As the start of the NBA season approaches, it feels inevitable that the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors will meet for a third time in the Finals come June. With Kevin Durant joining the Warriors through free agency, there doesn’t seem to be a single team capable of beating either.
There is still hope for other teams, however. Below are 15 trades I believe to be the key to altering the outcome of the season, and who the Championship trophy will belong to come June. The players in these trades fill that missing component needed to take a team over that hump, to become serious contenders to dethrone King James and the Cavs.
15 DeMarcus Cousins to the Indiana Pacers for Myles Turner, Monta Ellis, Joe Young, and a pick
I’m worried about the Pacers. Not because they won’t be good this next season—they’ll probably be OK—but because Paul George’s watch is ticking. He’s had a major injury scare, proven himself as a two-way star, experienced playoff success, and is stuck on a transitioning roster. The Pacers are the Dallas Mavericks of the East, only without Dirk Nowitzki steadying the ship. They need someone like DeMarcus Cousins to bring them back to the contender conversation.
Cousins is a unique talent that dominates without changing the outcome of games. In Indiana, however, he would be playing alongside the two-way brilliance of George, Jeff Teague, Thad Young, and would have Larry Legend there to talk him off emotional cliffs. While it’s difficult to predict how Cousins would impact this team, George has proven to be a quality franchise cornerstone capable of leading during roster and culture upheaval.
Cousins could fetch all sorts of talent for Sacramento, but maybe nothing as interesting as Myles Turner. They could grab a young big man with star-level projections and a young scoring guard with potential, all for the price of admitting Boogie needs to go and a couple seasons of Monta Ellis.
14 Deandre Jordan to the Charlotte Hornets for Cody Zeller and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
Deandre Jordan is maybe the best in the entire league at rolling to the rim and looking for an alley-oop pass. In Charlotte he would have all the space in the world to find rim rolls thanks to playing alongside an array of shooters—including probable frontcourt partner, Marvin Williams—quality passing dotting each position, and multiple ballhandlers looking to attack during secondary actions and against scrambling defenses. Nicolas Batum has evolved into a swiss-army knife point-forward while Kemba Walker has worked his way to long-distance respectability. Marco Bellinelli’s shooting and off-the-bounce game is effective when he is next to quality teammates. Giving up a lockdown defender like Kidd-Gilchrist and an agile big man like Zeller hurts, but Charlotte would probably be leapfrogging everyone in the East but Cleveland with this type of acquisition. And even then, does Cleveland have the ability to contain a Jordan-Batum or Jordan-Walker pick-and-roll for a full series without LeBron, Love and Kyrie spending meaningful energy on both ends?
13 Paul George to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Enes Kanter, Andre Roberson, Domantas Sabonis, and a pick
Paul George would be a dynamite replacement for Durant on OKC. While he isn’t the superstar that Durant is, George would fit quite nicely next to Westbrook. On offense he can shoulder much of the Dueling Banjos role that Durant shared with Westbrook, though George is a bit less effective in isolation. Luckily for him, Steven Adams emerged during the playoffs as a pick-and-roll force, mastering the art of slicing into gaps for easy dunks and offensive boards. Without the ball, George is comfortable running off screens and firing threes with hardly any room. He is also an effective post-up option against smaller players, something that Durant proved to be essential if a team is going to go after Golden State. On defense, George actually would absorb Roberson’s wing stopper role while being tasked with some rim protection, which he is capable of. The Thunder are probably dark horse contenders at best with this trade, but they certainly are not that now.
Looking to the future with Myles Turner, the Pacers could reset without losing much ground in the East.
