Playing Trade or Keep with NBA's Top Offseason Trade Targets

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJuly 7, 2021

Playing Trade or Keep with NBA's Top Offseason Trade Targets

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Blockbuster trades are an NBA offseason rite of passage. Even when there doesn't appear to be a next star who is on the move, there is, in fact, always a next star who will be on the move.

    This offseason will be no different, in large part because it isn't particularly hard to identify marquee names who, for a multitude of reasons, are bound to define the summertime rumor mill.

    To be clear: This exercise is not presuming each of these players is readily available. They are instead the stars who will garner the most interest from rival teams.

    Our mission, when framed this way, is to decide whether their incumbent franchises should be listening and then acting on those overtures.

Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Bradley Beal trade speculation so far flies in the face of the rumblings emanating from D.C. The 28-year-old was noncommittal about his future during his exit interview with the media, but the Washington Wizards currently have no plans to look at moving him, according to The Athletic's Fred Katz.

    Cringey or not, though, this isn't a situation that needs a trade demand or rumors of an ongoing sweepstakes. Beal is entering a contract year (2022-23 player option), and the Wizards are not anywhere near title contention as currently constructed.

    Franchise and star are approaching an implicit crossroads. Washington can look to this past season as a march toward progress. It played a lot better when Davis Bertans and Russell Westbrook were healthy and saw strides from Rui Hachimura along with the trade-deadline acquisition Daniel Gafford. A year of better availability across the board, which includes getting Thomas Bryant back from a torn left ACL, would go a long way.

    It still wouldn't position the Wizards to jockey for bragging rights atop the East, and they don't have the resources to make major improvements. Without cap space or obvious blockbuster-trade anchors, they'd need leaps from Hachimura and Deni Avdija (recovering from a fractured right ankle) to be a noticeably different team. Hitting a home run at No. 15 in the draft probably wouldn't even do the trick, at least not during Year 1.

    Failing an outright commitment from Beal or both the capacity and willingness to trade for another high-impact player, Washington should already be having some tough conversations.

    Though Beal can be rerouted around the deadline if the Wizards' season goes off the rails, his value stands to be higher around the league when prospective suitors have an entire year to sell him on a long-term future. They're more likely to get returns comparable to what Houston received for James Harden and New Orleans got for Anthony Davis if they act over the summer.

    Verdict: Trade

Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Zach LaVine is not being hocked around the league—insofar as any of these stars are actually being peddled to admirers. You don't need anonymous sources to say as much. The Chicago Bulls told us themselves at the trade deadline.

    Giving up Wendell Carter Jr., the No. 8 pick in this year's draft and a 2023 first-rounder (top-10 protection) while taking on Al-Farouq Aminu's contract to nab Nikola Vucevic is not the act of a team prepared to hit the reset button. It is instead a harbinger of their desire to cause a ruckus in the Eastern Conference now and, by extension, keep LaVine.

    Missing this past year's play-in tournament doesn't necessarily change the calculus. It makes the deal look much worse, to be sure; this isn't a move you co-sign if you're not hell-bent on immediately extending your season. That the Bulls fell short was partially beyond on their control—LaVine missed a stretch of time in the league's health and safety protocols—but it doesn't much inoculate them against criticism.

    Anyway, they could've clinched a play-in spot, and LaVine's name would still be here by virtue of his 2022 free agency. Chicago can offer him an extension, but he's not going to sign it. A 120 percent raise off his current salary for 2022-23 (comes to $23.4 million) falls noticeably short of his projected max ($34.7 million).

    Renegotiating and extending LaVine's contract is the Bulls' best shot at sealing the deal before he hits the open market. It allows them to increase next season's salary as part of the new contract, disincentivizing him from exploring the open market in 2022. But that immediate uptick must be paid in cap space, so if Chicago plans on maxing him out, it'll need a hair over $14 million spending power.

    Carving out that much flexibility comes with collateral damage. The Bulls will need to renounce all of their own free agents, including Lauri Markkanen (restricted), and then trim another few million bucks from the payroll. LaVine can simplify the process by taking a tad below his 2021-22 max ($33.7 million) and then hitting his projected 2022-23 max. Even then, though, Chicago burns flexibility to give him a raise rather than improve the roster around him.

    That's not LaVine's problem. He's earned max-money consideration now. The Bulls need to lay out every scenario possible and see where he stands. If he doesn't want to sign on the dotted line, or they don't want to renegotiate-and-extend him, then this becomes a non-decision. He should be available.

    Verdict: Keep if he'll renegotiate-and-extend. Trade if he won't.

Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

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    Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press

    Damian Lillard doesn't make a cameo on this list as of a few weeks ago. He has four years left on his contract (2024-25 player option), and more importantly, he's long espoused an "I'd rather lose in Portland than win somewhere else" attitude.

    Welp.

