NBA Trade Packages to Create the Next Big 3
With just five teams posting point differentials that effectively rule them out of play-in contention, parity is defining the 2021-22 NBA season.
So few clubs occupying the extreme ends of the record and point-differential spectrum means there's ample opportunity for someone from the NBA's bloated middle class to barge into contention. To get there, they'll need a talent upgrade in the form of a Big Three.
Hopefully, the trades we've cooked up to create new star trios will be ones you haven't seen before. Also hopefully, they'll be just logical enough to consider—if only for fun.
One housekeeping item before we reshuffle the league by sending All-Stars and All-NBA talents to new destinations: Assume all of these deals will take place after Dec. 15, when players who signed new contracts over the offseason are eligible to move.
Let's triple up.
The Celtics Shake It Up and Add Pascal Siakam
Boston Celtics Receive: Pascal Siakam and Goran Dragic
Toronto Raptors Receive: Marcus Smart*, Al Horford and Romeo Langford
It feels wrong to boot Marcus Smart from the Boston Celtics. The fiery defensive dynamo has been a key factor in four conference finals appearances and, despite persistent overconfidence in his shot, has done far more good than harm during his eight seasons with the team.
That said, Smart is no star. Same goes for Al Horford, whose minutes this year have coincided with a minus-7.3 net rating.
They depart in exchange for Pascal Siakam, giving the Celtics a fearsome, fully switchable, kinda-sorta centerless look that could help unlock new dimensions on both ends. Siakam has won a ring and made an All-NBA team in 2019-20. He's played a career-high 41 percent of his minutes as a small-ball 5 and is far more mobile than Horford. His assist percentage is quietly right on track to match that of the Boston big man this season.
Siakam is also shooting it better from the field and from deep, and he's eight years younger than Horford, putting him more in line with the Jayson Tatum-Jaylen Brown age band. Robert Williams III can still start alongside Tatum, Brown and Siakam, but it's easy to imagine the Celtics downsizing to close games.
Smart is a friction creator—on the floor and off. That tendency toward confrontation is part of what makes him a special defender, but perhaps some of the tension in Boston would ease in his absence.
Dragic, who's played five games all year and is currently away from the Raptors for personal reasons, would provide playmaking to offset Smart's exit. The Raps probably hoped to get more for him in trade, but this at least beats a buyout. Horford, meanwhile, would give Toronto the reliable center it's lacked since losing the Marc Gasol-Serge Ibaka tandem in 2020 free agency.
Sorry, Romeo Langford. You're salary filler.
*Smart can't go anywhere until six months after he signed his extension, which means this deal can't happen until Jan. 25.
Dallas Addresses Its Biggest Weakness
Dallas Mavericks Receive: Gordon Hayward
Charlotte Hornets Receive: Tim Hardaway Jr., Dorian Finney-Smith
The Mavs are giving up two starters for one here, sacrificing Hardaway's instant offense and Finney-Smith's clampdown defense for a slightly overpaid 31-year-old with a history of missing time because of injury.
What could go wrong?
The appeal for Dallas is all about Hayward's ability as a secondary playmaker. Hardaway is a play-finisher, a shoot-first operator who's posted double-digit scoring averages for the better part of a decade. He also vacillates between poor and passable on D, lacks the size to provide much versatility and averages 1.9 assists per game for his career.
Hayward has averaged as many as 5.2 dimes in a season and has hovered around the top 10 percent in assist rate at his position every year since he was a rookie. Those numbers understate his value as a facilitator, as Hayward is no assist hunter. He sprays the ball around the floor within the flow of the offense, creating opportunities by drawing defenders on drives or simply keeping the rock moving. He's handed out at least five assists to eight different teammates so far this year and has vision Hardaway Jr. can only dream of.
The Mavericks have to find someone other than Jalen Brunson who can make a play in support of Luka Doncic. Hayward can fill that role. His ability to explode for 40-plus points, defend either forward spot and connect offensive actions with his basketball IQ are secondary bonuses.
Finney-Smith is involved partly for salary matching, but mostly because we have to create a shred of plausibility from Charlotte's side. Hardaway is a downgrade from Hayward and duplicative of Terry Rozier, another incendiary backcourt scorer. His best attribute from Charlotte's perspective is an annual salary that's $8.6 million lower than Hayward's.
DFS, though, is an ace defender who'd offer the Hornets a four-position smotherer with great length. LaMelo Ball, Miles Bridges and Rozier are good enough to keep the points coming, but Finney-Smith could significantly upgrade the defense.
Are Doncic, Hayward and Kristaps Porzingis a championship-caliber Big Three? Maybe not, but adding Hayward's passing and well-rounded game could push the Mavs closer to contention than they've been with Hardaway and Finney-Smith.
The Wolves Gamble on Kyrie Irving
Minnesota Timberwolves Receive: Kyrie Irving
Brooklyn Nets Receive: D'Angelo Russell
Let me stop you before you say anything.
I know this trade is as galaxy-brained as Kyrie Irving's YouTube search history. It sends D'Angelo Russell back to the Nets less than three years after he left as part of the sign-and-trade that landed them Kevin Durant, reuniting him with a team that needs another ball-dominant scorer like it needs an extra hole in the head.
But don't you think Brooklyn might prefer a point guard who, you know, is actually going to play? When you frame Irving-for-Russell as a nothing-for-something exchange, it at least brushes up against plausibility on the Nets' side.
