NBA Trades to Prevent a Los Angeles Lakers Championship Repeat
There's a long way to go in the 2020-21 NBA season. A lot can change between now and the playoffs. But at the moment, it feels like a Los Angeles Lakers repeat might be the safest prediction for a championship (assuming Anthony Davis is healthy).
So far, L.A. is plus-17.2 points per 100 possessions (99th percentile) when AD is on the floor with LeBron James. The new additions seem to fit well with the Big Two, particularly on the defensive end.
Parity seems as present as it's been in a long time, though. Title runs for several other teams wouldn't be shocking. In the ever-loaded Western Conference, an early upset of the Lakers is even in play.
Some of the candidates to pull off one (or both) of those things are probably a move or two away. Fortunately for them, we have those moves below.
Bradley Beal to the Nuggets
The Trade: Gary Harris, Michael Porter Jr., Bol Bol, a 2021 first-round pick, a 2022 first-round pick swap and a 2024 first-round pick for Bradley Beal
This deal, or some variation of it, seems to come up any time there's a discussion on Bradley Beal's availability. Unfortunately for the Denver Nuggets, the value of Michael Porter Jr. and Bol Bol may not be quite as high as it was before the season started.
Still, there's plenty of reason for optimism surrounding MPJ. Despite lackluster defense and an ice-cold February, it's easy to be intrigued by a 6'10" wing who can score around the rim and light it up from the outside. In theory, he's like Davis Bertans with a dribble-drive game.
If he finds a little consistency on offense and becomes anywhere near average on defense, Porter has star potential. And his fit in positionless lineups with Rui Hachimura could work for years to come.
Bol Bol offers a little upside too. He's more raw than MPJ, but he has three-and-D ability waiting to be uncovered. He's only played 152 NBA minutes, but his outside shot looks workable. And he's clearly inherited some of his father's defensive instincts.
As for Gary Harris, he's here mostly for salary-matching purposes. He's steadily declined since his peak in 2017-18 and would likely be on his way to another team in 2022 free agency.
For the Denver Nuggets, the appeal is obvious. As high as they are on MPJ, their uneven play through the first third of the season shows they're at least a star away from contention. And it's not common for small-market teams to be one move away.
Nikola Jokic is the greatest passing big of all time and arguably the NBA's best player to this point of the season. Denver needs to seize this moment.
Imagine Beal moving around off the ball while Jokic is engineering possessions. Imagine how easily Jokic could score in the post if defenses had to worry about Beal outside. Throw Jamal Murray's heat-check moments in there, and this is a terrifying offense.
That's why Denver can justify throwing out this much draft consideration. The Lakers have the league's top defense. At the moment, the Nuggets probably don't have enough firepower to bend it the way they'll need to in a seven-game series. Beal undoubtedly puts them closer.
JaVale McGee to the Nets
The Trade: Nicolas Claxton, Tyler Johnson and a 2021 second-round pick (via Atlanta) for JaVale McGee
The top-end talent on the Brooklyn Nets roster is undeniable. James Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are fourth, fifth and 13th, respectively, in NBA history in career offensive box plus/minus. They haven't had a ton of time on the floor together since the team acquired Harden last month, but they are plus-39 in those 186 minutes.
For long stretches, even when they only have two of the superstars available, they've looked unstoppable. The off-ball movement and outside shooting of Joe Harris make him an ideal fit next to those three. And other rotation players like Jeff Green, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Bruce Brown have had their moments.
Brooklyn clearly needs help inside, though. It's 23rd in points allowed per 100 possessions (26th since the Harden trade), 23rd in offensive rebounding percentage and 21st in defensive rebounding percentage. The team's plus/minus has been significantly worse with its highest-paid big, DeAndre Jordan, on the floor (he hasn't had a positive swing since 2016-17).
There's a chance the Nets need to address this in the buyout market. In January, The Athletic's Zach Harper wrote, "A couple of league sources mentioned after the Harden trade to Brooklyn that it's a matter of time before [Andre Drummond] finds his way into a buyout and joins up to give them help with the interior."
If the Nets already have some sense of an ability to capitalize on that buyout, this deal may not make much sense. If it feels unlikely, a fringe move like this might be in order.
A 33-year-old JaVale McGee isn't going to instantly change any franchise's fortunes. But the 7-footer has championship experience, and any infusion of size should help.
Nicolas Claxton could also help, but he's still recovering from a shoulder surgery and is more of an upside play. Brooklyn is very much in a win-now window.
