Every NBA Team's Best Offseason Trade Chip
Let's begin with a disclaimer: NBA players are not trade chips. They are actual people with actual feelings and moving them around, from team to team, has actual impacts on their everyday lives.
Discussing hypothetical deals and market values is part of the business—and make no mistake, one yours truly enjoys. But trafficking in the theoretical should not ever supersede the human element. So while terms like "assets" and "trade chips" were used in mass, acknowledging that players are neither commodities nor property is both necessary and the bare minimum amount of empathy we should show during these conversations.
Now, about this conversation: Identifying every team's most appealing trade prospect is not a matter of singling our its best player. It is a balancing act, an attempt to juggle the name or pick who will be most attractive to other teams and net the splashiest return but also has an arguable, if not realistic, path to hitting the availability block.
This process will be framed by one question: If every team is looking to make the most impactful trade possible over the offseason, which player (or pick) most likely needs to be the centerpiece of that deal? This guideline allowed us to sidestep painfully obvious never-going-to-happens such as Luka Doncic, LeBron James, Zion Williamson, etc.
Players were the priority, but we veered into draft-selection territory when necessary. Impending free agents without options weren't eligible for inclusion, since sign-and-trades are not solely up to teams.
The definition of "most impactful trade possible" varied by situation. For some, that means chasing a star. For others, it consists of making additions on the margins—finishing touches, if you will. And for squads not yet approaching the win-now track, their trade chips were chosen based on who stands to net them the come-hitherest collection of assets, mainly in the form of future picks or prospects.
None of these selections should be confused for endorsements or predictions. This isn't a call for teams to shop or actually move said players and picks. It is merely a look at who or what holds the most value if each squad decides to attempt something seismic.
Atlanta Hawks: Onyeka Okongwu
Limited stints on the floor could work against Onyeka Okongwu's market. A left foot injury delayed his NBA debut until the middle of January, and then he entered what was already a fleshed-out frontcourt rotation. He juuust cleared 600 minutes for the year. But his high-energy activity bled through during those runs—and continues to do so in the playoffs.
Okongwu is every bit as switchable as advertised. Barely half his defensive possessions came versus centers, according to BBall Index. He is undersized, at 6'8", for someone who will get most of his burn at the 5, but he's shown the vertical pop and reach to buckle down around the rim.
There is more to explore from him on offense. He is a strong finisher out of the pick-and-roll (92nd percentile) but also shot 8-of-14 (57.1 percent) on post-ups and hoisted a few jumpers. His 63.2 percent clip at the foul line didn't come on enough volume to be a concern.
Where the Atlanta Hawks go from here is something of an unknown. Their performance in the second round against the Philadelphia 76ers, who are for now without Joel Embiid, will be a barometer of where they stand. Should they enter the blockbuster-trade hunt over the offseason, though, Okongwu looms as their best, most realistic attention-grabber.
Boston Celtics: Marcus Smart
Marcus Smart is the, ahem, smart choice for the Boston Celtics.
He's probably the only choice. Jayson Tatum isn't going anywhere. Kemba Walker has net-negative curb appeal with two years and $73.7 million left on his contract and is coming off a year during which left knee and oblique issues limited him to 43 (uneven) appearances and disallowed him from appearing in Boston's final two playoff games.
Jaylen Brown might not be untouchable if a top-10 player becomes available, but that's an awfully narrow parameter. The Celtics' relative irrelevance in the James Harden sweepstakes also suggested they were not willing to break up the Tatum-Brown dyad. They are, together, the future.
Nobody else on the roster registers as a potential blockbuster chip. Smart comes closest. He remains a dogged defender, and though his offensive escapades at times double as self-sabotage, his willingness to let 'er rip from deep, including off the dribble, is an asset. He is also downing a good-not-great 34.8 percent of his triples over the past three years.
Boston shouldn't want to move him. But his free agency might force its hand. He will hit the open market in 2022, and it isn't clear whether he makes enough to accept an earlier deal. The Celtics can start him at around $17.2 million in 2022-23 if they extend him. He might command more. Or they may not want to pay a non-star that much.
Brooklyn Nets: Nicolas Claxton
Nicolas Claxton is the Brooklyn Nets' best trade chip running away. It doesn't matter that he's played 52 games, through both the regular season and playoffs, in his career. He is the rare matchup-proof big.
Defensive tracking data is imperfect, but Claxton ranks second in three-pointers contested per 36 minutes among all centers who have spent at least as much time on the floor. Of every player who stands 6'10" or taller and logged 500 or more minutes in a single season since 2013-14, Ben Simmons is the only one who has seen more partial possessions versus point guards, according to BBall Index. Claxton is a reliable help defender to boot.
His role on offense is less clear. He can set screens but is not the strongest diver. He's still learning to navigate the floor in front of him, a job made more difficult by pick-and-roll partners who attack open space at varying speeds and from different directions. He sometimes burns possessions by trying to do too much, though it is encouraging he wants to test his floor game.
