Surprise Landing Spots for NBA's Top Available Trade Targets
Tired of reading about the same notable trade targets winding up on the same potentially interested teams? Then do we have a thought exercise for you.
It's this one.
Determining which players get the surprise-landing-spot treatment demands we first take the temperature on who's feasibly available. The top names being bandied about the rumor mill aren't always gettable. This process has identified those who seem out of reach, removed them and then selected the highest-impact players most likely to finish the season on a different team.
Contrary to the usual hypothetical-destination romps, we are not focusing on first, second or even third options. We don't want the cleanest fits or the most obvious choices.
We want teams that might come out of the woodwork—landing spots that have a basis for making a deal despite rarely, if ever, being identified as such.
Notable Exclusions: Tier 1
Tier 1: They Don't Appear Available
Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards
Dreaming up blockbuster scenarios is always a good time, but too many signs point toward Bradley Beal remaining in Washington. The Athletic's Shams Charania and Fred Katz reported in early February he flat-out doesn't want to go anywhere.
Perhaps Beal flip-flops. Or maybe the Wizards get an offer too good for them to refuse. More likely, this feels like a situation that'll be addressed over the offseason—especially with Washington winning seven of its last eight games.
Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls
Three rival executives told NBC Sports' K.C. Johnson they get the sense Zach LaVine is "not actively" on the auction block. This tracks.
Chicago's proximity to the Eastern Conference playoff picture definitely matters. That shouldn't preclude the team from thinking longer-term. First-round (or play-in) exits are only so sexy. But LaVine isn't Thaddeus Young. He's 25, going on 26. The Bulls can consider him part of their future even if they decide to sell.
Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
Choose to believe whatever you want. Toronto is in firm contention for a top-four playoff seed after a slow start. That doesn't mean much when the majority of the Eastern Conference can say the same, but the Raptors have more staying power than most postseason hopefuls. They seem more likely to bolster the roster than sell off one of their most important players.
Kristaps Porzingis, Dallas Mavericks
Smoke usually implies fire. But a forceful denial from the Mavericks themselves has to count for something. The rumor mill needs to get a little noisier before we loop Porzingis into the ranks of the readily available.
Notable Exclusions: Tier 2 and Tier 3
Tier 2: Notable Soon-To-Be Restricted Free Agents
Lonzo Ball, New Orleans Pelicans
Sources told The Athletic's Shams Charania at the end of January the Pelicans were shopping Lonzo Ball. Since then, he's averaging 16.5 points and 5.5 assists while downing 45.9 percent of his threes on nearly nine attempts per game.
Functional warts remain. Ball is hitting 38.7 percent of his pull-up triples during this time, but he's not the type of floor general who can put traditional pressure on defenses in the half court with drives or pick-and-roll scoring.
That's different from saying he's a bad fit in New Orleans. He's not. He and Zion Williamson complement each other. Equally important: The Pelicans likely aren't getting adequate value for his services when he's on the verge of a massive payday. Unless he's already told them he wants to leave or they fear a max offer sheet this summer, they're better off keeping him and hashing out his future after he signs his next deal.
John Collins, Atlanta Hawks
Atlanta has "shown a willingness" to field offers for John Collins, according to The Athletic's Sam Amick. That's hardly a ringing endorsement for his availability.
Moving him now isn't a binary decision. He's much too important to the Hawks' postseason aspirations—and not just for his offense. His steal and block rates have dipped, but he's a smarter defender. His rotations are on point, and he is not helpless in space.
Whether Atlanta should want to pay him $100-plus million in his next contract is debatable. But he makes under $4.2 million now. Even if he is expendable—and he may not be—the Hawks aren't getting a ton for him alone. This, too, is a situation that should leak into the offseason (sign-and-trade) or next year, when he can be rerouted as a much larger cap hit.
Tier 3: Big Names More Likely to Get Bought Out
Andre Drummond, Cleveland Cavaliers
Cleveland has removed Andre Drummond from the rotation while trying to find a new home for him ahead of the March 25 deadline, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski and Brian Windhorst. Coming up with prospective deals is tough.
