NBA Trade Ideas to Break Up Bad Superstar Fits

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 3, 2020

NBA Trade Ideas to Break Up Bad Superstar Fits

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    You've heard the saying "hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard." But even when you have talent that does work hard, success is far from assured.

    Because that talent, whether it works hard or not, has to fit.

    This is why NBA team-building is about more than flinging together as many skilled players as possible. Rosters need balance, especially between their most important pieces. Two dominant big men don't make sense (unless you're the New York Knicks or Indiana Pacers, circa 1994), and to put a more modern point on it, multiple stars who can't stretch the floor form some ugly constellations.

    Here, we'll scan the league for high-end tandems that have plenty of talent but lack the fit required for all involved to excel. Then, we'll bust them up via trade.

    The "superstar" designation will have to get a little loose because it typically denotes the absolute best of the best, and some of the players featured will fall short of that level. Still, everyone involved here is at least a household name—so long as your household follows the NBA at all.

    Let's split up some bad superstar fits.

You Knew This Was Coming

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    The Trade: Philadelphia 76ers acquire Michael Porter Jr., Jerami Grant (opt in or sign-and-trade), Gary Harris and a 2021 first-round pick from the Denver Nuggets for Ben Simmons.

    Where better to start than with the Philadelphia 76ers, employers of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, two superstars (we don't have to stretch the parameters of the label for these guys; they're legit) who just haven't quite clicked.

    The Sixers' net rating was a mere plus-1.8 with those two on the floor together last season. The defense was excellent with that tandem on the court, allowing 105.4 points per 100 possessions, which ranked in the 91st percentile. That's about what you'd expect from Embiid, an imposing rim protector, and Simmons, arguably the single most versatile defensive player in the league.

    But Philly's offense cratered with its top two players sharing the floor. Simmons' refusal to shoot outside the lane has been an issue for the Sixers offense from the moment he debuted in the league; it forces Embiid to play the role of spacer far more often than a player with his capacity for interior dominance should.

    The good news is that Philadelphia's superstar pair performed much better whenever they were on the floor without Al Horford. The Sixers posted a plus-4.4 net rating with Simmons and Embiid in the game and Horford on the bench.

    Trading Horford would be the obvious fix, but we're committed to the thought exercise of splitting up Simmons and Embiid. The 76ers won't do anything that drastic until the trade deadline, as new team president Daryl Morey will want to see if Doc Rivers can work out the kinks Brett Brown never could.

    But if Philly doesn't like what it sees after a few months in 2020-21, and if the Denver Nuggets similarly disappoint in their follow-up effort to a stirring 2020 playoff run, the above deal could shake things up in a positive way for both parties.

    Michael Porter Jr. would give the Sixers the shooting and spacing Simmons was never going to provide at the 4. Jerami Grant replicates some of Simmons' defensive versatility and also happens to be a capable three-point shooter. And Harris helps the money match up while, if healthy, giving Philadelphia a starting-caliber two-way wing.

    Some of this could get tricky, as Grant's inclusion might have to make this a sign-and-trade exchange. He has a player option for 2020-21 that he's unlikely to pick up. But we don't need to get too deep in the weeds on the minutiae of a made-up deal.

    Simmons, best on the ball, might not seem like an ideal fit alongside Nikola Jokic. But few centers could better compensate for Simmons' poor shooting. Jokic is a fine spacer himself, and he'd unlock Simmons' cutting game. We might also see the Nuggets get creative with some 5-4 pick-and-rolls, which could free Simmons up for dives down the lane or isolations against overmatched centers who switch onto him. The options would be endless.

Bradley Beal to Brooklyn Makes Everybody Happy

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    The Trade: Washington Wizards acquire Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, Taurean Prince and a 2021 first-round pick from the Brooklyn Nets for Bradley Beal

    In another obvious pick, we'll split up John Wall and Bradley Beal to give the Brooklyn Nets the third star they covet.

    You might note that Beal and Wall actually have a history of fitting together well, but things have changed in the nearly two years since Wall was clearly the Washington Wizards' top option. Beal ascended without Wall on the floor, peaking with a scoring average of 30.5 points per game in 2019-20 and establishing himself as a player capable of running his own show.

    Even if we assume Wall's burst will be diminished by age (he's 30) and that Achilles rupture, he's a brilliant passer. That skill should endure, which means the on-court fit between him and Beal could be fine going forward.

    With that said, the Wall-Beal combo is bad for the Wizards in a much broader sense: Washington has two very highly paid backcourt players who may or may not work well together and who prevent the team from addressing myriad other needs.

    The Wizards defense was second-worst in the league last year, and with a significant outlay likely coming to retain Davis Bertans in free agency, there won't be any cash left over to improve things on that end. So moving Beal in a trade that adds depth and banking on Wall returning to form makes sense.

    It would be ideal to move Wall, whose contract is far more onerous, but that just isn't realistic. Not until the rest of the league sees him back on the floor and agrees he isn't done as an All-Star, anyway. His trade value is just too low to consider a deal right now.

    Caris LeVert needs the ball, but his career usage rate is notably lower than Beal's, so his synergy with Wall should be fine. Jarrett Allen would give the Wizards a young starting center who can defend the rim. Taurean Prince is at least a theoretical three-and-D option, and that 2021-first rounder could eventually be part of the package that also gets Wall off the books.

    Meanwhile, the Nets would get their splashy third star to form an offensive attack that, barring a shocking disappointment, would rank among the league's very best. 

The Rockets Decide 1 Year Is Enough

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    Michael Wyke/Associated Press

    The Trade: Houston Rockets acquire Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier (opt-in) from the Orlando Magic for Russell Westbrook

    Russell Westbrook-James Harden pairing, we hardly knew ye.

