Desperation Trade Targets to Create New NBA Contenders
The Brooklyn Nets went all-in on James Harden, surrendering control of their first-round picks through 2027 and sacrificing depth in exchange for superstar talent that (they hope) will give them a better shot at a championship.
It was a bold bet. Maybe even a desperate one. The Harden trade presents several unknowns and risks—not the least of which is that it might not even make the Nets objectively better this season, because: defense. But on some level, you've got to admire the commitment.
As a result of various future draft encumbrances, most of the top-flight championship-chasing squads cannot trade a first-round pick. The Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, Miami Heat and Milwaukee Bucks all have their hands tied, so they can't realistically put together a package for a superstar.
The Utah Jazz belong in the next tier down, but they're already vet-heavy, won't trade Donovan Mitchell and can't offer a first-rounder until 2026. They're out, too. The Phoenix Suns can't move a first until 2027 and basically already swung their win-now move by adding Chris Paul.
A few other secondary title threats have the assets to go big.
Let's see what's possible if those organizations were to be overtaken by a Nets-ian level of win-now-at-all-costs conviction.
Boston Celtics: Nikola Vucevic
Boston Celtics Get: Nikola Vucevic
Orlando Magic Get: Marcus Smart, Payton Pritchard, Tristan Thompson, Robert Williams III, unprotected 2022 first-round pick
The Boston Celtics' $28.5 million trade exception, generated in the Gordon Hayward deal over the offseason, isn't actually worth that much. Because Boston used its taxpayer mid-level exception, it's hard-capped this year, which means it can only use $21.8 million of its TPE.
That rules out using it on pricier trade targets, but it's still one of Boston's most valuable tools. The Celtics could use it to get Aaron Gordon from the Orlando Magic, for example.
Dreaming bigger would require the Celtics to package a bunch of salary and attach it to draft compensation. Maybe their trade partners would rather have picks and salary relief than a wad of unwanted cash, but the Celtics could acquire a higher-end piece this way. And they have the assets to pull it off.
Nikola Vucevic is one of the best offensive centers in the game, and he's been part of quality Magic defenses for several years now. Boston head coach Brad Stevens has a track record of conjuring schematic magic to produce strong defenses with less-than-ideal personnel up front, so we should trust him to make it work with Vooch.
To get him, the Celtics would need to surrender Marcus Smart, Payton Pritchard, Tristan Thompson (can't move until Feb. 28) and Robert Williams III, plus at least one unprotected first-rounder.
That sounds like a lot, especially with Pritchard and Smart involved. But this raises the Celtics' offensive ceiling with a spacer and scorer at the 5 like they've never had before. Daniel Theis could slip into the reserve role for which he's better suited, still providing defensive optionality against the right matchups. Meanwhile, Vucevic could produce a supercharged version of the bygone Al Horford era with his high-volume scoring.
It's risky, but that's kind of the point here.
Dallas Mavericks: Victor Oladipo
Dallas Mavericks Get: Victor Oladipo
Houston Rockets Get: James Johnson, Tyrell Terry, Josh Green and a lottery-protected 2026 first-round pick
The Dallas Mavericks will have to wait until Feb. 2 to test the waters on this one, as league rules preclude Victor Oladipo from being traded again (as part of a multi-player package) until 19 days after he was last dealt.
That's no big deal. Dallas can wait until then.
It may seem unlikely that Oladipo would raise the Mavs' ceiling enough to give them a serious title shot, but things change if we presume the shooting guard can get closer to his 2017-18 All-NBA form as the season progresses. In theory, Oladipo would give the Mavericks a quality backcourt defender who could finally ease Luka Doncic's playmaking load down the stretch of close games.
Those are essentially Dallas' two biggest concerns at the moment.
A lineup of Doncic, Oladipo, Josh Richardson, Dorian Finney-Smith and Kristaps Porzingis would present serious problems for opposing teams.
Relative to the other clubs we'll cover, Dallas isn't giving up much. This deal depends mainly on the stingy Houston Rockets seeing Tyrell Terry and Josh Green as keepers. They don't cost much, but this exchange does add a few 2021-22 bucks to Houston's books.
Assuming the Rockets opted for Oladipo over Caris LeVert in the Harden trade because they value the former's expiring contract, James Johnson's inclusion here aligns with their aims. He's on an expiring deal, too.
Dallas also plays both sides, as it could still let Oladipo walk and get back into the 2021 free-agent market if it doesn't end up liking the fit.
Denver Nuggets: Bradley Beal
Denver Nuggets Get: Bradley Beal
Washington Wizards Get: Michael Porter Jr., Gary Harris, Bol Bol, unprotected 2027 first-round pick, first-round swap rights in 2022, 2024 and 2026
The Denver Nuggets can only trade either their 2021 or 2027 first-rounder, but that doesn't mean they're totally precluded from sweetening a deal for Bradley Beal with draft capital.
