NBA Teams That Need a Blockbuster Trade Before Next SeasonMay 19, 2021
NBA Teams That Need a Blockbuster Trade Before Next Season
Ahead of a typical offseason, the NBA is home to many obvious blockbuster-trade possibilities. Spotting the next potentially disgruntled or available star is easy—implicit, even. Rarely are we left racking our brains, reaching for theories and possibilities that border on conspiracy.
Except for right now.
Many members of basketball intelligentsia have decided Bradley Beal is the next superstar on the move. But he has indicated, repeatedly, time after time, he doesn't want to leave the Washington Wizards. He defaults to one of those reaches until the words coming directly out of his mouth suggest otherwise.
After him, the star-trade field is without depth. The Chicago Bulls shooed away the vultures circling Zach LaVine (for now) by mortgaging part of their future to get Nikola Vucevic. The Karl-Anthony Towns talk is at least a year away—and may never genuinely start. Free agency offers zero alternatives unless you believe Kawhi Leonard (player option) will bolt the Los Angeles Clippers.
This comes off as a bummer for all the tradeniks. It is also somewhat immaterial. There is always a next star up on the chopping block, even if we cannot immediately identified. Star turnover is just as much a part of the game as the game themselves. Another marquee name or two or more will be up for grabs over the offseason.
And in the spirit of that inevitability, we've cobbled together a list of teams who need to be ready when they do.
Though the Hawks perked after getting healthier (go figure), they don't appear on the precipice of entering the championship discourse. Maybe they're a De'Andre Hunter mega leap away—he was making it before his injury earlier this season—but the dynamics of their roster are marching toward a certain awkwardness as of now.
John Collins is headed for restricted free agency and bound to get near-max, if not max, money. Trae Young is extension-eligible and a max-contract lock. They paid Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari last offseason. They have fringe-star money invested in Clint Capela for another two years. Kevin Huerter is extension-eligible this year. Hunter and Cam Reddish will be up in 2022.
Some contracts will come off the books in the semi-immediate future, but the Hawks are still about to get pricey over the long haul. Without an undeniable line to title contention as presently built, they should consider asset consolidation in the form of a star trade—market-willing. They don't have the glitziest offers to roll out if Collins and Young are off limits, but a combination of Huerter, Hunter, Reddish, Onyeka Okongwu and picks is a viable starting point.
New Orleans Pelicans
Rushing rebuilds is dangerous. The Anthony Davis-era Pelicans know this all too well. But failing to capitalize on the window of a transcendent star is equally detrimental. The Davis-era Pelicans know this, too.
Zion Williamson transformed into an authentic tent-pole star this season. His body held up for basically the entire year, and he proved that he can handle the burden of being a primary ball-handler. He may only be 20, but he's ready to win now.
New Orleans already kind of acknowledged this urgency last offseason. It sent Jrue Holiday to the Milwaukee Bucks but also acquired and extended Steven Adams after maxing out Brandon Ingram. Viewed in totality, those are the actions of neither a rebuilding team nor calculated wins-chaser. The Pelicans positioned themselves somewhere in between. And it's time to get out.
That might entail taking a temporary step back. Perhaps they clear the runway for Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Kira Lewis Jr. by letting Lonzo Ball walk in restricted free agency. Maybe they do the same for Jaxson Hayes and find a taker for Steven Adams. They could go nuclear and gauge the market for Ingram.
Conversely, and more realistically, the Pelicans are built to buy. They have all their own first-round picks on top of controlling a large portion of the Los Angeles Lakers' future. Adams and Eric Bledsoe aren't must-haves, but their price points make for good salary-matching fodder. In the absence of a star-quality prospect, New Orleans has its trio of interesting mystery boxes with NAW, Hayes and Lewis.
A blockbuster pursuit aligns even more with the Pelicans' direction if they re-sign one or both of Ball and Josh Hart (restricted). They could hover around the luxury tax depending on how much either player fetches. Footing an extravagant bill for a core that flamed out of the play-in fracas the past two years won't sit too well. If they're going to reinvest in another portion of the core, they should also consider consolidating the less-integral parts of it.
Perhaps the Wizards do need to be prepared for a Bradley Beal trade this offseason or sometime down the line. They should also be ready to continue improving the roster around him.
Hitting home runs in free agency is out of the question. Beal, Davis Bertans and Russell Westbrook make nearly $80 million between them.
Washington instead should be open to seeing what some combination of Deni Avdija, Daniel Gafford, Rui Hachimura and future first-rounders can net if it plans on building a contender around its franchise cornerstone in the near term.