Forget Brooklyn for a second. This is about giving the Timberwolves a Big Three, and Irving, assuming he'd report and suit up in Minnesota, would be a colossal upgrade over Russell.
Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards and Irving would make up perhaps the most offensively talented trio in the NBA. And lest anyone worry about Irving taking touches away from his star teammates, the difference between his career usage rate of 29.4 percent and Russell's 28.6 is negligible—particularly when you consider the efficiency increase.
Irving owns a 57.6 true shooting percentage across 10 seasons, highlighted by a personal-best 61.4 percent last year. Russell is at 52.8 percent with a career high of only 55.6 percent.
The Wolves would have to be concerned about Irving's player option for the 2022-23 season, which creates the possibility that they'd only be renting him for a few months. But Russell's contract expires after next year, and he's simply not a cornerstone on the level of KAT and Edwards. In a worst-case scenario, Minnesota swings this deal, loses Irving and opens up a $30 million salary slot a year earlier than if it had waited for Russell to come off the books.
That's not such a bad outcome. And if the potential payoff is that Irving lifts an already intriguing Wolves team to fringe contention for one season, well...shouldn't a squad with one playoff trip since 2004 be interested in that?
Memphis Gets Defensive with Ben Simmons
Memphis Grizzlies Receive: Ben Simmons and a 2025 second-round pick from Memphis Grizzlies (via ATL)
Philadelphia 76ers Receive: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dillon Brooks
Oklahoma City Thunder Receive: Tyrese Maxey, Steven Adams, Ziaire Williams, a 2022 first-round pick, a 2024 first-round pick and a 2026 first-round pick
We'll start with the team least likely to get involved in this hypothetical, the Oklahoma City Thunder. Having just maxed out Gilgeous-Alexander, why would they turn around and trade him before that hefty extension even kicks in?
Well, maybe because the Grizzlies are chucking three unprotected first-round selections at the pick-obsessed Thunder, and maybe because OKC has reason to believe that rookie Josh Giddey is a future top-notch point guard, making SGA just a little less valuable than he once seemed. If I'm the Thunder, I'm asking for more to part with Gilgeous-Alexander, who in his age-22 season last year was one of just 10 players to average at least 23.0 points on at least 62 percent true shooting.
Three unprotected firsts is a haul, though, and Tyrese Maxey, two years younger than SGA, has looked capable of giving OKC something like 85 percent of Gilgeous-Alexander's production at a fraction of the cost. His numbers, at least this year, aren't so far off from SGA's. And Maxey is performing for a team that's actually trying to win games.
Ultimately, Gilgeous-Alexander has to be involved to meet the Sixers' "difference-maker" requirement.
Though Philly's Joel Embiid-SGA-Tobias Harris trio is nothing to sneeze at, Memphis is the team constructing a next-gen Big Three in this deal. Simmons would provide defensive punch for a Grizzlies D that has ranked near the bottom of the league all season—and still does, despite holding the Thunder to 79 points during Thursday's historic thrashing.
Ja Morant would run the show, pairing with Jaren Jackson Jr. (who'll space the floor better than any center with whom Simmons has ever played), while Simmons guards across the positional spectrum, sneaks in a few minutes as a small-ball 5 and enjoys the relative anonymity of a mostly overlooked NBA market. A fresh start in Memphis, with this particular set of teammates, feels like the perfect rejuvenator for one of the league's most versatile players and best defenders.
Jerami Grant Joins Trae Young and John Collins in Atlanta
Atlanta Hawks Receive: Jerami Grant
Detroit Pistons Receive: Cam Reddish, Onyeka Okongwu and Delon Wright
Few teams can spare a promising 22-year-old wing as easily as the Atlanta Hawks, who make Cam Reddish the centerpiece of a deal that brings Jerami Grant into the fold.
Health has been an issue for De'Andre Hunter during his brief career, but he and Kevin Huerter still give the Hawks plenty of depth and youth with Reddish gone. And that's to say nothing of Grant's contributions, which, over the last two years, have been worthy of All-Star consideration.
While Grant, 27, may not strike some as having enough talent to form a Big Three with Trae Young and John Collins, his career arc pushes back against that thought. We're talking about a player who starred in a limited role for some very good Denver Nuggets teams before stunning doubters by thriving as a high-usage first option with the Pistons. Grant figures out where his team's holes are and fills them in, often by adding new skills.
The Hawks are getting themselves a proven 20-point scorer who can make plays, defend multiple positions and knock down spot-up threes. During the course of his career evolution, Grant has been a low-usage three-and-D wing, a small-ball center and an on-ball first option. Whatever Atlanta needs, he'll provide.
Grant and Collins might seem to overlap a bit, but using those two as a 4-5 combo would strain opposing defenses to their breaking points. Both forwards play with grit on D, making up for their lack of true-center size, and their guard skills on the ball make them terrifying matchups for conventional bigs. Good luck wrangling Young with two serious threats at power forward and center stretching the floor and emptying the lane.
Detroit gets a pair of first-round talents, with Okongwu representing one of the league's most undervalued assets. The No. 6 pick in 2020 is still just 20 years old and has been prevented by injury from showing what he can do as a mobile 5. The rebuilding Pistons are getting two players with star upside on rookie deals, plus Wright in a second stint with the team as salary filler. That's a fair return for Grant, who's too old to feature in any long-term plans and who is probably too capable of helping the Pistons win games.