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The State of the Blockbuster NBA Trade

What would it take for a team to deal a superstar?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The trade market is evolving. Players have gained control of their destinies by signing short-term contracts, and they’ll obtain even more power after the new CBA is enacted. Front offices are getting smarter by learning from the sins committed by teams fleeced in blockbuster deals. Big trades can happen in cycles, though, and we could be nearing a perfect storm with soon-to-be-free-agent superstars on teams skating onto competitive thin ice.

What factors could contribute to an NBA team even considering trading a superstar? There would need to be a trade demand, or an unwillingness on the part of the player to sign an extension; a feud between talent and organization, or a front office deciding it’s time to retool. Superstars can abruptly demand a trade, as Dwight Howard, Kevin Love, Carmelo Anthony, and many others have. Behind-the-scenes drama can also tarnish relationships — the kind that led to Deron Williams’s exit from Utah, or to Shaquille O’Neal leaving L.A. Sometimes it’s better to move on when the other option is often losing the player for nothing in free agency, right Sam Presti?

All is quiet on the mega-trade front, for now, but that could all change over the course of the 2016–17 season. Through next summer, there are some big names that could find themselves living part time in rumor central if things don’t go right this season.

The Pacers underwent a full HGTV home renovation this summer, ousting head coach Frank Vogel for Nate McMillan, trading point guard George Hill for Jeff Teague, replacing free agent Ian Mahinmi with Al Jefferson, and swapping out Jordan Hill and Solomon Hill for Thaddeus Young. Team president Larry Bird’s intention is to turbo-charge their offense, which ranked in the bottom 10 over the past three seasons. Teague is a better scorer and facilitator than George Hill, and Jefferson is a still-effective bully ball relic, so they’ll help. But neither player significantly moves the needle, so any growth will come from internal improvement and changes to the system.

That’s what Bird is banking on; he believes the answer is a small-ball attack featuring Paul George as the focal point at the 4, with the blossoming Myles Turner at center. But small ball didn’t work well for the Pacers last season, when they used it in 38 percent of their possessions. They had a plus-3.1 net rating with two bigs on the floor (104.5 offensive rating, 101.4 defensive rating), according to NBA Wowy, compared to minus-0.8 with just one big (105.6 offensive rating, 106.4 defensive rating). Their offense was only marginally better, while they were five points worse defensively. Now they’re without Hill and Mahinmi, two defensive stalwarts.

Turner showed signs of becoming an anchor last season, most evident when he heroically blocked LeBron James at a crucial moment. He has tremendous length and instinctive shot-blocking skills, but he struggled with timing, perimeter defense, and taking the proper angles. The Pacers need Turner to mature quickly. He can’t suffer those lapses because the new additions won’t be there to keep the Pacers afloat. Young is merely above-average defensively, and Jefferson will need to drink from the fountain of youth if he wants to be an even average rim protector.

If the new-look Pacers regress defensively and don’t flourish offensively, they’ll be right back in the middle; or worse, they could conceivably miss the playoffs in an improving East. That would put them in a dangerous position next summer, with Teague set to hit free agency, and George, Young, and Monta Ellis all with player options that could make them free agents in 2018. That’s decision time for Bird: tinker with the roster while keeping the core intact, press reset one summer ahead of his team’s potential mass exodus, or hold on before making big moves closer to the trade deadline in February 2018.

Indiana could be on the cusp of a total rebuild if things don’t go according to plan, making George a tradable star. It’s not a scenario the Pacers want to contemplate, but other teams are keeping tabs.

The Ringer’s Bill Simmons tweeted in May that the Lakers wanted “to make a BIG run” at George this offseason, which is important to keep in mind if Indiana goes off the rails. L.A.’s interest in George might be mutual, too: George was a Lakers fan who idolized Kobe Bryant while growing up in Palmdale, California, and even called the Lakers a “family-favorite team” before extending his Pacers contract in 2013. Purple and Gold fans are notorious for assuming stars are destined for Los Angeles, but this time around they could be onto something.

This fear of losing a star for nothing is why the Thunder were adamant about renegotiating-and-extending Russell Westbrook’s deal to keep him locked up for another year. Oklahoma City needed to buy time. Westbrook touted loyalty as his reason for staying, but he was understandably vague when asked if he views his extension as a long-term commitment to the Thunder: “My job is to be able to find somewhere that I want to be and want to play with a group of guys. I figured this is the place where I wanted to be. Obviously with the [new] contracts, the new CBA stuff, there’s different ways you can do that, but me being able to have the opportunity to extend and be here, that’s what I wanted to do and I stand behind that.”

It was a no-brainer for Westbrook to extend short-term, since he can give the post–Kevin Durant core a chance while receiving a raise of roughly $8 million. But the feel-good vibes could disappear if enough losses pile up this season. Billy Donovan’s recent comments on The Vertical Podcast suggest the coach will attempt to mate Westbrook’s ball-dominant style with his own ball-movement-friendly system, as recently outlined on The Ringer, but there are no guarantees it works. The Russ Revenge Tour might be great for League Pass addicts, but maybe not for the Thunder. History shows that teams that funnel the ball to one star with an exceptionally high usage rate rarely have deep playoff success.

No matter what, Oklahoma City will look to pair a star with Westbrook next offseason. But if the Thunder come up empty and opt to re-sign their three restricted free agents (Steven Adams, Victor Oladipo, and Andre Roberson), they could potentially be handcuffed when it comes to making big moves going forward, depending on what happens with the new CBA. The Thunder could put themselves on a path reminiscent of the mid-2000s Timberwolves. Minnesota had a fiercely loyal superstar in Kevin Garnett, but the Wolves were unable to surround him with championship-level talent. After multiple losing seasons, the Wolves traded KG before he became a free agent in 2008. It was for the best of the franchise, though the trade didn’t work out as the Wolves planned.

