The 2016-17 NBA trade deadline is February 23, but fans might be in for a holiday treat: we expect this year to heat up early. After last season’s yawn of a trade deadline (Randy Foye! Darnell Stokes! Kurt Hinrich!) we count at least seven perennial All-Stars that may be on the move, including two or three players who could be considered top-ten stars of the league. And we’re not alone. Ask Phoenix Suns GM Ryan McDonough. “Teams are saying all right, we’re not going to wait until February, the trade deadline,” he said in a recent interview. “Let’s… solidify ourselves that extra 2+ months to integrate a guy and climb up the standings to make sure we are in the playoffs.”
Why, you ask? Well, for starters, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors are once again atop their respective conferences, each having upped the ante as to what it takes to compete for a title. If the Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors, San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets, etc., truly want to catch them, they have to think big. Likewise, on the bottom end of the standings, by our count there are only a couple of teams in the league so far that don’t have a realistic shot of making the playoffs, given the right trade: the annual Eastern Conference cellar dwelling duo of the Brooklyn Nets and the Philadelphia 76ers. That means nearly every team will be in play to look for at least a small upgrade. Last but certainly not least, the unprecedented leap in the salary cap from $70 million to $94 million this year has left many with ample room to maneuver.
In other words: it should be a wild ride. With that in mind we present… Projecting 15 NBA Trades That Could Happen Before The Deadline.
15 Brandon Knight to the Houston Rockets
The Houston Rockets are having a season that has thrust them back into the realm of “real contender” after their downturn last year, but the one thing they seem to lack is a frontline point guard. Sadly, Brandon Knight probably won’t be that but as recent as 2015-16 he was a starter averaging nearly 20 points per game, and he can come without Houston having to give up a major asset of their deep rotation. Knight has struggled to come off the bench this season behind Eric Bledsoe and Devin Booker, and the Phoenix Suns drafted point guard Tyler Ulis in 2016 so his days seem to be numbered there. Phoenix could use some talent to develop for its front court, with veteran Tyson Chandler holding down the fort for now. Houston’s 2015 second round pick Montrezl Harrell, who is the kind of raw project not playing a major role this season, might be the perfect piece to build a trade around, and, wouldn’t you know it, he just matched his career high in points against… The Suns.
And speaking of front court talent…
14 Nikola Vucevic to the Toronto Raptors
The Raptors have been searching for a star big man ever since Chris Bosh joined LeBron James in “The Decision” to go to the Miami Heat following the 2009-10 season. Nikola Vucevic is not a star but he has been one of the best players on a bad Orlando Magic team for years, and he has lost minutes this season to new front-men teammates Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo. As recently as 2014-15 he was basically a 20 point, 10 rebound guy but he clearly needs a change of scenery. Toronto is too tightly in contention for the Eastern Conference championship to offer anything but expendable parts, young projects, or draft picks, but the Magic don’t really have anything to lose and are in full re-building mode. This could be one of those under-the-radar moves that pays big dividends when Jonas Valanciunas, Lucas Nogueira, and Vucevic are subbing in and out for each other as three seven-footers clogging the lane in the Eastern Conference Finals against LeBron James and Kyrie Irving.
And speaking of under-the-radar moves…
13 Nick “Swaggy P” Young to the Memphis Grizzlies
With the much publicized altercation between D’Angelo Russell and his secret taping of Nick “Swaggy P” Young admitting to cheating on his then fiancee Iggy Azalea last season, its considered long overdue by some NBA insiders that the Los Angeles Lakers look to trade one of the two. Russell helps form a young core of guards for the rebuilding franchise while Young is relatively old comparatively, at 31. He can do two things well however - score and entertain - and there is one team in the NBA in bad need of both of those things. The Memphis Grizzlies have continued their above average but not great play this season, battling for a 5th seed in the Western Conference while averaging the second lowest amount of points per game in the NBA (only the Dallas Mavericks score less). They have veteran guard Tony Allen on an expiring contract, and with none other than Kobe Bryant having dubbed him the best defender he ever faced, he would be a great fit in the Lakers locker room, even if he has lost a step with age. This could be a true win-win.
