Playing Trade or Keep with NBA's Top Available Stars
Even under normal circumstances, a little more than 10 percent of a season wouldn't be enough time for NBA teams to achieve clarity on franchise-altering trade decisions. In this campaign, which has been unusually chaotic and marked by a record number of blowouts, those decisions are murkier than usual.
In most cases.
Obviously, the Houston Rockets have to trade James Harden. There's nothing nuanced about that one.
Beyond that, though, no keep-or-trade call is simple. Here, we'll run down the biggest names that already are or might soon be trade candidates, and then arrive at a (premature) verdict on the most sensible decision.
We can't be sure of who, but the only certain thing is that some of them will soon be playing for different teams.
James Harden, Houston Rockets
Statistically, Harden is as good as ever. Through five games, he's averaging 29.4 points, 11.0 assists and 4.6 rebounds with a 64.5 true shooting percentage that, if sustained, would be his highest accuracy rate since 2011-12, when he was a relatively low-usage role player for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Those numbers hardly figure into the calculus here, except insofar as they give suitors confidence that Harden's trade demand (complete with a list of acceptable landing spots) hasn't diminished his on-court impact.
He can still play; he just doesn't want to do it for the Houston Rockets anymore.
Whichever team adds Harden will have to fundamentally alter its makeup. It's unrealistic to imagine the alternative: Harden relinquishing the total control he's had on his team's offense and culture for the better part of a decade. Add to that the concerns about his extracurriculars and how they might affect the aging curve as he advances into his 30s, and it's not so hard to understand why no deal has even approached completion.
Harden is a brilliant individual talent whose career story might look a whole lot different if not for his Rockets' fateful 0-of-27 stretch from deep in Game 7 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals. But the lack of traction in trade talks is telling.
Teams around the league aren't convinced he's worth the outlay it'd take to acquire him.
That changes nothing about the untenable situation in Houston. No player needs to be dealt more than Harden.
Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
The Philadelphia 76ers sit atop the Eastern Conference standings and have what looks to be a championship-caliber defense, facts that should rule out a roster shake-up on their own.
Success like that should have the Sixers backpedaling hard from what ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported as their "willingness" to include Simmons in a possible trade package for Harden.
Forget Philly's stellar start, and zoom out.
Simmons is 24. He made the All-Defensive First Team last year and earned All-NBA Third Team honors. He can guard five positions, run the point, rebound and generate terrifying transition offense by himself. Focus on the shooting limitations or the overblown fit issues with Joel Embiid if you want, but know that you're overlooking the obvious.
You don't trade a player with Simmons' game and pile of early-career achievements unless you absolutely have to. And the Sixers don't have to.
Take this man off the table.
Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards
Bradley Beal has an alarming amount of experience with the frustration he felt following his 60-point outing Wednesday.
The Washington Wizards lost that game, and although one defeat shouldn't determine our decision here, the Wizards' consistent failure to capitalize on Beal's brilliance does. And anyway, we're not talking about just one defeat.
Last year, Beal ripped off 10 games with at least 40 points. The Wizards lost nine of them.
And no, those losses weren't the results of Beal gunning for his own numbers at the expense of efficient offense. He shot a combined 55.6 percent from the field in those 10 contests, making fewer than half of his shots just once.
All those defeats should tell the Wizards that Beal's excellence isn't enough to make them consistent winners. They need more—more depth, more defense, more roster balance, more overall talent.
Trading Beal will be painful, but it's the best way to get all of the things Washington needs. The longer the Wizards delay, the closer Beal gets to the summer of 2022, when he can (and almost certainly will) decline his player option and hit free agency). Every second they delay, his value to his acquiring team diminishes.
If Beal finally makes a trade request, Washington's leverage will nosedive. It feels inevitable that he will (justifiably) run out of loyalty.
The Wizards are 2-6 and have little hope of winning a first-round playoff series—if they can even rally to make the dance in the first place. It's time.
Blake Griffin, Detroit Pistons
Killian Hayes' hip injury, which would likely render his season over if the treatment plan requires surgery, changes the Detroit Pistons' outlook.
If the No. 7 pick had remained healthy, the impending avalanche of losses would have served a purpose. The rookie point guard would have taken his lumps while earning valuable developmental reps. If he's sidelined for most or all of the season, the Pistons will still lose plenty—but they won't reap key benefits.
In a roundabout way, this impacts Blake Griffin as a trade chip.
With Hayes out, Detroit could skew its rotation toward veterans and try to sneak into the play-in round. But Griffin has looked so diminished athletically that returning him to his high-usage role might not produce better results than if Hayes had taken on more responsibilities instead. And it may not even be possible for Griffin, with his own poor health history, to handle that demanding gig.
The hope for Detroit must be that Griffin improves as the year progresses. That he reverses the trend he's on in which he's become a completely perimeter-oriented player who can't get to the bucket anymore. Among bigs, he ranks in the 14th percentile in shot frequency at the rim. That's the lowest close-range rate of his career.
Without mincing words, the Pistons can't trade Griffin now, at the nadir of his value. Their only option is to hope he improves, keep him until closer to the March 25 deadline and then move him.
Ultimately, Griffin should go. Detroit can't justify paying him $39 million next year. But now's not the ideal time. Give him a chance to rehab his value and lessen the draft capital the Pistons will have to attach to move him.
Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers
This is going to hurt because new head coach Nate Bjorkgren's tactical overhaul has the Indiana Pacers looking like a sneaky top-four team in the Eastern Conference. What's more, Victor Oladipo, who's had the last handful of seasons ruined by a torn quad tendon, looks to be nearly as good as he was during his All-NBA bustout in 2017-18.
Oladipo's fitness actually augurs toward a trade, if you're a cold-hearted cynic like yours truly.
The 2021 free-agent market was supposed to be flush with talent, but this past offseason's rash of re-signings and extensions changed all that. Oladipo, an impending free agent, will be among the most in-demand players this summer—if he's healthy.
Even if Oladipo batted down rumors he wanted out of Indiana, the Pacers have to assume he'll test the market. With significant money already committed to Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner and Malcolm Brogdon, they may not be inclined to add another big deal to their books—particularly for a player with Oladipo's health record.
Even if Indiana might not get a ton for Oladipo, who'll probably be a rental for whoever acquires him, and even if losing him would further hamstring an offense that has already lost T.J. Warren to foot surgery, this remains a sell-high situation.
Unless the Pacers intend to beat the market to keep Oladipo on a massive deal next summer, they've got to strike quickly. The opportunity to move their two-time All-Star may never knock this loudly again.