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The State of the NBA Star Trade

A precipitous dip in revenue and a barren free-agent class could make it tough for teams to fill their roster holes whenever sports return, paving the way for the next blockbuster trade. Here’s what teams looking for a major upgrade (Bradley Beal, perhaps?) can learn from five recent star-studded deals.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NBA’s upcoming free-agent class is exactly as deflating as this season would prime you to expect. Exactly one superstar will come available, to the extent that Anthony Davis—who is all but certain to remain a Laker—is really available at all. The next-best player on the board (Brandon Ingram) is a restricted free agent too essential to the growth of his team to be lured away. Beyond that lies a mush of fine, aggravating, and underwhelming players, and a league full of teams angling to upgrade their rosters. Even when accounting for the unique finances of the NBA at present, the lopsided supply and demand of this free agency period could take the market to some strange, strange places.

For starters, front offices don’t know how much cap space they’ll actually have, or when their offseason will actually take place. Neil Paine of FiveThirtyEight estimated that the season’s potential cancellation could cut league revenue—the anchor figure used to set the salary cap—by upward of a billion dollars. Even if the NBA is able to resume for a bubble playoff, keeping players and personnel safe while maintaining that bubble will come at incredible cost. Hundreds if not thousands of people will need to be housed, fed, and regularly tested. That may be what it takes to keep broadcast agreements intact, but teams have no way to recoup their lost gate revenue, and will likely have their spending artificially curbed when the cap comes in lower than initially projected.

Some teams may look to circumvent free agency wherever possible. Franchises eager to improve but unsatisfied with the offerings could be especially active on the trade market—a perspective I personally connect to, after empty grocery store shelves led me to order yeast on eBay. Rather than pay top dollar for Gordon Hayward, Hassan Whiteside, or Paul Millsap, some teams will go looking for talent that might not otherwise seem available.

Bradley Beal, contrary to the persistent rumor mill, is not on the market. But under these circumstances, and with these alternatives, would it really be so surprising to see an interested suitor go over the top with an offer? And that’s just the most obvious candidate: an All-NBA–level player on a lottery-level team. This could be the time to kick the tires on even more radical propositions. Could the Sixers be blown away with an offer for Ben Simmons? Is there a play to be made for Donovan Mitchell or Rudy Gobert after their recent falling out? Is there really any harm in a temperature check on Karl-Anthony Towns?

It’s not always obvious when a star player begins to grate against his surroundings. This should be the offseason for executives to check in, just in case, and to see what it might take to swing a megawatt trade. For that, we can start with what we know of the high-end NBA economy. There is no unifying theory in trading for a superstar; offers swing wildly with the desperation of teams on the ropes and the ambition of teams on the rise. Still, there’s something to be learned from every one and the circumstances that gave them traction.

Russell Westbrook to the Rockets

The Thunder’s haul: Chris Paul, top-four-protected first-round picks in 2024 and 2026, and the right to swap first-round picks in 2021 and 2025

The broader takeaway: There’s no time like the offseason.

A blockbuster, a reboot, and a challenge trade all in one. In the construction of this deal, however, it was the Rockets who gave up the superstar package: two lightly protected first-round picks, two protected pick swaps, and a Hall of Fame point guard. An imbalance in the pressure on the two teams involved created an imbalance in the cost of doing business. Oklahoma City could afford to wait. Paul George was already gone at this point, traded away to the Clippers by his own request. Investigating the market for Westbrook was a natural follow-up, though if no trade had materialized, the Thunder could always run another season with the most revered player in franchise history.

Could the Rockets have done the same? Maybe, though not without addressing the growing, reported friction between Paul and James Harden, the unstated reason for making this trade in the first place. What accelerated matters was the fact that OKC had something Houston wanted: a star player and a compatible salary situation. Trading a player who makes $38.5 million is a logistical nightmare—as cumbersome as negotiating a couch up a tightly wound stairwell. With Paul, who turns 35 in May, also came the obligation of another $85.6 million over the following two seasons. The teams flexible enough to absorb that kind of long-term salary weren’t likely to have the talent the Rockets wanted, the contracts they needed, or the interest in reshaping their entire world around a star in twilight.

This deal came together because the Rockets caught the Thunder at a point of transition. Blockbuster trades tend to break in the offseason for a reason: Franchises are forced to reconsider their direction in real time, and have the flexibility to actually do something about it. Oklahoma City showed the power in that opportunity. What could have been a simple player-for-player swap wound up bringing in a remarkable amount of draft capital for the Thunder—all without making the team materially worse.

Paul George to the Clippers

The Thunder’s haul: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, Miami’s 2023 first-round pick, unprotected first-round picks in 2022 and 2024, and the right to swap first-round picks in 2021 and 2025

The broader takeaway: Secondary stars can fetch a superstar price.

The common refrain, from both analysts and team officials, is that the Clippers traded away this relative fortune to land both George and (free agent) Kawhi Leonard. It’s a valid premise, seeing as Leonard signing was contingent on the Clippers adding another star, though it undersells the fact that the Thunder recouped all the benefits for just one of those two players. This is the hidden appeal of having a player like George—a hypercompatible star who could fit alongside almost anyone. Other teams know this. And when their own frustrated stars plead for help, desperate executives will often look first to balanced, complementary fits like George.

Oklahoma City didn’t score this incredible return because George was an unimpeachable lead star. They pulled it off because he was a perfect secondary, as identified by the Clippers and hand-picked by Leonard. What makes Beal’s situation so fascinating is that he falls into a similar category. Strong shooters who can work without the ball are the game’s universal adapters. If you want to run more of your offense through George or Beal, you can—as evidenced by the Wizard’s 30.5 points per game this season. If you need Beal to balance the floor from the weak side, he’ll keep defenses honest and create when the opportunity arises. This is partly why he winds up churned, again and again, through the trade machine. Any team could make room for Beal and what he does best.

