Contracts NBA Teams Would Love to Trade

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJanuary 16, 2021

Contracts NBA Teams Would Love to Trade

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    No NBA contract is immovable.

    This is a lesson learned again and again, time after time, usually on an annual basis. It only takes one team to view a taxing deal in a slightly less negative light, and franchise-unfriendly pacts can always be swapped for each other.

    That doesn't mean moving any contract is easy. Plenty of teams have deals on the books they'd probably love to ship out if it didn't entail so much collateral damage—mainly draft-pick equity, prospects or swallowing another pricier pact.

    This exercise will aim to tap into that feeling. But it will not purely consist of the hardest-to-trade deals. Not every steep agreement is viewed as an internal albatross. Distant observers no doubt consider the four years (including this one) and $157.2 million left on Klay Thompson's deal as a cap-sheet millstone, but to say the Golden State Warriors would love or should want to move him is a stretch.

    To help provide some context, our selections will be separated into the following tiers:

    • Houston Rockets Contracts: They're the only team with multiple options and now on a tough-to-discern trajectory following the James Harden trade.
    • Deals from Teams That Could Use 2021 Offseason Flexibility: Smaller, hard-to-move contracts that stand as potential free-agency roadblocks.
    • Pricey Vets on Divergent Timelines: Their teams aren't good enough that they need to deal them, but they're out of place and expensive.
    • Important-But-Incredibly Expensive Players: They can't be traded for just anyone, should the opportunity present itself, but their contracts remain extremely limiting.
    • The No-Caveat Giants: Contracts that teams shouldn't be choosy about moving, even if it doesn't mean opening cap space, which it won't.

    Let's ride.

Houston Rockets Contracts

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    Carmen Mandato/Associated Press

    Eric Gordon

    Contract Balance: Four years, $75.6 million (final season of $20.9 million is non-guaranteed unless he makes an All-Star roster or team wins the championship before 2023-24)

    The Rockets ducked the luxury tax as part of the James Harden trade. Who could have predicted that, aside from everyone?

    What happens next is a little fuzzy. They should be in full-on rebuild mode, but they don't technically control their own first-rounder. It's owed to the Oklahoma City Thunder with top-four protection. They also still have a bundle of players who can help them win—or at least not suck—including the newly acquired Victor Oladipo.

    Getting him from the Indiana Pacers could signal an inclination to stay relevant. Go ahead and short that stock. Houston owns its 2022 and 2023 first-rounders and should be looking to clear the deck of impact veterans and overpriced deals.

    Eric Gordon falls under that umbrella. His price point was tenuous for a contender. It is less of a net negative for a team without championship hopes, but he still doesn't fit the big picture—especially when he's shooting under 30 percent from three.

    Moving him with two guaranteed years left on his deal after this one will be hard. He has hit 77.3 percent of his twos, adds some off-the-dribble juice and can hold up defensively, but this is a lot of money. The Rockets will struggle to reroute him without taking back an equally, if not more, problematic contract.

      

    John Wall

    Contract Balance: Three years, $132.9 million ($47.4 million player option for 2022-23)

    John Wall has played surprisingly well for someone who was away from NBA competition for roughly two years. He looks spry and is getting to the rim at a pre-Achilles-injury clip. He's even connecting on 47.4 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes.

    Exceeding what were muddled, if not low, expectations doesn't make his contract that much more palatable. A handful of supermaxes have regressed into being problematic, and he was never at the same MVP level as Chris Paul or Russell Westbrook.

    Maybe the Rockets won't look to actively move him. There's value in competing this year with so little chance of keeping their draft pick, and let's face it: He isn't someone they can just jettison. Encouraging indicators from this season and all, his contract remains one of the league's five hardest to ship out.

Deals from Teams That Could Use 2021 Offseason Flexibility

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    Brandon Wade/Associated Press

    Eric Bledsoe, New Orleans Pelicans

    Contract Balance: Three years, $54.4 million (only $3.9 million of his $19.4 million salary in 2022-23 is guaranteed)

    Any push to move Eric Bledsoe is more functional than anything. First and foremost, he's not someone who bolsters the half-court offense. It is better with him on the floor but not efficient overall. Keeping him and Lonzo Ball, another half-court question mark, in the same rotation is a drain on the Pelicans' dynamism.

    It is also a strain on their flexibility. They extended Steven Adams and maxed out Brandon Ingram over the summer. Ball and Josh Hart will both be restricted free agents this summer.

