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Five Hypothetical Deals to Kick Off NBA Trade Season

To mark the unofficial start of the NBA’s silly season, we zoom in on a handful of teams to watch between now and the February trade deadline

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The NBA’s unofficial trade season begins on December 15, when almost every player who signed a contract over the summer becomes trade eligible. That date doesn’t signal an immediate flurry of activity, but for general managers it does increase options, broaden negotiations, and allow deals that were once just speculative to unfold.

This primer of hypothetical trade ideas does not deal strictly with players who are newly eligible to be moved. It’s more a temperature check for several teams that may desire some type of change—why they need it, who they’ll be interested in, and what could actually happen before the deadline passes on February 8.

The Indiana Pacers Make a Statement

The Pacers are skipping around the league with the greatest offense in NBA history, and a gimmicky defense that seemingly baits opponents to feast in the paint. So far, that balance has yielded the season’s 12th-best net rating and a 13-9 record, good for fifth in the East. If Indy does nothing before the trade deadline, this team can still make the playoffs and be competitive in Round 1—or maybe even win a series. That’s how overwhelming their offensive attack is, and how special Tyrese Haliburton has become.

That patient route is perfectly fine: The Pacers are flexible enough to open max cap space this summer, and are young enough at some pretty important positions to develop organically. But their recent play (including an impressive in-season tournament run) may warrant a more aggressive external boost. Should they not feel super confident about their status as a free agent destination (which, Bruce Brown Jr.’s recent signing and Haliburton’s intention to recruit fellow stars aside, is understandable for a small-market organization) then expect an attempt to strike oil sometime over the next couple of months.

The Raptors are an obvious trade partner and Pascal Siakam is a popular name in this type of conversation, but his fading 3-point shot, age, and looming price tag are all reasons the Pacers should steer clear. Instead, here’s a thought:

Indiana gets OG Anunoby and Otto Porter Jr.
Toronto gets Buddy Hield, Jarace Walker, and two unprotected first-round picks

Anunoby (who played at Indiana University!) is exactly what the Pacers need on defense and a neat fit on the other end. The benefits of prying him away from Toronto are obvious, but whether it’s realistic is another question. Would the Raptors demand that Bennedict Mathurin be part of the deal? How much do they like Walker? Are the Pacers willing to surrender more than one unprotected first-round pick for someone they could sign as a free agent this summer, allowing them to keep their powder dry?

Going that route is mostly theoretical and could complicate their ability to re-sign Obi Toppin or pick up Brown’s team option. Anunoby may garner a maximum contract. An in-season trade, though, would give Indiana his Bird Rights, which would make keeping him a little easier. Acting sooner rather than later to acquire one of the most versatile defenders in the league—someone who can credibly spend a few minutes every game at the 5 and, at 26 years old, grow on the Pacers’ timeline—makes plenty of sense.

This isn’t without risk for the Pacers, though. Unprotected first-round picks are always valuable, and Walker is a rookie who may eventually supply an adequate facsimile of Anunoby’s production at a much lower salary. But given the Pacers’ weaknesses and how awesome they already are, Anunoby is the type of upgrade who justifies a prohibitive cost. If they aren’t aggressive, the Sixers, Knicks, Hawks, Heat, Magic (!), and several other candidates I’m not even thinking about are lurking. Indiana might need him the most, while also offering the most mutually beneficial situation.

The Golden State Warriors Go Star Hunting

In light of Draymond Green’s indefinite suspension, there’s a decent chance Golden State’s championship aspirations have been eclipsed by its defensive anchor’s inability to control his emotions. If so, the Warriors should forget about taking any major short-term swings. The circumstances are too hazy. The effort, of late and in general, is too passive and inconsistent. The roster? Borderline unsalvageable.

At the same time, it would be a basketball sin to coast through the next few months knowing they aren’t good enough to make a title run. So long as Steph Curry is one of the best players on Planet Earth, the Warriors have an obligation to assemble the most competitive roster they possibly can.

Curry will turn 36 in March and, while he’s surrounded by crisis, he is having a typically excellent season that includes the third-highest true shooting percentage and highest free throw rate of his career. Anyone who watched Golden State’s most recent loss against the Thunder witnessed a breathtaking slew of absurd stepback 3s barely lofted over an otherwise perfect defense. None of it was unusual. But the fact that Curry’s team lost after he put on such a brilliant one-man show (kinda) is.

The Warriors—now 10-13 and 11th place in the West—have been outscored when Curry is on the court this season, and small lineups with Green at the 5 are Swiss cheese. The ace that used to live up Steve Kerr’s sleeve is now tacked onto his forehead. This team will drown if it doesn’t do something significant.