They can get aggressive with swap rights.
In addition to Michael Porter Jr., Gary Harris and Bol Bol (who can't be dealt until after Feb. 22), the Nuggets can give the Wizards their choice of an unprotected 2021 or 2027 first-round selection. Washington should opt for the later one, as Denver's pick in next summer's draft will almost certainly be in the 20s. Add to that swap rights in three years of the Wizards' choosing, and this is a strong package.
Is that enough to wrench Beal away from a Wizards team that has held off from trading him for so long? Much depends on how the Wiz view Porter, who'd present some positional overlap with their last two lottery choices, Rui Hachimura and Deni Avdija. But Washington isn't good enough to worry about fit, and this is about as much as the Nugs can realistically offer. So the package definitely fulfills the requirement that the contender in these hypotheticals must punt on its future.
Beal's potential value and fit need no justification. The league's leading scorer, dangerous on and off the ball, would be a massive upgrade for the Nuggets. Good luck trying to guard Beal, Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic in a playoff series.
Golden State Warriors: Karl-Anthony Towns
Golden State Warriors Get: Karl-Anthony Towns
Minnesota Timberwolves Get: James Wiseman, Kelly Oubre Jr., Eric Paschall, their own 2021 first-round pick back, top-three-protected first-round pick in 2026
James Wiseman is a wildly intriguing prospect who projects to be a much better defender than Karl-Anthony Towns, but let's not overthink this.
If the Golden State Warriors intend to maximize their championship chances this year (and especially in 2021-22 when Klay Thompson returns), Towns is a colossal upgrade over their rookie center.
Just imagine Stephen Curry, Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, Draymond Green and Towns on the floor together. There are no holes in that lineup. It's loaded with shooting, playmaking, perimeter defense and solid switchability—if Towns rediscovers the defensive verve he showed earlier in his career. The Curry-Towns pairing alone would cement Golden State as the most unsolvable offense in the league.
To get this done, the Dubs have to start the package with Wiseman and give back Minnesota's top-three-protected 2021 first-rounder, plus at least one more unprotected first of their own. Encumbrances mean that selection couldn't come before 2026.
In addition, the Warriors would include Kelly Oubre Jr. and Eric Paschall. The former is on an expiring contract, but he'd provide the defensive activity that's missing on the wing in Minnesota and be a potential keeper. The latter is, at worst, a dynamite small-ball 5 on a second unit.
Both are young enough to continue improving, and Wiseman obviously has a sky-high ceiling.
Towns may be untouchable, or the Wolves might insist on additional picks or swap rights before even considering moving their franchise center. But there's no denying Towns' tenure in Minnesota has been rocky, generally unsuccessful and marred by a failure to develop talent around him. If he eventually grows dissatisfied enough to exert some trade pressure on the franchise, this might actually be doable.
Philadelphia 76ers: Bradley Beal and Kyle Lowry
Philadelphia 76ers Get: Kyle Lowry and Bradley Beal
Toronto Raptors Get: Tyrese Maxey, Matisse Thybulle, Danny Green and Davis Bertans
Washington Wizards Get: Ben Simmons, 2022 first-round pick (unprotected via PHI), swap rights with Philadelphia on 2024 and 2026 first-round picks, 2024 lottery-protected first-round pick (via TOR)
The Philadelphia 76ers didn't get James Harden, but this deal might do even more to land them in the top tier of contenders.
Bradley Beal fits anywhere, and he presents none of the spacing issues or aversion to foul-drawing that Ben Simmons does. Kyle Lowry is a rental on an expiring contract, but the Philly product can still play at a borderline All-Star level and would bring exactly the kind of championship experience and toughness the Sixers need.
The 76ers gut their young core to get it done, surrendering Simmons, Matisse Thybulle and Tyrese Maxey along with an unprotected first-round pick and swap rights (to the Washington Wizards) on two more. That draft compensation falls far short of what the Houston Rockets got from the Nets for Harden, but the overall package is comparable considering Simmons is involved.
The Raptors get some young pieces while doing Lowry a solid by sending him to a more serious contender. Washington loads up on draft capital and gets an All-NBA defender in Simmons, who's three years younger than Beal and under contract for four more seasons.
The Sixers would be almost totally out of picks and young players, but they could field a starting lineup of Lowry, Seth Curry, Beal, Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid. That's a lot of shooting and playmaking around the game's most dominant post-up threat.
Remove the artificial desperation we've imposed on Philly, and the Sixers would probably rather just stick with Simmons and keep their kids and picks. But this is still a fun one to consider if the 76ers wanted to push all their chips in.