12 Marc Gasol to the Miami Heat for Hassan Whiteside and Josh Richardson
Assuming Chris Bosh is good to go for this upcoming season, the Miami Heat have pieces of a contender hidden in their roster. Losing Wade hurts, but Bosh has been the best player on the team post-LeBron. Hassan Whiteside is fine, but his numbers don’t really reflect issues caused by jumping to block every shot, complete lack of offensive game aside from rim runs, or his inability to pass. Marc Gasol is most effective finding cutters and open shooters while in the high post. Pairing him with Bosh, Josh McRoberts, Goran Dragic finally being anointed the primary ballhandler, and young athletes like Tyler Johnson or Justise Winslow would really be difficult to deal with. Aside from Atlanta, there aren’t many teams in the East built to deal with post-up brutes and mobile bigs in the same lineup. Marc could still be an All-NBA center if he had the right frontcourt partner.
The Grit-N-Grind era is closing. Whiteside might be considerably worse than Gasol, but he’s locked up with a new contract and comes with a young 3-and-D prospect in Richardson that the Grizzlies never seem to find.
11 Chris Bosh to the Toronto Raptors for DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell, and picks
If Chris Bosh is healthy then teams should throw the kitchen sink at Pat Riley. His skill set is so rare and perfect for today’s NBA, even at age 32, that every contender should see what it would take to grab the perennial all-star. Bosh is comfortable hanging around the perimeter for ball movement and jumpers, crashing the offensive glass, and putting the ball on the floor against slower bigs. He is also a long and agile defender, capable of adequately protecting the rim and harassing ballhandlers on the perimeter. If paired with the bullying post-ups and offensive rebounding of Jonas Valanciunas, the Raptors could punish teams trying to go big or small. DeRozan’s isolation-heavy drives wouldn’t be that different from Wade’s old man game—which got Miami to Game 7 of the second round this past season—but nabbing picks to refill the treasure chest would be the true assets. Without question, Bosh’s remaining prime years should be spent on a contending team.
10 Dwyane Wade to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Iman Shumpert, Channing Frye, Anderson Varejao trade exception, and picks
Iman Shumpert is a decent defender and played a relatively significant role in winning the title, but he doesn’t bring much of anything to the offensive end. The big move on the board would be to trade him for Dwyane Wade once he is available. Wade’s not a good outside shooter and hasn’t shown interest in defense for a couple years, but if he were to replace Shumpert then teams would lose the hiding place against Cleveland. Wade can go to the block on a smaller guard or wing, put poor big men in pick-and-rolls, and has regularly found his way to the free throw line against teams well-versed in his old man trickery. If he truly has nothing left on defense, he can hide while J.R. Smith and Kyrie Irving [in theory] have earned the right to chase dangerous wings and point guards around.
The Bulls won the Dwyane Wade sweepstakes in the offseason, but it’s an awful fit alongside Jimmy Butler and Rajon Rondo. This would be a bit of a Bulls reset while adding defense, shooting, and cap space.
9 Khris Middleton to the LA Clippers for Austin Rivers, Jamal Crawford, and future picks
Middleton is by far the best shooter and defender on Milwaukee, but he’s almost too normal of an athlete to totally make sense there. He isn’t a 6’11 Greek point guard or a baseline dunk machine recovering from an ACL tear, but he’s a solid player that perfectly fits the Clippers. At 6’8, he has adequate size for defending a Kawhi Leonard or Kevin Durant, but he also offers elite shooting and enough playmaking to make those same players work on defense. He and Redick’s gravity on the court could open up the menacing pick-and-roll game featuring the Clippers Big Three, while also unlocking different small-ball units centered around Griffin or Jordan.
In a way, Milwaukee has the hyper-athleticism of future wings and the do-it-all nature of the present incarnation, but nothing else. Trading Middleton would hurt, but in exchange they would be receiving perhaps the most success scoring sixth man of all time while also upgrading from the inexperience and complete non-shooting of Michael Carter-Williams to an inconsistent but very competitive combo guard in Austin Rivers. After his fill-in performance for Chris Paul last playoffs, it seems inevitable that Rivers will find the right team eventually.
