Who's Actually Untouchable on Every NBA Team This Summer?

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 23, 2022

Who's Actually Untouchable on Every NBA Team This Summer?

0 of 30

    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Nobody's accusing NBA general managers of bad-faith negotiating, but it's not the worst tactic to act like every asset a rival executive shows interest in is too valuable to even consider trading.

    In reality, most organizations only have one truly untouchable player. And that's if they're lucky.

    Here, we'll lay out which players would prompt the quickest hangup on a trade call. Not every team actually has someone of that caliber, so we'll get as close as we can with the more threadbare rosters.

    Performance, age, contract status and value to the team's identity are all factors. In cases where the untouchable player is so obvious that it makes you wonder why we're spilling any digital ink on him, remember: Two of the past four MVPs, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, have been traded multiple times since winning those awards.

    This is the NBA. You're only untouchable until you're not.

Atlanta Hawks: Trae Young

1 of 30

    Nick Cammett/Associated Press

    Trae Young averaged 28.4 points and 9.7 assists per game in his age-23 season while producing a positive offensive rating swing of 9.9 points per 100 possessions for the Atlanta Hawks.

    He became the first player in a half-century to lead the NBA in total points and assists.

    Though Young's deep pull-up shooting shows up most in highlight reels, his work in the lane deserves just as much praise. An elite foul-drawer who has removed "just be physical with the little guy" from opposing defenses' options, Young has also perfected a floater that is basically indistinguishable from a pinpoint lob pass. Defenses can try to play one and surrender the other, but they rarely guess right, and Young is an expert improviser.

    If we accept the idea that high-volume, efficient shot creation is the most valuable skill in today's NBA, there aren't many players you'd rather have headlining your roster. 

Boston Celtics: Jayson Tatum

2 of 30

    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    Every player we cover here is going to be good—really, really good in most cases. What distinguishes Jayson Tatum from many of them is his ability to consistently get better.

    The three-time All-Star has upped his true shooting percentage and usage rate for four years running. Not every aspect of his game has improved year over year, with the occasional dip in three-point shooting or slippage in conversion rate near the rim cropping up. But Tatum's overall impact in both volume and efficiency continues to trend steadily upward.

    With ideal combo-forward size and a willingness to compete defensively, Tatum is one of the rare top offensive options who can't be easily attacked on the other end. That makes him matchup-proof in a playoff scenario.

    Speaking of which, coming into this season, Tatum had already logged 50 postseason contests. That's the kind of early-career high-stakes experience that can forge greatness.

Brooklyn Nets: Kevin Durant

3 of 30

    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid belonged in their own exclusive section of the 2021-22 MVP discussion. Those three had better regular seasons than anyone else and deserved to be the only serious candidates.

    But if you were drafting one player to win you a do-or-die game, Kevin Durant might still come off the board ahead of those three.

    That fact is partly an acknowledgement that there's a difference between MVP and "best player", but it's also a nod to Durant's singular skill. His length and shot-making prowess are unmatched. There is no defender who can do more than try his best and hope KD settles for a difficult attempt. Stopping him is out of the question.

    Durant is the only player to average at least 27.0 points for his career with a true shooting percentage north of 61.0 percent. There are lots of ways to encapsulate his offensive brilliance, but that might be the simplest. Nobody has ever scored so efficiently on such high volume.

    Still at the peak of his powers at age 33 and likely to age extremely well because of his shooting ability and size, Durant is the kind of player who'll never be traded—unless he asks to be.

Charlotte Hornets: LaMelo Ball

4 of 30

    Rusty Jones/Associated Press

    LaMelo Ball is a departure from the previous three entries because so much of his value is still based on his potential. We know what Young, Tatum and Durant can be because, well...they've already reached or come close to their final forms. (Heaven help us if Tatum or Young has another level of development ahead...)

    Ball, though, is still feeling his way through life as an NBA player. Things have gone well so far, as last year's Rookie of the Year honor and this season's All-Star nod indicate, but we may someday look back on those accolades as quaint. Barring some unforeseeable stagnation in his development, the Charlotte Hornets point guard is in line for bigger things.

