Trades to Rescue Superstars Who Missed the NBA Playoffs

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistMay 27, 2021

Trades to Rescue Superstars Who Missed the NBA Playoffs

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    Rusty Costanza/Associated Press

    The NBA playoffs are well underway, and several series are shaping up to be doozies, but a handful of the league's stars missed out on the show altogether.

    The biggest absence, of course, is Stephen Curry, the scoring champ and MVP finalist whose Golden State Warriors went 0-2 in the inaugural play-in tournament. There are a few others who are missing out on the game's brightest stage too.

    Zion Williamson, the New Orleans Pelicans' wrecking-ball point forward, will be postseason appointment viewing when he gets there. Karl-Anthony Towns, one of the best shooting big men of all time, has been only once. And the high-flying Zach LaVine has never been.

    To get in next season, each of the above likely need roster shakeups from their respective front offices. And the trades below could move the needle in the right direction.

Warriors Add a Three-and-D Center

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    The Trade: James Wiseman, Kevon Looney and a 2021 first-round pick for Myles Turner

    After wasting a year of Stephen Curry's prime by trying to integrate James Wiseman into a system that may take years to figure out, the Warriors should enter the 2021 offseason with a bit of desperation.

    Stephen Curry is 33 years old. Klay Thompson is returning from a torn left ACL, torn right Achilles and two years without on-court action. And Draymond Green, though he looks every bit the disruptor he's always been on defense, has been nowhere near his 2015-16 scoring efficiency in half a decade.

    If this core is going to compete for another championship, it may not be able to wait on a project center.

    There's still reason to be optimistic about Wiseman's career, though. And other organizations may be in better positions to spend developmental minutes on him.

    Enter the Indiana Pacers, another casualty of this year's play-in tournament.

    Over the past two seasons, Indiana is minus-0.4 points per 100 possessions when both Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner are on the floor. It's a plus when either plays without the other.

    For whatever reason, the combination doesn't seem to be working. And though there's a lot of overlap with the games of Turner and Wiseman, the Pacers would at least turn the clock back five years by acquiring the latter. They'd also have him on a cost-controlled rookie contract.

    Golden State, meanwhile, would get a more experienced 5 who can space the floor for Curry-Draymond pick-and-rolls and protect the rim on the other end.

    He's nowhere near the passer Andrew Bogut was for those early Warriors dynasty teams, but he's an All-Defensive-level contributor.

    Of course, Indiana would take on more risk in this deal. Wiseman's physical tools are intriguing, but his rookie numbers were dismal. Paying the last year of Kevon Looney's contract (assuming he picks up his $5.2 million player option) may not be ideal either (though the figure is reasonable, and Looney can be a solid backup big).

    So, the Warriors would probably have to sweeten this pot with a pick. If Indiana insisted on the potential lottery pick from Minnesota, Golden State would probably walk away. If it's the Warriors' own first, though, it's worth it.

Pelicans Add Experience and Floor Spacing

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    The Trade: Steven Adams, Eric Bledsoe, a 2023 first-round pick and a 2021 second-round pick (via the Cleveland Cavaliers) for Al Horford

    The Oklahoma City Thunder were so thoroughly committed to this season's spectacular tank job that they simply sent Al Horford—their second-best player—home in March.

    And even if they land Cade Cunningham, Evan Mobley or some other difference-maker in the draft, the timelines of team and player will still be far from aligned.

    In other words, Horford almost certainly won't play out the rest of his contract (which runs through the 2022-23 season) with OKC.

    The problem for the Thunder, though, is that Horford's age (35 in June) and last couple of stops may make it difficult to move him for much of value. Despite having an impressive arsenal of future picks, Oklahoma City is probably still looking for more, and Horford may not fetch any.

    That is unless the Thunder are willing to take on some burdensome contracts. It just so happens that the Pelicans have a couple.

    Eric Bledsoe's production fell off a cliff this season, and he's under contract through 2022-23 (though only $3.9 million of his $19.4 million salary is guaranteed that year). Steven Adams, meanwhile, had a positive impact on the floor, but it was slight, and it's hard to ignore the wonky fit with him and Zion Williamson.

    The New Orleans offense soared to new heights when Williamson was given more playmaking responsibility, and maximizing that approach will probably require a more spread floor. Adams is great around the paint, but he also clogs it. Horford, on the other hand, could spend most offensive possessions at the three-point line.

