Bradley Beal’s contract extension was a serious bummer for every team that saw him as the missing third star who could push them ahead of every other dynamic duo. Twenty-six-year-old combo guards who are skilled enough to singlehandedly prop up a blah roster’s offense hardly ever come available for a reason.
But Beal’s decision won’t stop those same teams from treating the 2019-20 season as the arms race it’s supposed to be. With the Golden State Warriors depleted and LeBron James about to turn 35, almost a third of the league will puff its chest out and exchange a relatively secure future for a short-term sugar rush. Even those that aren’t close to the top still want to make the playoffs, while bad teams (and those in small markets) want draft picks. Trades will be made.
Here’s a look at six stars who can tip the scales for a contender/pseudo-contender — depending on which team acquires them, these are either ideal third wheels or helpful second fiddles. Actual moves depend on whether their incumbent team plays above or below expectations, but don’t be surprised if any (or all) are dealt this season.
The Cleveland Cavaliers stand in a deep hole on the first step of a long ladder. Love is their best, highest-paid (by ~$10 million), and oldest player. He’s past his prime, injury-prone, and makes less financial sense where he is — Cleveland’s payroll rivals the Los Angeles Clippers’ — than on a playoff team.
But gauging Love’s value isn’t easy. Some rival front office executives polled for this story are weary about his body, and whether he can stay healthy enough to justify the financial commitment that would be made by trading for him. When he’s right, though, Love is a net positive in almost any environment. Stretch fours who rebound, pass, and are skilled enough to let you run an entire offense through them at multiple spots on the floor are worth the money he makes. Love has gravity. He’s nimble and does wily things few at his position can:
During Cleveland’s four straight title runs he was the Hester Prynne of their defense, condemned for his struggle guarding Golden State’s impossible system in space. In spite of a championship in 2016, the whole experience bruised his reputation. Going forward, that’s a little unfair. Versatility still matters, but Love’s weaknesses on that end never popped until the Finals against a beast that no longer exists; Cleveland’s defense was pretty good in almost every other series for four straight years with him on the floor.
He was younger and moved a little better then, but Houston, Utah, LAC, Portland, and maybe even New Orleans should all have interest. (Also, is it that hard to picture Robert Sarver getting seized by a restless conniption and then instructing James Jones to do whatever it takes to trade for his former teammate?)
But a reasonable asking price is where things get murky. The Jazz sent three positive assets — a protected first-round pick, Grayson Allen, and Jae Crowder’s expiring contract — to the Grizzlies for Mike Conley, who can opt out of his contract this summer. If the Cavs can extract something similar for Love, they should, even if his off-court influence on such a young team is important.
He’s under contract until 2023, when he’ll be 34, but the money isn’t that high when you factor in a rising cap (no guarantee given the NBA’s ongoing feud with China, but still) and the way his deal is structured (it decreases by $2.3 million in the final year). Even if his All-Star appearances are in the rearview mirror, Love is still a difference maker in the right situation. The NBA playoffs will be more interesting if he takes part.
The Detroit Pistons are not where you want to be. Their floor is just high enough to compete for a playoff spot, and their ceiling is low enough to keep them from actually winning a series. They acquired Griffin — who’s hurt, again — 18 months ago and the deal already feels sort of stale. By trading him they would solve one problem while diving head first into another: It’s easy to blow up a roster, but building it back up in a market that won’t attract free-agent stars is very much not.
The good news is Andre Drummond can opt into free agency this summer, Reggie Jackson’s contract is about to expire, and the path to a clean cap sheet is uncomplicated. At the same time, cap space in Detroit means very little. Their plan should be to cut costs and build through the draft/collect retainable rookie-scale contracts, and Griffin is the only trade chip on their roster who can help them do it
Blake is still very good. He made third-team All-NBA last year and 22.5 percent of all his shots were pull-up threes that went in 36 percent of the time. That is crazy impressive and useful as he journeys to the other side of 30. The next question is how many teams would even be interested, let alone have enough assets to make this worth Detroit’s while?
Boston needs frontcourt help and can balance its roster by moving Gordon Hayward, Semi Ojeleye, and a couple first-round picks. Portland can dangle Anfernee Simons or Zach Collins with Kent Bazemore and Rodney Hood. Miami seems like a sensible destination. I wonder if Orlando would be willing to move Aaron Gordon, Markelle Fultz, and Mo Bamba for him. (That trade would hinge on whether they think Jonathon Isaac, Blake, and Nikola Vucevic can share the floor — there’s enough shooting, sure, but defensively they may be compromised in the playoffs.)
For Detroit to actually make any of these trades something disastrous would have to happen. Blake’s overall value to them can’t be fully illustrated on his basketball-reference page. He’s marketable. A real star! And any deal wouldn’t bring another one back, which may be what an owner who just opened a new stadium in downtown Detroit wants. If they drafted Donovan Mitchell instead of Luke Kennard, or Justise Winslow over Stanley Johnson, or any warm body over Henry Ellenson, things would be different. But this is what happens when you stumble in the draft as long as Detroit has. Free Blake.