    Ball joined Luka Doncic and LeBron James in an exclusive class of 20-year-olds to average at least 20.0 points, 7.0 assists and 6.0 rebounds in a season, and he's well ahead of those two in his progress as a shooter. After hitting 35.2 percent of his 261 long-range attempts as a rookie (which was more than anyone anticipated from a supposedly suspect shooter), Ball drilled 38.9 percent of the 565 deep shots he took this past season.

    That's to say nothing of his creativity, flair and innate court sense. As good as Ball looks now, the real reason Charlotte would never move him is because of how much better he'll be in a few years.

Chicago Bulls: DeMar DeRozan

5 of 30

    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    It took until our fifth team, but we have landed on a situation that doesn't feature a truly untouchable player.

    Zach LaVine would have been the most logical pick, but he's set to be unrestricted free agent because the Chicago Bulls couldn't reach an agreement with him on a preseason extension. It doesn't take much speculative work to conclude that the Bulls didn't offer LaVine a max-level deal. Players don't tend to turn those down.

    When a team technically has no control over where a player is going to sign, it's hard to call him untouchable.

    Patrick Williams, picked fourth in 2020, ticks the "potential" box, and Chicago resisted including him in a possible trade package for Jerami Grant. But Grant's never even been an All-Star, so that may just mean Williams is untouchable in deals that don't return top-line talent.

    In the end, DeMar DeRozan is the pick. It's an admittedly weird one considering DeRozan will play his age-33 season next year and originally signed with the Bulls on a deal that looked like an overpay. Poor defense, low-volume three-point shooting and the likelihood of age-related decline all scream DeRozan doesn't belong in this category. But he endeared himself to Chicago with a career season that included memorable game-winners and a brief dalliance with MVP consideration.

    The Bulls are very much a present-focused operation, so DeRozan's short-term contributions make him closer to untouchable than anyone on the roster.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Evan Mobley

6 of 30

    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    The Cleveland Cavaliers have two players who made the All-Star game before turning 24 in Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen, and neither was even a consideration for this spot.

    (OK, Garland got a passing thought.)

    Evan Mobley and his generational defensive talent shoved both of Cleveland's other young stars into the background, which is how it should work when a rookie draws praise from vets on other teams and so consistently invokes comparisons to the likes of Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett.

    Mobley averaged 15.0 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game in his debut season, flashing game-changing mobility on the perimeter and uncommon defensive instincts for a rookie. He graded out as an elite rim-protector—Jaren Jackson Jr. and Rudy Gobert were the only bigs to allow a lower field-goal percentage inside six feet among players who defended more than 400 shots at that range.

    More than that, he may have been the main reason Cleveland got away with playing three 7-footers in its starting unit. It's not really a three-towers lineup when one of the bigs moves around the floor like a bouncy, 6'5" shooting guard.

Dallas Mavericks: Luka Doncic

7 of 30

    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    If this were a league-wide ranking exercise, Luka Doncic would come in no lower than second in untouchability score. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the only name that would keep the Dallas Mavericks from hanging up on a trade inquiry within the first five seconds.

    Doncic is basically a walking record-breaker. He's already piled up three seasons of at least 27.0 points, 8.0 rebounds and 8.0 assists on his own, which is pretty impressive considering there have only been 10 other such campaigns in league history.

    Though he hasn't enjoyed much playoff success yet, Doncic's dominance at such a young age (he's still only 23) gives him plenty of time to correct that. And considering his postseason averages of 33.5 points, 9.5 assists and 8.8 rebounds, it's tough to assign him blame for Dallas' failure to advance past the past two first rounds.

    It'll be a surprise if Doncic doesn't end up with multiple MVP awards, and the Mavericks will do everything in their power to ensure he joins franchise icon Dirk Nowitzki in the one-career, one-team club.

Denver Nuggets: Nikola Jokic

8 of 30

    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Nikola Jokic may win his second successive MVP award later this spring. If he does, he'll deserve it.

    He just produced a brilliant season of eye-popping individual stats while leading the Denver Nuggets to 48 wins—all without Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. That's something we should keep in mind as the playoffs once again shift the focus to Jokic's defensive limitations.

    Denver has arguably the best regular-season player in the league, someone who can generate offensive production for himself and others from the center spot. That Jokic might not be able to have the same dominant impact against certain playoff opponents (chiefly ones that downsize and can force him to defend in space) is the definition of a first-world NBA problem.

