The last time I posted an NBA Trade Value piece, the following things were still alive: the Obama presidency, Lob City, Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, Facebook’s likability, Snapchat’s upside, Netflix’s downside, Grantland and The B.S. Report, KD and Russ, Hinkie and the Process, Olympic Melo and Hoodie Melo, Duncan and Pop, Kawhi and Pop, LeBron and Kyrie, Skip and Stephen A., Bill and Jalen, Kanye and common sense, Roy Hibbert and verticality, Charles Barkley’s “Nobody can win an NBA title by shooting jumpers” theory, and, of course, a world where the words “President Trump” provoked reactions like, “Stop it, you’re on drugs,” and, “If that happens I’m moving to Canada.”
Those were simpler times. We believed that LeBron had come back to Cleveland for good. We believed that Bruno Caboclo was two years away from being two years away. We believed in good shots that weren’t layups or 3s. We believed that Giannis was a human being with human flesh. We believed that Dwight Howard just needed to find the right team. We believed that the tortured Warriors would demolish their fans in the end. We believed that Father Time would eventually defeat Vince Carter. We believed that, no matter how dumb an NBA franchise might be, they’d never be dumber than the Sacramento Kings.
Sure, not everything has changed. We still laugh when Knicks fans convince themselves that some A-list free agent is definitely coming. We still joke that the only creatures who could survive a nuclear holocaust are crabs, locusts, and Chris Wallace. We still enjoy when anyone pretends the NBA actually has tampering rules. We still marvel at the brilliance of Curry and Klay, wonder about AD’s ultimate ceiling, argue about LeBron versus Jordan, play the What-If Game every time someone gets injured.
But basketball definitely feels different heading into 2019. The scoring numbers resemble the early 1960s, only if 3s replaced 2s. The season grew longer and the offseason became more intense. Franchises treasure cap space more than ever, which—combined with shorter contracts, social media, savvier owners, and the Instant Gratification generation—turned player movement into an NBA 2K yearly redraft. Everybody wants to leave their options open for that one magical, fix-it-all, superstar free agent who’s almost definitely not coming.
Players control their own destinies like never before. Some franchises find themselves paralyzed by an unhappy star—like Minnesota recently—grasping for leverage as a steady stream of leaks sabotages potential deals. Others get bullied into a massive, cap-murdering extension that they immediately regret. Last decade, Washington could have stuck TOSRFCTDAJWC (The Onerous and Somewhat Remarkable Financial Commitment That Doubles As John Wall’s Contract) on some unsuspecting loser like Orlando, Sacramento or New York. In 2018? Good luck. Here’s what that deal looks like:
2018-19: $19.2 million
2019-20: $37.8 million
2020-21: $40.8 million
2021-22: $43.8 million
2022-23: $46.9 million (player option)
Even better, there’s a 15 percent trade kicker that Washington would have to pay right away!!!! By July 2022, we might be fighting three different World Wars at once. We might be complaining about President Zuckerberg or President Megyn Kelly. We might stop talking to one another entirely and handle everything via text and DM. I’m prepared for anything. But I can promise you there are two things that will happen in 2022 as long as we have a National Basketball Association, oxygen, electricity, and banks:
1. The Rock will make at least three movies.
2. John Wall will pick up that 2022-23 player option.
So it’s a different kind of Trade Value list. More valuable than ever? Cheap talent. Less valuable than ever? Expensive former All-Stars who may or may not be All-Stars anymore. Every franchise wants to contend or rebuild. Nobody wants to hop on that hamster wheel to the middle. Talk yourself into the next panic trade of Tobias Harris, expiring contracts, and a lottery pick so you can pay Blake Griffin $140 million over the next four years, and you’re almost definitely ending up here:
Could that change six weeks from now? Who the hell knows? That’s why we decided to blow out my 2018-19 list into something bigger—a living, breathing Trade Value organism that’s updated every few weeks during the season. This month’s edition covers Honorable Mention guys and a preliminary Top 55 list. Next month, we’ll tweak a few rankings, finalize that Top 55 list and write about each of those 55 players. And every month after that, we’ll keep tweaking the list and adding new commentary for certain players when necessary. We want this to keep changing and evolving, like our NBA Draft Guide. We might even throw in some fancy up and down arrows on the house. Our treat.