Dangling Claxton alone won't get the Nets anyone of significance. His $1.8 million salary is too small. He is more valuable in-house, as their defensive-anchor swing piece. But if they become bent on going after a more established player, attaching Claxton to additional money is their most logical starting point.
Charlotte Hornets: Miles Bridges
Miles Bridges feels more valuable as a tenured player with an actual NBA track record than any upcoming Charlotte Hornets pick. His next deal might scare suitors away—he's extension-eligible this year—but his more comprehensive skill set offsets the extra season P.J. Washington has on his rookie deal.
Few players are as portable on defense. Among the 137 who cleared 1,500 minutes this season, only four covered a wider range of positions, per BBall Index: Jeff Green, James Harden, Ben Simmons and Jae'Sean Tate.
Switchability does not infer ability (see: Harden, James), but Bridges' scope of assignments is complemented by excellent help instincts. He can dip into ultra-wide passing lanes and can deliver the more-than-occasional eleventh-hour block from behind and has polished his rotations around the basket. Opponents shot 53.2 percent when challenging him at the rim, one of the 11 stingiest marks among everyone to contest as many point-blank looks.
Bridges should turn even more heads, if made available, on the heels of his offensive improvement. He is no longer someone who needs to binge on wide-open set jumpers and straight-line runways. He knocked down 43.2 percent of his pull-up threes (35-of-81) and busted out less-predictable routes to the basket on drives and dives. His playmaking has spiked, too. Aside from LaMelo Ball, he is Charlotte's highest-ceiling youngster—and, as a result, its most tantalizing trade asset.
Chicago Bulls: Coby White
Youthful high-volume scorers have a way of seducing teams. Coby White is no exception. His off-the-dribble scoring has room for growth, but he is comfortable manufacturing his own shots and canned 34.7 percent of his pull-up treys as a sophomore, up from 32.8 percent as a rookie.
Saddling him with full-time point guard duties is an overextension of his skill set. He is at his best when he doesn't have to think through opportunities for everyone else, not unlike Zach LaVine.
Whether any of this matters is an issue of perspective. White was not selected by executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas, so he's hardly untouchable. But the Chicago Bulls just pulled off one blockbuster to nab Nikola Vucevic and have yet to hammer out the future of LaVine, who is slated for free agency in 2022.
Would they really consider making a second all-in-type trade? Perhaps one begets another. Urgency is the implication whenever you flip two top-four-protected first-rounders (and Wendell Carter Jr.) for a 30-year-old.
Things can get wild if their pick doesn't convey to the Orlando Magic. A top-four selection in this draft would instantly become their best asset. Without one, if the Bulls wish to go on the blockbuster prowl again, they'll have little choice other than to include both White and Patrick Williams in negotiations. For now, and by a hair, White's offensive ceiling renders him the spicier asset.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Collin Sexton
Darius Garland is, perhaps, the Cleveland Cavaliers' lone untouchable option. He beefed up his off-the-dribble shot-making and feel for running an offense as a sophomore. Cleveland doesn't have an alternate point guard-of-the-future on its hands. He's getting slotted into the no-fly zone.
Isaac Okoro's status doesn't really matter. The Cavs may be unwilling to move on from his defensive ceiling, but he's not the player who should draw the most interest after Garland. Nor is it the 28-year-old Larry Nance Jr. That honor belongs to Collin Sexton.
For all the hullabaloo over what he doesn't do (elevate his teammates), he has done a better job deferring on the move. He can also flat-out score—on the ball and off it.
Only 11 other players this season averaged over 24 points while downing more than 50 percent of their twos and 37 percent of their threes. The list of inclusions reads like a who's who of stars who'd command maxes if they were headed for free agency: Jaylen Brown, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Joel Embiid, Kyrie Irving, Nikola Jokic, Zach LaVine, Kawhi Leonard, Damian Lillard, Jayson Tatum and Karl-Anthony Towns.
Extension-eligibility might tamp down Sexton's market value. His next team will need to pay him near-max money if it's going to keep him long-term. But high-volume scorers who score as efficiently as Sexton has for the past two years don't grow on trees. Attaching him to bigger-money deals or targeting teams looking to exchange prospects or draft equity for an offensive boom would constitute Cleveland's most aggressive package.
Dallas Mavericks: Kristaps Porzingis
Picking Kristaps Porzingis is counterintuitive on its face. Between injuries, roller-coaster offense and a non-transcendent defensive impact, the three years and $101.5 million left on his max deal are aging in the wrong direction.
Many, if not the vast majority, of professional and amateur take-givers will insist the Dallas Mavericks must include sweeteners to get off Porzingis' pact. But that stance in itself nods to an overarching dilemma: a lack of said sweeteners.
On the lower to middle end? Definitely. The Mavericks have players who qualify in Jalen Brunson (non-guaranteed), Dorian Finney-Smith, Maxi Kleber, Josh Green and Tyrell Terry. Not one of them, though, is fronting a blockbuster.
