The 10 Best Trade Chips in the NBA Right Now
Another NBA trade is always around the corner.
Well, almost always. Some seasons are different. This one is not. Between the jumbled pecking order in the middle, James Harden's trade request, Bradley Beal's volcanic eruptions in Washington Wizards losses and the vultures circling them both, it is only a matter of time before something explosive goes down.
It is therefore our obligation, both legally and morally, to take stock of the best blockbuster trade chips. These assets can be anything—players, picks and even cap space. They will not be established stars.
Entrenched stars are absolutely valuable trade chips, just not the kind teams typically look to move in the name of bettering themselves. Dealing them is usually akin to selling or starting over. This overview is instead about identifying which assets are best suited to headline blockbuster packages for stars rather than the stars who might be dealt themselves.
Figuring out which players cross that star threshold is subjective. For context's sake, we'll be drawing the line at or just below the All-Star tier. Standouts like Jaylen Brown, Jamal Murray and Pascal Siakam might be up for grabs if they're returning a top-10ish player, but they're not available-at-large.
Any non-stars who signed a rookie extension—OG Anunoby, Kyle Kuzma, Derrick White, etc.—are also off the table. The poison pill provision renders them ultra-difficult to move. Younger names in contract years—Jarrett Allen, Lonzo Ball, John Collins, et al.—are bounced from consideration, as well. Imminent paydays dent their capacity to headline major trades.
Team situations will also shape who and what makes the cut. The Oklahoma City Thunder aren't likely to ship out Shai Gilgeous-Alexander for a finishing touch; they're not close enough to title contention. But they might be open to cobbling together some combination of their kajillion future picks if the right name hits the auction block.
Incumbent draft selections will be placed outside our purview to narrow the scope and limit the pie-in-the-sky factor. The Detroit Pistons' 2021 first holds a ton of value, but the vast majority of squads tracking toward the highest lottery odds shouldn't be mortgaging any parts of their futures.
Distant first-rounders from the Brooklyn Nets that postdate the contracts of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are super intriguing. But while realistic trade chips, they're too difficult to measure in value this far out.
Incoming draft picks from other teams are fair game. Rival first-rounders are generally more expendable because the owners have less control over their eventual outcome. Dangling them in talks for immediate upgrades is, theoretically, a safer play.
Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns
Deandre Ayton is at once underappreciated and less than indispensable to the Phoenix Suns.
Pay little mind to the on-off splits this season. The Suns are being outscored by a team-worst, um, 38 points per 100 possessions when he's on the court, but the entire starting lineup accounts for their five worst net-rating swings. Phoenix is still trying to figure things out in the Chris Paul era, particularly on offense. It took him nine games to connect on a lob with Ayton.
These numbers don't mesh with the eye test, either. Not fully. Ayton has looked especially useful on defense. He's not just switching well or protecting the hoop at a reasonable clip. He's defining entire possessions by policing perimeter actions without selling out and making smart reads around the rim.
It is still fair to question Ayton's long-term value in Phoenix. His usage has plummeted in the wake of Paul's arrival, and there's no guarantee it ever recovers. Paul won't be around for the long haul, and Ayton has seemed more intent on passing when he rolls, but offenses in general aren't usually built around rim-runners who can dabble on the block and with face-ups.
Loosely translated: Ayton isn't Domantas Sabonis or Karl-Anthony Towns. And even if he were, neither of them plays with someone as talented as Devin Booker, let alone both Booker and Paul. The opportunity for Ayton to branch out may never arise.
Couple that with Phoenix's win-now window and the idea that he could be moved for a third star is hardly far-fetched. He is certainly more expendable than Mikal Bridges, whose importance to the Suns has placed him outside this exercise's parameters.
Certain stars who could be on the market are redundant, and James Harden isn't an option for a team with Paul. But is anyone guaranteed to offer a better prospect than Ayton in Bradley Beal packages? Or in a trade that bags both Victor Oladipo and Myles Turner and includes a third team?
Phoenix would also be an interesting destination for Pascal Siakam in the event the Toronto Raptors make a play for Harden and the Houston Rockets prefer picks and young players over a maxed-out 26-year-old.
Tyler Herro, Miami Heat
Tyler Herro's value is very much in the eye of the beholder. He won't cut it as the centerpiece of a star trade if you view him as a complementary scorer who can sometimes get hot when working off the dribble.
