Kawhi Leonard’s masterstroke of steering Paul George to the Los Angeles Clippers essentially means every NBA star is a free agent, regardless of contract. George was a year removed from signing a four-year max deal when his request for a trade from the Oklahoma City Thunder was granted, practically without hesitation. As long as rival teams are willing to pay for elite talent, and they are, this will continue.
At this point, would it even surprise you if Karl-Anthony Towns or Ben Simmons, whose respective five-year maximum contract extensions do not expire until 2024 and 2025, requested trades this season? What if the former is not wild about still playing with Andrew Wiggins or the latter wants out from Joel Embiid’s shadow? You can bet teams would line up to offer their future draft capital for either one.
Over the past three years, 10 All-NBA players have been traded with at least a year left on their contracts. Eight current All-Stars have changed teams this summer. The threat of star players leaving via free agency is at an all-time high, and the cost of losing one for nothing is crippling. Somebody will be next. The question is: Who?
We’ve separated the most likely candidates into five categories, just for you.
Stars stuck on bad teams
Recent precedents: Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook
Oddly, the situations for Davis and Westbrook reversed course this summer. The future of the New Orleans Pelicans was brighter even before they acquiesced to Davis’ trade demand, thanks to some lottery luck, and Westbrook’s Oklahoma City Thunder turned into a rebuilding team overnight, courtesy of George’s request.
Both players also maneuvered their way onto contenders in divergent ways. Davis convinced the rest of the league he would only re-sign with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2020 free agency, while the Thunder willingly did right by Westbrook, who had given the organization 11 years of loyal service before an unexpected rebuild arose.
Either way, the teams trading them found a desperate contender willing to part with a cache of future assets in exchange for the hope that Davis and Westbrook deliver a championship. Both of these trades resulted in win-wins for both teams, which historically has not always been the case when teams trade in-their-prime stars.
Current candidates: Bradley Beal, Kevin Love
The Washington Post’s Candace Buckner recently reported that there is healthy skepticism around the league that Beal will decline a three-year, $111 million extension when the Washington Wizards offer it to him on July 26, which would immediately start the clock on his trade watch two years removed from free agency.
This comes as no surprise. Beal led the NBA in minutes played last season on a team that won 32 games. John Wall is likely sidelined for this entire season with an Achilles injury, and there is no reason to believe his return in 2020-21 will present any clearer of a path to contention. The Wizards reached their ceiling in a seven-game 2017 Eastern Conference semifinals series, and they have been headed for a rebuild ever since. Beal’s presence on the roster is actually hindering that process.
Similarly, there is no point to the Cleveland Cavaliers keeping Love. The post-LeBron Cavs will be among the worst teams in the NBA again this season. They are building around recent top-10 picks Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, who will not transform this team into a contender before Love’s contract reaches its end in 2023, when he turns 35 years old. Likewise, it is hard to imagine Love would want to spend this stage of his career the way he spent his first six NBA seasons.
Love’s age and injury history make him harder to deal than Beal, but both could be the final piece to a championship puzzle. The Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets immediately jump to mind as landing spots for their respective services.
Recent precedents: Blake Griffin, Chris Paul
The L.A. Clippers felt like a franchise stuck in Western Conference also-ran status, so they accelerated their rebuild by trading both Griffin and Paul for many of the pieces that helped them both sustain success and free up cap space to chase Kawhi Leonard. Griffin was already playing on an albatross contract that will pay him $39 million in 2021-22, and Paul was seeking one that will pay him even more.
Of course, Paul ultimately signed that contract with the Houston Rockets, who then found themselves stuck in the West mud. So, they just dumped his salary on the Thunder in exchange for Westbrook’s massive contract, which will help keep them in contention until it too becomes a weight that must be unburdened at a high cost.
These deals are not easy to make. Teams that have exhausted all options to build around a max-salaried star will eventually become desperate to offload that player once they can no longer justify the cost. The problem is finding someone willing to take on that contract. Generally, there are only one or two potential trade partners.
Current candidates: Chris Paul, John Wall
This is why the Thunder traded a younger, more valuable Westbrook for Paul. The Rockets were willing to part with two first-round picks and a pair of pick swaps just to get rid of the remaining three years and $124 million left on Paul’s contract. In each other, OKC and Houston found the one trade partner that could provide value.
Paul is essentially a placeholder for Westbrook’s bad contract, and the Thunder are surely canvassing the league for another team willing to take on the 34-year-old’s deal. OKC surely would have preferred to send Paul to a third team in the trade with Houston, and they are now left trying to extract value out of a future Hall of Famer.
The only contract more difficult to trade than Paul’s is probably Wall’s, because it is unclear when — or even if — the Wizards point guard will even play at an above-average level again. Neither player’s performance will match his contract value ever again, but Wall is just beginning his four-year, $171 million super-max extension this coming season, when he is unlikely to even play after suffering the Achilles injury.
