Predicting the Next Wave of NBA Stars to Demand a Trade
The NBA is a superstar-driven league.
Always has been. Always will be.
It's only natural, then, that the Association's brightest stars have grown to command a controlling interest of the sport. Ever since LeBron James took his talents to South Beach, elites have taken hold of their careers and dictated where and how they'll be spent.
When a star gets antsy in his current digs, it's only a matter of time before he forces a relocation. Once that trade demand surfaces, it becomes an uncomfortable talking point for all involved until the matter is settled. Just ask James Harden and the Houston Rockets.
While the Beard is still awaiting his exit out of Space City, the gears are already turning in that direction. That got us thinking: Who will be the next star to seek a ticket out of town?
By reading the tea leaves—in this case, player and team trajectories, cap situations and anything else that could impact the situation—we have identified a handful of candidates who could be the next stars demanding their way out.
De'Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings
The ink is still drying on Fox's new five-year, $163 million contract extension, which is as good a reason as any to exclude him from this discussion. But he's sitting on the periphery for the very real possibility that his supporting cast could struggle to keep pace with his ascension.
A nightly supplier of 21.1 points and 6.8 assists this past season, he should be trending toward All-Star honors, but his Northern California home makes it tricky. The Kings haven't been to the playoffs since 2006. On a related note, they've only spawned a single All-Star since then (DeMarcus Cousins).
Stardom is seldom realized without team success in this league, so it's on Sacramento to prove to Fox that he can enjoy that kind of recognition without having to move. This roster must mature at a rapid rate to make that happen, particularly Marvin Bagley III, who might forever be known in Kings lore as could-have-been-Luka Doncic.
Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers
Ever since LeBron James left Northeast Ohio, Love has been leading a fish-out-of-water existence with the rebuilding Cavaliers. He'd surely be long gone by now if his contract weren't so onerous (three years, $91.5 million remaining).
But including him as an actual prediction would require two assumptions we can't quite make.
The first is that he still qualifies as a star. Maybe he meets the definition by stature, but the stat sheet can't quite see it (three straight seasons with fewer than 18 points per game).
The second is that he hasn't already asked out. While there's nothing on record, that feels highly unlikely given his situation and the team's, not to mention a January report from ESPN's Brian Windhorst that Love "absolutely, totally wants to get out of there."
Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
This is sure to ruffle feathers in Salt Lake City, but that's not the intention. Nor is it the intention to suggest Mitchell is anything but fully committed to the franchise for now, which probably doesn't need to be said considering he inked a five-year, $163 million extension in November.
Rather, the intention is just to file this name away as a possible restless star down the line.
The Jazz are aiming to maximize their contending chances, which they certainly should. The only potential issue is what happens when those support pieces are no longer around to help the 24-year-old Mitchell go for gold. Rudy Gobert is approaching unrestricted free agency. Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic and Joe Ingles are all on the wrong side of 30. Derrick Favors will get there in July.
Utah is running uncomfortably light on obvious long-term keepers beyond Mitchell, which could be a thorny issue at some point. Barring an unexpected change, the Jazz won't suddenly become a destination franchise, so they'll have to draft or trade for impact players. That's a tricky task for a club that will only have a lottery pick if disaster strikes.
It's enough to make Mitchell think about his future—eventually.
Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards
How has this not happened yet?
No disrespect to Russell Westbrook, Deni Avdija, Rui Hachimura, Scott Brooks, Tommy Sheppard or anyone else connected to the Washington Wizards, but what's the end game with Bradley Beal? This will be his ninth year in the District. None of the previous eight featured a conference finals berth, and only three included a trip to the second round of the playoffs.
Washington has posted sub-.400 winning percentages each of the past two seasons, which just so happened to be the most productive of Beal's career. He was one of only six players to average 25 points and five assists in each campaign. The Wizards wasted those numbers while waiting for John Wall to recover and the rest of the roster to mature.
Now, Wall has been switched out for Westbrook, which, if Wall is healthy, feels like a lateral move. Avdija looks interesting, but he's 19 years old, so Washington can't expect too much too soon. Free agency yielded only a dramatically more expensive Davis Bertans and a pair of role-playing veterans in Robin Lopez and Raul Neto.