    Don't expect the Nuggets to shop Jokic's 27.1 points, 13.9 rebounds and 7.9 assists just because he has a hard time wrangling the Golden State Warriors' guards and scoring on Draymond Green in the post. If that were grounds for being thrown into trade talks, the whole league would be on the block.

Detroit Pistons: Cade Cunningham

9 of 30

    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    An ankle injury cast some doubt onto Cade Cunningham's untouchability early on, as he struggled for roughly the first six weeks of his NBA career. But the top pick of the 2021 draft ultimately wound up looking like the Detroit Pistons' franchise cornerstone.

    Concern-trollers could point to Cunningham's 31.4 percent three-point accuracy rate and lack of explosive athleticism. But the 6'6" guard's shooting stroke looks just fine, and his 84.5 percent free-throw shooting is a good indicator that better days beyond the arc are ahead.

    As for that lack of top-line speed and bounce? Ask Luka Doncic how important those are.

    Cunningham can already get to his spots using strength and change-of-pace guile. The former quality is unteachable, and the latter is so nuanced that many players go their whole careers without mastering it. At worst, it feels like Cunningham will settle in as a Khris Middleton type with vastly superior playmaking skills.

    You don't trade a 20-year-old with a floor that high.

Golden State Warriors: Stephen Curry

10 of 30

    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    The Golden State Warriors could move Stephen Curry. But unless the front office and ownership have quietly been in contact with witness protection, formulated a dead-of-night exit strategy and set up new identities in, say, rural Kansas, they probably shouldn't.

    One could imagine some fan backlash if the most beloved basketball player in Bay Area history were to be traded.

    Because the notion of Curry being dealt is so far from reality, it might be a better use of our time to consider what the organization would rather do than lose the guy who singlehandedly resuscitated one of the league's sorriest franchises.

    The Warriors would sooner play home games on a floating garbage barge beneath the Golden Gate bridge. Or agree to begin every contest behind by 15 points. Or let Klay Thompson's dog, Rocco, start at small forward.

    Come up with the most absurd alternative imaginable, and Golden State would choose it in a heartbeat over losing Curry.

Houston Rockets: Jalen Green

11 of 30

    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    The Houston Rockets are still in the earliest phase of their rebuild, a process that can't even fully get going until John Wall and his $47.4 million 2022-23 salary (which he's expected to lock in via a player option) are gone.

    It's a good thing they already have at least one piece of their future core in Jalen Green.

    Though his noncommittal approach to defense is an issue, we should all ease up on labeling Green a "good stats, bad team" guy so early in his career. In his age-19 season, Green averaged 17.3 points, 3.4 rebounds and 2.6 assists, notably hitting his stride down the stretch. After the All-Star break, Green shot 47.6 percent from the field and 38.7 percent from deep, cranking his scoring average up to 22.1 points per game.

    Those aren't empty numbers.

    Green's straight-line speed and athleticism bring to mind a young Zach LaVine, and it's notable that the current Chicago Bulls All-Star only put up 10.1 points on similar efficiency in his own age-19 campaign.

    Green isn't perfect, but teenaged rookies never are.

Indiana Pacers: Tyrese Haliburton

12 of 30

    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Tyrese Haliburton is now clearly the Indiana Pacers player least likely to be traded, but the Sacramento Kings didn't see things the same way.

    I guess that goes to show untouchability is relative.

    Haliburton took a star turn upon his arrival in Indy, putting up 17.5 points and 9.6 assists per game on 62.9 percent true shooting. We're only dealing with a 26-game sample, but if he'd sustained those numbers over the full season, the 22-year-old guard would have been the only player in the league to do so.

    Myles Turner is Indy's most established core piece, but he spent much of last season in trade rumors. The Pacers ultimately decided to move Domantas Sabonis, but Turner might have been the one to go if not for the foot injury that shelved him in mid-January.

    Turner is an important piece, but Haliburton feels like a lock to lead the Pacers for years to come.

Los Angeles Clippers: Kawhi Leonard

13 of 30

    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Reasonable minds could disagree on whether this spot should go to Paul George or Kawhi Leonard, especially with the latter's more serious injury history and unlikelihood of ever again playing both ends of a back-to-back.

