NBA Stars Who Will Be on Trade Watch by the 2021 Deadline
Raise your hand if you're already thinking about the NBA's flashiest trade candidates.
For those with their mitts in the air, hello! For those who didn't send their palms skyward, well, welcome anyway! Also: We know you're lying. The James Harden news cycle alone foisted blockbuster-trade scenarios to the forefront of opening week.
But the great bearded one is not the only star who could finish the 2020-21 campaign on another team. Plenty of other marquee names join him in the Land of the Hypothetical.
Some represent low-hanging fruit because their contract situations dictate it. Others don't jibe with their team's direction. One is here thanks to Harden.
Do not confuse this early-season content as a series of ironclad predictions—some stabs in the dark will be made. These are merely the stars with the best chance of getting shipped out before the March 25 deadline. Those with less likely or less obvious paths into new digs get honorable mentions.
Now, let's speculate.
Honorable Mention: Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards
Bradley Beal's name continues to dance in and out of trade scenarios despite all signs pointing toward his staying with the Washington Wizards. He has not been shy about declaring his allegiance to the organization and city, and Russell Westbrook's arrival was more about reopening and optimizing his window than shutting.
Still, Beal wants to win, and the Wizards are not some surefire contender. Westbrook may elevate their overall ceiling, but he also increases their combustibility. If this latest iteration of the team flops, they don't have a ton of redirects at their disposal.
Things would get super interesting if Washington fails to crack the East's top six or, worse, fades out of play-in territory. And another down season, coupled with the team's finite power to make seismic changes given the cost of both his and Westbrook's contracts, could prompt Beal to ask for a change of scenery.
Whether the Wizards oblige in that scenario is debatable. The bet here is they would. Beal gave them extra time to figure out their future by signing an extension, and they can command a king's ransom for his services when he's more than one full season away from free agency (2022-23 player option).
At the same time, it feels like Washington would have to plumb special levels of hopelessness to disenchant Beal to such a stark degree. The Westbrook move is one that demands more than, say, 20-something games before rendering a verdict.
The Wizards risk little by letting this leak into the offseason. Both Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday fetched premiums one year out from free agency, and the former basically forced his incumbent squad to negotiate with a market of one. Washington won't want for godfather offers in a few months.
Failing a complete implosion, Beal's future seems more likely to play out over the summer.
Other Honorable Mentions
DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs
This just in: DeMar DeRozan is still good. Living by his genre of offense is just an increasingly delicate existence.
His expiring contract screams "trade fodder," but the Spurs are the Spurs. They're not frequent authors of midseason shake-ups. If they do punt on this season, they still seem more likely to prioritize the $27.7 million in cap space DeRozan's expiring deal affords them.
Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls
Is Zach LaVine a star? Are the Bulls willing to move a 25-year-old on a great contract who rates as both their best player and one of their two capable shot-creators?
My official answer on both fronts is "I don't know."
Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
Not only are Raptors fans liable to riot if they trade the best player in franchise history, but any Kyle Lowry deal also presupposes Toronto is bad enough to sell off talent. Even after a 1-4 start, forecasting the Raptors' downfall is too brash.
Kemba Walker, Boston Celtics
Kemba Walker is a great offbeat trade candidate if he thrives following his recovery from another left knee issue...and if the Celtics are keen on entering the Harden race...or if Bradley Beal becomes available...and if other teams aren't scared away by his murky health bill and the three years, $108.1 million remaining on his contract.
That's a lot of ifs—too many to justify flat-out inclusion.
Russell Westbrook, Washington Wizards
Westbrook's honorable mention is tied to Beal's future. If the Wizards have to burn it down, they should really burn it down. Many will maintain his contract (three years, $132.6 million) is prohibitive, but he's already been moved twice while on this same deal.
Blake Griffin, Detroit Pistons
Blake Griffin's relocation is less a matter of if and more a matter of when. He is noticeably out of place on a Detroit Pistons team in the early stages of rebuilding and likely wouldn't even still be in town if he didn't miss most of last year with a knee injury.
Rehabbing his trade value won't happen overnight. He turns 32 in March and will earn $75.8 million over this season and next. The Pistons don't need him to fully recapture All-NBA form, but he has to assemble a prolonged stretch of availability and positive impact before prospective suitors can talk themselves into being "one Blake Griffin away from (insert franchise's primary goal here)."