Most of Dallas' snazziest trade packages begin and end with Porzingis. The idea of him is its best shot at brokering something tectonic: a soon-to-be 26-year-old who spaces the floor, scoots by slower defenders and protects the rim.
Tethering some combination of their other assets to Porzingis might get the Mavericks somewhere. He also positions them to make a challenge trade, an exchange of distressed assets. Something like him and another salary for Kemba Walker, as an example.
Denver Nuggets: Will Barton (Player Option)
Um, actually, it's Michael Porter Jr.!
Eh. Porter has morphed into an offensive star as a sophomore. His fit alongside Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray endears him to the Denver Nuggets more as a cornerstone than trade asset.
Using him to glitter up a blockbuster offer—which he would absolutely do—would make sense only under the most specific circumstances. Murray's torn left ACL is likewise part of the calculus. Going nuclear in his absence opens up Denver to a world of repercussions. Porter becomes all the more important if Murray is not the same upon return.
Will Barton becomes the default pick. Someone else must be thrust under the microscope if Barton opts out of his contract. That feels like a coin toss.
On the one hand, more money than star power will be floating around the open market. Above-average players such as Barton can get paid. On the other hand, he's missed chunks of time over the past three seasons with injuries and has yet to appear in the playoffs while dealing with a strained right hamstring.
Teams will still line up to absorb his salary if he exercises his $14.7 million player option. He provides a dab of from-scratch creation while effectively coexisting alongside other ball-handlers. The healthiest version of Barton has more defensive juice than often discussed, in no small part thanks to his three-position range.
Detroit Pistons: Jerami Grant
Process of elimination gets the Detroit Pistons here. Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey don't tease the requisite offensive creation to qualify. (Bey might get there.) Killian Hayes is too much of an unknown after right hip issues limited to just 26 appearances. The Pistons would be selling low in any prospective trade. Sekou Doumbouya's stock plummeted during his sophomore season.
Jerami Grant is the answer. He proved this year that he can ferry more self-creation duties. He remains overtaxed and woefully misidentified if you need him to table-set, but he can generate his own jumpers and looks around the basket.
Partnering that extra element with his defense and set shooting makes him an ideal target for wannabe contenders looking to get over the hump. The two years and $41 million he has left on his contract will be steep for teams that don't want to put the ball in his hands, but his price point is far from excessive even when viewed through the lens of a more limited role.
Detroit needn't consider moving Grant now. He won't stunt its rebuild. He won't win the team too many games or infringe upon touches for Hayes or this year's draft pick. At the same time, his value has reached an all-time high.
Golden State Warriors: 2021 Minnesota Timberwolves Pick
Mystery sells. Future first-rounders can become anyone—particularly those hailing from bad teams under loose protections. Ergo, the Minnesota Timberwolves' 2021 pick (top-three protection) beats out James Wiseman.
Others might just be inclined to choose the big man. He remains his own sort of mystery. He has appeared in just 42 games over his past two organized basketball seasons and showed at least some progress during his first year in the NBA. He still needs better hands, and his defense can be all over the place. But his outside jumper is worth exploring, he can put the ball on the deck, and it's easy to envision his lighting up opposing teams as the roller within an offense that competently spaces the floor around him.
Invariably, though, Wiseman's torn right meniscus and limited action work against him. Who knows how active he'll be over the offseason? He may lose a summer's worth of much-needed development.
Franchises also aren't as likely to view pure 5s as tent-pole pillars anymore. That Wolves pick, whether it conveys this year or next, can become a guard or wing.
On whatever side of the fence you land, the Golden State Warriors are obligated to gauge the value of Wiseman and that Minnesota selection. Getting Klay Thompson back from a torn left ACL and ruptured right Achilles tendon isn't enough to reopen the title window on its own, even with Stephen Curry playing at an MVP level. They need another infusion of talent and owe it to Curry's prime to finagle it through any means necessary.
Houston Rockets: Christian Wood
Think of the Houston Rockets as the Detroit Pistons of the Western Conference. They don't have any eclectic prospects to use as blockbuster bait and aren't good enough to jettison them for veteran upgrades if they did. And they similarly shouldn't be moving any of their own picks, insofar as they actually control them (they do in 2022 and 2023).
Loading up the cupboard with first-round choices and long-term prospects should be Houston's primary aim. Bagging roughly, er, all of the Brooklyn Nets' draft equity through 2027 was a start, but the Rockets have obligations of their own to the Oklahoma City Thunder, including this year (swap rights with top-four protection).
Christian Wood will fall under the "No way in hell label" for some. Right ankle issues cost him a ton of time this season, but he averaged 21.0 points while downing 58.1 percent of his twos and 37.4 percent of his threes—benchmarks reached also by only Nikola Jokic.
