Realistic Offseason Trades NBA Fanbases Wouldn't See Coming
Early extensions have whittled down the 2021 NBA free-agent class, propping up the trade market as the most likely spot for teams to find a difference-maker this offseason.
Because we're all fascinated by transaction talk, some of the possible summer winds have swirled for months.
Everyone—or everyone outside of Washington, D.C., at least—has long awaited a Bradley Beal blockbuster. Given Stephen Curry's lack of support—did y'all see Friday night's disaster?—it seems likely (if not probable) the Golden State Warriors will trade at least one of their top assets for win-now relief. The divorce papers separating Al Horford from the Oklahoma City Thunder have probably already been written up.
But not every megadeal is forecasted before it goes down. Who had Nikola Vucevic ending 2021 trade deadline day in a Chicago Bulls uniform? Or go back to last summer and try telling anyone who would listen that James Harden would be joining Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving on the Brooklyn Nets in less than a year. You'd have been laughed out of the room.
Unforeseen exchanges are the real internet-breakers, and we have racked our brains (and worn out the trade machines) to drum up four realistic summer swaps that no one would see coming. Note that since so much of teams' 2021-22 payrolls are unsettled, some of these deals would need financial adjustments to meet the Association's salary-matching requirements.
Hawks, Bulls Swap Plateauing Prospects
Atlanta Hawks receive: Coby White
Chicago Bulls receive: Cam Reddish, 2021 second-round pick (via Miami Heat) and 2023 second-round pick (via Portland Trail Blazers)
It isn't often a top-10 pick gets discarded within two years of his selection, so the Hawks and Bulls would be turning a few heads if they swapped their 2019 lottery picks.
But when you think about what each club needs and what each player brings, it isn't hard to see a universe in which they're thriving in the other's jersey.
The Hawks have been hunting for non-Trae Young offense since...well, forever. Despite investments in both supplemental scorers and a backup point guard (Rajon Rondo, who was traded four months into a two-year, $15 million deal), Atlanta's attack still collapses without its floor general. The Hawks' offense loses a whopping 13.5 points per 100 possessions when Young takes a seat.
Plug White into an instant-offense role behind Young and that issue could be solved as soon as the trade is finalized. White's struggles with shooting efficiency (40.8 field-goal percentage) and primary playmaking duties (4.6 assists in 31.4 minutes) are much easier to stomach in spark-plug stretches. And his good nights burn hot enough—11 outings of 20-plus points this season—to change a game's outcome.
Chicago doesn't have much need for a score-first guard with defensive limitations alongside Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic. But a defensively versatile wing who can splash open shots and perk up the secondary playmaking? Now you're talking the Bulls' language.
Granted, that description is too flattering for Reddish right now, which is the reason the Hawks might be ready to move on. (He was dangled for Lonzo Ball around the deadline, per The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor.) But Reddish has the tools for that role and he flashes the talent often enough for the Bulls to take the plunge—with the two second-rounders helping to cushion the risk.
White's best version answers a major question for Atlanta. Reddish's best version would be a gift from the basketball gods for Chicago. Even if the odds of either maxing out aren't great, the promise tied to that chance could be enough for each team to bite.
Clippers Get Their Shot-Creator, Celtics Land Their Center
Los Angeles Clippers receive: Kemba Walker and Tristan Thompson
Boston Celtics receive: Ivica Zubac, Patrick Beverley and Luke Kennard
Some trades send ripples across the hoops world. This might spark an outright shudder.
The Clippers have been so desperate for strong point-guard play they gave up the useful Lou Williams and two future second-round picks for the mystique of Playoff Rondo. The actual Rajon Rondo, meanwhile, was having a disastrous first season with the Atlanta Hawks, averaging just 3.9 points (on 40.0 percent shooting) and 3.5 assists in 14.9 minutes, but L.A. is banking on him becoming a difference-maker.
"He dials it up and he becomes even more locked in and it has a very contagious effect," Clippers president Lawrence Frank said, per NBA.com's Shaun Powell. "I don't think Rajon will just help Kawhi [Leonard] and Paul [George]. I think he's going to elevate the whole group and everyone will rise to that level."
That's an awful lot of wishful thinking—more than should be considered a comfortable amount for a team with a pair of in-prime elites. The Clippers are on the cusp of championship contention; they need more than Rondo's postseason legend to take care of this position group.
How about a four-time All-Star who is having a down year yet still averaging 18.1 points, 4.8 assists and 2.8 three-pointers per game? When Walker has his legs under him, he's a full-fledged problem at the offensive end. Let him work isolation magic and spot up for stretches alongside Leonard and George, and Walker could be the shot in the arm that L.A. is (for some reason) hoping Rondo will be.
Considering the Clippers' limited trade budget, Walker is probably the best they can get. The fact they'd walk away from this exchange with both him and Tristan Thompson—a versatile, experienced center who shares a close relationship with their head coach, Tyronn Lue—should make it a no-brainer.