    Among the many, many things the Blazers must answer for this season is Lillard's plummeting faith in the franchise. As Yahoo Sports' Chris Haynes wrote:

    "The enormous backlash from the Portland Trail Blazers' process to hire a new coach and his concerns on whether a championship contender can be built have become factors that may push the franchise player— Damian Lillard—out the door, league sources told Yahoo Sports. Lillard has remained loyal to Portland in large part due to the tremendous fan base. But over the last few days, he’s seen some of those same fans attacking him on social media for a pending coaching hire he played no part in consummating, sources said."

    This is different from an outright trade request. It more so feels like a response to the Blazers failing to shield him from criticism following the Chauncey Billups hire, as well as an attempt to apply pressure to the organization at large—a not-so-subtle statement that "Hey, the status quo isn't good enough."

    General manager Neil Olshey should absolutely be concerned, no matter how often he speaks with Lillard. And while the Blazers could put Lillard on the trade block now and be assured of bagging a king's ransom, they have no incentive to explore the most nuclear scenario of all unless he demands it.

    Time, for now, is on their side. Lillard could request a trade tomorrow, and the number of years left on his contract would cap the urgency with which the Blazers must operate. They should keep him for as long as they can—which is to say, until he indicates his loyalty has reached its limit.

    Verdict: Keep

CJ McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers

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    Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press

    CJ McCollum's future in Portland is complicated. The prevailing sentiment always seems to be the Blazers should trade him and reconfigure the core around Damian Lillard. Fine. That's justifiable.

    But for what? For who?

    McCollum is about as good as a player can be without getting billed an actual star. He is a battle-tested bucket-getter, someone who can generate his own looks and cook defenses with his in-between game, changes of pace and, more recently, willingness to jack off-the-bounce threes.

    Since his sophomore season, McCollum is averaging 20.7 points per 36 minutes on a 50.7 effective field-goal percentage in the playoffs. The only other players to match his scoring rate and efficiency in as many posteason contests: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Chris Paul.

    Keeping that company is to some degree a matter of opportunity. You need to have extensive playoff experience. That's also the point. McCollum's offense is ready-made for the postseason pressure-cooker, and the reps he has working off another primary ball-handler only make him a more attractive fit for teams with someone in that role.

    This should be the Blazers' rebuke to anyone flinching at the the $100 million he'll earn over the next three years. Then again, McCollum turns 30 in September, will be making $35.8 million in his age-32 season, doesn't move the needle on defense and won't guarantee postseason dalliances on his own. 

    All of which inherently restricts his market. Teams in the throes of a rebuild cannot view him as a future anchor. Any suitor showing intense interest in McCollum is also more likely to prefer assembling packages around picks, prospects and financial flexibility—none of which does anything to maximize Lillard's immediate window.

    This puts Portland in the awkward position of having to, in all likelihood, attach other assets to McCollum if they're going to upgrade the roster. That holds true even if they're going after Ben Simmons at the nadir of his trade value. Jumping through that many hoops is an automatic deterrent. The pool of sensible options is finite and might not even exist.

    And yet, at this point, the Blazers need to change it up. This is the offseason to more thoroughly consider and actively seek out McCollum trade scenarios. They've given his partnership with Lillard enough chances to break through, and while the backcourt isn't responsible for the team's postseason shortcomings, busting it up remains the most realistic way of meaningfully reworking the core.

    Verdict: Trade

Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Ben Simmons' value has reached rock bottom after an Eastern Conference Semifinals vanishing act of epic proportions. He averaged under seven points and five field-goal attempts while shooting 35.0 percent at the charity stripe over the Philadelphia 76ers' final three games against the Atlanta Hawks, seemingly confirming what many suspected all along: the Simmons-Joel Embiid duo isn't worth further exploration.

    Insisting the Sixers deal Simmons remains an oversimplification of their situation. They obliterated opponents during the regular season when their two stars shared the floor and were actually a plus-19.2 points per 100 possessions in their postseason court time. That doesn't negate Simmons' struggles when it matters most; they remain a chief concern. But Philly is not incapable of hovering around the title-contender clique while standing relatively pat.

    And make no mistake: Philly should be prepared to stand relatively pat.

    Trading Simmons just for the sake of making a change—or solely because he wilted in the conference semifinals—verges on franchise malpractice. The package needs to be right.

    For all his functional faults and foibles, Simmons remains the Association's most versatile defender and preternatural passer when he gets going downhill. The four years and $146.6 million he's owed may seem steep now, but soon-to-be 25-year-olds of his caliber under contract for nearly a half-decade seldom become available.

    Rather than accept below-market offers when Simmons' value is at its low-water mark—like, say, a package of Malcolm Brogdon and a first-round pick—the Sixers must be prepared to go into next season after making additions on the margins and revisit his field of admirers around the trade deadline.

    Verdict: Keep until the trade deadline

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball ReferenceStathead 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 NBA Math's Adam Fromal.

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