So far, the results are a mixed bag.
His availability will be determined in due course, but his numbers are noticeably down. He's averaging 15.5 points and 3.3 assists, though he's also shooting 39.4 percent from distance, including 40 percent on pull-up triples (8-of-20). He also isn't as inclined to attack the basket—or nearly as explosive when doing so. Barely 20 percent of his looks are coming at the rim, which would far and away be a career low.
That's not too concerning. Any team pursuing Griffin shouldn't try to make him the engine of its offense. He's best deployed as a second or third scorer and creator, and his style through his first few appearances is perfectly suited to that role.
Spotting potential destinations is a headache. No team is one Blake Griffin away from a championship. Some might see him as the difference between a lottery appearance and playoff/play-in bid. Are the Charlotte Hornets willing to go full no-defense following Cody Zeller's hand injury? Might the Orlando Magic be desperate for an infusion of brand recognition?
Detroit will probably have more success drumming up overtures if it's willing to swallow worse money attached to an asset. Can the 76ers tether enough sweeteners to Tobias Harris and the four years (including this one), $147.3 million left on his deal? Do the Houston Rockets prefer Griffin to Eric Gordon? What other assets (and money) would they need to give the Pistons? Will the march of time yield a dark-horse admirer?
If push comes to shove, wager on the latter. Mostly, just bet on Griffin finishing the season elsewhere.
James Harden, Houston Rockets
Harden is the most obvious inclusion. He isn't just a trade candidate; he's actively trying to get moved.
Most recently, he opened up his list of preferred destinations to include the Boston Celtics and Portland Trail Blazers, according to The Athletic's Sam Amick and Kelly Iko. They join the Sixers, Brooklyn Nets, Miami Heat and Milwaukee Bucks.
Much like Griffin, Harden's relocation is a matter of when. Emphasis on when. He has two years and $85.6 million left on his deal (2022-23 player option), and the Rockets don't have the same incentive to move him. He's a top-five player. They're not trying to deal him for the sake of their timeline or cap sheet. They can slow-play this saga in search of the biggest and best offer—so long as they're able to stomach the unabating awkwardness.
It appears they will go that route, at least until the Sixers make a final call on Simmons' availability. He is, unequivocally, the best singular asset the Rockets can realistically land in any Harden deal—a 24-year-old All-NBA cornerstone under contract for the next four-plus seasons. Houston could accept a Harden-for-Simmons (and filler) swap and have an easy time defending its decision.
Philly has remained resistant to this idea; otherwise the deal would (probably) be done. ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne reported the Sixers were willing to move Simmons, but team president Daryl Morey shot down the notion, on record, via The Athletic's Shams Charania.
Public sentiments from NBA executives should always be consumed with a metric ton of salt. Morey apparently told Chris Paul he wouldn't trade him while they were both in Houston, only to then move him to the Oklahoma City Thunder days later.
Regardless, the Harden saga feels like an eminently predictable waiting game: The Rockets will hold serve until they figure out whether Simmons is gettable. If he is, Harden will wind up in Philadelphia. If he isn't, Harden will go elsewhere.
Either way, we know how this ends: with Harden wearing a different jersey—mostly likely before the March 25 trade deadline.
Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers
Kevin Love is in the same boat as Griffin: He wouldn't still be on the Cleveland Cavaliers if the three years and $91.5 million left on his contract were considered a net positive. At 32, he runs counter to their timeline, and they don't need him to fulfill the veteran-backbone criteria when they have Larry Nance Jr. to serve as their cultural touchstone.
Cleveland's above-.500 start does little to shift this position. Its best basketball is predominantly being played without Love, who's battling a right calf issue, and more than that, the larger picture trounces any immediate friskiness.
Granted, Love's path to a contender is sticky. He first needs to string together some offensive detonations—a given. Then, another team must convince itself to take on his money—another relative given. And finally, the Cavs must actually move him—much less of a given.
Expiring contracts reportedly weren't enough to pry Love from Cleveland last season, per The Athletic's Jason Lloyd. The odds of the Cavs shipping him out plunge drastically if they're looking for a first-round pick or prospect as compensation. Love hasn't yet played well enough to warrant that asking price, and the length of his contract will loom as a potential hang-up even if he does. Teams might prefer to take on Griffin's shorter-term deal.