The Celtics, meanwhile, would better outfit their roster for the strengths and weaknesses of young star wings Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. Zubac is a low-maintenance, subtly high-impact center who contributes at both ends and happens to be on the same timeline as the Brown-Tatum tandem. If Zubac becomes a foundational piece, Boston could be a force for a while.
Boston would also get backcourt boosts for now and later. In the shorter term, Beverley would supplement the Celtics' stars with spot-up sniping and form a treacherous twosome on defense with Marcus Smart. Longer term, Luke Kennard could breathe life into a bench mob that often struggles to score and he'd also team with Payton Pritchard to give Boston two young guards who can shoot and create for their teammates.
Warriors Build Big Four, Hornets Find Building-Block Big Man
Golden State Warriors receive: Gordon Hayward and P.J. Washington
Charlotte Hornets receive: Andrew Wiggins and James Wiseman
Hayward has spent this season helping the Hornets bring the buzz back to Buzz City. Could he spend the 2021-22 campaign helping the Dubs rediscover their championship form?
This all hinges on timelines—and each franchise's willingness to accept and embrace its clearest choice.
For Golden State, the time to win is now. Stephen Curry is an all-time NBA great and he's still playing out the best years of his career. That won't last forever—he turned 33 in March—but it's a tremendous opportunity while it's still a thing.
Pouncing on this chance would mean making long-term sacrifices that could be painful down the road, but if the fan base has another title (or more) to celebrate between now and then, all would be forgiven. Another championship doesn't feel outside the realm of possibilities, so long as the front office beefs up the rest of the roster. There's only so much to squeeze out of Draymond Green and last-played-in-June-2019 Klay Thompson.
Hayward would be an easy fit as a complementary scorer and distributor. Washington could carve out several niches as a wise-beyond-his-years 22-year-old with a well-rounded arsenal. Both are quick thinkers and willing passers, necessarily skills for support pieces within coach Steve Kerr's system.
Hayward's contract also runs through 2023-24, the same length as Thompson's and Green's. That means Golden State could operate in full championship-chase mode for the next three seasons, and if needed, take a clean break to step into the future immediately after.
As for Charlotte, this club has been legitimately fun and might be able to skirt around the play-in tournament. But if the Hornets have title contention in their future, it will be because of LaMelo Ball, the organization's rock-star rookie who won't turn 20 until August.
He was nothing short of spectacular before a wrist fracture put him on the pine and the franchise should be reworking itself around its young, electric lead guard. Step one should be getting him a co-star who, unlike Hayward, isn't 12 years his senior.
Grabbing Wiseman as Ball's pick-and-roll dance partner for the next decade could be the kind of foundation-laying move that eventually reverberates around the entire basketball world. Adding Wiggins, who is still just 26 and flashing encouraging growth with Golden State, would expand the young core and perhaps position this club to strike big within the next few seasons.
Pelicans Find Frontcourt Mate for Zion, Wolves Reset
New Orleans Pelicans Receive: Karl-Anthony Towns and Ricky Rubio
Minnesota Timberwolves Receive: Steven Adams, Eric Bledsoe, Kira Lewis Jr., Jaxson Hayes, 2021 first-round pick (top-five protected), 2021 first-round pick (8-30 protected, via LAL) and 2025 first-round pick (via MIL)
The Pelicans are pointing in the right direction, they just need another star to give them a push. The Timberwolves, on the other hand, are flat-lining without a clear focus.
Coming together on a mega-swap could help both clubs scratch their itch.
Towns would be a dream get for the Pelicans. If he's not the most skilled center in the Association, he's on a very short list. He is one of just 14 players to average 24 points, four assists and two three-pointers, and the only player in that group who's also pulling down two offensive rebounds per outing.
Putting him in the same frontcourt with Zion Williamson wouldn't be fair. Letting those two run pick-and-rolls together might be a glimpse into basketball's future. Having Brandon Ingram around as an overqualified third option could send this offense into the stratosphere. And if Lonzo Ball is re-signed in restricted free agency, he and Ricky Rubio would have a field day feeding these three top-shelf scorers.
The Timberwolves would quickly concede they aren't winning anything that matters with Towns and D'Angelo Russell, so they'd instead look to brighten their long-term outlook around Anthony Edwards, Jaden McDaniels and hopefully a few other young pups.
Lewis Jr. has a fascinating future in front of him as a tempo-setting speedster who can create shots for himself and his teammates. Hayes would bring limitless length and explosive athleticism to the center spot. The draft picks would give this front office more throws at the dartboard, which it needs after egregiously giving away a lightly protected first in last year's Russell-for-Andrew Wiggins deadline deal.
As for Adams and Bledsoe, their primary responsibility here is simply making the finances line up. But in a best-case scenario, both would show enough in Minnesota for a win-now shopper to send something worthwhile to the Wolves to get them out of the Gopher State.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.