8 Jimmy Butler to the Atlanta Hawks for Kent Bazemore and Dennis Schroder
The Hawks have two all-star big men, quality role players, but need a two-way wing that plays can create his own shot. A trio of Dwight Howard, Millsap, and Jimmy Butler’s combination of defensive prowess and offensive evolution would put pressure on LeBron in a way the Hawks nor Bulls have ever been able to do. While swapping Al Horford for Howard probably wasn’t the first choice for the Hawks, trading for Butler now would actually make the Hawks more prepared to face any team in the East because of the size and versatility of the frontcourt.
Meanwhile, the Bulls are about to crash and burn horribly with Butler, Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade. Two cannot shoot from the outside, two do not play defense, and all three need the ball in their hands in order to be productive. They need young and interesting talent to pair with Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis, why not take a swing at Schroder and Bazemore?
7 Kyle Lowry to the Utah Jazz for Dante Exum and Alec Burks
Utah doesn’t quite have a talent like Minnesota’s Karl Anthony-Towns, But Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Rodney Hood and Rudy Gobert are about as good as it gets when building a young core. Kyle Lowry is the type of player that can push a very good team like Utah over the top, but he shouldn’t be the best player on his own team like he currently is in Toronto. His crafty offensive game, three-point range and feisty on-ball defense would be a massive upgrade over Shelvin Mack and an inexperience Dante Exum, while simultaneously allowing the newly-acquired George Hill to do what he does best: spot up along the perimeter, bend defenses with secondary playmaking, and lock up the opposing wing on defense.
Toronto would be swapping a pricy veteran point guard for a very interesting, if almost completely unproven, commodity in Exum, while finding a scoring wing in Burks ready to take on primary ball-handling duties on bench units. It would also give Toronto a chance to rebuild while staying competitive, and move the timeline back a few years for the primes of Jonas Valanciunas and Exum.
6 Serge Ibaka to the San Antonio Spurs for Pau Gasol and picks
Ibaka’s defense may have slipped recently, but that might have more to do with pouting about his offensive role in OKC than anything else. He’s still an effective shooter out to the three-point line, one of the very best in the league protecting the rim, and infinitely more athletic than Tim Duncan was this past season. He could open up the paint enough for Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili to sneak to the rim, aging legs and all, and help keep teams off the offensive glass. Acquiring him would also remove him from other teams, which would be another way for San Antonio to improve its chances of advancing, seeing as how he played a major role in eliminating them twice since 2012.
It would be a shame for Orlando to give up Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for a year of Ibaka before his free agency. At least trading for Pau would give the Magic an offensive hub down low that could find cutters and provide consistent offense, something this team is in desperate need of while they try to let Aaron Gordon and co. develop.
5 Brook Lopez to the Houston Rockets for Ryan Anderson, KJ McDaniels and picks
Lopez doesn’t rebound as well as a 7-footer is expected to, he can’t step out and switch onto a perimeter player, but he’s unstoppable in the post. Draymond Green or Zaza Pachulia wouldn’t be able to handle him alone on the block, and neither would Tristan Thompson, LaMarcus Aldridge, or Deandre Jordan. In James Harden the Rockets have a historically great offensive player that forces defenses into uncomfortable contortions—what happens if you push a little further and put Lopez on the floor with him? Harden is among the best in recent NBA history at being so difficult to stop on offense that it almost doesn’t matter if he’s terrible on defense. While not historically great, Lopez has the potential to be the chess piece that proves to be too difficult for opposing defenses to deal with, while consumed with worrying about Harden, because of his size and offensive gifts.
The Nets, meanwhile, would acquire an athletic wing with upside and some picks to replenish their bare cupboard. Anderson doesn’t fit their long-term plans, but it would be wise to score picks and assets for Lopez while he’s still healthy and under contract.
4 Blake Griffin to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Gorgui Dieng, Kris Dunn, and Nikola Pekovic
Griffin needs to player with an elite shot blocker and solid shooters while receiving ample post-up and playmaking opportunities. The Wolves work as a trade destination because of three names: Karl, Anthony, and Towns. Towns stretches the floor for while providing rim protection and can function as The Guy while Griffin to bullies smaller defenders the opposing team is forced to defend him with. Both can switch out to perimeter players while recovering to rebound effectively during a shot. In a transition cross-matching nightmare against, say Golden State, are the Wolves going to be worried about who they end up defending? On the flip side, if Draymond guards Griffin or Towns, who guards the other? Zaza Pachulia isn’t really an answer, and if Zaza is on the floor then the Wolves are winning the battle.