For teams lucky enough to have such a player, patience should be the default. The Wizards should feel no pressure whatsoever to trade Beal, no matter how many people in and around the league would like to see him traded. The security of the contract extension Beal signed last October—which extends until 2022 with a $37 million player option for the 2022-23 season—works both ways. You rely on Beal. You build with him. Offers will inevitably come at their own pace, and they will crest with some other team’s desperation. And in that moment, the franchise has a choice: to continue along, come what may, or cash out to a team willing to pay the price of two stars so that Beal can help them keep their own or secure another.

Anthony Davis to the Lakers

The Pelicans’ haul: Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, Lonzo Ball, the no. 4 pick in the 2019 draft (used to select De’Andre Hunter, who was subsequently traded to the Hawks), an 8-to-30 protected pick in 2021, an unprotected first-round pick in 2024 (or 2025, if the Pelicans choose), the right to swap first-round picks in 2023, and cash considerations. (The Lakers also gave up Moe Wagner, Isaac Bonga, Jemerrio Jones, and a 2022 second-round pick to the Wizards as part of the deal.)

The broader takeaway: Leverage is a construct, complete with a blueprint.

Implicit in the act of requesting a trade is the acknowledgment that a player’s fate is not squarely in his own hands. A superstar can make the ask. They can make a stink. What happens next is largely out of their control—dependent, even in the age of player empowerment, on the compliance of a team that may have no real benefit in trading them. So those teams weigh all sorts of intangible costs against one another, guessing at what effect all this might have on team chemistry, market dynamics, or fan morale. The Pelicans, to their credit, were so unsatisfied with the initial options for trading Davis that they chose to live in that strange, nebulous state for months longer than they could have.

Considering how their deal turned out, I’d expect the next team of an unhappy superstar to do the same. Urgency in these matters is largely what you make of it; if a franchise feels the need for closure, it’s free to chase it. If, however, the team is willing to live with some public scrutiny, there’s a lot that can be gained for a team at least choosing the timing of its blockbuster trade. After months of public negotiation, the Pelicans wrung just about everything they could have wanted from the Lakers, whose eagerness to make this deal was betrayed by the final product. There’s a blueprint here for the small-market teams who tend to be the victims of forced trades. By showing a willingness to endure the soap opera of an ordeal like this, a team can manufacture its own leverage.

Jimmy Butler to the Sixers

The Timberwolves’ haul: Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Jerryd Bayless, and a 2022 second-round pick. (The Timberwolves also gave up Justin Patton in the deal.)

The broader takeaway: Forced trades can sour quickly.

Most superstar trades will take years to fully resolve. Draft picks might not convey for a half-decade, once their protections finally recede. Players acquired with little time left on their contracts will add a new layer to the deal by way of free agency. Time clarifies—turning prospects into players, ideas into tangible realities. If you’re a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves, you wake up one day to find that every player who came back in the Butler trade is now gone, just 17 months later.

Let’s follow the thread. Bayless rode out the season with the Wolves and was not re-signed. Saric was dealt on draft night last year—effectively as the price for Minnesota to move from the no. 11 slot to no. 6, where they selected Jarrett Culver. Covington would play 70 total games for the Wolves over two seasons, his tenure complicated by injury. Eventually he became the lever in one of the largest trades in NBA history: a four-team deal that landed the Wolves Malik Beasley, Juancho Hernangómez, Jarred Vanderbilt, Evan Turner, and a 2020 first-round pick. It’s as if the return Minnesota (under new management as of this season) thought it was getting has slowly crumbled away. There are a lot of pieces to hold, but do they really amount to anything?

Beasley is the clearest exception, and could be very good for the Wolves for years to come. Still, the idea that he would already be the centerpiece of the Butler trade is indicative of how fast this can all fall apart. Minnesota rushed into trading Butler to begin with, likely out of concern that its entire season would be ruined by his scorched-earth theatrics. Not every team gets to wait out the market like the Pelicans did. Some are just trying to make it through the week without their agitated star setting the practice court on fire.

Kawhi Leonard to the Raptors

The Spurs’ haul: DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, a 2019 protected first-round pick (conveyed at no. 29, Keldon Johnson). (The Spurs also gave up Danny Green in the deal.)

The broader takeaway: Focusing on the short term can be devastating.

There are cautionary tales, and then there’s this: a catastrophic blunder made by one of the most accomplished franchises in all of professional sports. It defies logic to this day. Even with all of the extenuating circumstances involved (Kawhi’s injury, Kawhi’s free agency, Kawhi’s reportedly icy relations with the Spurs ...), there isn’t any justification for downgrading this significantly without adjusting course. Teams can more easily work out mutually beneficial deals when their goals are misaligned—say, when one team is looking to contend and the other to rebuild. San Antonio instead chose to chase a lesser version of what it already had, and accepted one of the stranger return packages for a superstar in modern NBA history.

Through great scouting and even better developmental processes, the Spurs found a generational superstar to succeed Tim Duncan. Then, they traded him without getting so much as a single blue-chip prospect in return—Spurs contrarianism pushed well beyond its limit. If this deal teaches us anything, it’s that teams with great, available talent can sometimes behave counterintuitively. Best interests are impressionistic. What seems right for a franchise might not seem right to its star, its coach, its general manager, or its owner. There is a balance of those viewpoints that can be healthy. Miscalculate, however, and a storied franchise can have its worst season in 23 years.