Circle back and drag this inclusion through the sludgiest mud you can find if the Dallas Mavericks win the 2021 NBA title. They have Luka Doncic and, therefore, a chance in any playoff series. Imploring them to make a seismic splash can be spun as some semblance of an insult.
Rest assured, this is just the opposite. It is more so a nod to Doncic's transcendence. He has the Mavs on the cusp of championship contention, but not quite there, not yet, not until he plays beside a viable No. 2.
Kristaps Porzingis is free to take that personally. It's not meant to be. The Doncic-Porzingis pick-and-roll is a nightmare to cover, and KP has shored up his intermittent post game, placing inside the 59th percentile of efficiency on those possessions. But he still doesn't profile as the secondary shot creator Dallas needs beside its megastar.
Maybe the playoffs will be Porzingis' great rebuke. More likely, though, the Mavericks are one star or fringe star shy of tussling with the league's heavyweights. This doesn't seem to be breaking news to them, either. They reportedly gauged Porzingis' market value around the deadline, though team governor Mark Cuban denied it.
Adding another marquee player and keeping Porzingis do not have to be mutually exclusive. Dallas can carve out more than $30 million in cap space over the summer. But hitting that number dictates they renounce the rights to their own free agents, including Tim Hardaway Jr. and Josh Richardson (player option). That's a steep opportunity cost when the star market is barren following this past year's extension frenzy.
Assuming Kawhi Leonard re-signs with the Los Angeles Clippers, the top free agent becomes one of John Collins, Mike Conley, Kyle Lowry or Chris Paul (player option). Lowry registers as the most gettable among that bunch; Conley and Paul play for the two best regular-season teams, and fringe-star restricted free agents like Collins are almost impossible to poach without pre-negotiating a sign-and-trade with his incumbent squad.
Does Lowry put the Mavericks over the top? Probably. But a realistic market of one star isn't much of a market at all. Dallas may be forced to explore alternative means of acquiring another bigwig.
In this case, there is only the trade block. Waiting until the summer of 2022 isn't a feasible option. Doncic is bound to get a max extension over the offseason, and the Mavericks will be hard-pressed to dredge up serious money without clearing offloading Porzingis and others.
Going this route gets dicey. Dallas isn't flush with high-end trade chips. It can dangle Jalen Brunson and will have more future firsts to include after the 2021 draft, but that combination doesn't meet headliner criteria. The Mavericks will have to shop Porzingis and hope another team values him and draft equity enough to send out a superior player. Such a scenario feels like a long shot, but unless something drastically changes during the playoffs, it's worth worth exploration.
Golden State Warriors
Stephen Curry exists.
That's it. That's the impetus for the Golden State Warriors to search high and low for blockbuster scenarios this season. They have a top-three player still playing like a top-three player who, at age 33, has shown no signs of slowing down. Their obligation to prioritize now, to act with the utmost urgency, is innate—especially if they plan on signing him to another contract, which he will need by 2022.
Banking on the returns of Klay Thompson and James Wiseman, plus this year's draft pick (or picks), propelling the Warriors to championship heights is out of the question. Thompson is working his way back from a torn ACL and ruptured Achilles that cost him two full seasons. Wiseman has played in just 42 organized basketball games himself over the past two years, dating back to his time at Memphis. His sophomore campaign will likely be an extension of his rookie crusade and subject to a precipitous learning curve.
Golden State doesn't have time to wait around and see when Thompson, Wiseman and another inbound rookie or two get it. More than that, neither Thompson nor Wiseman fill the team's biggest void. The offense desperately wants for another shot creator, someone who can at once generate looks for himself and others while playing off Curry and preventing the Warriors from devolving into drippy, droopy mush when he's on the bench.
Acquiring that player is not a given. He needs to be on the auction block first.
Then again, more so than any other team on this list, the Warriors have the assets to will available stars into existence. Between Wiseman, the Minnesota Timberwolves' 2021 (top-three protection) or 2022 (unprotected) first-rounder and their own future picks, they wield the tools to build their own window of opportunity.
What that opportunity becomes is unknowable. They can't be too choosy. They aren't stumbling into Karl-Anthony Towns or Giannis Antetokounmpo or Damian Lillard. But the Warriors should absolutely be blowing up the phone lines in Chicago (Zach LaVine) and Washington (Bradley Beal). They shouldn't be above checking in with New Orleans (Brandon Ingram), Oklahoma City (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander) or Toronto (Pascal Siakam), either.
New York Knicks
Billing the New York Knicks as should-be blockbuster-hunters is not an attempt to ruin the good vibes emanating out of the Big Apple. It is actually a manifestation of them.