Westbrook could always hang around OKC into his early 30s like Garnett did in Minnesota, but Sam Presti might not want to wait that long. Presti has a history of making big moves that run contrary to the conventional thinking of armchair GMs: his first deal as Sonics general manager sent Ray Allen packing; two days before the 2012 season began he traded James Harden; and just this summer he dealt Serge Ibaka for young pieces.

If Westbrook is playing wait-and-see, DeMarcus Cousins might just be waiting. The Kings are “fooling themselves if they think” Cousins is “sticking around,” a league executive told CBS Sports’ Zach Harper. The Kings have done what they can to surround Boogie with winning talent, but so far their attempts haven’t amounted to anything: Cousins has lost an average of 52 games per season over his six-year career, and is about to be coached by his sixth coach. Alex DeLarge had a more stable professional situation.

AP Images
AP Images

Boogie’s name gets tossed into the rumor mill every year, but Sacramento hasn’t bit yet. Maybe this year will be different, since Cousins is set to become an unrestricted free agent in 2018. Sacramento’s latest draft picks suggest the Kings are planning for life without Cousins: over the past two drafts they’ve selected three bigs — Willie Cauley-Stein, Georgios Papagiannis, and Skal Labissière — which is an odd thing to do for a team that needs everything except another big.

Cousins is an elite talent, but a lot of people in basketball aren’t convinced he’s a guy you can win with. His character concerns are well-known and will make some teams pause, but the doubts also stem from his game. His numbers can be gaudy, but he’s not efficient. There have been 110 seasons since 1986 by bigs that scored at least 30 points per 100 possessions, and Cousins holds three of the eight least efficient finishes. Only nine bigs have averaged that mark over their entire careers (since 1973), and Cousins is the least efficient (46.7 eFG%) by a wide margin, per Basketball-Reference. The next lowest is Patrick Ewing, at 50.5 percent, with Shaq leading the way at 58.2 percent.

If Cousins played under a coach with a stable system, I think he’d experience an uptick in his efficiency. So I’d take the risk if the price were right. And I’d love to see Cousins be an example of what happens when a volatile player goes from chaos to control. But the concerns some executives have about Cousins are real, so perhaps moving on from him is ironically what the Kings need to do.

If Sacramento ends up with a top-10 pick (for what seems like the 20th year in a row), the Kings will have the opportunity to select a potential franchise player in a stacked 2017 draft class. (The pick is in limbo, since Sacramento will convey its 2017 first to Chicago if it falls outside the top 10, and Philadelphia has the right to swap firsts if Sacramento’s pick is in the top 10. In all likelihood, despite the pick protections, the Kings will have a top pick unless they exceed expectations.)

And if they deal Boogie for another lotto pick, they could grab a second. Imagine if the Kings were to come away with a haul of Josh Jackson, a versatile forward tailored for the modern league, and Dennis Smith, an explosive scoring point guard with excellent passing vision. Suddenly their core would look promising, especially when you add any other assets they got in return for Cousins.

So why haven’t the Kings pulled the trigger already? Remember trades aren’t easy to make, especially when they involves stars. Just look at Blake Griffin, who was caught up in trade rumors this summer. If the Clippers don’t plan to unleash Griffin as an unstoppable power guard, they have to at least consider moving on, knowing he has a player option after this season, and that their core has been only moderately better with him in the lineup. Over the past three seasons, the Clippers have a plus-14.8 net rating with Griffin, Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan, and J.J. Redick on the floor, compared to plus-10.8 when Griffin is on the bench, per NBA Wowy. Exchange Griffin for better depth and a versatile forward like Jae Crowder (instead of Paul Pierce or Wesley Johnson), and maybe the team could actually be better.

Even if the Clippers wanted to trade Griffin, he’s a free agent next summer, which gives him control of his destiny. No team will give up what it would take to acquire Griffin without the assurance he’d actually extend his contract. There probably aren’t many places where he would go, and that list would get shorter once you cross-reference it with teams that have enough assets. And we haven’t even gotten to the part about Clippers general manager Doc Rivers seemingly having no interest in prospects and picks. Star-for-star swaps are the toughest deals to make. But, even if the Clippers were ready to agree to a trade, and if Griffin were willing to immediately extend his contract, why would the receiving team ship away a significant haul with the knowledge that it could wait a few months to sign Griffin outright in free agency? The Knicks made that exact error in the Carmelo Anthony deal, which has crippled them. They should’ve waited, signed him, and kept all their assets. Any team looking to deal for Griffin, Cousins, or any other star, may lean toward the patient route.

Stars are more enticing trade targets if they’re on cheaper, long-term contracts. But those players are understandably harder to acquire. Jimmy Butler’s name was bandied about in draft-night trade conversations involving the Celtics and Wolves, but the Bulls decided to hold onto him. You can understand why. He’s signed through 2019 on an affordable contract, worth an average of $18.5 million annually. That’s Allen Crabbe money under the new cap.

Even if Butler were disgruntled, and you could understand if he were after a contentious season that was capped off with trade rumors, the Bulls still have leverage. Their additions of past-their-prime stars like Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo show the club is at least making an effort to build around Butler. But if the Bulls stumble, expect teams with assets to light up general manager Gar Forman’s cell, asking about Butler.

The market appeared to be primed for blockbuster trades this summer, but no deals materialized. Supreme talent is necessary to contend for an NBA title, so teams are holding out as long as they can before pulling the trigger. But as 2017 approaches, we could see a year with more fireworks than ever before.