The NBA trade deadline is two days away, which means the New York Knicks are firing the top executive in their front office while the rest of the league is making another round of calls to finalize potential roster upgrades, whether they be a championship contender or a team in transition.
Roughly a third of the league falls into the former category entering the first trade deadline since the Golden State Warriors dynasty crumbled. By my count, 10 teams — five from each conference — can talk themselves into true title contention with improvements ranging from marked to marginal.
With so many teams still vying for the playoffs and so few free agents worth creating cap space for this summer, conventional wisdom suggests we could be in for a relatively quiet 48 hours. But that is no fun. Here is one hypothetical trade for each that makes them all serious challengers at once ...
Milwaukee Bucks (42-7)
In: Robert Covington
Out: Ersan Ilyasova, Sterling Brown, Dragan Bender and Indiana’s 2020 first-round pick
The Bucks really do not need to make a move. They are on pace for 70 wins and feature the best player alive operating within a system that is perfectly suited to his freakish skillset. Plus, the chemistry appears cohesive, and disrupting that could be a mistake for a championship contender.
If Milwaukee were to make a move, it would have to be a significant upgrade without tilting the balance too much on or off the court. This would satisfy that. Ilyasova’s length and shooting ability is useful when mixing and matching lineups, and his role is not insignificant on the Bucks, but Covington would be a marked upgrade defensively and a more versatile option on both ends.
The 24-year-old Brown holds some value, but he is a restricted free agent at season’s end. Bender carries a $1.8 million non-guaranteed deal into next season, which could be an asset going forward. But the real return for the terrible Timberwolves is the first-round pick from Indiana, which currently sits at No. 21 in what I’m told is a draft that has teams wary about its depth. Covington can walk as a free agent in July, and Minnesota may do no better than a mid-to-late-round pick for the veteran.
Toronto Raptors (36-14)
In: Jae Crowder
Out: Stanley Johnson, Dewan Hernandez and Toronto’s 2020 first-round pick
At first, I had this wild idea of sending out some of Toronto’s expiring contracts, including core players Marc Gasol and Fred VanVleet, along with OG Anunoby and a first-round pick in a blockbuster deal that would bring back Jrue Holiday and Jaxon Hayes from the New Orleans Pelicans. Then, I thought better of it. The chemistry on the Raptors is too good to disrupt. Gasol and VanVleet are big parts of that, and they deserve a chance to see this title defense through, for better or worse.
Instead, I scoured the list of available players for a wing that could pad Toronto’s depth and fit the vibe without altering the roster to a significant degree. In order to make the math work for a guy like Covington, Andre Iguodala or Marcus Morris, the Raptors would have to give up a core contributor, most likely Norman Powell, who is in the midst of a career year and under contract through 2022.
Given their success plucking talent from obscurity, the Raptors are surely open to parting with their first-round pick, which is currently in the 28th slot. That is not enough for a significant upgrade, and it would be hard to justify including one of their promising prospects to sweeten the pot for a rental.
That brought me to Crowder, a smart and versatile forward who does what is asked of him and commands respect from teammates. He fits, especially when his shot is falling. His contract is finally expiring, which means Memphis would likely trade him at a respectable cost, and Toronto could probably retain him for short money. I would much rather Crowder play Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s playoff minutes. It may not be enough to push the Raptors over the top, but it furthers what they are already doing and makes them an even more formidable out than they are now.
Boston Celtics (34-15)
In: Bogdan Bogdanovic and Richaun Holmes
Out: Enes Kanter, Romeo Langford, Vincent Poirier and two 2020 first-round picks
The bill is coming due for Sacramento’s one fun season that fell short of the playoffs. Harrison Barnes got his $85 million payday, Buddy Hield’s $94 million extension kicks in this summer, and De’Aaron Fox is up for one in 2021. If the Kings are not willing to extend themselves financially in the future, they may have to cut ties with Bogdanovic before he hits restricted free agency.
Bogdanovic is a 6-foot-6 sharpshooter who creates for himself and others. He would give Boston the deepest wing rotation in the league and insurance should Gordon Hayward not be in their long-term plans. Likewise, Holmes may be Sacramento’s most consistent performer. He is a hardworking big akin to Montrezl Harrell, only less heralded, and he is owed only $5 million next year, too.