    He is getting on in years, but stationary shooting isn't a skill that's likely to abandon him, and he's shot 36.6 percent on 3.5 three-point attempts per game over the last six seasons.

    With Zion barreling down the middle and Horford, Brandon Ingram and other shooters on the flanks, the Pelicans would be mighty tough to stop.

    Is it worth giving up multiple picks to take on Horford's deal, though? He's on the books for $27 million next season and $26.5 million ($14.5 million guaranteed) the year after that. The 2022-23 campaign will mark his age-36 season.

    Considering the Pelicans' own deep trove of picks, and the ever-increasing need for teams to win when a star is on a rookie contract, New Orleans at least needs to think about something like this.

    If OKC insisted on multiple firsts, the Pelicans would probably walk away, but the price above is not prohibitive.

Timberwolves Add Scrappiness and Shooting

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    David Sherman/Getty Images

    The Trade: Ricky Rubio, Jaylen Nowell and Jake Layman for Patrick Beverley and Luke Kennard

    A D'Angelo Russell trade may seem like the more obvious direction for the Minnesota Timberwolves, but his deal won't be easy to move, and he and Karl-Anthony Towns are famously close friends.

    And if Russell, KAT and Anthony Edwards are all on the roster for the long haul, with offensive guru Chris Finch calling the shots, the Wolves should be fine on that end of the floor.

    What they need is someone who can set the tone defensively and isn't afraid to take on tough assignments. If the Los Angeles Clippers falter in the first round of the playoffs, such a player might be available.

    Patrick Beverley has been a clear plus for the Clippers during his four seasons with them, but there will likely be multiple fall guys if this championship-or-bust campaign doesn't yield a championship. And Beverley's deal is plenty movable (it's expiring next season, at $14.3 million).

    He doesn't see the floor or get others involved as well as Ricky Rubio does, but he's a better shooter who brings a different leadership approach. This isn't an analysis of which approach is better, but after Minnesota's many years of losing (outside of Jimmy Butler's brief stint), it's probably time to try something else.

    For Los Angeles, adding Rubio's pass-first game to lineups that feature Kawhi Leonard (player option) and Paul George could take some pressure off the stars. Far too often, the Clippers attack boils down to a "Kawhi's turn, Paul's turn" approach. Rubio can settle an offense down, initiate sets and promote ball movement.

    Two of the other players involved are in the deal for a couple reasons. For one, their inclusion satisfies the league's salary-matching rules for trades. They aren't mere throw-ins, though.

    Luke Kennard is a career 41.3 percent three-point shooter, but he struggled to establish a concrete role in Ty Lue's rotation (despite signing a four-year, $64 million extension in December).

    On a younger team such as Minnesota, he would have more opportunities to play up to that deal.

    L.A. would get out of the Kennard deal by replacing him with a younger wing who has a little more athletic upside. Jaylen Nowell has also shown potential as a shooter. In two college seasons, he shot 39.6 percent from deep. And though that hasn't translated yet, his NBA free-throw percentage (84.7) suggests it may.

    Finally, with all due respect to Jake Layman, he is a throw-in (for salary-matching purposes).

Bulls Add Defense

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    The Trade: Coby White, Al-Farouq Aminu and a 2025 first-round pick for Marcus Smart

    Like Patrick Beverley's with the Clippers, Marcus Smart's time with the Boston Celtics may have simply run its course. He and the team have been to three conference finals, and Smart has played plenty of stout defense over his seven seasons, but a shakeup could benefit both.

    Coby White has a ways to go, particularly on defense, but he's six years younger than Smart and probably has a higher offensive ceiling. His high-volume three-point shooting would pull defenders away from the rim, giving Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown more slashing lanes.

    And he's also a viable option to take the reins of the point guard position when Kemba Walker's contract expires in 2022-23 (or 2021-22, if he declines his $37.7 million player option).

    For the Chicago Bulls, a guard who doesn't dominate the ball (Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic will control the offense) and can defend the opposition's toughest perimeter assignment makes a ton of sense.

    The Bulls signaled they are in win-now mode when they traded multiple first-round picks to the Orlando Magic for Vucevic. This move would double down on that philosophy by unloading another draft asset, but that's probably what it would take to pry Smart from the famously stingy Danny Ainge.

    As for Al-Farouq Aminu, he's in the deal almost entirely for salary-matching purposes. But if he had a late-career resurgence, he could replace some of Smart's defense.


    Unless noted otherwise, stats courtesy of Basketball Reference, and