Drummond's on-court value is very much eye-of-the-beholder stuff. But his $28.8 million price point is steep for even the most devout optimists. The Cavaliers most likely have to take back a longer, less palatable deal to grease the wheels of prospective trades. And while that's not out of the question, it does limit the number of potentially interested parties.
Blake Griffin, Detroit Pistons
Blake Griffin is getting the Drummond treatment while Detroit weighs trade and buyout options, per Wojnarowski. Bet on the latter.
Identifying destinations for Griffin is ridiculously difficult even if we assume the Pistons are open to absorbing unsavory contracts. He is making $36.8 million this year and has a $39 million player option for next season. It'd be one thing if he showed flashes of 2018-19 All-NBA Blake Griffin after missing basically all of 2019-20 with a left knee injury. He hasn't.
JJ Redick, New Orleans Pelicans
Forecasting a buyout for JJ Redick probably goes too far. Teams won't trip over themselves to take on the $13 million contract of a 36-year-old, but he's burying nearly 47 percent of his threes since Feb. 1. Shooters always have a market. Redick's market merely figures to be finite.
He prefers to end up with one of the teams in the Northeast, and New Orleans seems prepared to oblige if it moves him, according to Charania. That boils his most likely landing spots down to the Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets, New York Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers—and leaves little room for surprise scenarios.
George Hill: Washington Wizards
Break up the Wizards!
Washington has won seven of eight, during which time it ranks sixth—sixth—in points allowed per 100 possessions. Davis Bertans is once again a human fireball. Russell Westbrook looks a little more like Russell Westbrook and is averaging a triple-double over this span. Garrison Mathews is breathing fire. Bradley Beal remains opposing defenses' worst nightmare.
The sustainability of the Wizards' rise remains to be seen. Opponents are shooting under 35 percent on wide-open threes through these eight games and were already underachieving on those looks in the first place. Washington is now within three games of the East's No. 4 seed, but the same holds true for more than half the conference.
This is all to say: The Wizards should not enter the trade deadline trying to aggressively buy. And yet, if they're not going to sell (i.e. shop Beal), they might as well try to make a small-medium purchase.
Beefing up the center rotation should top the to-do list. Washington needs defense-first wings, too. But the reserve point guard rotation could also use an upgrade. The offense is mustering just 100 points per 100 possessions when Beal sits (1st percentile) and is actually worse when those minutes include Westbrook. Ish Smith is out with a right quad injury, but he has never been the answer. Ditto for Raul Neto, at least on his own.
George Hill could be—once he returns from right thumb surgery. His off-the-dribble game is more basic, but he can chaperone an offense. He is hitting 61.5 percent of his looks on drives—a top-four mark among 154 players who have taken at least as many shots in such situations. His 38.6 percent clip from deep should climb when he's orbiting Beal and Westbrook.
Nobody expects Hill to finish the season with the Oklahoma City Thunder, per ESPN's Tim Bontemps, so he should be considered extremely available. Washington has the combination of contracts to make the money work. Smith's $6 million expiring salary is a good starting point, and smaller deals can be added from there.
The bigger question: Do the Wizards have the sweetener(s) necessary to push a trade through? They have no business giving up a future first—they owe a lottery-protected pick to the Houston Rockets in 2023—and don't have any young players who are both super intriguing and expendable. They'll need OKC to be smitten by something along the lines of Isaac Bonga, Troy Brown Jr. or Mo Wagner and seconds.
Al Horford: Dallas Mavericks
George Hill isn't the only Thunder player who might find himself on the move. Oklahoma City is open for business, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojanrowski, and Al Horford is the next most likely candidate to get shipped out—aside from maybe Trevor Ariza, who's on an expiring contract and hasn't joined the team.
Suitors won't shy away from prospective deals because of Horford's ability. His tough go in Philadelphia last season had more to do with fit than anything. He's currently averaging 14.2 points and 3.6 assists while finding nylon on 36.4 percent of his threes. His defensive mobility isn't what it was two years ago, but he can still cover real ground. Opponents are reaching the rim significantly less often when he's on the floor.