One programming note: I caught Giannis in person three weeks ago for a Bucks-Knicks game and found myself delighted, stupefied, and just plain transfixed by how ridiculously good he is. And even better, how unique he is. Last spring in Boston, during the playoffs, as we marveled at his freaky athleticism and watched the talent practically spill out of him, we knew there would be a season—maybe the next year, maybe the year after—when everything would fall into place and it would turn into one of those “LeBron in 2009” or “Shaq in 2000” situations. You know, when Giannis just rips through the league night after night as we say, “Fuck, how do we stop this?”
I say this respectfully: We aren’t there (yet), and it’s only because he still can’t shoot (yet). Not since early LeBron or Peak Julius have opposing fans ever been so happy to see someone settle for a 3 or an 18-footer. And yet …
I mean …
I’ve been going to NBA games for 45 years …
I have never seen anything quite like Giannis in person.
His body now looks like if an evil scientist had cloned Russell Westbrook, inserted silicone shoulder pads underneath his skin, elongated his appendages by 8 inches and just fed him red meat and electrolytes five times a day. His strides are twice as long as anyone else’s; he covers so much ground that it seems like he’s traveling on every play. The basketball looks like a golf ball in his hand. It’s almost unfair. In fact, his fingers smother the ball so completely that it probably explains his erratic shot. Defenders play 7 feet off him and it doesn’t matter; he’s getting to the rim anyway. On any fast break, he’s dunking and you don’t have a chance. He can dunk in traffic with either hand. He can dunk on you and around you. Not since Orlando-era Shaq has anyone just dunked and dunked like this. He’s scoring almost 20 points a game around the rim! He’s on pace for 350-plus dunks this season!
(News flash: He’s not a center. Calling this “unusual” would be like calling a bilingual golden retriever “unusual.”)
And sure, you can enjoy it on television. But in person? It’s honestly like witnessing an alien life form. What is this? Kareem made me feel this way. That sky hook just seemed like it was coming out of the fucking ceiling. Walton made me feel this way because he was so much bigger in person—easily 7-foot-2, and thick, only he passed like a point guard and it just didn’t make sense. Young Barkley was no taller than a 2-guard, and definitely chubbier, only the game started and suddenly he was jumping over everybody for everything. Young Shaq was like Wilt reincarnated; you actually feared for the backboard on his dunks. Young David Robinson looked like a Greek god and ran like a gazelle—like if you created a basketball player from scratch, you’d just pick him. Manute Bol and Muggsy Bogues stood out for obvious reasons. I remember seeing LeBron in 2009, his first MVP year, when he figured everything out and it almost seemed like he’d shrunk the court on fast breaks. He’d jump a pass at midcourt, and three steps later he’d be dunking as everyone was glancing around in disbelief.
I could keep going. The beauty of basketball over every other sport is that, sometimes, you just can’t fully feel it until you see it in person. That covers around five to eight players per year. In New York, I realized that Giannis had reached the final level of “If he’s in town, and you love basketball, you kind of HAVE to see him.” When I mentioned that on my podcast with Ryen Russillo three weeks ago, a listener emailed me that I had inadvertently stumbled into a Michelin rating for NBA players.
Whoa! Great idea. Michelin ratings work like this: Every restaurant tries like hell to get 1 star (which basically means, “Hey, everyone, if you’re in town, you should eat here”), pines for 2 stars (“You should absolutely go out of your way to eat here”) and dreams of 3 stars (“IF YOU LOVE FOOD YOU HAVE TO EAT HERE AT LEAST ONCE OR ELSE YOU’RE AN ABSOLUTE FRAUD”).
A perfect way to describe NBA players, right? Westbrook used to be a 3-star experience; now he’s probably a 2. My Slovenian son Luka Doncic entered the league as a 1 and quickly vaulted to a 2, and by next month, he might be a full-fledged 3. You get the idea.
And so I added NBA Michelin Stars to this Trade Value list, along with a slew of other tidbits so you could see everything: numbers, salaries, age, peak year, ceiling, you name it. Only six players received a Michelin rating of 3 stars. (Not including Zion Williamson, the first 3-star college kid since Patrick Ewing.) We’ll get to them. Let’s rip through our Honorable Mention guys and lay out December’s list—again, a list only—of our Top 55 Trade Value guys.
