5 Bad Contracts NBA Contenders Should Actually Trade For
Less desirable NBA contracts are never without trade value.
The league has shown time and again no player is immovable. It only takes one team to roll the dice, and even the truly quote-unquote terrible pacts can be useful as salary filler when attached to sweeteners or as part of a distressed-asset-for-distressed-asset swap.
This particular exercise strives to exist in the gray area that lies in-between. It will not try to find new homes for the absolute toughest-to-move deals. It is instead highlighting less-than-savory contracts that belong to impactful players capable of making a real difference at their next stop.
Anyone on these pacts isn't what potential suitors would consider Plan A or Plan B. They are viable contingencies, if something a little bit more, should the market not yield more convenient or better-fitting options.
Two rules will dictate the selection process. Each contract must have at least two more years left on its balance after this season (partial guarantees are fair game), and only players who profile as reasonably expendable to their current situations will be singled out.
It's fine if you think the Boston Celtics should flip Kemba Walker (two years, $73.7 million) or the Dallas Mavericks should shop Kristaps Porzingis (three years, $101.5 million), but they're not players who will be offloaded as albatrosses. They're too important to what their incumbent squads are doing both now and over the long term.
Eric Bledsoe, New Orleans Pelicans
2020-21 Salary: $16.9 million
Contract Balance After 2020-21: Two years, $37.5 million ($33.6 million guaranteed)
Eric Bledsoe looks more out of place than ever with the New Orleans Pelicans. Lonzo Ball has been on fire since his name entered the rumor mill, and Bledsoe hasn't brought his All-Defensive chops to The Big Easy. His attentiveness away from the ball is inconsistent, and opponents shoot a lot better from three when he's on the floor.
Attributing some of Bledsoe's defensive struggles to the surrounding personnel is fair. Zion Williamson remains a liability away from the ball himself. But the Pelicans are holding up better defensively when they partner the quartet of Ball, Zion, Steve Adams and Brandon Ingram with a different No. 5. This is just an imperfect marriage between player and team.
Bledsoe has better basketball in him. He's canning more than 38 percent of his threes this season, and his finishing on drives should tick up inside lineups that can offer him more breathing room. Even his defensive engagement might climb on a team with more immediate aspirations.
Acquiring him should not be seen as prohibitive if he doesn't have to shoulder a lion's share of the postseason scoring burden. The Milwaukee Bucks ran into a playoff wall for a truckload of reasons. Bledsoe's drop-off was among the biggest, but not the only one.
Plant him somewhere that needs a ball-handler who can put pressure on the rim or (theoretically) cover up for his backcourt partner on defense, and the money won't feel as egregious. The awkwardness in New Orleans is at least partially due to a surplus of guards. And if things don't work out, the Bledsoe experiment can be relatively short-lived. He makes $18.1 million next season and then has a $3.9 million guarantee for 2022-23.
Best Potential Destinations: Atlanta, L.A. Clippers, Oklahoma City
Eric Gordon, Houston Rockets
2020-21 Salary: $16.9 million
Contract Balance After 2020-21: Three years, $58.7 million ($37.8 million guaranteed)
Eric Gordon's contract is a lot more palatable when viewed as a two-year deal. His $20.9 million salary in 2023-24 only guarantees if he reaches a minutes threshold or makes an All-Star appearance and his team wins a title beforehand.
Contenders might be a little more skittish about that third year given their proximity to the Larry O'Brien Trophy. Here's some free advice for them: If you win a title with Gordon over one of the next three seasons (including this one), you shouldn't care about footing the bill for him in 2023-24.
Some will invariably see his 32.1 percent shooting from three since 2019-20, look at his price tag and say, "No thanks." That oversimplifies his value.
Sub-33 percent clips from downtown aren't ideal, but Gordon's treys still serve a purpose. He can camp pretty far behind the arc, and most defenses are going to treat him as a semi-threat. That opens space for everyone around him.
Gordon has also been outstanding inside the arc this season. He's shooting 60.2 percent on drives—the third-highest clip among 56 players averaging 10 or more downhill attacks per game. He trails only Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James.
Subjecting teams to Gordon's health bill is the actual concern. He has a long, long history of injuries. But the potential reward outweighs risk when looking at how well he's held up defensively in certain postseason matchups.
