his past form and make for a quality running mate (who doesn't need the ball as much as Beal does) alongside a better-than-expected Wall.
The Wizards need a soft reset, and the Nuggets have to push their chips in. This deal ticks both boxes.
The Trade: The Indiana Pacers acquire Jrue Holiday from the New Orleans Pelicans for Myles Turner and either Doug McDermott or Jeremy Lamb, plus a 2021 second-round pick (via Washington Wizards).
Building an ideal roster around Zion Williamson is still going to be a challenge, and his limitations as a shooter and defender mean he needs a frontcourt partner who can defend the rim and spread the floor. Players like that are in short supply, but one plays for the Indiana Pacers, and he might be gettable.
Myles Turner has ranked in or above the 91st percentile in block rate among bigs every year of his career, and he's a 35.7 percent three-point shooter on 732 attempts over his five seasons. It's generally accepted that long-range accuracy rates stabilize right around that number. Not that anything about Turner's stroke seems unrepeatable—he even added volume this past season, upping his triple tries to 4.0 per game—but the Pels should be confident he's at least as good of a shooter as he's appeared so far.
Turner, 24, also fits into a young New Orleans core much better than the 30-year-old Holiday, who's been the subject of trade whispers, at least partially because of his age, for over a year.
Indiana already has an All-Star up front, and just as Holiday has been a rumored mover for a while, there's been no shortage of speculation about splitting up Turner and Domantas Sabonis. It may seem like Holiday crowds the backcourt, but positions are best defined by asking "who can you guard?", and Holiday can handle all but the biggest wings.
Keep in mind too that Victor Oladipo heads into the 2020-21 season on an expiring deal and may well be traded before the season. Adding Holiday, who could team up with brothers Aaron and Justin (if Indy brings him back), would make it much easier to move Oladipo. And if the Pacers feel losing Turner weakens their frontcourt rotation, they could backfill his spot via a second trade.
The Cavaliers Finally Start Over
The Trade: The Cleveland Cavaliers acquire LaMarcus Aldridge and Keldon Johnson from the San Antonio Spurs for Kevin Love.
The four-year, $120 million extension Kevin Love signed in 2018 became, almost immediately, the biggest hindrance to a Cleveland Cavaliers rebirth following LeBron James' (second) departure. A one-way player, albeit a very good one, on the wrong side of 30 just never made sense as part of a fresh start.
It's obvious the Cavs need to get Love's contract off the books; it's a bad deal for them. Often overlooked: It's really not that terrible for teams in non-rebuilding situations.
The San Antonio Spurs were better than the Cavs this past season, and their young talent—Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV, to name three—is more promising and further along than Cleveland's. Love's shooting and passing could galvanize a more dynamic attack, and while LaMarcus Aldridge finally embraced high-volume three-point shooting this past season, Love is the more reliable weapon on the perimeter, and he's always been a better passer.
The sticking point here is whether the Spurs view Love as enough of an asset to include a sweetener. We've taken a conservative approach by sending Keldon Johnson, a high-energy 21-year-old wing who showed flashes of real potential in the bubble, to Cleveland. San Antonio would surely balk at including Murray, White or Walker, and it's possible the Spurs would be the ones asking the Cavs for some extra value rather than sending some out.
The Cavs might consider Aldridge for Love in a straight-up swap, as the former's $24 million comes off the books after 2020-21, while Love's contract extends through 2022-23. Cleveland could buy Aldridge out after completing the trade and/or flip him to a contender for draft assets at the deadline. There's more than one way for the Cavaliers to parlay Love's contract into clean books and an extra pick or two.
Lest this seem like something short of a blockbuster, note that Love and Aldridge have a dozen All-Star nods between them.
The Bucks Quit Messing Around
The Three-Way Trade
Milwaukee Bucks Get: Victor Oladipo and Robert Covington
Indiana Pacers Get: Eric Bledsoe and their own 2020 first-round pick (No. 24) back from Milwaukee
Houston Rockets Get: Donte DiVincenzo, Ersan Ilyasova, 2021 first-round pick (Milwaukee), 2023 first-round pick (Milwaukee)
How's that for a supporting cast around Giannis Antetokounmpo?