Kevin Love: A starter on the 2018-19 Gulp All-Stars. Love has already earned an NBA title, a Gold Medal, three Mokeski Awards, two second-team All-NBAs, five All-Star appearances, 14 passive-aggressive LeBron tweets and nearly $150 million, plus he’s guaranteed another $120 million over the next four seasons. That makes him a good litmus test for the Savvier NBA—even though he’s talented, can the Cavs ever move a deal like this without taking a semibad contract back? Like, would Utah grab him for Derrick Favors, expirings, and a protected first and hope Love doesn’t age poorly into his 30s? Imagine Utah’s front office getting excited about that idea, then checking Spotrac to look at Love’s guaranteed money one more time. Gulp.
Myles Turner: I’m still not 100 percent sure what he does.
Josh Jackson: Our odds-on favorite of any recent top-five pick to write a first-person “How I Blew It” column for The Players’ Tribune.
OG Anunoby: Four January predictions: (1) Mahershala Ali officially breaks out as an A-list star, (2) Zion unleashes the greatest college dunk of all time, (3) Gronk plays his last NFL game, (4) Kawhi disappears for 12 games because of a mysterious leg injury, and then we find out what we have with OG. Because I don’t know yet.
John Wall: Signs of life lately! And yet, Washington’s only chance to trade this contract is when Riley is on his fourth scotch on Micky Arison’s yacht six weeks from now, and they look at each other, and Riley says, “I’m 73, you’re 69 … fuck it. Let’s call Ernie Grunfeld back.”
Andrew Wiggins: I went to a Wolves-Lakers game last month when Wiggins emerged from an in-game coma with a second-quarter dunk. My friend and I turned to each other and said simultaneously, “Forgot he was out there!” Then we looked up and noticed that he had 13 points already. He might have the first 50-point game when a fan says, “Forgot he was out there,” deep in the fourth quarter. He’s only due $147.7 million over this year and the next four, and he’s in the middle of one of the most dramatic statistical free falls of any 23-and-under player ever, so I’m sure it’s fine.
Aaron Holiday: One of those random League Pass dudes who stands out every time I’m watching five games at once. The Holiday family is the Bizarro Rush family.
Josh Hart: I’m playing my annual “I Just Like Him” immunity idol. Don’t question it. Just move on.
Sidenote: Markelle Fultz—2017’s no-brainer no. 1 pick—couldn’t even make Honorable Mention 18 months after being drafted. Amazing. The Lottery Bust Sunk-Cost Club always yields a trade that’s lamer than you’d expect. Anthony Bennett got thrown into the Love-Wiggins trade like a free set of steak knives. Darko Milicic got traded for a protected first and Kelvin Cato. Hasheem Thabeet got flipped with a first for Shane Battier. Sam Bowie got dealt straight up for Benoit Benjamin. Anyway, last month, Ethan Skolnick suggested a “Fultz for Wayne Ellington and Rodney McGruder” trade … and every Sixers fan in my life kind of liked it. This month, you could argue Miami is giving up way too much. Yeesh.
Jeff Green: Jeff Green, you say? Well, in the past 11 years he’s been traded for late-prime Ray Allen, Kendrick Perkins, a 2019 lottery-protected Clippers pick, and a Grizzlies pick that’s top-six protected in 2020 and completely unprotected in 2021. What other NBA player can net you 400 cents on the dollar nearly every time you trade him?
Miles Bridges: Steal of the 2018 draft. Did it make up for MJ turning down four firsts to take Frank Kaminsky in 2015? Um … no.
Zach LaVine: This year’s captain of the Shareef Abdur-Rahim All-Stars (for the best Good Stats/Bad Teams guys)—an emotional honor since it’s the 20th anniversary of Shareef pouring in 23 a game for an eight-win Vancouver team.
Dennis Smith Jr.: Mavs fans will freak that he missed the Top 55, and that’s fine. I’m not convinced he’s a winning player. Sorry. We’ll make up next month when I give Luka a 400-word lap dance. I might even let you pay for three songs but give you a fourth for free.