The Miami Heat think he's something more, and they're grooming him accordingly. He is spending far more time at point guard—and not just in a ceremonial manner. They have saddled him with primary-creator duties.
This expanded role has yet to look great on Herro. His decision-making when facing double-teams is inconsistent, and Miami's offense ranks in the 5th percentile when he's at the 1. But growing pains are the expectation. The Heat are essentially reinventing his archetype. That he looks so comfortable working and shooting off the bounce and is slinging some pretty good passes absolutely matters.
Oh, and by the way, he has yet to turn 21. He's going to get better—likely much better. He's already made a leap inside the arc, where he's canning 61 percent of his two-pointers and finishing way more efficiently on the limited opportunities he sees at the rim.
Sellers will listen if the Heat put Herro on the table. Whether they do is—yet again, for the umpteenth time of this exercise—a separate matter. He'll have to be in play if they're at all interested in skulking around the James Harden or inevitable Bradley Beal sweepstakes. And while Herro alone isn't beating out the field, he's intriguing enough to ensure Miami gains entry into it.
De'Andre Hunter, Atlanta Hawks
De'Andre Hunter is building up a lot of goodwill to start the season. Pretty much every part of his game has improved compared to his rookie year.
Putting the ball in his hands is no longer a risky proposition. His drives are less predictable. He's shifting speeds and making smarter passes. His turnover rate as the pick-and-roll ball-handler has dropped from 16.7 percent last year to a ridiculously low 5.3 now.
Take him off the ball and he'll still make an impact. He's canning 41.2 percent of his catch-and-shoot treys. His defense is also sturdier.
This isn't a player the Atlanta Hawks should actively be looking to move. Cam Reddish is more disruptive at the defensive end but remains an offensive wild card. Hunter is by far and away the Hawks' best two-way wing.
But injuries have masked just how crowded their rotation will eventually be, and their recent offensive slumps suggest they might need to shake things up by way of player consolidation. Hunter has two more years left on his rookie-scale deal, and every team is in the market for building-block wings.
More than Kevin Huerter or even John Collins, both of whom will require new contracts sooner, Hunter gives Atlanta the baseline for a star-landing trade offer—assuming the right star, likely a much higher-end perimeter player not named James Harden, becomes available.
Caris LeVert, Brooklyn Nets
Caris LeVert is not your typical blockbuster-trade magnet. He is closer to 27 than 25 and already on his second contract.
That second contract is extremely valuable, though. He's earning $16.2 million this year and making $36.3 million over the next two seasons. That is beyond reasonable money for someone who has shown he can power an offense like a fringe No. 1 option or secondary creator.
Some of LeVert's efficiency indicators aren't great. He is still shooting a higher percentage on pull-up threes (35.3 percent) than catch-and-fire treys (33.3). That's more odd than red-flaggy. Off-the-dribble jumpers are both a hotter commodity and more difficult to hit. Improving his spot-up touch is theoretically easier.
Entire offenses can be run through LeVert even if he's best playing beside at least one player who's noticeably better.
He still settles for too many mid-range jumpers but has a lightning-quick first step that he complements with changes of direction. His vision remains underrated. He's not necessarily going to pass guys open, but he will find them if they are, and the havoc he incites off the bounce gives everyone more room to shoot and maneuver.
Dangling him alone won't get the Nets a star like Bradley Beal or James Harden. It is debatable whether they need a third star at all. However, LeVert is a viable starting point as someone who doesn't perfectly align with a rebuilding squad's timeline but also doesn't completely go against it and who can, if needed, be effortlessly flipped or rerouted for additional assets that better suit a ground-up reset.
Tyrese Maxey, Philadelphia 76ers
Ben Simmons is still the Philadelphia 76ers' most popular trade asset, except for the fact he's not actually a trade asset. His availability should be viewed in terms of James Harden-or-bust, and there's no guarantee they'd move him even when presented with that opportunity. (Maybe a Simmons-for-Bradley Beal framework catches Philly's eye. Maybe.)
Tyrese Maxey is the more gettable asset and, thus, an actual trade chip.
His skill level belies his experience. He's a 20-year-old rookie who can score off the bounce and at every level, run some of the offense and defend like hell on the ball. His bag was on full display during the (ultrashort-handed) Sixers' loss to the Denver Nuggets on Jan. 9, during which he racked up 39 points, seven rebounds, six assists and two steals.