This marriage of volume and efficiency is big-time, and Wood is not the beneficiary of accessory opportunities. This marks the second consecutive season in which he's tested the depths of his floor game. He is an offensive mismatch at every level of the court and has the chops to do more as a passer. His defense is not what you would call disciplined, but he can cover a ton of ground away from the ball and hang tight in space. Again: His execution can be chaotic; his inconsistency is not damning.
Wood has two years and $28 million left on what looks like a below-market contract, but he will be in free agency before Houston knows it (2023) and won't get any cheaper. Now might be a good time to at least gauge his market value and see how many first-round picks and prospects it can command for his services—because, yes, it will be plural.
Indiana Pacers: Myles Turner
Options abound for the Indiana Pacers. Or maybe they're lacking. It can go either way.
Coming to any profound conclusions about their makeup is ticky-tack when Malcolm Brogdon, Caris LeVert, T.J. Warren, Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner didn't play a single second together. On the flip side, you could also just assume the absence of a megastar punch deems everyone gettable.
Splitting the difference is best. Sabonis is the basis for everything they do on offense, LeVert represents their crack at a wing initiator, and Brogdon remains an ideal fit between those two archetypes. Warren might be obtainable entering a contract year, but he missed almost the entire season with a stress fracture in his left foot.
Enter Turner, the player long considered to be the odd man out of this core.
That sentiment skews toward tired. He and Sabonis have shown they can play together. But Sabonis is at his most dangerous offensively as the lone big. He is also, in many ways, the less valuable trade chip. His impact won't be the same if the ball isn't in his hands, a relative rarity among contemporary bigs.
Turner is more scalable. His three-point clip has dipped below 35 percent in each of the past two seasons, but he can, for the most part, subsist on pick-and-pops while annihilating opposing offenses at the other end. He is a dominant rim protector, his weak-side rotations often result in possession erasure, and he can handle tracking both the ball-handler and big in drop coverage.
In the event Indy wants to give its roster a face-lift, Turner stands to bring back the most value, be it on his own or, thanks to his manageable salary ($18 million in each of the next two seasons), as part of a larger package.
Los Angeles Clippers: Ivica Zubac
Demand for Paul George to stumble into this shindig of ours if you feel like verbally sparring with a wall. He doesn't belong.
Trading George is not a pathway to improving the Los Angeles Clippers. He is an annual All-NBA candidate. Plenty of teams will drain their own pick-and-prospect stash to get him. Fantastic. The Clippers aren't rebuilding so long as they have Kawhi Leonard (player option). Circle back to George's trade status should the former leave in free agency.
Patrick Beverley (expiring contract), Terance Mann (two years, $3.7 million), Marcus Morris Sr. (three years, $49.1 million) and Ivica Zubac (two years, $15.0 million) are the next candidates up. Luke Kennard's extension (four years, $56 million), which has yet to kick in, is aging too poorly. The year remaining on Rajon Rondo's deal ($8.3 million) is whatever.
This quickly becomes a non-decision. Zubac is a 24-year-old, 7-foot starting-quality center who can protect the rim, speedball his way to the basket on rolls and hang tough on defense away from the hoop. Getting all that from someone earning, by NBA standards, peanuts equates to a massive bargain. If the Clippers wish to make more than an on-the-margins swing, he'll need to be the nucleus of any trade package.
Los Angeles Lakers: Kyle Kuzma
Perception of Kyle Kuzma continues to stray from reality. Only now, as opposed to before, he might be underrated.
His brief playoff performance was up and down—mostly down—but that describes the Los Angeles Lakers at large. He has turned into a solid positional defender, someone who can capably guard non-No. 1 options at the 2, 3 and 4 spots. His offense is the larger wild card. He hit a respectable 37.5 percent of his spot-up threebies during the regular season but went arctic in the playoffs (16.7 percent) and has never matched the on-ball success he enjoyed as a rookie.
Aspects of his offensive limitations are situational. LeBron James joined the Lakers before Kuzma's sophomore campaign. The latter has never needed to replicate the same type of usage. Another team might be willing to give him a master copy of the offensive keys. He won't turn 26 until July.
Suitors may even just lust after an ascending version of the exact player Kuzma is now, a competent defender and sometimes floor-spacer. That archetype holds serious, complementary value, and his three-year, $39 million contract (2023-24 player option) leans toward team-friendly.
Memphis Grizzlies: Jaren Jackson Jr.
Throwing Jaren Jackson Jr.'s name into this mix has almost nothing to do with his down season. He missed most of the year with a torn left meniscus. Struggling upon return is the expectation.
Still, the Memphis Grizzlies are approaching a critical crossroads with their 21-year-old big man. He is extension-eligible this summer, and whether he puts pen to paper now or in 2022 restricted free agency, the concept of what he does will get him puh-aid.
Memphis cannot take that commitment lightly. Ja Morant will be extension-eligible right after him, and having two max or near-max players on the docket implies you're in the contender's clique or knocking on its door.