Why would the Kings be interested? Well, first off, they are the Kings. They do a lot of inexplicable things. If they do not plan to retain Bogdanovic and believe Holmes could walk after next season, there are worse returns than Langford — a promising 20-year-old scorer — and a pair of mid-to-late first-round picks. Sacramento could likely swap Nemanja Bjelica for Holmes in a similar package.
Miami Heat (34-15)
In: LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMar DeRozan and Marco Belinelli
Out: Goran Dragic, Justise Winslow, Dion Waiters, Meyers Leonard, Tyler Herro and Miami’s 2020 first-round pick
This trade could really take any form — just Aldridge, just DeRozan or both. The Heat have the young talent, expiring contracts and their own first-round pick to make whichever work. Herro is probably the holdup here. Miami loves him. Would they part with Duncan Robinson instead?
According to the Miami Herald’s Barry Jackson, the Spurs would want more than Winslow, Derrick Jones Jr. and expiring contracts for Aldridge. Miami has a lot of options to make up the difference. Acquiring Winslow, another prospect and a late first-round pick would expedite what would almost certainly be a full-blown rebuild if the Spurs decided to move on from Aldridge or DeRozan or both.
As for Miami, they would be loading up without committing any additional money beyond 2021, when the next crop of big-name free agents will meet with Pat Riley. In the meantime, they are rolling out a starting five of Kendrick Nunn, Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, DeRozan and Aldridge.
Philadelphia 76ers (31-20)
In: Davis Bertans
Out: Zhaire Smith, Kyle O’Quinn and New York’s 2020 second-round pick
The Sixers desperately need offense, specifically floor-spacing options to un-jumble the odd fit between Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. Bertans is your man. The 27-year-old impending free agent is among the best high-volume shooters in the game, converting 42.9 percent of his 8.4 3-point attempts per game, and at 6-foot-10 he can get his shot over just about anyone.
Bertans fits Philadelphia’s monstrous roster and can fill any frontcourt position for a spell. Mostly, though, he would be a stretch four next to either Embiid or Al Horford. The Wizards are scoring an astounding 117.5 points per 100 possessions with Bertans on the floor, a year after the San Antonio Spurs posted a 119.4 offensive rating in his minutes, according to Cleaning the Glass. He is the only Washington regular with a positive net rating, and the Wizards are getting routed when he sits.
The question is whether Washington would be willing to trade him. The Wizards need to show Bradley Beal that they will be viable next season if they want to avoid a trade request this summer, and re-signing Bertans would be a step in that direction. He could command considerable money on the open market, and there is the possibility he could walk for nothing. If Washington is worried about either, snaring Smith and a high second-round pick might be the best they get for the rental.
Philadelphia can also up the ante with Oklahoma City’s 2020 first-round pick, which currently sits at No. 18. The Sixers may make that swap if they think they can win the title and/or retain Bertans.
Los Angeles Lakers (37-11)
In: Derrick Rose
Out: Kyle Kuzma, DeMarcus Cousins and Troy Daniels
The Lakers could use help on the wing, but that is easier said than done. With so many picks caught up in the Anthony Davis trade, Kuzma is really their only trade asset, and he only makes $1.9 million this season — with his restricted free agency looming in 2021. Making the money work in a trade for Andre Iguodala or Danilo Gallinari is almost impossible, and Kuzma may not be an attractive enough asset to pry Bogdanovic, Covington or Bertans away from their respective teams.
The Lakers also need playmaking help, and that is where Rose comes in. The 31-year-old was enjoying a dynamite season for the Detroit Pistons as a sixth man, until he was recently made a starter. He comes at an affordable price tag both this season and next, and he does not fit into Detroit’s long-term plans (mostly because they may not have any). He could run the offense in the minutes LeBron James sits and play alongside him and Anthony Davis as a third scoring threat. Rose also fits the reclamation theme in Los Angeles, still chasing a ring with the likes of Dwight Howard and other veterans.
Meanwhile, the Pistons could showcase Kuzma in hopes he finds some consistency to his scoring, as they weigh whether he is a fit for their rebuild or a piece they can spin forward into another asset.