The Milwaukee Bucks surrender a grand total of three first-round picks, including unprotected firsts in 2021 and 2023, and three players on reasonable deals for a pair of high-end starters. That sounds like a ton to give up, but those picks will likely be late in the first round if the Bucks keep this core together, and there's precedent for a contender to offload that kind of draft capital for pieces that put them over the top.
In 2013, the Golden State Warriors had to send two unprotected firsts and two seconds to the Utah Jazz in a salary dump to clear room for a sign-and-trade that brought Andre Iguodala aboard. Five straight trips to the Finals later, the Warriors were probably pretty happy with that decision.
Covington and Oladipo supercharge the Bucks defense and provide more playmaking (Oladipo) and shooting (Covington) than the team will know what to do with. Milwaukee didn't have any offensive versatility in its last two disappointing postseason runs. A healthy Oladipo changes that.
Indiana may lose Oladipo for nothing, so getting Bledsoe on a decent deal ($16.9 million in 2020-21, $18.1 in 2021-22 before a nonguaranteed year in 2022-23) and its own first-rounder back is a solid return—even if it'll be a little weird to see Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon, the Bucks' old backcourt, suiting up for the Pacers.
Houston, having already lost head coach Mike D'Antoni and GM Daryl Morey this offseason, seems headed for salary reduction, tax avoidance and possibly a teardown. The Rockets mortgaged their future for Russell Westbrook, a catastrophic mistake, and this deal gets them the draft assets they'll need to attach in any trade that gets them off Russ' contract. And if the Bucks flop, causing them to lose Antetokounmpo in free agency and plummet toward the bottom of the standings, those unprotected firsts are suddenly among the league's most valuable assets.
There's huge risk here for the Bucks, who could lose Antetokounmpo and Oladipo in 2021 free agency, and then have no first-round picks to offset the rotten records that would follow. But Milwaukee can't have it both ways; if it wants to impress Giannis, give him the best chance to win and convince him to stay, this undeniably bold deal broadcasts a commitment to winning now.
The Rockets and Knicks Go Nuclear
The Trade: Houston Rockets acquire RJ Barrett, Frank Ntilikina, the No. 8 pick in the 2020 draft and the No. 27 pick in the 2020 draft for Russell Westbrook.
Playing off the possible teardown angle from the last section, this trade sees the Rockets take what they can get to stay well clear of the luxury tax and extract value from Russell Westbrook's contract before the rest of the league catches on to the fact that it's a negative asset.
The two first-round selections coming from New York may seem underwhelming, but the Rockets are totally bereft of draft picks. Beggars can't be choosers. Besides, Barrett is the real prize here. Whether he operates alongside James Harden as a secondary playmaker or takes on a larger role in the event Houston also moves the former MVP, Barrett is still young enough to price in real improvement. This is the No. 3 pick in the 2019 draft we're talking about. He had a rough rookie year with the Knicks, but who doesn't struggle in New York?
Ntilikina lacks Barrett's ceiling, but he can defend and is still just 22.
The Knicks' side of this is simpler. Regardless of who's been in charge over the last decade-plus, New York has hunted stars—typically of the past-their-prime or overrated variety.
Westbrook is a huge name, and his counting stats jump off the page—even if his poor three-point shooting and diminishing athleticism portend a steep (already in progress) decline. The Knicks are among the few teams with cap space this offseason, but everyone always assumes that status means free agents are incoming.
Why wouldn't New York instead use its room to take on more salary than it's sending out? Would the Knicks rather have four years of a moderately overpaid, not-so-exciting Fred VanVleet as the league's 15th-best point guard...or a wildly overpaid Westbrook lighting the city on fire and making the team relevant again?
The Knicks always try to make a splash. This would be a cannonball off the high dive.