    It shouldn't be overlooked that Leonard was the one with the clout to hold up free agency in 2019 while several franchises waited on his decision, and the one who ultimately convinced the L.A. Clippers to trade four first-round picks for Paul George. Kawhi had that juice because he was fresh off a Finals MVP run, and even in the wake of his torn ACL, he's still on the very short list of guys who could credibly be called the best player in the world (when healthy).

    Leonard missed his entire age-30 season and has never played more than 75 games in a year. But a team with designs on winning a title can count on him to make maximum impact in the biggest games. Few have proved more in the biggest moments than he has.

    Assuming he's anything close to what he was prior to his knee injury, Leonard should still be the Clips' most untouchable player.

Los Angeles Lakers: LeBron James

14 of 30

    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    It's hard to be sure, but LeBron James might have more say over his team's transactions than any other player. He's earned that right by being the most dominant individual force of his generation, but we may only be seeing the tip of the iceberg when it comes to his power over personnel moves.

    Given his influence and resources, it actually seems more likely that James will one day own an NBA team and green-light trades than he is to be traded himself during his playing career.

    Everything would change if LeBron ever asked the Lakers to move him, but that's just another illustration of how much sway he holds. Los Angeles would never trade James without his go-ahead.

    We're dealing purely in hypotheticals here, but if James went to Lakers management and demanded Anthony Davis be shipped out of town, they'd have to at least consider it. Reverse that scenario to feature AD asking for James to be traded, and there's no way it'd happen.

    James laid out the blueprint for NBA player autonomy, showing an entire league how to exercise power and influence over an organization. He calls the shots and won't be going anywhere unless he decides it's time to move.

Memphis Grizzlies: Ja Morant

15 of 30

    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    Ja Morant is more to the Memphis Grizzlies than their best player. He's also the embodiment of the brash confidence that defines them.

    Every time the spindly 6'3" point guard catapults himself into thickets of much larger humans—generally with spectacular results—it symbolizes the Grizzlies' team-wide refusal to follow the rules. Just as Morant defies the laws of physics, Memphis does not comply with the norms that say young teams must pay their dues, or that second-year players shouldn't talk junk to LeBron James.

    Morant spent some time in the MVP conversation before missing several weeks with a knee injury, and he finished the year with averages of 27.4 points and 6.7 assists while developing as a three-point shooter and getting to the foul line more often than ever. He'd be off limits in trade talks on the strength of that age-22 performance alone. But the way he's galvanized an entire team with his reckless style takes him entirely off the table.

    Trading Morant would be like throwing Memphis' identity away. It's not happening.

Miami Heat: Bam Adebayo

16 of 30

    Jim Rassol/Associated Press

    The Miami Heat won't have interest in trading Bam Adebayo or Jimmy Butler in the near future, but their posture toward the 32-year-old forward will change sooner than it will for the 24-year-old center.

    Both Heat cornerstones are on max deals, but Butler's is pricier because of his years of experience. It's difficult to imagine he'll represent a good value when he's making $52.4 million during his age-36 season in 2025-26. Adebayo, who'll be 28 that year, is very likely to remain a good investment on his $37 million salary.

    There's also the small matter of Butler leaving some of his previous teams under less than amicable circumstances. The spat between him and Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra may never wind up mattering, but there's also an outside chance it was the first visible sign of simmering discontent.

    Even if Butler's play holds up as he advances deeper into his 30s, his history suggests some of his relationships may break down.

Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo

17 of 30

    David Banks/Associated Press

    Sorry, were you expecting Jordan Nwora?

    Giannis Antetokounmpo is on the Stephen Curry/Luka Doncic tier of true untouchability. In fact, he might even be on a level all his own above those two. At 27, Antetokounmpo is in his absolute prime, which means he's got more quality years ahead of him than Steph. And unlike Doncic, Giannis has already won the league's highest individual award (twice) and a title.

    Throw a Defensive Player of the Year award in there for good measure, too.

    Considering the Bucks have Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson and 65 games of Terrell Brandon (just seeing if you were still paying attention) on their list of all-time greats, it's a pretty big deal that Antetokounmpo may already be the most iconic figure in team history.

    What's more, Giannis stayed with the small-market Bucks in free agency—a rare show of commitment in today's era of cobbled-together superteams and accelerated player movement.