Accepting a more unsavory contract accompanied by assets feels like a reasonable middle ground. Maybe the Sixers are open to dealing Tobias Harris and Matisse Thybulle, plus perhaps something else. The Minnesota Timberwolves could quickly talk themselves out of Malik Beasley's contract. The Rockets can build packages around Gordon if they're still trying to win and aren't afraid of what defensive hell could be wrought by pairing Love with Christian Wood. Charlotte and Orlando are obligatory "what're they doing?" wild-card mentions.
Peering into the crystal ball won't reveal an overwhelmingly likely suitor or outcome. But Love is bound to spend enough time being bandied about the rumor mill to put him on Trade Watch 2021.
Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers
Victor Oladipo has vehemently denied a report from the Indianapolis Star's J. Michael that he angered Indiana Pacers teammates by openly asking rival players if he could join their squad.
"I know there have been people saying that I have asked players to trade for me," he told Charania in November. "That's just not true, period. I love my teammates, I cherish the state of Indiana and I'm focused on leading this franchise to a title."
This won't do anything to slow the rumor mill as the 2020-21 season soldiers on. Nor will T.J. Warren's fractured left foot. Even if Oladipo wants to stick with the Pacers, his contract situation demands they approach the trade deadline with an open mind. (One league exec told The Athletic's Bob Kravitz: "He's gone. They'll move him.")
Indiana has already paid Malcolm Brogdon, Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner. Bankrolling Oladipo's next windfall will invariably thrust the team near or into the luxury tax, with a new contract for Warren looming by 2022.
Money can always be moved around if the Pacers won't invest so much in a roster that doesn't profile as a contender. But Oladipo's next deal is less about the subsequent cap-sheet gymnastics than the value.
Indiana cannot count on the market to beat down his price. The 2021 free-agency class is starved for star power on the heels of extensions for Giannis Antetokounmpo, Paul George, Rudy Gobert and LeBron James. Oladipo will be among the biggest draws—and perhaps the single shiniest target if Jrue Holiday (player option) and Kawhi Leonard (player option) stay put.
The Pacers can still try to roll the dice. Peak Oladipo would ensure they remain an upper-echelon nuisance in the Eastern Conference. His play to start the season proves as much. And yet, if Indiana isn't confident this encore is sustainable, capitalizing on his departure now rather than letting him walk for nothing or footing a price point that will hamstring them later makes too much sense.
Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
Simmons' availability can be boiled down to the Harden sweepstakes. Either the Sixers move him for the perennial top-three MVP finisher, or they keep him.
Despite a report from Wojnarowski and Shelburne that Philly was warming up to the idea of moving Simmons, team president Daryl Morey offered a rebuttal to Charania. That stance can still change. Morey's fondness for Harden is well documented, Simmons' fit with Joel Embiid is hardly the cleanest, and the Sixers are operating on a win-now timeline. They can justify swapping the next four-plus years of Simmons for the next one-plus of Harden.
Should they? When they currently sit atop the East? With the league's second-best defense? That's a separate issue.
Superstar trades are prone to overthought. Conceptual opportunity costs too often get romanticized. Draft picks and prospects are not givens. Harden is an established asset—a top-five player in a top-five-player-driven league.
But Philadelphia's prospective opportunity cost is unique. Simmons' value isn't theoretical. He is already one of the NBA's best passers and its most versatile defender. The latter alone is enough to get past his finite offensive range. The Sixers can assign him to almost any player and know he'll erase them from the planet. It is a different brand of dominance from Embiid's interior deterrence, but it's dominance all the same.
Surrendering a 24-year-old under team control for such a long stretch can never be taken lightly. It is even more of a conundrum when the youngster in question, flaws and all, is already a star. Harden is clearly better and the comfier fit beside Embiid, but he's 31 and unlikely to provide as much value on his next contract. There is a distinct possibility the Sixers would be giving up on the lion's share of Simmons' career to wedge open a two- or three-year title window.
Whether that's long enough is in the eye of the beholder. Morey has typically prioritized immediate championship odds over everything else. But he's seldom had to do so at the expense of what could be a contender as constructed. This is the dilemma facing him and the Sixers, and it stands to determine how Harden's future unfolds—even if he doesn't end up in Philly.