Jackson has yet to show he's the unequivocal No. 2 to Morant's directional stardom. His three-point volume alone is impactful, and he can navigate defenses off the bounce if he's not rushed. But his own defense remains a question mark. He can make plays around the basket and has uncorked shiftiness in space, just not on a constant basis, and not without throwing semi-regular foul parties.
The rest of the frontcourt doesn't help matters. Jonas Valanciunas was the Grizzlies' most consistent player for a majority of this season. Jackson can play beside him, at the 4, but he might be better off long-term at the 5. And if he's not, his one-position classification inherently caps power forward reps for Brandon Clarke (a fringe rotation player by postseason's end), Xavier Tillman and Kyle Anderson.
Fresh off two seasons in which they outperformed expectations, the Grizzlies seem like they're one perimeter playmaker—preferably at the 2 or 3—from breaking bread with some of the West's heavier weights. Jackson remains the genre of young player who can grant them entry into discussions for entrenched stars and fringe stars. This isn't a mandate. Just food for thought.
Miami Heat: Tyler Herro
Tyler Herro's outlook has done a complete about-face since the end of last season. He left the Disney bubble having meaningfully contributed to a Finals participant as a rookie, his arc that of a star mined from the back of the lottery. He finishes this year as a disappointment when measured against that standard.
The truth, as ever, is more nuanced. He missed a bunch of time with various injuries, and Miami saddled him with more reps at point guard, in part out of necessity given the roster's banged-up state to start the year. The results weren't always pretty, but there were results.
Herro upped his volume and efficiency on drives and looked at home running the offense versus drop coverages. Defenses that threw more pressure at him caused problems, but he wasn't helpless in those spots by year's end. He closed the regular season on a relative tear, averaging 15.1 points and 3.4 assists while dropping in 44.1 percent of his threes and dramatically improving his off-the-dribble shooting clip.
Squads forced into selling off higher-profile names will gladly take on Herro's upside, the cost of which is next to nothing over the final two years of his rookie scale. He alone won't make the Heat favorites to win discussions for the next disgruntled star or fringe star, but he is enough to grant them entry into those talks at all.
Milwaukee Bucks: Donte DiVincenzo
Unless you're hot for the Houston Rockets' 2021 second-round pick, this comes down to Donte DiVincenzo or Brook Lopez. The latter is one season removed from an All-Defense selection and can still crack skulls down low on offense while stretching opposing frontlines beyond the arc. He becomes much less valuable if he can't defend while dropping back toward the rim, but with two years and $27.2 million left on his deal, he would solicit some interest if made available.
DiVincenzo edges out Lopez by virtue of upside. (If we're being honest, both players must populate any offers for a half-prominent return.) He is under 25, has one year left on his rookie scale and fills so many gaps. Milwaukee has used him to defend positions 1 through 3, with some spot duty on certain 4s, and he can steal minutes as the point guard.
Career-best shooting from behind the rainbow during the regular season makes him infinitely more attractive. He hit a nice mix of standstill and pull-up threes, a distribution befitting any lineup in which he was inserted.
Outside admirers might sour on him following a left ankle injury that ended his postseason, or because he'll be due for an ample raise in 2022-23. The Bucks, for their part, might not want to move him before his next contract takes effect. His $4.7 million salary can't bring back much on its own, and they're not flush with money-matching fodder. He is, as of now, their sixth-highest paid player on the books for next season, behind Lopez, Pat Connaughton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Malik Beasley
Figuring out who on the Minnesota Timberwolves to exclude from the selection process is difficult. Karl-Anthony Towns is a given. Who else? Anthony Edwards sounds about right. And then that's it.
Future picks deserve a cursory mention. But Minnesota doesn't yet know whether it'll keep this year's pick, which is owed to the Golden State Warriors with top-three protection. That gums up the asset line.
Retaining the selection could allow the Timberwolves to go star-hunting. Then again, a top-three pick in this year's draft means a crack at Cade Cunningham (consensus No. 1), Jalen Suggs or Jalen Green. Moving it only appeals if they miss on Cade and aren't in love with the latter two. Evan Mobley is in the top-three running, as well, but Minnesota doesn't need another big. (Of note: The Wolves would have to wait until after the draft to flip this year's pick if they keep it, since their 2022 selection then belongs to the Warriors.)
Feel free to reassess this situation after the lottery. Until then, the correct answer is Malik Beasley.
He is the right blend of salary anchor ($14.5 million salary in 2021-22), complementary scorer (41.3 percent on spot-up threes) and secondary creator (38.1 percent on pull-up treys). His left hamstring injury that ended his season in April might ward off some suitors, and he's not blockbuster-centerpiece material, but he is a universally useful player who glitzes up any package the Timberwolves wish to concoct.
New Orleans Pelicans: Brandon Ingram
Strike Zion Williamson from the ledger, and it's slim pickings for the New Orleans Pelicans.
Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Jaxson Hayes look like eventual rotation staples, not prospects who can be the main events in a blockbuster package. Resident speedster Kira Lewis Jr. hasn't shown enough to outstrip his sub-23 brethren.
New Orleans has a ransom's worth of draft equity but nothing that compares to, say, the Golden State Warriors' 2021 Minnesota Timberwolves selection. Its own first-rounders are blahdy-blah because Zion is so darn good; they'd need to demolish the rest of their roster before those choices top out as more than late-lottery fun coupons.
Controlling a portion of the Los Angeles Lakers' and Milwaukee Bucks' future drafts is great, but imminent selections don't profile as huge trade chips and the more distant firsts are tough sells as headlining assets.
Hence Brandon Ingram's inclusion. He can be used to help the Pelicans advance either of two directions.
If they want to double-down on Zion's awesomeness, a 23-year-old All-Star under contract for the next four years is an asset scant few teams can rival while in pursuit of All-NBA types. Conversely, if the Pelicans want to slow their roll and take a more gradual, less win-now-focused approach, a 23-year-old All-Star under contract for the next four years is a viable springboard into returns built around first-round picks, prospects and cap relief.
New York Knicks: RJ Barrett
Julius Randle cannot be viewed as off-limits for the New York Knicks, even when working off a Most Improved Player and likely All-NBA campaign. He turns 27 and just made an out-of-the-ordinary leap. His upside is finite, and the Knicks just received a glimpse into how far an offense married to his hitting ridiculously difficult jumpers will do in the playoffs. If for some reason a team auctioning off a superstar wants him, he should be on the table.
New York also shouldn't be above seeing what the pick-and-prospect market is for him ahead of 2022 free agency. This team isn't a championship contender and plenty of kiddies worth developing. Everything should be in play, including a long-term extension for Randle.
RJ Barrett's value to the franchise is less subjective. He is the single most important player to the organization. Nobody else on the roster has his proximity to comprehensive stardom. He made strides as a three-point shooter (40.1 percent), did a better job blitzing through defenses and finishing through contact and shored up his defense, most notably away from the ball.
If Barrett develops a consistent off-the-dribble jumper and commits to entering attack mode more often, the Knicks will have a potential All-NBA mainstay on their hands. Contrary to Randle, he is the building block you ship out if, and only if, it nabs the level of star you're hoping he becomes. Think: Bradley Beal or the pessmistic-Instagram-captioning Damian Lillard. And while any package including Barrett will demand other assets, his sophomore rise gives him a blockbuster-anchor gloss.
Oklahoma City Thunder: N/A
No team in the league is better positioned to broker a blockbuster deal. The Thunder could have as many 34 picks over the next seven drafts and boast a smorgasbord of bargain-bin deals under organizational control.
Incidentally, no team in the league has less of incentive to negotiate a blockbuster trade. The Thunder just started their rebuild. They have a not-insignificant chance of getting two top-five picks in the upcoming draft. Rushing to bolster the roster is a recipe to tread water in the middle. They are more than another top-15 player away from contention.
Kicking the tires on Shai Gilgeous-Alexander's value also doesn't move their needle. Shelling out a max extension—for which he's eligible this summer—so early into the reset is slightly awkward, but they have more long-term cap flexibility than they can reasonably expect to use. SGA is worth that cost of retention anyway.
Jettisoning any of their other players won't do the Thunder any favors, either. With the exception of Al Horford—who cannot be considered a net-positive trade asset at his price point—they are all ridiculously cheap and under team control. There's little point turning them into picks when OKC already has all the picks.
And so, the Thunder land here, with a big, fat, friggin' "Not Applicable."
Orlando Magic: Jonathan Isaac
Jonathan Isaac signed a four-year, $80 million extension ($69.6 million guaranteed) while rehabbing a torn left ACL that sidelined him for all of this season. Going on 24 in October, with no other guiding-force prospects on the roster, it seems outlandish that Orlando Magic would try moving him now.
The Magic are not out of the hellhole woods. They have the unspectacular-yet-serviceable collection of talent to rejoin the NBA's middle next season: a potentially healthy Isaac and Markelle Fultz (also recovering from a torn left ACL), Cole Anthony, Mo Bamba, Wendell Carter Jr., R.J. Hampton, Gary Harris, Chuma Okeke, Terrence Ross, their own draft pick (top-three lottery odds) and the Chicago Bulls' first-rounder (top-three protection).
Ancillary moves can be made to prevent Orlando from making a progression that profiles as regression. But Isaac is a defensive system unto himself. Building around him risks entering a gray area in which he spearheads a defense that wins a few too many games yet still isn't good enough to level up in the near future.
It's also hard to treat a non-creator as your North Star. Orlando has a better chance of finding its bluest-chip cornerstone in this year's draft or the next—or maybe even via the first-rounder(s) it'd acquire in exchange for Isaac.
Philadelphia 76ers: Tyrese Maxey
Shout-out to everyone who notices that Tyrese Maxey isn't Ben Simmons. You're all superstars.