    Brushing up against next year's projected $140.7 million luxury tax isn't an imminent concern, but it's also not not a concern. The Pelicans could easily scoot past the $130 million mark if Ball and Hart cost a combined $30 million annually (possible!) and their first-round pick ranks high enough. Such a scenario impedes their ability to spend the mid-level exception, and things get tighter if cap projections fall.

    Wiping Bledsoe's salary from the ledger would be ideal—though not at all a given. It gives New Orleans a line to cap space if it decides to let Ball walk or ensures the team can tap into the non-taxpayer MLE while presumably retaining him and Hart. That dealing Bledsoe would, in theory, open up more developmental minutes for Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Kira Lewis Jr. is merely an ultra-valuable side benefit.

         

    Dwight Powell, Dallas Mavericks

    Contract Balance: Three years, $33.2 million

    Dwight Powell's deal was iffy before he tore his right Achilles tendon last January. He deserves more time to work out the kinks after returning from such a devastating injury, but it looks even iffier for the time being.

    Perhaps Kristaps Porzingis' return changes that. He should beef up the Powell-Luka Doncic minutes that have been decidedly not so hot. Porzingis' return also stands to render Powell even less essential. The Mavericks have him, Willie Cauley-Stein, Maxi Kleber and James Johnson to lean on for big-man minutes.

    This isn't to say jettisoning Powell is mission-critical. Dallas can get to around $30 million in cap space if it declines Cauley-Stein's team option and Josh Richardson, as expected, opts out.

    But turning Powell's contract into expiring money glitzes up the Mavericks' range of outcomes. They'd likely go from choosing between Richardson and max space to opening the bandwidth to have both. That's a big-time win, even if the 2021 free-agency class isn't nearly as sexy after a bunch of dudes signed extensions.

    Whether Dallas has the sweeteners to parlay Powell's contract into expiring salary is debatable. Its first-rounder is headed to the New York Knicks, and the roster isn't littered with tantalizing prospects. Offering some combination of Jalen Brunson, Tyrell Terry and seconds is probably as good as the Mavericks can do if they want to keep Dorian Finney-Smith.

Pricey Vets on Divergent Timelines

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Blake Griffin, Detroit Pistons

    Contract Balance: Two years, $75.8 million ($39 million player option in 2021-22)

    Blake Griffin's short-term balance doesn't make him eminently movable. He is shooting under 32 percent from beyond the arc and doesn't have the same burst with or without the ball. A career-low 28 percent of his looks are coming at the rim.

    The Pistons have the non-immediate timeline to gut it out—or at least wait until the offseason, when he'll be an expiring deal. But they also have Saddiq Bey, Sekou Doumbouya, Jerami Grant and Josh Jackson. Keeping Griffin limits how much time any one of them can spend at the 4 and makes it harder to play them together.

      

    Al Horford, Oklahoma City Thunder

    Contract Balance: Three years, $81 million ($14.5 million of his $26.5 million salary in 2022-23 is guaranteed)

    We may need to have a conversation about whether the Thunder are too good to be naturally bad. Their 29th-ranked offense and bottom-five net rating suggest we don't, but they are hovering around .500 and getting stout defensive minutes from their starters.

    Horford is a part of that success at the other end. And though he isn't blocking minutes for anyone other than rookie Aleksej Pokusevski, finding a new home for him would still have value.

    For starters, he's a 34-year-old on a team in the first year of a total reset. Mostly, parlaying him into an expiring contract or smaller long-term deal increases the Thunder's cap flexibility this summer. They could already grind out somewhere between $40 million and $55 million, but finagling even more would allow them to set the market for salary dumps or make aggressive offers to multiple restricted free agents—or both.

      

    Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers

    Contract Balance: Three years, $91.5 million

    Cleveland's frontline is overcrowded even with Kevin Love recovering from a right calf injury. It will be even more congested once he returns.

    This logjam is somewhat temporary. Jarrett Allen (restricted), Andre Drummond and JaVale McGee are all headed for free agency, and Allen is the only one who figures to stick around. Dean Wade doesn't need to get minutes forever.

    Still, Love is 32, and the Cavs don't appear close to contending. His primary position is also Larry Nance Jr.'s best spot (power forward). Using him as a full-time center is a non-starter with Allen and does nothing for their defense.

    Exchanging Love's contract for expiring money or a smaller deal would also help the Cavs reopen some cap space. They effectively punted on spending power with the acquisition of Allen and Taurean Prince. Remove Love's salary from the equation, and they're back in business—provided they let Drummond walk.