Mikal Bridges: The Suns spent the fourth pick in 2017 on small forward Josh Jackson, then gave a $50 million extension to small forward T.J. Warren, then this June they traded a future first to move up six picks to take small forward Mikal Bridges, and then a few weeks later they spent $15 million for small forward Trevor Ariza. I’m just saying, I think this might be one of the reasons Ryan McDonough got canned. It’s one of my working theories.
Lou Williams: He’s like one of those talented baseball relievers who bounces around both leagues, can’t find the right team, then belatedly becomes a competent closer in his early 30s as everyone goes, “Wait a second, Lou Williams has 48 saves?”
Montrezl Harrell: There’s a decent “couldn’t Harrell put up better stats than Clint Capela in Houston for half the price?” argument that I would have made if you’d bought me two more drinks. How did the Clippers manage to assemble an entire roster of guys I like? They went 15-for-15! Ballllllllllllllllllmer!!!!!!!
Joe Ingles: On an All-Star team of lovable 2018-19 role players making a tad too much at $11-14 million, he’s definitely finishing games along with Marcus Smart, Taj Gibson, Iman Shumpert, and Marcin Gortat. (Where are you, Kelly Olynyk?)
Al Horford, Chris Paul: Coming into this year, Horford’s teams were 216-112 since the 2014-15 season. In 63 playoff games since 2015, he’s averaging 15-8-4 with 53-42-81 percent splits. He’s just a little, um, expensive. Meanwhile, here are some relevant CP3 numbers: 33 (his age), 34 (his age in May), $35.7m (his salary this season), $38.5m (2020), $41.4m (2021), $44.2m (2022, player option), 500m (times Daryl Morey has convinced himself that this contract was worth it because they came within one bad break from beating the 2018 Warriors).
LaMarcus Aldridge: He’s going to make the Hall of Fame someday and it’s going to leave you cold.
Nikola Vucevic: A 21-12 guy who’s making 40 percent of his 3s and successfully passing out of double-teams without whipping the ball off some dude’s face sitting courtside. He might even make the playoffs and get overpaid next summer! What a turn of events for someone whose previous career highlight was somebody making this “White Howard” video.
Jonathan Isaac, Mo Bamba: It’s hard to be brimming with Trade Value when everyone knows your screwed-up franchise is going to mangle your development, yank your minutes around, and then deal you for 40 cents on the dollar two or three years from now. The Magic need to hire Derek Fisher as their GM so they can combine their acumen for depreciating assets with Fisher’s predatory lending company for struggling players; they can become a one-stop shop for ruining NBA careers. If that’s not the perfect way to entice Kris Jenner to offer $2 billion to buy the Magic, then I don’t know anything.
Dillon Brooks, MarShon Brooks: I mean, these guys are VERY hard to trade. Lemme quickly adjust my “GMs Most Likely to Screw Up a Three-Team Deal by Not Double-Checking Who’s Actually in It” Power Rankings.
- Ernie Grunfeld (last month: 2)
- Chris Wallace (last month: 4)
- James Jones (NEW)
- Vlade Divac (last month: 1)
- Dell Demps (last month: 3)
Brad Stevens: Let’s just say I had him higher before the season started.
Justise Winslow, Josh Richardson: Pat Riley since the 2014 Finals: Lost LeBron … turned down four first-rounders for Winslow … traded two firsts for Goran Dragic … matched a $50 million offer for Tyler Johnson … spent over $150 million on deals for James Johnson, Dion Waiters, and Kelly Olynyk … spent $98 million on a Hassan Whiteside extension … couldn’t land Kevin Durant, Jimmy Butler, or Kawhi Leonard … is headed for the deep lottery and doesn’t have his 2021 first. Meanwhile, Jerry West won two rings in Oakland, then showed up in Clippers Land and they immediately made 29 straight great moves. Up through Thanksgiving … advantage, Jerry! But Richardson’s hot start (he’s cooled off, but still) and Winslow’s recent stretch of superb basketball means this isn’t over yet. Don’t be surprised to see Winslow in the Top 55 next month. I’m planting the seed now.
Danilo Gallinari: Tanned, chiseled, and back to being a consistent 20-and-7 guy.
Kyle Kuzma: Has an excellent chance to become a tanned, chiseled, and consistent 20-and-7 guy.