Finishing fourth in the Eastern Conference doesn't guarantee them much of anything. Brush off the inquiries into whether Julius Randle's All-NBA candidacy is sustainable if you must. Those are still fair questions. Players so rarely make such a dramatic leap in their seventh season. A dab of skepticism is warranted.
Mostly, though, the supporting cast around Randle isn't exactly built to last. RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley are in the infancy of their careers, as is Obi Toppin. But Reggie Bullock, Alec Burks, Nerlens Noel and Derrick Rose are all headed for free agency. Mitchell Robinson will join them if the Knicks decline his team option to make him a restricted free agent rather than risk his leaving for nothing in 2022.
Endless amounts of cap space, coupled with full Bird rights on Rose, ensure the Knicks can keep everyone. But should they want to? This team isn't sniffing a title as currently constructed. Doubling down on some of the vets only tracks if they can get them on inflated one-year deals. Locking themselves into multiple seasons with this core caps their ceiling over that span.
Spending cap space on stars this summer isn't the answer, mostly because there aren't any on whom to spend. Bagging Mike Conley, Kawhi Leonard or Chris Paul is beyond unlikely, and John Collins doesn't project as a good fit, if he's even gettable, with Randle in tow. Does throwing a two-year max at Kyle Lowry get him to leave and spurn the more ready-made contenders who will be after his services?
Expecting another leap from Barrett is fine. It also isn't enough. The Knicks don't have another infusion of high-end talent coming down the pipeline. Both of their first-rounders—they own Dallas'—will land outside star territory.
That leaves the trade market. The Knicks don't have the one asset capable of prying unavailable stars away from their teams, but the cupboard is far from bare. They control all their own future firsts and two of Dallas' (this year and top-10-protected in 2023) and can cobble together a tantalizing collection of youth.
To what end they'll make their young players available is a matter of context. They can't just flip Barrett for a marginal upgrade in the short term. But between him, Quickley, Toppin and even Robinson, in addition to their draft equity, they have the legs to run the next disgruntled-star race—something ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski has noted they're intent on doing.
Unlike the rest of the included teams, the Sacramento Kings can interpret a blockbuster ultimatum to mean buy or sell. They are not locked into any one direction, which is why they're here in the first place.
De'Aaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton arm them with two star-type cornerstones. That's great. The outlook gets hazy after them.
Standing pat enables the Kings to make a miniature jump. A core of Fox, Haliburton, Marvin Bagley III, Harrison Barnes, Buddy Hield, Richaun Holmes, Delon Wright and a to-be-determined lottery pick puts them squarely in the Western Conference's play-in chase, if not the race for sixth place.
On a related note: That's not worth remaining idle. On another related note: The Kings can't actually remain idle. Holmes hits free agency after this season, and they only have his Early Bird rights. They'll need to chisel out cap space to afford him, and that'll entail shedding incumbent contracts.
Traveling such lengths to preserve, let's say, a first-round peak would verge on franchise malpractice. (For the record, Holmes is worth paying.) Kings fans deserve better than an ascent into the middle or sub-middle on the back of a contender's payroll.
If avoiding that fate includes selling off everyone except Fox and Haliburton and starting from nearly scratch, then so be it. If the Kings have no desire to fire up another rebuilding process, they need to act like it and pursue a damn star.
The Phoenix Suns should be their wake-up call. They fast-tracked their development around a promising core by acquiring Chris Paul. Alternative courses of acceleration are less viable. Star free agents aren't flocking to Sacramento even if the team magics up cap space. Drafting another one gets harder unless they jump the lottery line.
Monitoring the market for star trades is the Kings' most likely path up the Western Conference ladder. The availability pool is entirely out of their control, but they have the salary-matching tools and draft equity to grease the wheels of possible negotiations. Front offices around the league would presumably consider shorting Sacramento's future given its track record.
Whether the Kings have the tangible centerpiece for a blockbuster buy is a different story. It can't be Fox. Moving him defeats the purpose of that exercise. Bagley has played himself comfortably below that level of intrigue and is up for a contract extension anyway.
This is a roundabout way of saying the Kings cannot make Haliburton the deal-breaker if the right opportunity comes along. Surrendering the moon in draft capital to keep he and Fox should be the aim, but if they're serious about going after the next All-Star who inevitably hits the auction block, they'll have to make some tough calls.
It takes value to get value. And if the Kings doesn't have the stomach for that, they're better off leaning into a reset.
Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass. Salary information via Basketball Insiders and Spotrac.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by Adam Fromal.