    Will he play well enough upon return for Cleveland to explore this scenario? Debatable. It feels like a situation that will be resolved over the offseason or sometime in 2021-22, when his deal no longer runs as long.

Important-but-Incredibly-Expensive Players

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Tobias Harris, Philadelphia 76ers

    Contract Balance: Four years, $147.3 million

    Tobias Harris is quietly piecing together a great year. He's averaging 19.0 points while downing 44.7 percent of his treys and 54 percent of his twos—both of which would be career highs.

    That doesn't make his price point much less restrictive for the Sixers. He is their third max player without actually being a max player. That poses short- and long-term constraints, even when he's shooting the lights out.

    Keeping him still profiles as more valuable independent of a very specific opportunity. Rerouting his money just for the sake of moving it is pointless. The Sixers aren't going to be major cap-space players with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons on the books. They'd need to trade Harris as part of a deal that noticeably upgrades their roster by virtue of star power or overwhelming depth—something they likely don't have the draft and prospect equity to do.

      

    D'Angelo Russell, Minnesota Timberwolves

    Contract Balance: Three years, $90.1 million

    D'Angelo Russell is not a $30 million-per-year player. He also isn't completely expendable to the Timberwolves.

    Not only is he BFFs with franchise-cornerstone Karl-Anthony Towns, but he remains an offensive driving force. Even at his coldest, he's still someone who can initiate pick-and-rolls and bury off-the-dribble jumpers. Minnesota doesn't have another one of these players on the docket unless Jarrett Culver or Anthony Edwards is tracking toward a leap.

    Russell admittedly isn't as integral to the Timberwolves as Harris is to the Sixers. Minnesota isn't a contender. It can theoretically afford to move Russell for cheaper or expiring money at the expense of impact.

    But flat-out dumping him is the callous approach. The Timberwolves don't have the wiggle room to go that route. They'd risk disenchanting Towns by both unloading his friend and triggering another rebuild-type thingamabob. Couple this with the 2021 first-round pick they owe to the Golden State Warriors (top-three protection), and Russell, while on a net-negative contract, should only be moved as part of an aggressive buy-now play.

The No-Caveat Giants

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    Russell Westbrook, Washington Wizards

    Contract Balance: Three years, $132.6 million ($47.1 million player option for 2022-23)

    Russell Westbrook is currently on the league's single worst contract. That title previously belonged to the player for whom he was traded, John Wall, but contrasting starts to the season have turned the tables.

    Prior to missing time with a left quad injury, Westbrook appeared to be rapidly aging. He is reaching the rim with career-low frequency and relying even more on his mid-range jumper, which he's converting at a 33 percent clip. Washington has been a team-high 12.7 points per 100 possessions better when he's off the court.

    This bodes terribly for the Wizards' long-term direction. They treated Westbrook as the more valuable player in the Wall trade. He has instead been one of the league's most damaging.

    Perhaps Westbrook rights the ship when he's healthy. That's going to take at least three to four weeks, according to NBC Washington's Quinton Mayo. The Wizards better hope that's all he needs. Better play won't make his contract any easier to move, but the vultures are already circling Bradley Beal. Westbrook's struggles, in addition to their own, only embolden them.

          

    Andrew Wiggins, Golden State Warriors

    Contract Balance: Three years, $94.7 million

    Andrew Wiggins may have found a happy medium with the Warriors. He's averaging almost 18.0 points per game while shooting what would be a career-best 39.3 percent from downtown, and his defensive engagement is at an all-time high.

    Some are now inclined to call last year's trade that sent D'Angelo Russell to Minnesota for Wiggins and this year's Timberwolves pick a heist. Don't be one of them.

    Early-season Andrew Wiggins has seduced the masses before. Many times, actually. It never holds. He's still struggling to hit his catch-and-shoot treys, and the Warriors offense craters when he plays without Stephen Curry.

    It is important to distinguish between valuable and a lack of optionality. Golden State's dependence on Wiggins is the latter. His importance to the team's success is borne from necessity and remains alarming. If the Warriors could move him for a cheaper wing or without having to attach assets, they probably would.

    And no, his price point isn't sneaky useful because it's a ready-made match for superstar money. Any blockbuster packages Golden State pieces together with him aren't nearly as appealing as those from other teams offering much cheaper salary filler.

       

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass. Salary information via Basketball Insiders and Spotrac.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Adam Fromal.