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Jae C. Hong/Associated Press
The NBA is a league of haves and have-nots, and that’s never more apparent than during the playoffs.
This isn’t quite a steadfast rule, but teams with stars are usually postseason participants. Those without typically miss the cut.
With so many starless squads stuck in the lottery, we figured we’d show them the kind of generosity the basketball gods have not. Wherever possible, we’ve identified potential trade foundations to help them add that elusive star—a term we’ll use liberally in some cases to more accurately depict the range of buying power.
Since we’ve yet to enter the roster-reshuffling portion of the offseason, we still have incomplete rosters around the Association. Rather than trying to account for all the nuts and bolts of these transactions, we’re taking a broader view by identifying each club’s top target and the primary trade chips needed to land him.
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Jeff Chiu/Associated Press
Primary Trade Chips: Taurean Prince, 2020 first-round pick (lottery protected)
With former Golden State Warriors executive Travis Schlenk at the helm, the Atlanta Hawks have designed their rebuild around a Warriors of the East model. Ambitious as that may sound, they’ve already assembled their set of splash siblings with Trae Young and Kevin Huerter, who buried a combined 292 triples during their first NBA go-round.
But unless Atlanta knows something about Omari Spellman the rest of us don’t, this team still needs its version of Draymond Green. Why not make a run at the real thing, who the Dubs may deem the odd man out to preserve the rest of their championship core?
The Hawks have the cap space and the desire to chase a star free agent, but they probably don’t yet have the pull with the Association’s top players to sign one. That flexibility could be key toward brokering a blockbuster, and Green’s 2020 free agency would give Atlanta an easy out if the partnership proves ill-advised.
There’s a best-case scenario in which Green fits like a glove as both the defensive anchor John Collins needs alongside him and the deft distributor who increases the potency of the Young-Huerter backcourt. Since Golden State has determined it can’t fit Green into the budget in this scenario, it should be glad to take back a future first-round flier and a three-and-D rotation player.
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Bob Leverone/Associated Press
Primary Trade Chips: Malik Monk, Nicolas Batum, 2019 first-round pick (top-five protected)
Kemba Walker is getting impatient. Making just two playoff trips in eight NBA seasons—half of which were played at or near All-Star levels—can have that effect. But his desire to win is nearly matched by his desire to remain a member of the Charlotte Hornets, provided they can show him any path to competitiveness.
“I want to build something here,” Walker told NBA.com’s Shaun Powell. “I want to try and make us one of the top teams one day. I love this place. I want to help take this organization to places it has never been.”
Walker isn’t asking for the world, which is critical because Charlotte’s asset collection isn’t rich enough to pay a major price. But maybe a current lottery pick and a recent one (Monk, the No. 11 selection in 2017) is enough to sway a Detroit Pistons team potentially open to shaking things up after a lopsided sweep in the opening round.
Though losing two assets would sting, shedding Batum’s remaining deal in the process would help convince the Hornets.
Andre Drummond isn’t quite a superstar, but he might feel like one for Charlotte. His size and athleticism could make him a prolific pick-and-roll partner with Walker, and his interior presence would help a team that finished in the bottom half of rebounds (43.8 per game, 23rd) and blocks (4.9, tied for 18th) in 2018-19.
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Gary Dineen/Getty Images
Primary Trade Chips: 2019 first-round pick (top-three protected), Kris Dunn, Denzel Valentine
The Chicago Bulls and Jrue Holiday quietly share one critical trait: They’re both a lot better than you think.
Never mind that the Bulls lost 60 games. They outscored opponents when cornerstones Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Otto Porter Jr. shared the floor, and that was without fellow building block Wendell Carter Jr. And don’t blame Holiday for not being named an All-Star since 2013. He was one of four players to average 21 points and seven assists this year, and he finished fifth among point guards in real plus-minus, per ESPN.
The Bulls need a point guard to tie everything together. Holiday needs a new team to lead with Anthony Davis soon bailing on the Big Easy. They’d make a ton of sense for each other, and Sporting News’ Sean Deveney reported the Bulls would be interested should Holiday hit the trade market.
Holiday and LaVine could share ball-handling duties, while the former could also take on the toughest backcourt assignments on defense. Holiday’s comfort playing off the ball would allow LaVine and Markkanen to continue honing their shot-creating skills, and he’d help Chicago’s effort to increase its toughness.
This probably only works if the New Orleans Pelicans are bigger fans of Dunn than most, but maybe they’re believers in the dominant two-way stretches he’s displayed. Valentine has always been interesting when he’s able to play, and a pick in or near the top five comes packed with promise in any draft class.