Squads in need of creation and scoring that doesn't torpedo their defense and won't cost them a treasure trove of assets should at least give Gordon a look. And he becomes much more attractive if the Houston Rockets are open to including a minor sweetener like Danuel House, P.J. Tucker or, much less likely, Jae'Sean Tate to grease the wheels of any trade.
Best Potential Destinations: Memphis, Orlando, Philadelphia
Buddy Hield, Sacramento Kings
2020-21 Salary: $24.7 million
Contract Balance After 2020-21: Three years, $62.5 million
Buddy Hield's extension always felt like a slight overpay even when factoring in unlikely incentives. It looks worse now that he's slumping from beyond the arc (by his standards) and doesn't have a clear long-term spot on the Sacramento Kings following the emergence of Tyrese Haliburton. Head coach Luke Walton has tried playing both guards together with De'Aaron Fox, and the resulting defense has not been pretty.
Still, if you're going to pay $20-plus million annually for a non-star, it might as well be a shooter. And Hield can shoot.
Hield may not offer much beyond spitting fire from distance, but that's not a problem for teams with enough creators around him. His shot attempts also take different forms. He can come around screens, rain triples in transition and dribble into his own jumpers.
Sacramento won't get the moon in exchange for Hield. It also shouldn't have to work hard to find him a new home. Jettisoning him purely for big-picture cap relief would even constitute selling extremely low.
Maybe the Kings have to take back a multiyear overpay as part of any deal, but any Hield trade should still net them something tangible—a pick, prospect, useful role players, etc.
Best Potential Destinations: Boston, Memphis, Philadelphia
Al Horford, Oklahoma City Thunder
2020-21 Salary: $27.5 million
Balance after 2020-21: Two years, $53.5 million ($39 million)
Convincing teams to make a run at Al Horford isn't an easy pitch. He is 34 and should be acquired with the intention of keeping him for the life of his deal (barring another trade). His final year is only partially guaranteed, but saddling the books with $14.5 million in dead money seldom makes sense.
Horford is playing well enough this season for someone, somewhere, to step out on that limb. He's averaging 14.0 points, 6.7 rebounds and 3.5 assists while downing 35.6 percent of his threes amid career-high volume. His passing and IQ can boost almost any half-court offense, and he maintains some of his defensive switchability even though he's lost a step or two.
Identifying possible landing spots gets tricky knowing the Oklahoma City Thunder aren't going to toss in a buffer. They're playing the long game. That gives them leverage. It still shouldn't take much to pry Horford from their hands.
Pure cap relief would be huge if the Thunder can land a large enough expiring contract or collection of them. Even taking back a cheaper multiyear deal helps the cause. Oklahoma City isn't a hot free-agent destination, but drumming up flexibility allows it to explore absorbing bad money from other teams in exchange for more assets.
Best Potential Destinations: Boston, Portland, San Antonio
D'Angelo Russell, Minnesota Timberwolves
2020-21 Salary: $28.6 million
Contract Balance After 2020-21: Two years, $61.4 million
D'Angelo Russell is the biggest reach among this gaggle of hefty contracts. His price point remains overblown, but the Minnesota Timberwolves have equity beyond money invested in him.
For starters, trading him one season after giving up a top-three-protected pick to get him (and while he's injured) isn't winning them the press conference. Russell is also BFFs with franchise cornerstone Karl-Anthony Towns. The Timberwolves must be sure they have the goodwill built up with their megastar before moving someone to whom he's attached.
Remove optics and sentiment from the equation, and this issue gets easier to tackle.
Russell has not accelerated the Timberwolves' timeline around Towns. Part of that is beyond his control. The duo has appeared in only five games together since Russell arrived in February 2020. But he has failed to uplift the offense when healthy this season, and the defense is much worse with him on the floor. That latter problem isn't going anywhere.
This isn't meant to imply the Timberwolves must strike a trade for the sake of moving on. Selling medium should absolutely be on the table, though. Investing so much in a sub-star creator isn't as necessary when they have Towns and, eventually, Malik Beasley. Dealing Russell should allow them to better plumb the playmaking depths of Jarrett Culver and, more importantly, Anthony Edwards.
Setting a benchmark return on D-Lo is an inexact science. But there should be a team or three willing to bet on a 25-year-old who has shown a capacity for knocking down off-the-dribble jumpers and has the baseline playmaking chops to run a pick-and-roll-heavy offense.
Best Potential Destinations: New York, Orlando, San Antonio
Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass and accurate entering games on March 11. Salary information via Basketball Insiders and Spotrac.