    Milwaukee would never betray that loyalty.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Anthony Edwards

18 of 30

    Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press

    Karl-Anthony Towns was better than Anthony Edwards at just about everything this season. He outscored and outrebounded his fellow No. 1 pick and did it with superior efficiency from the field, long range and the foul line. Towns, a center, even fell just short of logging more assists per game than Edwards, a guard (3.6 to 3.8 per game).

    And whatever Dirk Nowitzki's defenders have to say about it, KAT actually is, statistically, the best pure-shooting big man we've ever seen.

    Even in light of all that, this isn't a close call.

    Edwards just completed his age-20 season with a 56.0 true shooting percentage and a 26.4 percent usage rate. In the entirety of NBA history, only four other players have matched that volume-efficiency combo at the same age: Shaquille O'Neal, Luka Doncic, Zion Williamson and Kevin Durant.

    Maybe Edwards has some strides to take as a defender, and perhaps his shot selection needs to improve. But based on his statistical comps, he's on pace to become one of the best players of his generation. Nothing's guaranteed, but the Wolves should hold onto that upside with both hands.

New Orleans Pelicans: Zion Williamson

19 of 30

    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    CJ McCollum has been good for a long time, and Brandon Ingram continues to make incremental improvements that ensure his 2019-20 All-Star selection won't be his last. But Zion Williamson remains the New Orleans Pelicans' lottery ticket.

    Even with the Pels surging into the playoffs behind surprising depth and stellar coaching, Williamson is the player who still holds the most influence over the franchise's future. If he returns from this lost season, shakes off the concerning injuries that have held him back since coming into the league and reaches his potential, New Orleans can become a contender.

    Zion's absence makes it easy to forget the level of dominance he showed at such a young age. The guy averaged 27.0 points per game and shot 61.1 percent from the field last season. To use a technical term, that's bonkers.

    The risk of future injury is daunting, as is Williamson's yearslong struggle to maintain his conditioning. But he's a franchise-altering talent in his early 20s. Unless something goes very wrong, those types of players don't tend to get traded.

New York Knicks: RJ Barrett

20 of 30

    Jessie Alcheh/Associated Press

    The New York Knicks aren't long on options here, as most of their prominent (read: expensive) players turned in disappointing efforts this past season. There were times during a rough 2021-22 campaign that you got the feeling New York would give up Julius Randle, Evan Fournier or Kemba Walker for the cap relief alone.

    21-year-old forward RJ Barrett is the easy choice here, even if his developmental trajectory has been a "two steps forward, one step back" endeavor.

    Barrett slipped into the 20th percentile in points per shot among wings as his usage rate climbed, but he also improved as a facilitator. He shot the ball terribly at the rim (15th percentile at his position) but set a new career high in defensive rebound rate. Basically, he offset every troubling regression with improvement in another area.

    Maybe we should chalk that up to youth and appreciate the big picture. Barrett just averaged 20.0 points per game as a 21-year-old and is clearly working to get better. Progress isn't always linear.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

21 of 30

    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Josh Giddey may someday become a no-brainer max-extension player, but the Oklahoma City Thunder already deemed Shai Gilgeous-Alexander worthy of that status. Contracts aren't the only determinant of a player's worth, and it's also true that those relatively cheap rookie-scale deals can impart extra value to the cost-conscious.

    But we shouldn't overthink this.

    SGA is a star whose unique skills will make the Thunder offense a real threat—once he's surrounded by sufficient talent. Piercing the paint is a top priority in any team's attack; it can lead to high-efficiency close-range shots and draw the defense in, making kickouts for clean long-range looks possible. The league leader in drives per game two years running, Gilgeous-Alexander is arguably better than anyone at getting to the defense's most vulnerable area.

    The only potential point of concern is SGA's dip in three-point accuracy. He fell to 30.0 percent in 2021-22 after canning 41.8 percent the year before. It's not worth worrying about that anomaly. Gilgeous-Alexander has shot over 80.0 percent from the foul line in every year of his career, has a feathery touch on floaters and finishes at the rim better than most at his position.

    Throw in the aesthetics of his slithery handle and creative finishing, and you've got a marketable star who also happens to produce efficient offense in his sleep.

Orlando Magic: Franz Wagner

22 of 30

    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Youth is always a factor in how a team values its players, and the Orlando Magic have plenty of young options.

    Wendell Carter Jr. already has his second NBA contract, but it looks like a bargain. The 23-year-old center will make $50 million over the next four years (on a declining annual rate), which is below market for a starting center who just averaged a double-double, flashed three-point range and can defend the rim.