The nuclear option (trading Curry) isn’t realistic for a thousand reasons. Moving on from Klay Thompson, Green, or Andrew Wiggins would be palatable if any of them had enough trade value to bring someone back who would improve Golden State in the short or long term. Unfortunately, they don’t. Green is a mess. Wiggins is a shell of himself. Thompson is adjusting to the back nine of his career and wants a new contract.

The (potentially) good news for the Warriors, though, is that the best player who is (conceivably) available in a trade this season is good enough to rejuvenate a fading albeit proud and battle-tested core. That player is Lauri Markkanen. If the Jazz are willing to sell high on their All-Star forward (and at 8-16, near the start of a rebuild, it’s easy to see why they should), then Warriors GM Mike Dunleavy Jr. should call Danny Ainge and Justin Zanik with a bunch of attractive stuff on the table. Here’s one splashy deal that makes enough sense for both sides.

Warriors get: Markkanen
Jazz get: Jonathan Kuminga, Moses Moody, Gary Payton II, and two unprotected first-round picks

Golden State’s best path forward, ironically, is to double down on its veteran experience and completely turn the page on the remnants of a two-timeline plan that’s currently on life support. Here’s their nine-man rotation after making this trade: Curry, Markkanen, Wiggins, Thompson, Green, Kevon Looney, Chris Paul, Dario Saric, and Brandin Podziemski. This team can win the title!

Curry—a once-in-several-lifetimes talent whose prime should be maximized at all costs—gets a sidekick and his most talented teammate since Kevin Durant left, a dangerous pick-and-roll partner who stretches the floor and was born to thrive in Kerr’s motion offense. Crucially, the Warriors also get a lot bigger. Markkanen is a legit 7 feet tall and can coexist on both ends with two of Looney, Green, and Saric. These lineups would bring the snarl they’re lacking.

Meanwhile, the Jazz get two 21-year-old lottery picks who’ve won a championship and (might) need a change of scenery to unlock their potential, plus two more draft picks that are incredibly valuable, knowing Curry may not be around when they’re forked over.

A Slight but Meaningful Upgrade for the Boston Celtics

As was expected before this season began, Boston’s top six players are better than every other team’s. Behind them are solid contributors like Sam Hauser, Payton Pritchard, and Luke Kornet, but Brad Stevens is still likely to make some type of move before the trade deadline, be it for an insurance policy or someone who can actually crack Joe Mazzulla’s playoff rotation.

Boston still has several draft picks to dangle and a few trade exceptions to take advantage of, but don’t expect anything transformative. There aren’t too many gettable winning players who work on a team that won’t offer many shots or touches. Enter: John Konchar, a low-usage, cost-controlled utilitarian who would be ideal filling a small hole on a contender. Instead of relying on All-Star teammates to make him better, Konchar is the type of role player who goes out of his way to ease the All-Star’s job.

He functions on both ends, has great hands, and makes quick decisions, hustle plays, and open 3s while understanding, at all times, why he’s on the court. For Celtics fans who haven’t seen much of Konchar, think “Poor Man’s Derrick White.” Konchar is a connector who doesn’t stop moving and keeps the ball hopping whenever it finds him. He’d look better in Boston, where spacing isn’t the issue it’s always been in Memphis.

The Grizzlies recently signed Konchar to a team-friendly, three-year, $18.5 million deal, but with their season swirling a toilet bowl, they could consider cashing out on a 27-year-old who doesn’t make as much sense in a losing situation. The Celtics can either offer one of their veteran minimum signings (say, Svi Mykhailiuk) and a couple of second-round picks, or just fill their last roster spot by sliding Konchar into the trade exception that was created when they lost Grant Williams. It’s not the sexiest trade but would likely enhance Boston’s strengths in a subtle way that would matter deep into the Celtics’ playoff run.


The Philadelphia 76ers Find Their Missing Piece

As the Denver Nuggets proved last season, multiple superstars aren’t a prerequisite to win the title. Nikola Jokic led his team to the mountaintop without any All-Star teammates. That isn’t to say he did it alone, of course: Jamal Murray is an All-NBA talent, Aaron Gordon is a physical two-way force who generates frequent mismatches as perhaps the NBA’s most overqualified supplementary piece, and Michael Porter Jr. is currently on a max contract. But the point technically stands, and is backed by what happened the year before, when Golden State won its fourth championship: Green, Thompson, Wiggins, and Looney were major contributors on that run, but the Warriors roster revolved around one galactically talented presence.