I’m not sure if this is true after what happened last June, but Kyle Lowry still feels like the least appreciated star of my lifetime. At 33, he’s a five-time All-Star, NBA champion, and plus/minus God. History will shine a brighter light on his career than it received at any point while he played, and right now, as his franchise’s all-time franchise player, Lowry is well-positioned to prop up Toronto’s future as a delicious trade chip.
Of everyone mentioned in this entire article, none can upend the season’s entire landscape if moved to the right team like Lowry can. That team is not Minnesota or Miami (maybe it’d make the Heat an Eastern Conference Finalist and apologies ahead of time for casting doubt upon Lowry once again), but what if Denver offers Gary Harris, Will Barton, and Michael Porter Jr.? Or what if the Raptors sent him to Milwaukee in a deal centered around Eric Bledsoe and a lightly-protected first in 2024. (That probably isn’t enough for Toronto, but forwarding Lowry to a place where he can compete for another championship would make that front office look genial in a precarious situation. How teams treat their players has never mattered more than it does right now.)
Elsewhere, if the Sixers trade Tobias Harris for him they probably win the title. But my favorite destination is Dallas, where Lowry would be the absolute best point guard for Luka Doncic over the next two years. Unfortunately, Jalen Brunson isn’t going to get a deal done.
The Raptors just signed Pascal Siakam to a four-year max contract because Lowry’s one-year extension ate the cap space that once justified waiting until next year to get a deal done. If you can avoid frustrating Siakam, you don’t; signing him now is a signal that the Raptors have their eye on the long game. If they blow the doors off every other team they play in the first few months of the season, there will be an obvious incentive to hold the core together as long as they can. But this team isn’t winning it all, and the longer they wait to break it up, the less they’ll get in return.
A lot of what was just written about Lowry applies here, except Paul is one year older and due $60.7 million more over the next three seasons. Minor details. Even though he just spent the past two years proving how useful he can be off the ball, Paul can’t blend into any ecosystem quite like Lowry can. He’s not as jumpy, fluid, or self-sacrificial. All that makes moving him this season pretty hard, and also I don’t think the Thunder should. (It’d be cool if OKC and the Lakers could find a third team to facilitate something — James really needs another playmaker — but don’t count on it.)
Aldridge is known as a metronomic post presence who dines in that inefficient valley between the arc and paint, but he’s still unguardable when he wants to be. Only three players dropped more than the 56 points he gave Oklahoma City last season: James Harden, Devin Booker, and Kemba Walker. Last season was probably the best of his career, and there aren’t five players who make more stylistic sense as a third wheel beside two All-Stars. Actually getting him there is easier said than done, though. Plop him beside James Harden and Russell Westbrook or Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, sure. But what are those two teams offering that San Antonio actually wants?
A trade back to Portland makes sense and would be a nice story, but to me, the most interesting and realistic destination is Brooklyn. Nets general manager Sean Marks has close ties to San Antonio and their window won’t be open forever. Caris LeVert is a bit too steep of an asking price, but if a package built around Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris is presented, both teams should go for it.
There are caveats, though. San Antonio wants to make the playoffs, values continuity, and doesn’t make a ton of blockbuster trades. They aren’t going to move him just because they’re bad. The right offer must come along. Also, Aldridge led the league in two-point field goals last year, a stat that may be more trivial than telling. Some people think his game isn’t a good fit in a league that’s decided on the perimeter, but those people are wrong. Aldridge might be the NBA’s most underrated defender, and he’s still powerful enough to bend opponents when he goes to work in the mid post. Go ahead, let him destroy his man in single coverage while you hope the math eventually works in your favor. He demands help. On a team that has two other stars, he’s perfect.
BONUS: Khris Middleton
I don’t think Middleton will get traded. (REPEAT: I don’t think Middleton will get traded.) Preseason title contenders don’t usually trade their second-best player, but no team is feeling more pressure to reach the Finals. Like, imagine how Milwaukee would react if they started slow and then got crushed by the Sixers in the regular season? Or Giannis Antetokounmpo publicly voiced frustration with literally anything. On the court, the Bucks are in a position of strength, but their net rating can’t reflect how fragile this situation truly is.
Shipping Middleton out of town a few months right after they signed him to a five-year contract would be politically treacherous for Milwaukee’s front office. And finding anything that actually makes sense is almost impossible. The Bucks don’t do it unless they know they’re receiving a player who’s better than Middleton and complements Antetokounmpo. No star for star swaps make sense, contractually. It’d have to be something wildly disruptive, like Chris Paul and Danilo Gallinari for Middleton, Bledsoe, and another contract. Madness. That’s just about never happening, but anything is possible in today’s NBA.