    The duo that made no sense from the jump (seriously, what could be worse for a spread attack than a point guard who can't shoot?) is done after a single season. We're sending Russell Westbrook to the Orlando Magic for Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier, two starters who give Houston defensive versatility and scoring, respectively, while also saving the tax-averse organization cash.

    Houston posted a plus-4.9 net rating with Harden and Westbrook on the court last season, worse than the plus-5.9 the Rockets managed when Harden played without Russ. Chances are, Houston would like to avoid paying $132.6 million over the next three years to a player who actively detracts from Harden's game and the team's success.

    You might be wondering why the Orlando Magic would be interested in taking on that burden.

    Well, consider what we know about Westbrook. When put in charge of a team as its offensive alpha, he accumulates massive, eye-catching individual numbers and generally gets his team to the playoffs. Russ has yet to lead his team beyond the first round (we're talking the three post-Kevin Durant seasons in OKC here), but those Thunder squads averaged 48 wins per year.

    The Magic seem to love nothing more than sneaking into the playoffs, so Westbrook would theoretically up their ceiling while helping them become something they haven't been for years: interesting.

    On the Rockets' end, Gordon makes perfect sense as a similarly rangy and switchy forward with Robert Covington, and Fournier's scoring and serviceable playmaking figure to complement Harden's ball dominance better than Westbrook's "pound-the-dribble and shoot an errant 18-footer" style did. Fournier is a career 37.5 percent shooter from distance, and he canned 39.9 percent of his treys last year. Remarkably, Gordon is also a superior three-point marksman than Westbrook—on similar per-game volume, no less.

    The Rockets will also love the fact that Fournier's deal expires after 2019-20, while Gordon only has $16.4 million coming his way in 2021-22. On balance, Houston stands to save a total of just under $81 million over the next two years. The lineup numbers above suggest that savings will coincide with virtually no decline in on-court production, so why wouldn't the Rockets do this?

The Spurs Sacrifice Flexibility for Fit

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    Darren Abate/Associated Press

    The Trade: San Antonio Spurs acquire Kevin Love from the Cleveland Cavaliers for LaMarcus Aldridge and Keldon Johnson.

    The San Antonio Spurs had DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge on the court for just under 3,000 minutes last season, and they were outscored by 2.8 points per 100 possessions during that massive sample. With Aldridge on the floor sans DeRozan, the Spurs got hammered even more severely, posting a minus-8.1 net rating. Take Aldridge off and leave DeRozan on the court, and that figure was a respectable minus-0.7.

    That's a lot to digest, and lineup numbers are inherently noisy. But one good interpretation would be that while the Spurs weren't very good under any circumstances last season, they certainly didn't miss Aldridge when he was on the bench.

    That's how you rationalize moving Aldridge and his expiring $24 million salary to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Kevin Love and the remaining $91.5 million on his contract.

    Aldridge proved he could shoot the three last year, finally getting his attempt rate up to 19.8 percent, the first time it'd been over 8.0 percent in his career. Love, though, has taken at least 20.0 percent of his shots from beyond the arc in 10 different seasons. And in each of the past two years, he's attempted over half of his shots from deep.

    Aldridge dipped his toe in the three-point waters for the first time last season. Love has been doing cannonballs off the high dive for his entire career, which is why he makes so much more sense alongside DeRozan, who never shoots threes, and San Antonio's collection of up-and-coming guards, who stand to benefit from only having to play with one historically suspect floor-spacer.

    Add to that Love's superior passing, and there's no argument (with respect to offense, at least) that he complements what DeRozan and the Spurs do better than Aldridge.

    Meanwhile, the Cleveland Cavaliers would get a financial benefit by cutting Love's salary from their books, and they'd also Keldon Johnson, a promising high-energy wing.

    It's entirely possible the Spurs would be the team to demand the sweetener from Cleveland considering the money they'd be committing to Love. But we can let them work that out among themselves. We've done our part by splitting up Aldridge and DeRozan.

Portland Goes Big

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    The Trade: Portland Trail Blazers acquire Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris from the Philadelphia 76ers for CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic

    Congratulations to the Portland Trail Blazers, who would consign themselves to a gargantuan tax bill for a half-decade or so with this megatrade. 

    If worst came to worst, Portland could try to package Zach Collins and a pick with Tobias Harris' contract in a trade that might lessen its financial anguish. But at the same time, don't the Blazers owe it to Damian Lillard to spend whatever it takes to ensure the last years of his prime actually include meaningful postseason games?

    CJ McCollum is a terrific offensive player who, under different circumstances, would probably have been in charge of his own offense for the last several years. With Lillard, he'll always be Option B. That's a luxury in one sense; many teams never find one high-end shot-creating guard, let alone two. But that doesn't change the fact that Portland's resources aren't divvied up optimally. The Blazers backcourt is great, but it's also preventing them from beefing up the rest of the roster.

    Harris is grossly overpaid, but he's an excellent third option who can play either forward spot. Don't worry, Gary Trent Jr. will still get to start at the 3.

    Embiid is a hulking force on both ends—a pick-and-roll partner the likes of which Lillard has never had. And if the Blazers want to take advantage of Lillard's standstill shooting (while giving him a much deserved break once in a while), Embiid remains one of the last few players worthy of consistent post touches.

    The Sixers would split their star duo up a second time here, and they save copious cash: approximately $85 million between now and 2024, when Harris' and McCollum's deals expire.

    The sheer amount of money moving in this exchange is hard to process, but the Blazers would balance their roster and add the best player in the trade, Embiid. They'd have to take on Harris' contract to do it, but again, Lillard is worth the cost. He's earned it.


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