Coach Tom Thibodeau would probably say it’s too early to trade Kris Dunn, but how many times do we need to see transcendent talent like Towns get stranded by either "patience" or "win-now" mentalities because teams don’t pull the trigger on the correct trade?
3 Carmelo Anthony to the Boston Celtics for Jaylen Brown, Avery Bradley, and Amir Johnson
The Celtics still need the go-to scorer when there’s a minute left. Isaiah Thomas, while extremely talented, can be shut down in the fourth quarter by the likes of Iman Shumpert when playing the Cavaliers. Carmelo Anthony, on the other hand, is one of the most offensively-gifted talents the league has seen, and cannot be adequately defended without a double team on most nights. Anthony in a Celtics jersey would fix the go-to scorer issue without really compromising the defense anchored by Al Horford, Marcus Smart and Jae Crowder.
The Knicks should consider this trade if the season goes downhill early and it seems time to acquire young talent to put around Kristaps Porzingis. Rookie Jaylen Brown is a phenomenal and unformed athlete and Avery Bradley and Amir Johnson are high-level role players capable of putting young stars in position to succeed. New York doesn’t have a real reason to blow things up unless Carmelo becomes more of an asset as a trade chip than a player, but at some point it will be The Zinger’s team—why not pull the trigger early and usher in the new era now?
2 Paul Millsap to the Houston Rockets for Ryan Anderson, Clint Capela, picks
Millsap's one of the very, very few big men capable of protecting the hoop, scoring on the block, putting it on the floor, and stretching out to the three-point line. The other skill he possesses that hardly anyone else does? Switching out to perimeter players and using his extraordinary hands to disrupt dribble drives and step-back threes. Basically, he's a one-of-a-kind player waiting to be put on a real contender trying to dislodge the Warriors or Cavs. He can cancel out Draymond Green or bully Kevin Durant down low. He can contest Kyrie Irving or body up LeBron James on a drive. Put him on the Rockets and suddenly they have a killer five-man unit in Patrick Beverley, Eric Gordon, James Harden, Trevor Ariza, and Millsap.
For the Hawks, trading Millsap before he becomes an expiring contract assures the retention of assets. Acquiring Ryan Anderson also pairs Howard with a frontcourt partner he found much success with during his peak Orlando years while nabbing the immensely promising Clint Capela simultaneously.
1 John Wall to the Boston Celtics for Isaiah Thomas, Amir Johnson and a pick
Obviously Washington would probably prefer keeping John Wall over trading him, but it might be time to strike before the rest of the league catches on. Here’s how to decide what to do if you’re Washington: would you rather trade John Wall early and receive another All-Star in Thomas, an effective role player in Johnson, and a pick in return, or would you prefer to lose him for nothing? Wall’s already voiced frustration. He’s already changed shoe deals and agents and he’s already complained about playing with Bradley Beal. Do it now.
The Wall, Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, Jae Crowder, and Al Horford lineup would be the best five-man defensive unit in the league immediately. Even without a single above-average shooter in that lineup aside from Horford, Wall’s playmaking for others in a spread pick-and-roll system could be devastating. He’s that fast, that big, and that good at drawing help and finding the easiest shots for the best players. As he becomes more comfortable on the block teams will have a choice: put a bigger wing on him and pray they have the speed to stay in front or stick with a smaller guard and hope Wall doesn’t go near the paint. On top of everything listed above, the Celtics would have a superior athlete capable of protecting the rim in transition, an alpha dog with something to prove, and the true superstar they have been searching for. Finally, after inquiring about every franchise player, the C’s would have the player to pair with Brad Stevens.