0 of 4
Sam Forencich/Getty Images
Every season-ending injury, trade and instance of an NBA player’s destiny being determined by luck or ownership should remind you that player empowerment is a good thing.
When the biggest names in the NBA seek autonomy by angling for a trade, don’t knock them. They’re just trying to parlay their superstar clout into some measure of control over their careers. An NBA career is finite and change or end abruptly, often without a player having any say in the matter.
Why not do everything possible to find the best situation?
The hope should be that all superstars with the power to force change are never afraid to exercise it. In fact, a handful should consider assuming control of their careers by demanding a trade this season.
All of these suggestions come with the caveat that if things look good early in the year, the status quo is fine. But by discussing these players, we’re acknowledging the possibility that a change could be for the best.
Players with power should use it to better their odds of professional success and personal satisfaction. Don’t be surprised if several of these guys flex on their respective teams’ owners at some point this season.
1 of 4
Layne Murdoch Jr./Getty Images
The New Orleans Pelicans are on the cusp of a season that figures to be fun, even if it won’t come close to ending in a title. The Pels played faster than anyone last year, and they’re built for speed yet again. Playing center full time, Anthony Davis is in a position to push for MVP.
Unfortunately, this Pelicans team—which is uncertain to make the playoffs and boasts a ceiling no higher than a first-round upset—is the best New Orleans has ever done for Davis.
A player this great deserves better than sharing a training staff with the New Orleans Saints for several years. A player this great shouldn’t have had his first handful of formative seasons disrupted by shortsighted win-now trades. A player this great warrants more than the sixth-smallest average home crowd in the league.
You could argue that letting DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo leave in free agency signaled that the Pelicans are getting smarter about building the right kind of team around Davis. The same goes for the low-risk signing of Julius Randle and last year’s trade for Nikola Mirotic. But New Orleans has a long track record of squandering Davis’ talents, and players in his position have agitated for trades over less egregious mismanagement.
AD can become a free agent after the 2019-20 season, but the Pels effectively lose leverage by the day. The closer Davis gets to free agency, the lower his expected return becomes.
If you’re the Pelicans, you probably hang onto a player of Davis’ caliber until it becomes crystal clear that he isn’t re-signing. We have yet to reach that point. But from Davis’ perspective, with superteams forming throughout the league and the Boston Celtics forever lingering as a destination, it may be time to start asking the tough questions.
Will another star sign in New Orleans? Do we have young talent in the pipeline? Can I win at the highest level here?
If Davis answers honestly, the best he can do with that trio of questions is two “nos” and a “probably not.”
By comparison, Boston looks awfully good.
2 of 4
Michael Gonzales/Getty Images
Damian Lillard privately met with Portland Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen in January “to gather an understanding of the organization’s direction,” according to Chris Haynes of ESPN.com. Lillard reportedly asked for a second meeting in May, per John Canzano of the Oregonian, although he denied that rumor.
But considering Lillard is making preseason comments like this, we know he’s at least given thought to his future with the organization:
“For me, I have never asked for a trade or been in a position where I was like, ‘I’m going to tell them to trade me’ because I’m all about the challenge. But there’s also the other side: My family is happy here, I’m happy with my situation here. So if a situation was ever to come up, or if I felt disrespected, or I wasn’t valued or they felt like it was time for me to move on, then that would be the time. But I don’t feel that way.”
There’s a lot to be said for the consistency of “pretty good,” and the Blazers have been reliably competitive with Lillard and the current core. Portland has made the playoffs in five straight seasons.
Suppose 2018-19 doesn’t start out so well, though. We would normally just wait for the Blazers to go on a monthlong run, probably sometime around January, as has been typical. But last spring’s playoff sweep changed things. It proved Portland is systemically vulnerable in a postseason series, even against sub-contender-level opposition, which could trigger a sense of hopelessness this season.
From Lillard’s perspective, what’s the point of scrapping for a win total in the mid-40s if you know it won’t matter once the playoffs roll around? The Blazers are fundamentally unchanged from last year, so why expect a better result, especially seeing as they won two more regular-season games than their differential suggested they should have in 2017-18?
If Lillard is happy in Portland, he should stay put. If he wants something more than also-ran status as he heads deeper into his late 20s, he should consider agitating for a move.
He’s been loyal and professional enough to have earned that right.
3 of 4
Ned Dishman/Getty Images
Accompany me, won’t you, to the not-so-distant future of the Washington Wizards.
It’s now sometime in the summer of 2019, and a combustible roster long defined by friction between two backcourt stars is in danger of exploding after an underwhelming season. Whose idea was it to introduce the human accelerant that is Dwight Howard to the mixture, anyway?
In this hypothetical, John Wall might be the one asking to be moved. But his four-year, $169.3 million supermax contract is already too onerous for anyone to accept.
That could leave Beal as the man with enough value and leverage to engineer a trade.
Back to the present: Beal is 25 and has missed a total of five games over the last two seasons. Wall is 28 and has missed 45 contests in the same span. With a game dependent on speed and athleticism, Wall doesn’t profile as a player who’ll age well. If Washington wants to turn over its roster and clear some tension, Beal is the far easier player to move.
Whether Beal will have interest in a new destination may depend on how the season starts in Washington. If the ball is moving, Wall looks healthy and Howard doesn’t gum up too many possessions with post-touch demands, the Wizards could get themselves on track to finish in the East’s top four. But if the franchise trend line is heading the other way, Beal could facilitate a roster shakeup that might benefit both parties.
He’d get the chance to prove that his dynamic offensive game, which is highlighted by a useful-in-any-rotation jumper, translates to stardom without Wall around. Washington could add flexibility and a young player or two. Even in the worst-case scenario, it swaps Beal for someone comparable who hasn’t butted heads with the dude scheduled to make nearly $190 million between now and 2023.
The addition of Howard feels like when a failing sitcom sloppily shoehorns a baby into the picture. It’s a classic last-gasp effort to mask staleness and stay relevant before the audience loses interest. Beal, whose game is valuable anywhere, might be wise to start looking for other opportunities.
4 of 4
Stacy Revere/Getty Images
The “Mike Budenholzer Saves Milwaukee” narrative that fell into place this offseason might turn out to be real. Budenholzer’s impact—better ball movement, more spacing, more threes, a sensible defensive scheme—is already apparent in preseason play.
Suppose preseason is as meaningless as we all like to say it is, though. Suppose none of the improvements we’ve seen translate. Suppose the Bucks aren’t any better than they were under Jason Kidd and Joe Prunti.
If that’s how 2018-19 starts to play out, and the disappointment increases as it becomes clear the supporting cast around Giannis Antetokounmpo isn’t good enough to scare the likes of Philly, Boston and Toronto, everything changes. If that narrative replaces the current (highly positive) one about Coach Bud and his ability to elevate the Bucks, Antetokounmpo should consider seeking a trade.
His talent is otherworldly, which only makes it that much more of a shame if it goes to waste. At 23, Antetokounmpo isn’t in his prime yet, but it’s never too early for him to start thinking about his legacy. It’s almost as if Antetokounmpo owes it to himself to see what he can achieve in optimal circumstances. There’s no guarantee he’ll find those elsewhere, but to justify a trade request, he only needs to be sure that those circumstances aren’t coming to pass in Milwaukee.
Many are already convinced a breakup is imminent, despite Antetokounmpo’s contract running through the 2020-21 season. Consider this from HoopsHype’s Alex Kennedy: “There’s no way in hell that Giannis Antetokounmpo is staying in Milwaukee for his second deal,” a former general manager said. “I would bet everything I own that Giannis leaves Milwaukee.”
Two agents likewise predicted Antetokounmpo would leave the Bucks, according to Kennedy.
Nothing would be better than Milwaukee constructing a dynasty around its homegrown superstar. But the second it becomes clear that possibility is remote, Antetokounmpo should start to explore his other options.