Better spacing has helped the Sixers obliterate opponents when Simmons and Joel Embiid share the floor. It isn't quite clear how the latter's small lateral tear in his right meniscus impacts the team's view of this partnership. Philly isn't going to make it out of the East if Embiid isn't on the court and playing at an MVP level, but losing because he's absent or not his usual self isn't telltale of the ceiling on his partnership with Simmons.
Maxey is the middle-ground asset, someone the Sixers can reroute without feeling like they're gambling on a wholesale change. His three-level scoring tantalizes, especially when he's not passing or dribbling out of open threes, and he plays with grittiness and gumption on the defensive end. Philly has leaned on him in the postseason, and he's responded with big-time moments at both ends.
Putting him in the same class of asset as a Michael Porter Jr. goes too far. But is Tyler Herro a stretch?
This is to say: The Sixers have a blockbuster-or-comparable-to-it centerpiece without hocking Simmons. That Maxey has three years left on his rookie scale merely adds to his value. Philly will have to attach more salary to him, as well as picks and maybe Matisse Thybulle, if it's going for the all-out addition, but the point stands: Aggressive trade races can be run without Simmons.
Phoenix Suns: Deandre Ayton
Depending on how you look at it, this is either poor timing or incredibly timely. Deandre Ayton spent much of his third season fluctuating from monstrously impactful to regrettably passive to every imaginable area in-between.
Ayton's performance during his inaugural playoff series, against the Los Angeles Lakers, solidified his spot among the Phoenix Suns' trade chips. He averaged 15.8 points and 10.7 rebounds on 79.6 percent shooting across six games, and his disappearing acts were few and far between. He hit the offensive glass, moved well off Phoenix's ball-handlers and battled on the defensive end. The switchability you've heard about, ad nauseam, is for real.
Tack on the fact that Ayton is Phoenix's only player aside from Booker and Paul (player option) slated to make over $10 million in 2021-22, and this becomes less of a choice and more of a default. He remains the Suns' swing piece, their most convenient and realistic bite at the third-star apple beside Devin Booker and Chris Paul, but he is also their most lucrative asset if they decide to seek outside help.
Portland Trail Blazers: CJ McCollum
The Portland Trail Blazers have played all of their non-nuclear cards. They traded for Robert Covington. They acquired Norman Powell. It wasn't enough. They bowed out in the first round to a Denver Nuggets team that, while still really good, was missing its second-best player.
Heads are going to roll this offseason. Portland has floated the status quo for too long, and there is a fine line between continuity and complacency. The Nipsey Hustle quote Lillard chose for his Instagram caption following the Game 6 loss to Denver only underscores the urgency: "How long should I stay dedicated? How long til opportunity meet preparation?"
This isn't a trade demand. It is nevertheless concerning, because it doesn't feel like a coincidence. Especially when weighed in tandem with Jusuf Nurkic's postgame comments, which were very much dripping "Get me out of here" vibes.
Attempting to parlay CJ McCollum into an upgrade is the last home-run swing the Blazers have left. Mind you, it won't be easy. McCollum's three-year, $100 million price point is steep, and more than that, upgrading from a near All-Star leaves Portland beholden to finite possibilities.
Perhaps this all ends with the Blazers standing pat or making a change at head coach and/or in the front office. That doesn't seem like it'll be enough. And with Norman Powell (unrestricted), another sub-6'5" guard, in the fold, Portland is more positioned than ever to consider breaking up its backcourt—if only because it has no other way to make appreciable changes.
Sacramento Kings: Tyrese Haliburton
Harrison Barnes is the choice here if you're ticketing the Sacramento Kings for another full-on rebuild. But expecting the Kings to strip it down still feels like a reach.
De'Aaron Fox's max extension kicks in next season, and Barnes' value probably peaked around the trade deadline, when the market was barren of sellers. Sacramento has so far operated like a team interested in accelerating its timeline.
Continuing along that path demands more cogent action. The Kings cannot futz and fiddle on the margins and return to fringe play-in contention. That is a commitment to chase a first-round exit. Their next move, if it's not to mortgage the present for the future, needs to make a bigger bang.
In other words: Chase a star, Sacramento.
No specific names are worth mentioning here. The Kings don't need to be choosy. Pretty much any star who reaches the trade block—and there will always be a next one up, even if we can't exactly crystal-ball it—will do. Sacramento just needs to have the guts to unload its asset.
No one aside from Fox can be untouchable under those parameters, including Tyrese Haliburton. It takes value to get star power, and any team selling off a marquee talent will want a 21-year-old with three seasons left on his rookie scale who can work off the ball, initiate the offense, disarm defenders off the dribble and guard his butt off at the other end.
San Antonio Spurs: 2022 First-Round Picks
Uncertainty in every form fuels the San Antonio Spurs' trade-chip hierarchy. First and foremost, they don't have that conventional it prospect.
Derrick White turns 27 in July and always seems to be battling an injury. Dejounte Murray has yet to oversee the offense without an All-Star safety net. Devin Vassell is more of an offensive accessory.
Keldon Johnson has a little too much Dillon Brooks in him. That ship appears to have sailed on Lonnie Walker IV. Luka Saminac still needs to average more than 10 minutes per game. Jakob Poeltl is a lethal finishing touch, not someone around whom you build. This year's lottery pick needs to hop into the top four to steal the show.
That leaves the Spurs' 2022 first-rounder.
DeRozan, Rudy Gay and Patty Mills are all entering free agency. Head coach Gregg Popovich has yet to decide whether he's returning himself, per the San Antonio Express-News' Mike Finger. The Spurs might be reaching a natural reconstruction phase in which they lean exclusively on their youngings, who while serviceable might fast-track them for lucrative lottery odds without an influx (or retention) of veteran help.
Shipping out first-round picks isn't the Spurs' style, and their 2022 selection diminishes in value if it's used to bank a B-plus-or-better veteran. But if they opt for urgency, this first-rounder stands to do the most for the policy change.
Toronto Raptors: Pascal Siakam
Pascal Siakam's inclusion will surprise anyone who views the three years and $106.3 million left on his contract as a financial millstone. Put another way: His inclusion will surprise too many people.
Worrying about his outside stroke is justified. He cleared 36 percent shooting from deep in each of the previous two seasons but was under 30 percent this year has never been a knockdown marksman.
The rest of his game is fine. He isn't the most unpredictable attacker off the dribble, but he varied up his decision-making on drives, making it harder for defenses to fluster him into flubs. For all his fits and starts, he still finished 2020-21 averaging over 20 points and four assists per game while converting 50-plus percent of his twos.
If Siakam is guilty of anything, it's that he doesn't look like he can be the absolute best player on a title team. Big whoop. Only 10 players fit that bill, and even that could be a stretch. At any rate, he is Toronto's timeline-proof trade chip, sort of like Brandon Ingram is for the New Orleans Pelicans.
If the Raptors decide to let Kyle Lowry (and maybe team president Masai Ujiri) walk and begin a rebuild, he can bring back a haul of picks and developmental projects. But they're looking to go all-in on a return to the Finals, he isn't so good that they cannot feasibly upgrade from him, and teams selling stars can do far worse than a 27-year-old All-Star centerpiece under contract for the next three years.
Utah Jazz: 2024 First-Round Pick
The Utah Jazz might have the league's least trade-ready roster—in a good way.
Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell are their title-contention lifelines, and there is no plausible outcome to the team's postseason push that would motivate the team to make either one available.
Bojan Bogdanovic and Joe Ingles are nice gets, but the Jazz would need to attach more to parlay either one into a roster upgrade. They don't have the goodies to assemble such packages. Udoka Azuibuike is their highest-end prospect, and Royce O'Neale is too integral to their perimeter defense.
Imminent first-rounders have restrained value when Utah is so good now. The Jazz have also already dealt their 2022 pick, so 2021 and 2023 choices cannot be traded as future selections.
Front offices don't always think that long term. So few have the job security to tout first-rounders three years out as bargaining-table victories. Distant picks have played prominent roles in recent star trades—Anthony Davis, James Holiday, Jrue Holiday—but every package was also accompanied by more immediate selections and flashier youngsters than the Jazz have to offer.
Counterpoint: It only takes one team, just one team that sees Utah's supporting cast aging poorly, just one team envisioning a scenario in the next couple years where the Gobert-Mitchell fizzles out. And if that one team exists, the Jazz could try constructing trade packages that capitalize on it.
Washington Wizards: Rui Hachimura
Up until now, though, the Wizards have mirrored the M.O. of buyers, presumably with Bradley Beal in mind. That narrows the scope of options to its top two prospects: Deni Avdija and Rui Hachimura. The latter gets the benefit of the doubt in part because Avdija is now recovering from a fracture in his right leg, but mostly because of his all-around growth as a sophomore.
Hachimura still has wrinkles to iron out on offense, but his feel on the ball persists, and he's honed his touch from the perimeter. His mid-range efficiency jumped by six percentage points from last season, and he shot 35.3 percent on threes after the All-Star break on 2.3 attempts per game.
Absent a go-to defender, the Wizards continued baptizing Hachimura by fire at the less glamorous end. No one on the team spent more time guarding No. 1 options following Thomas Bryant's injury, and he saw real time against all five positions, according to BBall Index. His own improvement while scrambling and helping was a pivotal part of Washington's strong defensive close to the season.
This isn't enough of a jump for Hachimura to net a blockbuster return as the lone asset. He doesn't make enough next season ($4.9 million), for starters, and needs to build up a larger sample of engineering his own shots. Still, when judged against all the various players and picks the Wizards must include to act like proper buyers, he ranks as their best facsimile of a golden ticket.