Horford's contract is the real issue. His price tag is steep ($27.5 million), and he's on the books for $53.5 million over the next two years ($39 million guaranteed). Dallas doesn't look like the team to swallow that money on the surface. It already has Kristaps Porzingis up front, and Horford's $27 million salary next season would pretty much prohibit the Mavs from carving out max space this summer.
Punting on that flexibility cannot be taken lightly. The Mavericks have only one offseason left before Luka Doncic counts as a max salary on the ledger. This could be their last chance to spend for a while.
So what? The 2021 free-agency class has lost most of its sheen following a flurry of extensions, and the Mavericks presently have to renounce both Tim Hardaway Jr. and Josh Richardson to enjoy max room anyway. They won't truly miss out unless Kawhi Leonard is hot for Doncic. They can also dredge up more room if they need it.
Putting together a package for Horford that includes Dwight Powell would still give them a line to more than $17 million in spending power. That number can mushroom by offloading smaller salaries onto other teams. With only one fully guaranteed year left on his deal, Horford himself won't be immovable if the Mavericks need cap space. His arrival would also be a nice hedge in the event they do decide to trade Porzingis.
Running out two bigs in the frontcourt is seldom workable. Horford knows this all too well after last season in Philly. But Porzingis isn't Joel Embiid. He is almost exclusively a pick-and-pop option. Dallas doesn't need to worry about them occupying the same space as often and can still play five-out when they're both in the game. Staggering them guarantees Dallas will never have a below-average 5 on the court.
Acquiring Horford makes zero sense if the Mavericks have to fork over meaningful assets. But if the Thunder are predominantly interested in cutting long-term costs, Dallas can absolutely justify green-lighting a package built around Powell, James Johnson's expiring contract and low-level sweeteners.
Victor Oladipo: Boston Celtics
Victor Oladipo may wind up wearing a third jersey this season. As ESPN's Brian Windhorst noted on an episode of The Hoop Collective podcast (via HoopsHype): "There's chatter starting to go around about whether Victor Oladipo will be back on the market."
Jettisoning Oladipo makes sense for the Houston Rockets. Bankrolling his next deal doesn't jibe with their post-James Harden timeline—particularly when he remains a wild card. Oladipo has already missed games in Houston with a right quad injury and has seen his offensive efficiency plummet.
Any team that goes after him would be wise to consider him a rental. Oladipo has more to offer even if he never sniffs 2017-18 All-NBA form; he was averaging 20.0 points and 4.2 assists while connecting on 36.2 percent of his triples before the Indiana Pacers traded him. But he is a flight risk by virtue of a thin free-agency market.
Semi-lucrative contracts should still await him this summer. Plenty of teams are slated for cap space and don't have many star options in which to invest. They'll be even fewer big names available if Jrue Holiday (player option) signs an extension with the Milwaukee Bucks and Kawhi Leonard (player option) doesn't seriously consider leaving the Los Angeles Clippers.
Even the best-case scenario for potential admirers is complicated. Let's say Oladipo goes kaboom with his next team and wants to return. They are still on the hook for doling out what should be near-max money. Suitors need to have the stomach to lose him or pay him.
That sort of describes the Boston Celtics. They have two other star wings—Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum—and are working from an inherently stronger position than smaller markets. Giving up a pick and one of their young players on rookie-scale contracts doesn't cripple them.
General manager Danny Ainge has said his team wants to acquire size and shooting. Oladipo doesn't necessarily check either box. He stands 6'4" and has hit more than 37 percent of his threes for an entire season only once. He was converting 43.3 percent of his catch-and-fire treys before leaving Indiana but mostly steers Boston deeper into its reliance on pull-up jumpers.
Is that the worst thing in the world? The Celtics' dependence on those looks isn't just going away. Only the Portland Trail Blazers take more pull-up jumpers per game. Peak Oladipo maximizes that shot profile while offering enough strength and disruption to guard wings. He also gets to the rim more often than Brown, Tatum and Kemba Walker.