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David Liam Kyle/Getty Images
Primary Trade Chip: JR Smith’s cap-friendly contract, Jordan Clarkson
JR Smith’s contract is quietly among this summer’s best assets. Only $3.9 million of his $15.6 million 2019-20 salary is guaranteed, but it has a unique function because it was signed under the last collective bargaining agreement. Its outgoing value for salary-matching purposes is the full $15.6 million, but the club is only responsible for the guaranteed amount, which makes it a tremendous tool for dumping a ton of money.
It’s possible the Boston Celtics will have cost-cutting atop their summer to-do list. If Kyrie Irving wants to stay, they might need the funds to add more established talent around him. If Uncle Drew departs, they could launch into a rebuild around Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
Either way, that could make Gordon Hayward—owed $32.7 million next season with a $34.2 million player option for 2020-21—expendable and the Cleveland Cavaliers more than interested.
“The Cavs would gladly take the polarizing Hayward, who was an All-Star in Utah before his horrific leg injury,” Cleveland.com’s Chris Fedor reported. “He would be the main prize. … Hayward is healthy now and will have a full off-season to try to regain his old form, possibly giving the Cavs another piece to accelerate their timeline.”
Cleveland hasn’t been coy about its desire to compete at a high level without LeBron James. If the Cavs think both Hayward and Kevin Love can get back to their All-Star ways, they’d have the motivation needed to cash this valuable trade chip for a win-now attempt.
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Bart Young/Getty Images
Save for cap space, the Dallas Mavericks drained their asset pools already. They lost three combined first-round picks in their trades for Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, and there’s no way to cobble even a hypothetical blockbuster package around Jalen Brunson, Justin Jackson and some future second-rounders.
But that’s fine with the Mavs. They think they’ve already formed their post-Dirk Nowitzki foundation.
“We obviously think Porizingis is a great young talent, similar in many ways to Dirk,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said on ESPN 103.3 (via ESPN’s Tim MacMahon). “This is kind of a Dirk-and-[Steve] Nash type of situation, only these guys are taller.”
Doncic joined Oscar Robertson as the only rookies to average 20.0 points, 6.0 rebounds and 6.0 assists. Kristaps Porzingis is the lone player to average 20.0 points, 2.0 blocks and 1.5 threes. They might both be generational talents, and it’ll be a long time before Dallas finds itself back in the lottery if they are.
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Chris Elise/Getty Images
Primary Trade Chips: Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball, 2019 first-round pick
The Los Angeles Lakers’ infatuation with Anthony Davis is the worst-kept secret in basketball. They offered every non-LeBron asset in their collection during the February pursuit and couldn’t get any traction on trade talks.
Maybe that means New Orleans just isn’t interested in dealing with L.A. Perhaps it showed the Pelicans were only interested in an offseason exchange when all 29 potential bidders are free to shoot their shots.
The Lakers will be ready when the bidding reopens. Deveney reported Kuzma and Ingram would anchor the package, while Ball could be shipped to a third team to net New Orleans additional draft capital. Given the plethora of picks the Boston Celtics can offer, it’s safe to assume L.A. must also include its own first-rounder—and might need to win big at the draft lottery to really entice New Orleans.
It’s costly, it’s a ton of moving parts for a club already struggling to create chemistry on the fly and it’s not at all guaranteed to work. But it’s also worth it. James and Davis are second and third, respectively, in career player efficiency rating. This might instantly give the Lakers the league’s top tandem and fast-track their path to title contention.
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Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Primary Trade Chip: Mike Conley
This is the biggest stretch of the superstar label, but only if we’re approaching that term from a two-way point of view. If you focus solely on the defensive end, Myles Turner comfortably fits the description.
The 23-year-old blocked a league-best 199 shots this season—four more than the entire Cavaliers team. He had top-10 marks in defensive real plus-minus (3.58, eighth) and defensive win shares (4.4, seventh). Opponents shot 3.0 percentage points worse against him than they did on average and 8.1 worse on shots within six feet.
Turner is a defensive star and, as of this past season, a 38.8 percent three-point shooter. Pairing him with 19-year-old Jaren Jackson Jr. would give the Grizzlies a couple of under-25 unicorns to form their next foundation. And it’s possible Turner would bring something else to Beale Street in this exchange—maybe draft considerations or a prospect.
Why would Indiana sign off on the swap?
It might not see a long-term future for the Turner-Domantas Sabonis frontcourt and could decide to keep the one still playing on his rookie contract. Also, the Pacers could feel some urgency to give Victor Oladipo more help while the soon-to-be 27-year-old is still in his prime. Conley, who grew up in Indy, would offer more scoring, shot-creating and defensive tenacity.