    Jalen Suggs was the fifth pick in 2021, Cole Anthony averaged 16.3 points as a 21-year-old and Jonathan Isaac may still challenge for a Defensive Player of the Year award if he could ever get healthy.

    We're still going with Franz Wagner who, at 20 this past season, scored more total points than any of his teammates.

    Wagner has elite size for a wing at 6'9", and his downhill driving game puts relentless pressure on the defense. A clever finisher who uses his strength and already knows the value of deceleration, Wagner didn't drive for the sole purpose of scoring during his rookie year. He ranked in the 81st percentile in assist rate among forwards.

    Regarded as a quality role player with a relatively low ceiling prior to the draft, Wagner turned out to be a reliable generator of offense for himself and his teammates. That skill set in a 20-year-old is worth a ton.

Philadelphia 76ers: Joel Embiid

23 of 30

    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    MVP candidates usually aren't on the table in trade talks.

    Whether Joel Embiid secures that award or not, the Philadelphia 76ers know he's their most valuable player by a considerable margin.

    Back in February, Philly gave up Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond and two future first-rounders for James Harden. Maybe that would have been a justifiable move under any circumstances (although Harden is clearly no longer the force he was a few seasons ago), but the urgency to capitalize on the healthiest season of Embiid's career surely played a role.

    Implicit in that transaction was the idea that Embiid, right now, is good enough to be the best player on a championship team. Whether he'll ever prove that by winning a ring is uncertain. But the Sixers took risks and made decisions based on the belief that he could reach such heights.

Phoenix Suns: Devin Booker

24 of 30

    Matt York/Associated Press

    The beauty of the Phoenix Suns is in their synergy—the way multiple players with complementary skills work together to form something special. 

    But also, Devin Booker is ridiculously good.

    Five straight seasons with a scoring average of at least 24.9 points per game attest to that, but Booker's credentials go beyond buckets. He's ranked in or above the 92nd percentile in assist rate every year since 2017-18 (while cutting his turnover rate in each of the last four seasons) and finally graded out as a positive defender this season, as measured by Defensive Box Plus/Minus.

    Long one of the league's top midrange shooters and an elite generator of his own offense (just 39.9 percent of his two-pointers came via assist this year), Booker is also an ideal playoff scorer. When things bog down and smart defenses force one-on-one attacks, Booker feasts.

    Basically weakness-free and still improving at age 25, Booker will be an All-NBA force for at least another half-decade.

Portland Trail Blazers: Damian Lillard

25 of 30

    Amanda Loman/Associated Press

    This is a trap, but it's unavoidable.

    We have to pick Damian Lillard as the Portland Trail Blazers' untouchable player. And we have to do it knowing he's spent the better part of the last year in trade rumors. So while it feels like a setup to choose someone who'd belong on any list of superstars most likely to be dealt, there's just no other realistic choice.

    Anfernee Simons ticks the "young talent" box, but he's a restricted free agent who could be hauled away by another team with a max offer sheet. The 22-year-old took a leap this past season, upping his scoring average to 17.3 points per game and hitting over 40.0 percent of his threes for the second successive year. The Blazers made some of their deadline moves to "create a runway" for Simons, but he still doesn't feel like a no-brainer max player yet.

    Lillard, in comparison, is a six-time All-Star who comes pretty close to Antetokounmpo in terms of the appreciation he's earned through loyalty to a small-market team.

    At the very least, we should agree that while Lillard might not be as off-limits as the other players on this list, he's the guy that would net Portland the biggest return package. That'll have to do.

Sacramento Kings: De'Aaron Fox

26 of 30

    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    The Sacramento Kings already telegraphed this one—more than once, actually.

    First, they handed De'Aaron Fox the full five-year max rookie extension in the 2020 offseason. They didn't even bother flirting with restricted free agency or trying to shave a few bucks off the deal. And then they traded away Tyrese Haliburton for Domantas Sabonis at the 2022 deadline.

    That move may as well have included a ceremonial handing of the offensive keys to Fox, and it should also be noted there were alternative scenarios that would have featured Fox heading out of town instead of Haliburton. The Kings opted to keep the lefty speedster instead of including him in a package for Ben Simmons.