Los Angeles Clippers (35-15)
In: Andre Iguodala
Out: Mo Harkless, Rodney McGruder and L.A.’s 2020 first-round pick
According to various reports, the Clippers are in the market for any number of fringe upgrades, whether it be a ball-handler, a wing or a big man. All would be luxuries for a relatively deep team already. Ideally, they would improve the role Harkless, JaMychal Green and Patrick Patterson all currently share and find someone to either back up or start over Ivica Zubac. Tristan Thompson is an interesting option for the latter scenario, but he may be less of a priority than a versatile forward.
Iguodala fills as many of those other holes as anyone, assuming he can shake off the rust from not playing for the past eight months. The 36-year-old brings championship experience in the form of playmaking, defense, shotmaking and wherewithal. The Clippers’ first-round pick is the last they can trade for the foreseeable future, so they might as well package it for a title-worthy booster, and that may be the best the Grizzlies get for a guy who is willing to sit out the rest of the season.
A less sexy option is Thaddeus Young, the ever-underrated forward who would give the Clippers a lot of what Iguodala can at five years his junior, with two seasons beyond this one left on his contract.
Denver Nuggets (34-16)
In: Kevin Love
Out: Mason Plumlee, Gary Harris and Denver’s 2022 first-round pick
The Love market is reportedly drying up, and that is a conundrum for the Cleveland Cavaliers, as the two sides clearly have little need for one another moving forward. Love is due $29 million at age 34 in 2022-23, which makes getting equal value in return for a five-time All-Star really difficult.
Denver has a surplus of wing depth and might be best served opening up some minutes for some of their younger talent. Harris has been a valuable contributor to their recent success, even if he has been in decline over the past two seasons. He is a 25-year-old with two-way talent under contract for two more seasons, and that fits Cleveland’s timeline. A future first-round pick sweetens the pot.
The Nuggets can shift things around and spread Harris’ minutes across a collection of guards and forwards, which in turn could give Malik Beasley and Michael Porter Jr. increased playing time. Love would allow Denver to mix and match lineups to keep pace with any offense. He also serves as Paul Millsap insurance for the remainder of this season and a replacement for him going forward.
Utah Jazz (32-17)
In: Aron Baynes
Out: Ed Davis, Golden State’s 2021 second-round pick and Utah’s 2022 second-round pick
Baynes has been great for the Phoenix Suns this season, doing all the little things that help lift a team off the mat. He defends, sets screens, boxes out and cleans up around the basket. He even stretches the floor as a legitimate threat to shoot from the perimeter. He is also an impending free agent who has been relegated to reserve action by the return of recent No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton.
Ed Davis is most of those things, too, and has another year left on his deal at only $5 million. He has not fit in Utah’s system, but he is a highly regarded teammate and someone who would mix well with the Suns as both a backup center and a stable locker-room presence at age 30. The two second-round picks also might help ease the pain of letting Baynes go before he can walk anyway.
As for the Jazz, they would get the backup center they need to spell Rudy Gobert. Baynes keeps the defense operating at a high level for 48 minutes and gives Utah a little more offensive versatility.
Houston Rockets (31-18)
In: Marcus Morris, Wayne Ellington and Markieff Morris
Out: Clint Capela, Nene Hilario, Gerald Green, Thabo Sefolosha and Houston’s first-round pick
This is maybe the most ludicrous scenario, but also the best. The Rockets would have to loop in both the Pistons and Knicks, which is something that could have general manager Daryl Morey licking his chops. They pair the Morris twins — either of whom could play center in Houston’s small-ball lineups — and add Ellington, a struggling shooter who might thrive in Houston’s system.
There is some magic to pairing the Morrises, two bruising bigs who work hard on defense and are shooting a combined 40 percent on 10 3-point attempts per game. You get both and whatever exponential upgrade comes from the two enjoying each other’s company. Plus, alongside Russell Westbrook and P.J. Tucker, they would give Houston the intimidation factor it lacked in the past.
The structure of this deal I worked on TradeNBA.com also had Andre Drummond going to the Knicks. The Pistons, meanwhile, would score a haul of Capela, expiring contracts and two late first-round picks — Houston’s this season and one from Dallas via New York in 2021 — for a guy who will likely leave this summer. The Knicks get an All-Star center for a late first, Morris and Ellington.
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