It’s not impossible to go all the way if you employ a superduper star who consistently elevates the talented, sensible supporting cast around him. After the Sixers traded James Harden for Nicolas Batum, Robert Covington, Marcus Morris, KJ Martin, and two first-round draft picks, there was much discussion about how Daryl Morey could turn that haul into a household name. Given how the team has looked this year, though, with Tyrese Maxey emerging as a strong candidate to win Most Improved Player (26 points and 6.8 assists per game with the 15th-highest PER in the league will do that), Philly should instead consider splurging on an elite role player.

Alex Caruso would fit anywhere, but his impact in Philly could be especially transformative. He’s a game-changing defender who can drill big shots and thrive without the ball in his hands. Caruso would have a priceless impact that would be felt in a playoff series against the Celtics, Bucks, or Heat. There aren’t many five-man units that would strike more fear in crunch time than Caruso, Maxey, Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, and Nicolas Batum.

Furkan Korkmaz, Danuel House Jr., and two first-round picks sounds incredibly steep for someone who’s averaging 9.5 points per game on a contract that’s team-friendly but will still chip into Philly’s coveted cap space this summer. My response to that: So what? If the Sixers think they can win it all this year with Caruso on their team (they can) and are more likely than not to fall short without him (also yes) then the expense is worth it.

The Oklahoma City Thunder Address Their Achilles’ Heel

The Thunder might be too young to win the title, but they damn sure look like a title contender right now, ranking third in net rating with a top-six offense and defense. They also happen to be the worst rebounding team in the league—the Wizards technically rank 30th in rebound rate but aren’t a serious franchise right now; all statistics accrued against them should be stricken from official record books—and start a (very good!) rookie who might weigh 145 pounds at center. They should consider adding another big man, preferably one who can clean the glass.

Terrific news: Andre Drummond can still do that! He has by far the highest rebound rate in the league among players who’ve logged at least 300 minutes this season. It’s his signature skill and, given how depressing the Bulls are, it should be attainable at a reasonable price. One option, for a franchise that doesn’t like spending money, is dumping Drummond’s $3.4 million contract into one of two modest trade exceptions OKC currently has. For that to happen, the Thunder would have to clear a roster spot, which complicates things.

What about a straight swap of Drummond for Tre Mann and a second-round pick? That might be too rich for Sam Presti’s blood, but he should imagine a playoff series against the Lakers, Wolves, Nuggets, or Pelicans. Having a very large backup center who can add some heft and depth to their frontcourt could help. As the great Pat Riley once said: “No rebounds. No rings.”

P.S.: I know I already mentioned the Warriors as a perfect destination for Markkanen, but OKC works just as well, especially if the Thunder are willing to offer more draft compensation and/or the Jazz like Josh Giddey more than Kuminga. The Thunder don’t operate haphazardly, but they do have enough assets to pick up the phone and tilt the Western Conference in their favor. Even though Presti has intimated that his Thunder would have a quiet trade deadline, keep an eye on them. If there’s one team best positioned to eventually make a league-altering consolidation trade, it’s Oklahoma City.

A Roundup of Hypothetical Star Trades That Almost Definitely Won’t Happen

Zach LaVine to the Pistons for Jaden Ivey, Joe Harris, and Alec Burks

If this looks ridiculous, I agree. But the most dysfunctional organization in the league—done in by a crowded front office that’s prone to undercut whatever their long-term plan might be—is also desperate. A 21-game losing streak will do that. LaVine is established as a gettable talent who’s ostensibly good. A clear-eyed organization would not consider trading the fifth pick in the 2022 draft for him. But Monty Williams clearly isn’t Ivey’s biggest fan. This trade appears to be ludicrous until you realize the Pistons are the team that’s making it.

Pascal Siakam to the Hawks for De’Andre Hunter and Bogdan Bogdanovic

Atlanta is a wandering basketball team, helped and hindered by its franchise point guard. Will Siakam cure what ails the Hawks? Probably not. But if they can add someone this talented for Hunter and Bogdanovic, might as well go for it. The haul seems low, but how much can Toronto really get for an expensive soon-to-be 30-year-old who isn’t very malleable and is about to become an unrestricted free agent?

Donovan Mitchell to the Heat for Tyler Herro, Jaime Jaquez Jr., and two first-round picks

This is very pie-in-the-sky and I’m not sure either side would say yes. Today. But the clock is ticking in Cleveland and Miami (where Jimmy Butler is 34 years old). If the Cavaliers feel like their relationship with Mitchell is going to end when his current contract expires, selling high to one of a few teams that are confident in their ability to retain him would be a shrewd move.

DeMar DeRozan to the Clip … just kidding!