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Cassy Athena/Getty Images
Primary Trade Chips: Josh Richardson, Kelly Olynyk, Derrick Jones Jr.
Losing any playoff series is deflating. But dropping four consecutive games by a total of 95 points is a reason to go soul-searching.
The Pistons’ three highest-paid players are 30-year-old Blake Griffin, 29-year-old Reggie Jackson and 25-year-old Andre Drummond. Hope for internal development is either fleeting or nonexistent. That could incentivize Detroit to consider everything, including dealing Griffin, which Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press wrote in February would “likely be explored” at a later date.
If Miami Heat president Pat Riley sniffs a hint of desperation from the Motor City, he’ll pounce to land one of his coveted white whales. Naturally, he’ll also try to do so at a discount. As good as Griffin looked this season—he’ll find himself on more than a few MVP ballots—he’s still wildly expensive and has a frightening injury history. His latest knee problem limited him to two games and 58 minutes during the first-round sweep.
Is that enough for the Pistons to move their All-Star?
It might be if they see their early exit as evidence this nucleus is fatally flawed. While the Heat can’t load up the Pistons with assets, they can help clean their financial books while providing a three-and-D standout (Richardson), a stretch big who might complement Drummond (Olynyk) and a 22-year-old ball of endless athleticism (Jones).
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Nick Wass/Associated Press
Primary Trade Chips: Jeff Teague, Dario Saric, Keita Bates-Diop, 2019 first-round pick
The Minnesota Timberwolves are on the clock. Karl-Anthony Towns’ five-year supermax kicks in next season, and the Wolves shouldn’t waste any time trying to construct a contender around their centerpiece.
He’s an almost impossible cover as a 7-footer with three-point range, an abundance of low-post maneuvers and scoring touch in between. But despite his nightly contributions of 24.4 points, 3.4 assists, 3.4 offensive rebounds and 1.8 triples, Minnesota finished just 13th in offensive efficiency. That screams to this club’s lack of shot-creators around him.
Not that this is news to the Timberwolves.
Before they sent Jimmy Butler to the Philadelphia 76ers in November, they tried swapping the disgruntled swingman for Jrue Holiday or Bradley Beal. The latter should be the preferred target, as he’s younger with a higher ceiling and higher floor. Beal is a legitimate three-level scorer, improving table-setter and dogged defender.
Maybe that puts him out of Minnesota’s price range. Or perhaps he helps the Wolves’ chances by requesting a trade and removing some of the Washington Wizards’ leverage. If Minnesota snags a top-four pick, having that, a do-it-all swingman in Saric and an intriguing 23-year-old two-way prospect in Bates-Diop might be enough to get Towns the help he needs.
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Sean Rayford/Associated Press
Primary Trade Chip: Anthony Davis
Trading Anthony Davis will be a significant on-court loss. There’s no getting around it. But the box office could suffer even more. Well-connected analysts are wondering aloud whether this market could even survive Davis’ departure.
It makes sense. Davis is transcendent. He’s not only a top-five talent; he’s also The Brow—a recognizable face to even the most casual fans. The players typically mentioned as potential returns—Jayson Tatum, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma—are, comparatively speaking, almost anonymous.
If the Pelicans are forced to deal Davis, they need some juice. They need sizzle. They need, well, Zion.
“If anyone can reverse the fortunes of the city’s struggling NBA franchise, it’s Zion Williamson,” Jeff Duncan wrote for NOLA.com. “… The Pelicans need to do everything possible to try to land him. Forget Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown or Brandon Ingram. They’re up-and-coming NBA stars. But Zion is a super nova.”
Williamson is a highlight reel waiting to happen. He’s a 6’7″, 285-pounder who can jump out of the gym, handle the rock and saturate the stat sheet. He’s an NBA sensation without even logging an NBA second. He’s also probably the only return piece who wouldn’t leave this fanbase feeling helplessly deflated.
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Howard Simmons/Associated Press
Primary Trade Chips: Dennis Smith Jr., Kevin Knox, 2019 first-round pick
The New York Knicks are getting an early taste of that unbridled bliss known as offseason optimism. People beyond the blue-and-orange faithful are discussing a summer strategy that would potentially bring Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and more to the Empire State.
The “and more” portion of this package doesn’t get more exciting than Davis—a top-10 scorer (10th), rebounder (fifth) and shot-blocker (first) since he entered the league in 2012-13. Moreover, he’s reportedly a fan of the Knicks, too. They made his reported list of preferred destinations, per Marc Stein of the New York Times, and even drew some public praise from the six-time All-Star.
“It’s a great franchise,” Davis said, per Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News. “Playing in obviously the Garden, the city.”
