NBA Superstars on Trade Watch This OffseasonMay 12, 2022
NBA Superstars on Trade Watch This Offseason
The clock perpetually ticks toward the NBA's next superstar trade.
No one knows exactly when, where or why it will happen, but a premature playoff exit here or a fractured relationship there, and suddenly the gears are in motion.
While it's impossible to predict which top-tier talent will seek the next scenery change, the right amount of tea-leaf reading can yield reasonably drawn conclusions.
Based on what we know (or at least perceive) about the five following players and their current situations, each looms as a potential trade candidate for the 2022 offseason.
Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards
Suggestions that one (or both) of Bradley Beal and the Washington Wizards should consider a summer breakup aren't at all novel. He mulled the idea of forcing his way out ahead of the trade deadline, per The Athletic's David Aldridge and Josh Robbins, and the fact that Beal never pulled the plug perhaps indicates a strong desire to stay in the District.
However, the same reasons that have made Beal a logical trade candidate for the past year-plus still apply. He has yet to sniff championship contention over his 10-year career—Washington peaked at 49 wins in 2016-17—and the Wizards have given zero indications that leveling up now is imminent or even likely.
While Beal can enter unrestricted free agency by declining his $36.4 million player option, a trade remains his best bet for a ticket out of town. There is nearly a league-wide shortage of cap space, and most of the teams with money to spend have little incentive to do so, at least as it pertains to a player like Beal, who will be 29 this summer and well into his 30s by the time his next contract expires.
That player option grants him leverage on the trade market, though.
Clubs would presumably want some assurances about his future before sacrificing real assets to get him, meaning he can effectively handpick a new destination this summer even if it doesn't happen in free agency. If he wants to hit the ground running with a win-now team, that option is available. The Philadelphia 76ers "did their due diligence" on a Beal deal this season, and the Miami Heat are "seen as a legitimate suitor" this summer, per The Athletic's Shams Charania.
Should Beal become available—or make himself available—interest could be substantial. The league has only seen seven scoring averages of 30-plus points over the past three seasons, and Beal is responsible for two of them.
Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Perhaps you have heard one time or a million that Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell don't have the rosiest relationship. Considering it's been a topic of conversation even when the Utah Jazz were grooving atop the Western Conference, it's hard to say what would need to happen to silence it for good.
"The noise is always going to be there," Gobert said, per ESPN's Tim MacMahon.
If anything was capable of quieting the talks, this season in Salt Lake City certainly wasn't it. Utah's winning percentage dipped below .600 for the first time in four seasons, and the Jazz suffered their third first-round exit over this stretch. Given the age of this roster and the amount of money tied up in it, hopes of finding an internal fix are either fleeting or extinguished.
The Jazz arguably seem more ripe for major summer change than anyone, which could put Gobert on the chopping block.
He is older and more expensive than Mitchell, and Gobert's limitations feel less likely to be corrected. Perhaps the right coach and supporting cast could coax improved defensive effort and shot selection out of Mitchell. Gobert, who turns 30 in June, probably isn't expanding his offensive range at this point, and it's only slightly less likely to imagine he'll sharpen his scoring arsenal to the point of punishing opponents who try to go small.
Gobert's shortcomings, combined with his escalating salary, could make him tricky to unload, but there should be a market of teams seeking elite paint protection and close-range finishing.
Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
The Portland Trail Blazers stomached a second-half tank job, but they want to get that nasty taste out of their mouths as soon as possible.
"I still feel uncomfortable about it," Blazers general manager Joe Cronin told reporters at his exit interview. "... This theoretically is a really quick step backward. We're not looking at two, three, four years of this. So, that makes it easier."
Portland, of course, has a different, more pressing motivation to right the ship: the basketball clock attached to 31-year-old Damian Lillard. He was getting antsy already last summer, and he had far more win-now support then than he does now.
The Blazers, of course, might counter that they have the means to pursue talent this summer, but that doesn't guarantee the arrival of actual upgrades.
Not to mention, they may not have as many avenues to improvement as you think. While they could free up cap space, they can only maximize it by letting Anfernee Simons and Jusuf Nurkic walk and waiving Josh Hart. Portland has its own lottery pick but lost its chance at a second when the New Orleans Pelicans earned a playoff spot in the play-in tournament.
Maybe there's enough to chase a Jerami Grant or John Collins, but would that really push Portland over the top? Color me skeptical.
If the draft goes by without a Blazers blockbuster and free agency opens without an impact signing—who's the last marquee free agent to pick Portland?—Lillard may see his only path to contention on the trade market.
Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
With Utah's future appearing entirely up in the air, a megadeal involving Donovan Mitchell can't be ruled out.
Again, Mitchell seems a less likely trade candidate than Gobert, and it's possible Utah simply opts to bring back both for at least another season, per B/R's Jake Fischer:
"The 2023 NBA All-Star Game will be in Salt Lake City, a detail that multiple league sources connected to the Jazz have painted as a critical element of the franchise's future plans. It's of great importance to Jazz governor Ryan Smith that Utah has multiple players in that midseason classic, sources said, similar to how the Cavaliers were represented by both Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen during the 2022 affair in Cleveland. It's also clear that Smith is willing to financially support a contender, and Utah leadership has no designs of entering any sort of rebuild."
All of that said, Mitchell's status as a trade candidate has always hinged on his thoughts—not those of his employer. If he isn't convinced the Jazz are at his best fit, then he can put everything in motion to force his way out.
While there are no indications that's happening behind closed doors, you wonder if the franchise's inability to carry over its regular-season success into the playoffs could force Mitchell to consider it. If the Jazz aren't good enough to win a title now, how would marginal moves—Fischer reported league sources expect Utah to shop Bojan Bogdanovic, Royce O'Neale or even Mike Conley—make up the difference?
It's on the front office to sell that vision to Mitchell, but it's ultimately his call whether to buy in or not. As a 25-year-old with career averages of 23.9 points, 4.5 assists and 4.2 rebounds, he could ignite the trade market by expressing a desire to play elsewhere.
Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans
Zion Williamson is eligible for a contract extension this summer. If the New Orleans Pelicans put a max offer on the table, he says he's more than ready to put his name on the dotted line.
"Of course, I couldn't sign it fast enough," he told WDSU's Fletcher Mackel.
There's only one catch: The Pelicans, who have seen Williamson suit up just 85 times (none this season) since arriving as the top pick in 2019, may not yet be convinced he's worth that kind of coin.
"Obviously, that conversation is going to be one that will be a challenge," executive vice president David Griffin said, per Christian Clark of nola.com.
There have long been whispers that Williamson—or at least his family members—aren't keen on a long-term future with the franchise. If he thinks he is worth the max, and the Pelicans disagree, could that further fracture this relationship?
It feels possible. In February, SI's Howard Beck dished on how team executives were "already bracing (and/or plotting) for the next disenchanted star to ask out." Beck added that speculation was focused on Lillard, Mitchell and—you guessed it—Williamson.
Trading away a 21-year-old top pick who has flashed the high-level upside Williamson has shown might sound reckless, but are the Pelicans confident he can overcome his many medical maladies? Do they know he wants to be there for the long haul? Are they worried that failing to reach an extension agreement now could nudge him toward the doomsday scenario of accepting the qualifying offer down the road?
There are too many unanswered questions here to not mention Williamson, particularly given the frenzy he'd create by demanding a trade.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.