    Fox's 2021-22 season was a disappointment overall, with his three-point shooting dipping to 29.7 percent  and his foul-drawing frequency also heading south. Defined by his athletic burst in prior years, the 24-year-old looked a half-step slower. That lack of explosion showed up in a career-low attempt rate at the rim; Fox didn't get to the cup as often as he had the prior four years.

    Still, we're talking about a young guard who's averaged at least 21.1 points per game for three straight seasons—one who still may only be a league-average three-point shot away from an All-Star nod. That's enough to designate Fox as the piece Sacramento is least likely to move.

San Antonio Spurs: Dejounte Murray

27 of 30

    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    The San Antonio Spurs know a thing or two about staying patient in player development. Tony Parker was in over his head as a 19-year-old rookie in 2001-02, but the organization stuck with him through a steep learning curve that yielded six All-Star trips, four titles and the 2007 Finals MVP.

    Dejounte Murray was five years old when Parker debuted, but the Spurs' current point guard is benefitting from the same level of trust and investment that served the old one.

    San Antonio hung with Murray through a torn ACL and a nonexistent jump shot, and the 25-year-old is now an All-Star with counting stats even Parker never touched. Murray's 2021-22 season included averages of 21.1 points, 9.2 assists, 8.3 rebounds and a league-leading 2.0 steals per game.

    Murray is simultaneously the team's longest-tenured player and the one with the most upside. That's a tough two-step to pull off. That the Spurs also have the still-developing star locked into a deal that will pay him just $16.6 million next year and $17.7 million in 2023-24 only adds to his value.

Toronto Raptors: Scottie Barnes

28 of 30

    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Pascal Siakam is a max-salaried, All-NBA team honoree. But he may never quite reach "top option on a contender" status.

    Fred VanVleet is criminally underrated, the Toronto Raptors' least replaceable win-now piece and owner of a four-year, $85 million deal signed less than 18 months ago. But like Siakam, at 28, he's more or less reached his ceiling.

    OG Anunoby keeps landing on preseason breakout lists, but the stellar two-way weapon has yet to put it all together.

    A small step forward from any of those three could make them untouchable. But Scottie Barnes is still the player Toronto would least prefer to trade.

    At 20, Barnes put up 15.3 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists while playing excellent multi-position defense and bringing relentless energy. No rookie in Raptors franchise history—let alone any of the current team members—has ever matched those averages. And this is the organization where Chris Bosh, Vince Carter, Damon Stoudamire and Tracy McGrady all started their careers. Barnes racked up more rookie-year win shares than any of those guys.

    That's not to say he'll have a better career than any Toronto player in history, but Barnes is off to an awfully strong start.

Utah Jazz: Donovan Mitchell

29 of 30

    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Dogged for years by rumors and reports of friction between Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell—the only options for this spot—the Utah Jazz may soon find themselves deciding which of the two officially has untouchable status.

    In the midst of another troubling playoff funk, the Jazz could be in for a major roster reshuffling if they can't course correct and eliminate the Dallas Mavericks in the first round. Even then, the way Utah has listlessly performed to this point might make advancing to the conference semifinals irrelevant. Management could still conclude this roster has reached its expiration date.

    If the Jazz have to choose, Mitchell will be the one to stay. He's four years younger and plays a more coveted role. That second part might sound strange considering Gobert's trio of Defensive Player of the Year awards, but we see every postseason how traditional big men lose their value, while on-ball shot creators like Mitchell only gain importance.

    The other issue is financial. Gobert is in line to make $47.7 million in 2025-26, his age-33 season. Mitchell will be 29 that same year, collecting $37 million. If Utah had to pick a deal to dump, it'd surely be the one committed to the old, costlier player.

Washington Wizards: Bradley Beal

30 of 30

    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    If you're willing to commit five years and $246 million to a player you've already paid $177.8 million, that's a pretty good sign you're satisfied with the relationship.

    The Washington Wizards haven't officially shoved that quarter-billion across the table to Bradley Beal, but all signs point to it happening this summer.

    So with apologies to emerging defensive star Deni Avdija and, um...Kyle Kuzma(?), the Wizards have already signaled whom they value most.

    And yes, we can relitigate this in a couple of years when the Wizards are dying to get off Beal's contract to start a rebuild.


    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through 2021-22 season. Salary info via Spotrac.