Offering him attached to salary filler isn't getting Philly preferential treatment in talks for Bradley or Harden. But he's still a potential gem, if not star, prospect who has three years left on his rookie scale, valued at an unfathomably low $9.7 million.
Between him, Shake Milton, Matisse Thybulle and future picks, the Sixers might actually have the firepower to pursue a big-time acquisition without sacrificing Simmons or Joel Embiid. Beal and Harden would be well out of reach, if only because the four years and $112 million left on Tobias Harris' deal is their best salary-matcher.
But Maxey looks special enough that he could, in theory, allow the Sixers to act as buyers rather than contract-dumpers in any Harris package.
Michael Porter Jr., Denver Nuggets
Michael Porter Jr., who remains in the NBA's COVID-19 health and safety protocol indefinitely, might be the most tantalizing trade chip in the league.
Spotty durability works against him, leaving the door open for someone (or something) else to seize that honor. Back injuries are no joke, and he missed his would-be rookie season after having surgery to treat herniated disks. His lack of defensive growth from last year to 2020-21 further obfuscates his value. He is a genuine liability on the less glamorous end.
Still, so few players his size can score like he does from every level and in endless manners. Assuming an expanded role has not exposed any unknown flaws. He is averaging 19.5 points per game on 69.0 percent true shooting.
Just so we're clear: This is absurd. Even more absurd is his efficiency from, well, pretty much everywhere:
- At rim: 71 percent
- Short mid-range: 67 percent
- Long mid-range: 75 percent
- Corner threes: 50 percent
- Above-the-break threes: 40 percent
Four games is nothing in the grand scheme, but Porter's molten scoring does not profile as a mirage. It is merely an extension of everything he did in smaller doses last season. That includes his functional scalability. He can get you a from-scratch bucket late in the shot clock or binge on passes from Nikola Jokic.
Teams will look past previous health issues to get what could be a superstar offensive player.
Of course, that presumes the Denver Nuggets will consider moving him. They might not. He was basically deemed untouchable at last year's trade deadline, and his offensive appeal has only mushroomed since.
But Denver's defense is 23rd in points allowed per possession, and the team at large might not have enough juice to challenge the tippy-top contenders. Porter offers the Nuggets a line to the glitziest scenarios, and depending on where they are in the standings and who's available at the trade deadline, they may need to think about whether he's more valuable to them as a blockbuster chip than a roster mainstay.
James Wiseman, Golden State Warriors
Many top draft picks see their values plummet after they turn into actual players. There is something about the unknown that heightens intrigue, and slumpy starts to a career can drastically diminish curb appeal.
James Wiseman doesn't fall under that umbrella. If he hasn't improved impressions of his trajectory, he's at least living up to them.
He isn't moving like someone who hasn't played much basketball since November 2019 and continues to hint at a high offensive ceiling. He can slice through defenses on rolls to the basket and has shown he can knock down wide-open jumpers from anywhere on the floor.
Whether he has the chops to anchor a defense remains to be seen. That's usually the case for rookies. But he looks pretty good outside the paint when in his stance and is proving more than occasionally that he can break up plays at the rim from behind or as the helper.
Should the Warriors be willing to trade him? That's a tough question. He is the reward for their gap year. Ideally, he will develop and make an impact in a moderate role this season before transforming into a star later on—their bridge to a different era in which Stephen Curry is less than superhuman.
Klay Thompson's injury changes the calculus. The Warriors are much less likely to win multiple playoff series without him, and his own future is shrouded in doubt after suffering an ACL and Achilles injuries. Golden State may need to make an all-in trade if it's going to reopen the title window around Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green.
Wiseman's star potential and rookie-scale contract—he's owed just $30.9 million over the next three years—is among the only ways this team can go star-hunting. The Warriors have the Minnesota Timberwolves' 2021 first (more on that shortly), but he's a tangible cornerstone possibility.
Plus, depending on who they lust after (Bradley Beal? James Harden?) and whether they're trying to include Andrew Wiggins' contract, it could take both Wiseman and that pick to get a deal done.
Minnesota's 2021 1st-Round Pick (Owned by Golden State)
Owning the Minnesota Timberwolves' 2021 first-rounder, with top-three protection, is a boon for the Warriors' treasure chest. Minnesota is sitting at the bottom of the Western Conference with the league's worst defense and no clear path out of the doldrums unless it makes a major move.