And speaking of win-wins…
12 Paul George to the Denver Nuggets
Indiana Pacers’ star Paul George can become a free agent after next season, a year in which he will make $19.5 million, a relative bargain. While the Pacers are on the fringe of the playoffs this year, they don’t seem to be putting it together around him and perhaps its time to look to re-build around emerging star Myles Turner. The Denver Nuggets can offer shooting guard Will Barton, currently sharing time with Gary Harris, but could immediately become a full time starter for Indiana. They can also include Jusuf Nurkic, who could grow to combine to make a powerful front-court tandem with Turner for years to come. Most importantly, however, is that the Nuggets are flush with two first round and three second round picks in 2017. The Nuggets need a star, something they haven’t had since trading Carmelo Anthony six years ago and they are unlikely to land a top five lottery pick with yet another just-below-average showing this season. George may turn around and sign with his hometown LA Lakers after his contract expires, but if they can surround him with other pieces towards a championship over the next 18 months, who knows.
And speaking of surrounding Paul George with championship pieces…
11 Brook Lopez to the Denver Nuggets
Brook Lopez’ value has never been higher. He has another year left on his contract, and the Brooklyn Nets veteran is probably the best center in the Eastern Conference not named Hassan Whiteside. He has always been a consistent 20 point guy though he has never averaged more than nine rebounds out of the center position. This season he added a three pointer to his arsenal, launching more than five three pointers per game to about a .350 shooting percentage, and it has elevated his game. The Denver Nuggets have young big men to spare to return to rebuilding Brooklyn with Kenneth Faried giving them a strong inside presence (they don’t call him “Manimal” for nothing) while Jusuf Nurkic, if not included in a Paul George trade, could develop with some more minutes as a possible future star at center. And, again, they have draft picks, which the Nets badly need after giving over their first round rights to the Boston Celtics for the next two seasons. The Nuggets meanwhile, with Brook Lopez, Paul George, and Nikola Jokic, could make a strong run at making the playoffs for the first time in four years with a core to build around for 2017-18.
And speaking of top big men…
10 Hassan Whiteside to the Trailblazers
The CJ McCollum/Damian Lillard backcourt, the toast of the town only a year ago in Portland, has led to a sub-.500 team clinging fighting to make the playoffs this season. Lillard is the true star, but McCollum averages 22 points per game and his 19.8 PER makes him the third best shooting guard in the west behind James Harden and the LA Lakers’ Lou Williams. In other words, he’s great, and is the kind of player you can build a team around, but he and Lillard may be too similar as players. The Trailblazers need a front-court star and Hassan Whiteside is just that, and he is signed for three more seasons. McCollum could allow the Miami Heat to either re-sign him to a long term deal when his contract expires this off-season or simply focus on rebuilding from scratch, focusing on stock-piling draft picks like the Philadelphia 76ers have done in recent seasons.
And speaking of tanking for draft picks…
9 John Wall to the Detroit Pistons
When none other than the venerable Bill Simmons suggest you trade your star, it might be worth listening to. “If I’m running Washington, I would trade John Wall right now,” Simmons said. “I would just move him for picks and do a complete tankapalooza and try to rebuild and put myself in a much better spot. I think it’s going to take years to put a decent team around [him], and I think the fact that Kevin Durant didn’t even want to meet with them should’ve been a come-to-Jesus moment for that team, and apparently it wasn’t.”
With Bradley Beal putting up career-best numbers next to him, the Wizards are still unable to compete in the East, and, in our mind, its time to understand that the two stars are simply not compatible. The Detroit Pistons have Reggie Jackson to trade to give the Wizards a starting point guard in place of Wall, and have future first round picks to offer. 2nd year small forward and former lottery pick/raw talent Stanley Johnson is also possibly a potential piece. For the Pistons part, Wall pairing with Andre Drummond should be enough to allow them to make the playoffs right now, as they currently sit only a game out. After a seven year draught before being swept in four games by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers last season, it would be meaningful to build upon that with some hope for the future.