Where's the move that turns this forgotten franchise into a contender? Where's the source of hope for dramatic improvement after multiple years of wheel-spinning? How does anything come together in time for the 27-year-old to make the most of his prime?
When Washington's win column fails to budge, don't be surprised if Beal starts searching for the nearest exit.
Blake Griffin, Detroit Pistons
Think we're overselling Blake Griffin as an NBA star? If he can't put his knee problems in the past, that's certainly possible.
Saying that, though, he was nothing short of spectacular in 2018-19. The fact that memory probably feels so fuzzy to most speaks to how poorly things have played out with the Detroit Pistons since.
As a refresher, the former dunk champion erupted for per-game marks of 24.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.4 assists. He even averaged 2.5 triples with a 36.2 percent splash rate. That made him just the ninth player to post a 24/7/5 season line in the 2000s.
If he can approach that level again, he's a clear-cut star who would have no business in the Motor City. Not when the Pistons are staring at a years-long rebuilding project that hasn't even fully started.
Detroit's roster is a mishmash of basketball's past and future. Few players are presently operating near their peak, $60 million man Jerami Grant notwithstanding. Griffin himself likely already crested and is declining to some degree, though he's only 31 and, again, is so recently removed from a merit-based All-Star selection.
If he's not searching for the escape hatch, perhaps he can position himself as a consolation prize for those who lose the James Harden (or Victor Oladipo) sweepstakes. Griffin might not spark as ferocious a bidding war, but he could still be an impact player for a contender if he lands in the right spot.
Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
Ben Simmons isn't living a bad NBA life by any stretch.
He's just starting to collect the five-year, $170 max contract he signed in July 2019. He shares the floor with another star, Joel Embiid, and still has enough spotlight to have earned two All-Star selections and an All-Defensive first-team spot through his first three seasons. He's on a Philadelphia 76ers team that expects to compete for a championship every season and just might have the requisite talent to get one.
But Simmons isn't living a perfect NBA life by any stretch, either.
His game isn't suited to play the same style as Embiid. Simmons is a speeding 6'10" locomotive in the open court. Embiid operates at a more controlled pace, and the Sixers have sided with him so far. Last season, no team posted up more than Philly (or even came close), and just 10 played at a slower speed.
When the Sixers underperform, Simmons is usually the first to shoulder any criticism given his refusal to shoot. But the burden feels unnecessarily heavy for someone who, last season, had the same usage percentage as Markieff Morris (20.9). Simmons might be billed as a star, but he doesn't always handle that kind of role.
Not to mention, he's 24 years old and coming off a season in which he was named All-NBA third team and All-Defensive first team. He'd be a no-brainer keeper in almost any other situation. But in Philly, he's someone everyone seems willing to sacrifice to bring in James Harden.
Simmons is a foundational centerpiece who's playing second fiddle to a teammate whose game doesn't fit his at all. The situation feels untenable without massive team success, and this core is still waiting for its first trip past the postseason's second round.
Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
The clock is perpetually ticking for the Minnesota Timberwolves. It did with Kevin Garnett. It did with Kevin Love. And now it's doing it again with Karl-Anthony Towns.
Sure, he's only in the second season of a five-year max contract. And yes, the Timberwolves probably scored some brownie points for acquiring his close friend and 2015 draft classmate D'Angelo Russell.
But Towns has a single playoff trip to show for his first five seasons, and that was effectively keyed by a player who forced his way out of the Gopher State shortly thereafter (Jimmy Butler). Kemba Walker had more playoff appearances through his first five seasons with the Charlotte Bobcats-turned-Hornets; his team went 28-120 in his first two years.
Winning is the Wolves' best hope for keeping KAT happy. They haven't done nearly enough of it so far, and that isn't guaranteed to change.
Towns and Russell could be a comedy duo on the defensive end. Minnesota wagered $60 million on what was essentially a good month from Malik Beasley. It potentially reached for Jarrett Culver in 2019 and may have done the same with 2020's top pick, Anthony Edwards.
None of this can look too good for Towns, who a notable player told an agent "is as good as gone" from Minnesota, per SKOR North's Darren Wolfson.
Towns, an offensive wrecking ball who can shoot, pass and score out of the post, would be an easy fit on any roster. The New Jersey native should hold particular appeal to the New York Knicks, who are now headed by his former agent, Leon Rose.
The Wolves better win big and win fast.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.