Golden State may actually have to worry about this pick not conveying. The Timberwolves are so far winning the minutes Karl-Anthony Towns plays, but if they can't escape the No. 15 or No. 14 spot in the West by the trade deadline, they may fire up the tank in the hopes of retaining this selection and reloading with another might-be star before 2021-22.
Neither the Warriors nor prospective sellers to which they may offer this pick should care. Flattened lottery odds have turned the draft-position game into even more of a crapshoot. Having one of the league's three worst records would only give the Timberwolves a 40.1 percent chance of landing a top-three selection.
This remains the type of asset that can function as the crown jewel of a blockbuster trade, in no small part because the 2021 draft is loaded with possible star power.
The question here is the same it was for the Warriors' stance on James Wiseman: Are they good enough to justify surrendering such a monstrous trade chip? Especially before they see what Klay Thompson looks like post-injuries?
That's debatable. Times a jillion.
But Stephen Curry turns 33 in March. Draymond Green will turn 31 before season's end, also in March. Thompson celebrates his 31st birthday in February. Golden State has an obligation to win now—or, at the very latest, next season.
If the chance to go after Bradley Beal, James Harden or another top-20 player presents itself, the Warriors have to at least consider it, and you better believe this Minny pick will be at the forefront of any such discussions.
New Orleans Pelicans' Draft-Pick Cache
Let's recap the New Orleans Pelicans' treasure trove of first-rounders, shall we?
- 2021: Own
- 2022: Own, Los Angeles Lakers first (protected for Nos. 8-30 in 2021)
- 2023: Own, Lakers' first (swap)
- 2024: Own, Lakers first (can defer to 2025), Milwaukee Bucks first (swap)
- 2025: Own, Bucks first
- 2026: Own, Bucks first (swap)
- 2027: Own, Bucks first
Only the Thunder have a better draft-pick stash. (Note: Their cache of first-rounders won't appear here. They have tried to punt on this season and are less likely to unload assets for a win-now move).
The Pelicans' future commitments lose some luster knowing the Lakers will probably have Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo already re-signed with the Bucks, but those selections also leak far enough out that anything can happen.
Most will assert that New Orleans should not chase extremely buy-now blockbusters. They're not wrong. But the Pelicans have already paid Brandon Ingram, acquired and extended Steven Adams, and have Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart about to enter restricted free agency.
Continuing to reinvest in the current core would thrust a slightly more immediate timeline upon them, and they have to at least consider the possibility that Zion Williamson's athletic prime will peter out before he turns 30. Both are causes for more urgency.
This is different from saying the Pelicans have to swing for the fences now. They don't. But between this collection of picks, Ball, Hart, Jaxson Hayes, Kira Lewis Jr. and Nickeil Alexander-Walker, they should have the bandwidth to acquire a star without forfeiting either of their two best players.
All of which is enough to, from afar, render them a dark horse in any blockbuster sweepstakes. And if prospective targets more comfortably align with the windows of Ingram and Zion—like, say, a 27-year-old Bradley Beal—they go from out-of-left field candidates to potential favorites.
New York Knicks' Cap Space
Cap space alone will not get the New York Knicks a star. Not even close. They don't have enough to swallow unwanted-star money, and it'll take more attractive picks and prospects to have a legitimate shot at the more desirable names.
That isn't to say cap space isn't super valuable in those scenarios. On the contrary, it allows the Knicks to offer immediate financial relief at a time of year almost no other team can do the same. They have comfortably more than $15 million in wiggle room even after signing Taj Gibson, allowing them to complete more lopsided deals or more easily take back an unsavory contract in addition to a red-carpet draw.
Good luck figuring out whether the Knicks have the motivation or, more critically, other assets to pull off a blockbuster.
Neither RJ Barrett nor Mitchell Robinson qualifies as a blue-chip prospect when measured against the same bar as Tyler Herro or Michael Porter Jr., and it's way too early to give rookie Obi Toppin, who has appeared in one game, that type of designation.
New York's future picks will also have limited appeal if it's trying to land a top-25 player. Having firsts from the Dallas Mavericks in 2021 and 2023 (with top-10 protection) helps, but they don't project as bad enough for those draft choices to matter.
Throw the kitchen sink at sellers, along with the ability to absorb more money than any other squad, and the Knicks really have something. Even if everything isn't enough to break into the blockbuster market, their cap space still allows them to set the market for salary dumps or serve as handsomely compensated facilitators for other superstar deals.