Pascal Siakam: “He should have made the Top 55! Nobody gives us any respect! It’s just cuz we’re in Canada!” Fine, fine, Raptors fanatics … I’ll move him up. Don’t @ me.
Blake Griffin: You can trace the entire past decade in the NBA through Blake: Lob City (when in-game social media highlights took off); the Kardashian-Jenner shadow (he dated one); contrived corporate tie-ins (the Kia dunk); the birth of NBA Summer Twitter (Blake and Co. “kidnapping” DeAndre Jordan and talking him out of a Mavs deal in 2015 as Twitter lost its mind); the Sterling fiasco (which drove the price of NBA franchises through the roof); the Player Empowerment Decade (leveraging the Clips into a max despite having missed 83 games in the previous three seasons); the Lee Jenkins Celebrity Profile era (last year’s infamous Jenkins profile that barely mentioned Griffin’s wild fight with an equipment manager and positioned Griffin as a Clipper for life—whoops); his excellent Roast Battle with Jeff Ross (because no NBA star just plays basketball anymore); and even his unwieldy max extension (and the always important question, “Should you murder 40 percent of your cap with someone who can’t be the best guy on a title team?”).
The question remains: Can someone be underrated AND untradable? Even at this point of Blake’s career—when he’s still an All-Star (25-9-5, plus 3-point range this year!), but we know about those eight injures/surgeries and the inevitable late-’90s Larry Johnson phase of his career that’s looming—I’d still rather have him than anyone else from Honorable Mention. You gotta spend money on someone. Either way, he probably would have placed fifth after Davis, Curry, Durant and LeBron after the 2015 playoffs. Three years later, he couldn’t crack the Top 55. Seriously, has anyone ever crossed paths with Donald Sterling and ended up better off? He’s like the old lady in Drag Me to Hell.
Group M: “You Realize He’s a Free Agent Next Summer, Right?”
55. Tobias Harris
54. Khris Middleton
53. Jimmy Butler
Group L: “We Can’t Trade Him; People Will Realize We Have No Clue What We’re Doing”
52. Kevin Knox
51. Collin Sexton
50. Caris LeVert
Group K: “Sorry, He’s Worth More to Us Than to You”
49. Clint Capela
48. Jamal Murray
47. Trae Young
46. Domantas Sabonis
45. Pascal Siakam
44. Jaylen Brown
43. Lonzo Ball
42. Steven Adams
41. Kyle Lowry
40. Jrue Holiday
39. DeMar Derozan
38. Mike Conley Jr.
37. Marc Gasol
Group J: “No Thanks — We Don’t Want Him Coming Back to Haunt Us”
36. Lauri Markkanen
35. Marvin Bagley III
34. Buddy Hield
33. Brandon Ingram
Group I: “If You’re Shopping Him NOW, Then Either You Can’t Sign Him This Summer or Something’s Wrong”
32. Kemba Walker
31. Klay Thompson
30. Kyrie Irving
Group H: “If You Tell Woj, I’ll Deny It to the Death … but I’m Listening”
29. CJ McCollum
28. Draymond Green
27. Paul George
26. Bradley Beal
25. Rudy Gobert
Group G: “Too Young, Too Cheap, Too Good … Stop Calling Me”
24. Deandre Ayton
23. Wendell Carter Jr.
22. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
21. Jaren Jackson Jr.
20. Donovan Mitchell
Group F: “Lemme Save You Some Time: N-O”
19. Russell Westbrook
Group E: “Look, I Dunno If He’s a Franchise Guy, but He’s OUR Franchise Guy”
18. Devin Booker
17. Kristaps Porzingis
16. Karl-Anthony Towns
15. De’Aaron Fox
Group D: “True Franchise Guys”
14. Damian Lillard
13. Victor Oladipo
Group C: “I’m Hanging Up and Calling You Back From a Burner Phone”
12. Kawhi Leonard
11. James Harden
10. Kevin Durant
Group B: “The Untouchables”
9. Jayson Tatum
8. Ben Simmons
7. Nikola Jokic
6. Joel Embiid
5. Luka Doncic
Group A: “Completely and Utterly Untouchable”
4. LeBron James
3. Steph Curry
2. Anthony Davis
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo