Trades to Help Get NBA's Best Superstars over the Top

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 6, 2021

Trades to Help Get NBA's Best Superstars over the Top

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    The absence of marquee talents, brought about by rampant injuries that led to early eliminations, defined these 2021 NBA playoffs.

    A short offseason, a truncated schedule and bad luck contributed to no fewer than 10 All-Stars (plus Jamal Murray and Trae Young) going down during this postseason. We can't fix all those issues by cooking up a handful of trades, but maybe finding some high-end reinforcements could help big names that fell short.

    The goal here is to get superstars the peer-level help they need to go from also-ran to contender.

    The league year hasn't flipped yet, and trade constructions would be vastly different depending on the timing of their execution relative to the draft and free agency. For that reason, all of them should be viewed as conceptual, rather than down-to-the-dollar precise.

    With that out of the way, let's pair up some big names in what'll hopefully produce a 2022 postseason littered with luminous stars.

Dame Heads Home to Support Steph

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    The Deal: Golden State Warriors send James Wiseman, Andrew Wiggins, No. 7 pick in 2021 draft and two future top-five protected first-round picks to the Portland Trail Blazers for Damian Lillard

    If the Brooklyn Nets could put the "there's only one ball" concern to bed when they added James Harden to a roster that already had Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, surely the Warriors can find a way to make Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard coexist harmoniously.

    Many of the same concerns Brooklyn faced would present themselves with the Dubs. Lillard has never been much of an off-ball mover, and a Steph-Dame backcourt would be vulnerable defensively.

    But good luck figuring out how to defend two of the most dangerous scorers and long-range shooters the league has ever seen. Overload to force the ball out of one superstar's hands 30 feet from the bucket, and you invite the other to visit total destruction on your defense.

    Curry has sacrificed to accommodate a top-line scorer before, and it wouldn't be the worst thing to lighten his load in what'll be his age-34 season.

    Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, assuming the latter returns at something like 75 percent of his 2019 form, have the defensive versatility to cover up for Curry and Lillard, and we should assume ring-chasing vets will line up to fill out the rotation on the cheap.

    Curry doesn't have many more MVP-caliber years left, so although it's brazen to sacrifice so much of the Warriors' future to get Lillard, it almost feels like the Dubs can't afford not to make a move like this.

Bradley Beal Lightens Luka's Load

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    The Deal: Dallas Mavericks send Kristaps Porzingis, Jalen Brunson, Josh Green and two future unprotected first-round picks to the Washington Wizards for Bradley Beal

    Though this is a trade designed to put Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks over the top, it's hard to ignore the potentially comfortable fit between Russell Westbrook and Kristaps Porzingis in Washington. A true stretch-5 could go a long way toward alleviating the spacing crunch created by a point guard whose jumper doesn't scare defenses enough to pull them out to the perimeter.

    For Dallas, Beal would give Doncic the second option (and it's practically an insult to slap that label on a player as dominant as Beal) he's never had. Suddenly, the Mavs would have late-game options beyond praying Luka has enough gas left in the tank to carry them on his own.

    Both players have the vision and unselfishness to make this partnership something more than a typical "your turn, my turn" arrangement. Doncic sees all the angles and has no problem whipping the ball to the open man when the defense closes in on him, and Beal hasn't ranked below the 93rd percentile in assist rate among wings in any of the last four seasons.

    This is an admittedly low-ball package coming from the Mavs, but with Beal set to hit free agency after the 2021-22 season, it may be the case that teams won't be comfortable surrendering their entire war chests to get him.

Embiid Gets an Upgrade

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    Steve Dykes/Associated Press

    The Deal: Philadelphia 76ers send Ben Simmons, Matisse Thybulle, Tyrese Maxey and two future first-round picks to the Portland Trail Blazers for Damian Lillard

    The Sixers are "angling" for Damian Lillard, according to the Indianapolis Star's J. Michael, which they should be. Few teams need a conventional perimeter star more than Philly.

    The contrast between Simmons and Lillard could hardly be more pronounced. The former punched his ticket out of town by refusing to shoot or attack the basket in critical late-game situations this past postseason, while the latter's legend is built on crunch-time heroism. If it's fourth-quarter aggression the Sixers want, there's nobody better than Dame, the guy who led the NBA with 162 clutch points in 2020-21 and hasn't ranked outside the top 10 in that stat since 2015-16.

    The spacing Lillard would provide could allow Embiid to tap levels of interior dominance we can't even imagine. The second-place finisher in this year's MVP race, Embiid is already the game's most potent post scorer. Imagine what he'd do with true four-out spacing instead of having to navigate a lane constricted by Simmons' help defender—or Simmons, himself, standing in the dunker spot.

    What would defenses even do with a high pick-and-roll featuring Lillard and Embiid? Sell out to force the rock out of Dame's hands, clearing a runway for Embiid to attack downhill? Stay glued to Embiid, and watch Lillard rain 10 open off-the-bounce threes per game? Switch and pray a big could stay in front of Lillard, or a small could do anything but get flattened by Embiid?

    These two would present unsolvable problems to any defense and would make the Sixers a no-questions-asked title threat. No matter how much Simmons changes his game, he can't unlock Embiid like Lillard could.

Lillard Stays Put with a New Running Mate

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    The Deal: Portland Trail Blazers send CJ McCollum to the Philadelphia 76ers for Ben Simmons

    We've shipped Damian Lillard out to help other superstars twice now, so it's only fair that the help finally comes to him.

    A straight-up swap of CJ McCollum for Ben Simmons could mutually benefit the Blazers and Sixers by balancing out both rosters, as McCollum would give Philly many of the same qualities Lillard did in the previous trade, with the added bonus of a much lower cost.

    This is about Lillard, though, so let's retrain our focus on Portland.

    The Blazers' problems are on defense, where they ranked 29th this past season and 27th in 2019-20. Simmons, a two-time All-Defensive team member and one of the most versatile weapons the league has on that end, could help Portland play something in the neighborhood of league-average D. That should be enough to make the Blazers a more realistic contender.

    If you're concerned about Portland losing its elite scoring punch (top three in each of the last three years), don't fret. The Blazers have had no issue sustaining elite points-per-possession figures when Lillard has played without McCollum in that span.

    Much of Simmons' ability to help Lillard elevate the Blazers' ceiling depends on him doing more than talking about addressing the weaknesses in his game. That Simmons is skipping the Olympics to focus on skill development is a good sign.


    Stats courtesy of, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Salary info via Spotrac.