And speaking of recognizing when its not working…
8 Luol Deng to the Minnesota Timberwolves
In mid-November, Ric Bucher of Bleacher Report reported that Minnesota Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau “is growing impatient and may deal one of his young stars for a veteran who can help him win now.” The Wolves were 4-7 then. They have gone 5-12 since. Imagine how Thibodeau, who doubles as Minnesota’s President of Basketball Operations feels NOW. There is no question his team, which starts five players 26 and under, could use some veteran leadership. With Kevin Garnett’s lessons from last year paying off for Karl Anthony-Towns, Luol Deng, who played for Thibodeau for nearly four years when they were both with the Chicago Bulls, would be a a perfect fit to provide guidance to Andrew Wiggins. Perhaps the T-Wolves star most in need of it, the former #1 pick in the NBA draft has to grow on the defensive end, where Deng is known for his versatility and using his length to be able to guard all five positions on the floor. With Nick “Swaggy P” Young and Brandon Ingram on the roster, the LA Lakers don’t really need Deng and while he might not draw a king’s ransom in return, the Wolves are loaded with raw young talent for them to ask about.
And speaking of those Lakers and raw young talent…
7 Nerlens Noel to the Los Angeles Lakers
There is a lot of noise about the Los Angeles Lakers right now, with a young team motivated to show the world they were not just Kobe Bryant’s supporting cast. Likewise, the Philadelphia 76ers are drawing attention as the deadline approaches, as they begin to show signs of life after parting ways with Sam Hinkie, he of “The Process,” this offseason. That said, neither team is anywhere close to a winning record so it is probably a good year for both to continue to address holes that can allow them to build for the future.
The Lakers have committed big money for three more years to Timofey Mozgov, but his 8.0 points and 5.0 rebounds per game are hardly going to cut it. They have young guards to spare, which the 76ers need to support their glut of big-men. Nerlens Noel comes with some baggage, having already spoken out about his unhappiness with the the Sixers’ rotation and coming off of surgery for a knee injury. On second thought, that sounds like just the type of guy who may thrive in LA’s media circus.
And speaking of a media circus…
6 Goran Dragic to the Boston Celtics
For starters, Goran Dragic poured in 31 points against the Celtics earlier this month. That ought to count for something. He is an offensively minded player with some size that could pair up with Isaiah Thomas in the backcourt to bring some sizzle to Boston’s relatively tame offense, in comparison to other Eastern Conference contenders The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors. Dragic is a fringe all-star in his prime right now, and like Thomas, can score in bunches. He is also affordably signed through 2019-20, so as he fades in value towards the end of his contract, the Celtics can afford for him to regress into becoming a useful bench piece. For their part, the Miami Heat need to rebuild and the Celtics have excess draft picks to offer, thanks to owning the rights to the Nets’ first rounders the next two seasons.
But what will Boston do with their already overcrowded backcourt fighting for playing time? Well, speaking of the Celtics…
5 DeMarcus Cousins to the Boston Celtics
Remember how we mentioned the Celtics have the Nets’ first rounders? Well a certain former Sacramento Kings teammate of DeMarcus Cousins has an idea what they can do with them. “If he came to Boston, that would be good, really good," Isaiah Thomas said this preseason. "The thing is, I’ve got his respect. I’ve always had that.” And, as we all know by now, that’s really all that DeMarcus Cousins doesn’t seem to have right now. He’s only 26 despite being a seven year veteran for the Kings (which, too be fair, must feel like it has taken years off of his life), and is currently averaging almost 30 points and 11 rebounds per game. The almost 7-footer even shoots nearly 40% from downtown. However, Sacramento remains pretty terrible, and it seems like they may need to start over again with new young talent and draft picks. With Celtics guards Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley available to put into the deal on top of 1st rounders to re-build for the future, they have nothing to lose.
And speaking of nothing to lose…
4 Kosta Koufos to the Houston Rockets
What might be the hottest team in the NBA, the Houston Rockets, will be without one of its core pieces, Center Clint Capela, for up to two months. So while the Sacramento Kings’ Kosta Koufos doesn’t seem perhaps worthy of #4 on this list, he is a true seven-footer who can clog the lane, something Capela at 6’ 9” couldn’t do in the first place anyway. He has a good role-player sized contract at about $8 million annually through next year with a similar sized player option in 2018-19. Most importantly perhaps, he is only 27, and at this point his PER is surprisingly close to Nene’s, who, at 34, can not be counted on for extended minutes in Capela's absence. Koufos should be worth enough to justify a 2nd round pick in return of the Kings, of which Houston happens to have two coming up this off-season, allowing them to keep their core roster intact for their post-season run. Its the type of small move that wins championships, which the Rockets might just have their best shot at right now.