Perhaps Oladipo arrives in Boston and goes belly-up. That's a real possibility. But that risk should be baked into the cost. The Rockets don't have the leverage to command more than a hodgepodge of assets, and the Celtics have a leg up on the competition thanks to their Gordon Hayward trade exception. They can take Oladipo's entire $21 million salary into it and still have $7.5 million left to use over the offseason.
P.J. Tucker: Phoenix Suns
P.J. Tucker is as good as gone from the Rockets. He will hit free agency over the summer and was reportedly unhappy he didn't get an extension before the season. Houston even has an asking price in mind for his services: a first-round pick or three second-rounders, per ESPN's Brian Windhorst (h/t HoopsHype's Bryan Kalbrosky).
Pinpointing a surprise destination for him verges on impossible. It feels like every team is interested in him—almost as if someone who can guard bigs and wings while splashing threes without cannibalizing too many offensive possessions is valuable or something.
Fortunately, the Phoenix Suns give us a left-field proposition with which to work. Going after Tucker elevates their playoff threat level. They're set on the wings between Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder and Cam Johnson, but they have room to diversify their center rotation.
Deandre Ayton can run into problems when tasked with defending too high despite being eminently switchable overall. Lineups with Dario Saric at the 5 are wiping opponents off the face of the Earth, but their defensive success oozes fragility. A lot of those combinations include both Johnson (a fine-not-great defender) and Cam Payne. Rookie Jalen Smith, meanwhile, is a mystery box and nowhere near ready to shift Phoenix's fortunes.
Tucker renders the Suns more matchup-proof. He can close games at the 4 or the 5—or not at all.
Leaving trade-deadline acquisitions on the bench during crunch time only stings when the opportunity cost is through the roof. Tucker shouldn't be that expensive. He's 35 and on an expiring contract. Jevon Carter, Abdel Nader and maaaybe a second is a reasonable offer for both sides.
Thaddeus Young: Charlotte Hornets
NBC Sports' K.C. Johnson pegged Thaddeus Young as one of the Bulls players most likely to be traded this season at the start of February. That still feels like the right call.
Chicago's entry into the East's playoff picture could make the team less inclined to sell. It shouldn't. Everyone and their third cousin twice removed by divorce is an Eastern Conference postseason hopeful. The bigger picture matters more. Zach LaVine is young enough to be part of it. A 32-year-old Young won't be around if and when this Bulls core brushes up against a deep-playoff-run ceiling.
Capitalizing on his value now makes the most sense. His market won't get any hotter. He remains one of the league's best help defenders and is averaging a career-high 4.4 assists per game. What he lacks in outside shooting he makes up for with craftiness around the basket. He's hitting 57.6 percent of his floaters and 60 percent of his hook shots.
Contenders will lust after him the hardest. That...does not typify the Charlotte Hornets. They're a fringe playoff team, and if they are going to indulge buy-now instincts, most would have them target a big man.
But Young fits within the smaller lineups the Hornets trot out. Nearly half of his possessions have come at center this season. The Bulls have held their own defensively and on the glass during those minutes while pummeling opponents overall. Their roster is not a perfect proxy for Charlotte's personnel, but almost 30 percent of the Hornets' non-garbage-time reps have come without a big on the floor.
Absolutely no one should be advocating for them to mortgage the future. They are not close to contention. Landing Young doesn't change that. But he's someone they should be able to acquire without busting out the kitchen sink, and his contract doesn't break the bank. He is making $13.5 million this season, and less than half of his $14.2 million salary next year is guaranteed ($6 million).
Making the math work with the Bulls will be difficult. Moving Cody Zeller for Young leaves the Hornets too dependent on small-ball lineups, and they shouldn't be including Gordon Hayward or Terry Rozier. Remove LaMelo Ball and PJ Washington from the equation, and Charlotte isn't left with a ton of mid-end salaries. But they can piece together a Malik Monk-plus-stuff package.
Does that framework get a deal done? It depends on how the Hornets flesh it out. Baking in Miles Bridges or Devonte' Graham goes a step too far, but they have cheaper intriguing players like Jalen McDaniels and Caleb Martin they can attach to filler and second-rounders.