If those words don’t have the Knicks’ front-office executives pestering the Pelicans with hourly phone calls, they’re doing it wrong.
New York probably needs help to get a deal done, though. League sources told Marc Berman of the New York Post the Knicks may need to land the first or second pick of the 2019 NBA draft in order to sway the Pelicans. But have that selection to sell with the explosive Smith and malleable Knox, and New York could win the sweepstakes.
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Rick Scuteri/Associated Press
Primary Trade Chips: Tyler Johnson, Josh Jackson, 2020 first-round pick (via Milwaukee Bucks)
The 2018-19 Phoenix Suns rolled out one of the worst position groups we’ve seen this side of The Process. At different times, the point guard rotation featured Isaiah Canaan, Tyler Johnson, De’Anthony Melton and Elie Okobo. Sometimes, the Suns went without a lead guard and had their primary scorer, Devin Booker, handle playmaking duties, too.
That was far from the only issue to arise during their 63-loss season, but it could’ve been the most crushing. Without a proper floor general in place, no one could align what’s quietly become a compelling collection of young talent. Add an established, high-level point to the equation, and this roster might take off.
Mike Conley could be Phoenix’s accelerator, provided the Grizzlies are bullish on Jackson. Conley can be a tone-setter, a leader and a two-way contributor if he, in turn, is bullish on the Suns’ future.
After a couple of dismal seasons in Memphis, the 1-guard is eager to play meaningful basketball deep into the summer.
“I want to win a championship, number one,” Conley said, per Mark Giannotto of the Memphis Commercial Appeal. “If it’s not that, I want to be able to compete at that level.”
Those words might frighten Phoenix, but a bought-in Conley could be a culture-changer who takes a bunch of talented individuals and brings them together as a formidable team.
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David Sherman/Getty Images
Primary Trade Chips: Buddy Hield, Harry Giles, Nemanja Bjelica, 2019 second-round pick (via Minnesota Timberwolves), 2020 first-round pick (after the draft)
Let’s. Get. Weird.
The Timberwolves have zero incentive to even consider trading Towns, who’s already one of the greatest players in their franchise history (third in career win shares, first in win shares per 48 minutes). But maybe Towns has a reason to rock the boat with a landscape-altering trade request. He desperately needs a second star, and Minnesota has no obvious means of acquiring one.
If he gets antsy, the Sacramento Kings should get opportunistic.
They might be blown away by Hield’s third-year leap, enamored with Giles’ potential and eager to continue collecting prospects, but they should recognize none of those players will become what Towns already is. He’s an All-NBA performer who could transform them from pesky up-and-comers to full-fledged postseason problems.
This would cost Sacramento some depth, but it would also form a potent starting group. Slotting Towns alongside De’Aaron Fox, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Harrison Barnes and Marvin Bagley III would give the Kings multiple scorers and playmakers, loads of length and athleticism and enough versatility to shift roles on the fly. The Towns-Fox-Bagley trio, in particular, would have NBA’s-next-Big-Three potential.
It’s hard to imagine Minnesota moving Towns under any circumstances, and it’s tough to tell what exactly it would want in return. But if the Wolves view Hield and Giles as building blocks, they’re also getting salary relief—Bjelica’s 2020-21 salary is non-guaranteed and Sacramento has the flexibility to take on bad money—and draft assets to fuel a rebuild that might prove necessary if they can’t upgrade Towns’ supporting cast.
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Nick Wass/Associated Press
Primary Trade Chips: Troy Brown Jr., Ian Mahinmi
Sorry, Washington Wizards. Even in our hypothetical realm, you can only afford to dream so big.
If the Wizards aren’t dealing Beal, they’re almost operating without any assets. That limits the type of star power they can acquire, even with our generous application of the term. But they could potentially have enough to land Kevin Love, who one executive told Bleacher Report’s Ken Berger will not fetch “an asset … under any circumstances.”
Wait, doesn’t that make the inclusion of Brown an overpay, then? Not necessarily. He works best as a playmaker and struggles as a shooter. In other words, he’s the opposite of what John Wall needs alongside him.
Love, though, would bring a welcome injection of spacing and scoring to Washington’s frontcourt. For his career—much of which wasn’t spent as a primary option—he’s averaged 20.6 points per 36 minutes and shot 37 percent from distance. His outlet passes could also perk up Washington’s transition attacks once Wall is healthy.
The Cavs are effectively waving the white flag here, but they should’ve prepared to do so as soon as LeBron James left. While the return may initially feel underwhelming, this nets Cleveland both an interesting 19-year-old and gobs of salary savings.
Not bad for someone who can’t bring back an asset, right?
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.