And speaking of the Kings unloading to teams with title shots…
3 Rudy Gay to the Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cleveland Cavaliers are without a significant rotation player currently, with starting shooting guard J.R. Smith out for an unspecified amount of time as he receives surgery on a fractured thumb.
Our recommendation: the Cavs are actually in a good position to pick up a significant upgrade to their long term rotation in the Sacramento Kings' Rudy Gay. He is the perfect type of player for them, using his size and length to create match-up problems, and he does all the things J.R. Smith does, but arguably better. On catch and shoot plays last season, Gay shot 39%, better than Kyrie Irving and DeMar DeRozan. With less than four seconds on the shot clock, he shot 47%, better than Kevin Durant and James Harden. He, like Smith, is also a better defender than perhaps given credit for, with a better percentage points difference last season than Chris Paul and Jimmy Butler.
Their time is now and Iman Shumpert would be the type of player who could thrive with some space to grow in Sacramento. It could make for an interesting trade (with a little extra salary dump in the form of disgruntled Mo Williams to make it doable on Cleveland’s side and probably a couple of second rounders to sweeten the pot).
And speaking of improving upon near-perfection…
2 Anthony Davis to the Golden State Warriors
There aren’t any other teams we can think of that would tinker with something as good as what Golden State already has. But for a team that added a top-five NBA star to a group that was coming off the greatest record in NBA history, well, all bets are off. And as outlandish as this idea may seem, on deeper analysis there is potentially something here.
So, the “Big Four” welcome back to the “Big Three.” The Warriors' great experiment has worked out so far, though not to the record pace of last season, but with both Steph Curry and Kevin Durant set to hit the open market this year, it might be barreling towards a swift end.
The cost for the New Orleans Pelicans' Anthony Davis would be heavy of course: perhaps in the form of Klay Thompson AND Draymond Green. An honest assessment of the current Dubs squad, however, shows Green averaging just over 10 points a game, his lowest since he became a starter and Klay Thompson continuing to be a great scorer, but very little else. And sure, that means the are both very good, Thompson doing the scoring and Green everything else, but Davis is both of those things combined into one dominant player, second in the league to only Russell Westbrook. Needless to say, New Orleans would be happy to reap the benefits of letting Thompson and Green loose to their full potential, and both are under contract for years to come, while Golden State can gear up to have a dominant three that can share the ball and play off each other’s strengths, and might just re-sign them to keep playing together.
And speaking of messing with a good thing…
1 Blake Griffin to the Oklahoma City Thunder
OK, so hear us out on this.
Blake Griffin is an Oklahoma native and college star, and is in his final year before a player option that he most likely will opt out of. Oklahoma City will make the playoffs this year, thanks to a career year and possible MVP season from Russell Westbrook but they have little chance to win. Even with Griffin currently out for six weeks, with a pairing of talent like that they could make a run from pretty much whatever playoff seed they end up with. A good postseason for the two stars might also have the added bonus in convincing Griffin to re-sign and come home next year for a long term deal.
But why would The LA Clippers mess with dealing arguably their best player in a season in which many consider them to have an actual shot at winning it all? Over the last two seasons, the Clippers have gone 40-22 without Griffin and 69-33 with him. In other words, at least in terms of wins and losses, they are just as good with or without him. Griffin to the Thunder could only work if the Clippers were willing to take on nearly as much salary back in return (along with a package of draft picks, of course). The Thunder have only one player that fits that description - Enes Kanter. It should be noted that the former #3 pick in the 2011 NBA draft pours in nearly 13 points a game in less than 20 minutes, and the one time he was given more than 30 minutes a game, in 14-15, he averaged nearly 19 points. His PER is actually better than Griffin’s, putting him just behind such names as Damian Lillard, Stephen Curry, and John Wall and ahead of fellow bigs Hassan Whiteside and Brook Lopez. Kanter is under salary for another season, plus a player option, at a savings of about $3 million a year from Griffin. Could he actually be a better fit for a deep, versatile Clippers rotation than one of the NBA’s brightest stars?
Seems hard to believe, but then again, this is the new NBA, where Big Threes become Big Fours and no player, not even a star, is a sure bet to stay put at the trade deadline. We know one thing. We’ll be watching.