Giving up Tyler Johnson shouldn't hurt the Nets much either. They have plenty of offense. And the second-rounder is there because the Cleveland Cavaliers need some incentive to do this (though Brooklyn might try to sell them on Claxton's upside before attaching the extra asset).
With a little extra size in place, the Nets will have more bodies to throw at AD in a potential Finals matchup. The best option may be to play KD at the 5, but mixing up looks is essential against a big as good as Davis.
P.J. Tucker to the Clippers
The Trade: Lou Williams and a 2022 second-round pick for P.J. Tucker
After three years as a staple of Doc Rivers' rotation with the Los Angeles Clippers, Lou Williams has found himself in a more limited role under Tyronn Lue. Up until February, when injuries forced Lue's hand, Williams was averaging fewer than 20 minutes and taking fewer than 10 shots per game.
When he's on the floor, he's only helping on one end, and it happens to be the one where the Clippers are fine (assuming the stars are healthy). L.A. is second in the league in points per 100 possessions and 17th in points allowed.
An offense-for-defense trade, especially when the offensive player is on the floor as little as Williams is, makes sense.
In theory, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Luke Kennard and Reggie Jackson should be able to pick up the playmaking slack, and P.J. Tucker could space the floor as a corner-three threat for any of them. More importantly, his toughness and switchability on defense would raise the ceiling on any lineup.
Perhaps most intriguing is the thought of having spots 2 through 5 occupied by George, Leonard, Marcus Morris Sr. and Tucker. Those four could switch all over the floor, and at least two of those players (Morris and Tucker) could be expected to make possessions difficult for Davis.
Serge Ibaka would get plenty of opportunities to guard the Lakers big man if these two teams met in the playoffs, but having the option to go smaller is more reliable if Tucker is there.
For the Houston Rockets, this deal lands them an expiring contract (maintaining flexibility heading into the offseason) and some draft capital.
ESPN's Brian Windhorst said of Tucker and the Rockets on The Hoop Collective:
"The word on the street that I heard that has been floated: They either want a first-round pick or three seconds, which I've never heard that arithmetic done. Three seconds. … There are 15 teams that are somewhat impacted from trading firsts and eight who can't really trade any, sort of narrows the market. Most of the competitors, most of the teams who are playoff teams this year, are encumbered from trading their pick."
Given the lack of movable assets out there, as well as Tucker's age (35), a first-rounder seems unlikely. Three seconds might be optimistic too. If the Clippers are feeling a bit more desperate around the deadline, maybe another second is in play.
Nikola Vucevic to the Warriors
The Trade: Kelly Oubre Jr., James Wiseman and a 2022 first-round pick for Nikola Vucevic
Before we dive into the logic on this one, it's worth noting there probably isn't a move available that makes the Golden State Warriors bona fide title contenders this season. However, pairing Nikola Vucevic with Stephen Curry would give them a puncher's chance in a potential first-round series with the Lakers.
Heck, the Warriors pulled off a huge comeback win over a healthy L.A. squad in January. That may mean nothing by the time the playoffs roll around, but it's tough to deny Curry's ability to seize control of a series. And it'd be even tougher to stop him if defenses had to focus some attention inside (or at the top of the key) on a big as productive as Vucevic.
Still, this isn't a no-brainer for Golden State. The Warriors have been much worse when James Wiseman plays this season, but his length and athleticism are intriguing. He's had moments when he looks like a game-changing rim-roller, and the form on his jumper is better than plenty of bigs who fit that mold.
He isn't a guaranteed star, but there's a reason he was the No. 2 pick.
Giving up Kelly Oubre Jr. is easier to justify. He hasn't been as bad as his numbers suggest (he may never recover from the horrid start), but Vucevic is an upgrade in terms of talent and style. The latter has embraced the trend of bigs who rack up assists, and ball movement is critical in Steve Kerr's system.
Oubre is also set to enter free agency this offseason. Losing him for nothing could be crippling for the Warriors, who will be well over the cap even if he goes.
Warriors fans might argue that including a first-round pick is too much. After all, Wiseman is just shy of 20 years old. The Magic would need some serious incentives to part with Vucevic, though.
There are no rumblings he's available. Over the last three seasons, he's ninth in the league in wins over replacement player. He's one of the best players in Magic history. Orlando will take some convincing.
It hasn't sniffed title contention during his time there, though, and the roster doesn't suggest a deep playoff run any time soon. Cashing in on Vucevic's value could put the Magic on the right track for a rebuild.
Again, superstar status isn't a given for Wiseman, but the organization could sell hope with him on the roster and another first-rounder on the way.