The star-gazing Miami Heat were once considered candidates for Wall’s services before his injury, and they may be the most likely destination for Paul now or Westbrook later, if Russ’ partnership with James Harden sours the way Paul’s just did.
Impending restricted free agents
Recent precedents: James Harden, Kristaps Porzingis
In the summer of 2012, Harden turned down a four-year, $54 million extension from OKC in advance of his 2013 restricted free agency, which led to his trade to Houston, where he signed a five-year, $80 million extension. The average annual value difference was $2.5 million. The small-market Thunder decided that was too much, because they also had to pay Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka.
In the case of Porzingis, the New York Knicks either felt that their injured All-Star center was not worth the five-year, $158 million extension he just signed with the Dallas Mavericks, or that he would not sign it in New York. The Knicks could have forced the 7-foot-3 unicorn with a bum knee to choose between the security of a max deal in New York, where he was a basketball god, or playing on a $4.4 million qualifying offer in order to become an unrestricted free agent in 2020. They chose to trade him for Dennis Smith Jr., two future first-round picks and salary-cap relief.
Neither of these circumstances makes either deal a good one. It just means that teams set valuations on players entering the final years of their rookie deals, and when the expected free-market value is higher than that valuation, trades happen.
2020 restricted free agents: Jaylen Brown, Buddy Hield, Domantas Sabonis, Caris LeVert, Dejounte Murray
Members of the 2016 draft class became extension eligible this summer, which resulted in max contract extensions for both Jamal Murray and Ben Simmons. Their fellow first-round picks are currently slated to enter restricted free agency in 2020.
The other aforementioned members of that class with star potential could also sign extensions prior to the mid-October deadline, but none has commanded a max offer quite yet. Players with star potential are often willing to risk long-term security for the possibility of a bigger payday in restricted free agency, which could lead to many of them entering the final years of their rookie deals without an extension.
Whether any of them become available via trades will likely depend on how far apart negotiations are this summer. In almost all of their cases, the existing teams will be vying for playoff spots with other high-priced players under contract. That means, like the Thunder, they may be faced with the difficult decision between dipping into the luxury tax down the line or capitalizing on their current trade value.
Stars entering the final years of their deals
Recent precedents: Paul George, Kawhi Leonard
Entering the final year of his contract in 2017, George requested a trade from the Indiana Pacers, making known his intention to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers in unrestricted free agency, and Leonard did the same the following year. Ironically, both landed on the crosstown rival Clippers on the same day in 2019 free agency.
Stars under contract have their highest leverage to force a trade in the final years of their rookie-extension deals, when teams are most likely to acquiesce in fear of losing the face of a franchise for nothing. That also minimizes the rate of return, because potential suitors often assume the risk of losing that player in free agency.
In the case of Leonard, the Toronto Raptors saw a chance to chase a championship with little impact on an eventual rebuild. The San Antonio Spurs landed an All-Star, a recent future first-round pick and a future one in return. In the case of George, the Thunder saw a star partner for Westbrook. It cost them Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, both of whom exceeded their expected value since the trade.
2020 unrestricted free agents: Draymond Green, Kyle Lowry, Gordon Hayward, DeMar DeRozan, Andre Drummond
Hayward, DeRozan and Drummond all own player options for the 2020-21 season. Depending on how those borderline All-Stars perform this season, none may be worth on the open market what they would be paid on their current max contracts.
On the other hand, the 2020 free-agency class is as shallow as this year’s was deep. Green is probably the best player among them, and the former Defensive Player of the Year will be 30 years old when he hits free agency, barring a contract extension this summer. It will be easier for Hayward, DeRozan or Drummond to play their way into consideration for another fat contract in a less competitive market.
Lowry seems like the likeliest candidate to be moved among this group. In all likelihood, he will remain on the Raptors roster through the start of the season, if only so one of the stars from their 2019 title run is on the roster when the rings are handed out on opening night. It may not take long after that for both Lowry and the team to realize that a rebuild is afoot, and keeping a 33-year-old point guard around is less than ideal when he could prove more valuable to a contender elsewhere. His hometown Philadelphia 76ers or a DeRozan reunion in San Antonio could be fun.
Stars with two years left on their contracts
Recent precedents: Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving
In the summer of 2017, Butler wanted off a rebuilding team in Chicago, and Irving wanted off a title contender in Cleveland. People once thought they ultimately wanted to play together on the New York Knicks. Instead, Butler is in Miami, Irving is in Brooklyn, and the two have played for seven franchises not named the Knicks.
In the same summer, Butler and Irving helped push the clock on a player’s free agency from one to two years. This is how quickly the NBA has become even more volatile for teams trying to retain stars in the last half of their existing contracts.
The Minnesota Timberwolves and Boston Celtics surely felt good about respectively acquiring Butler and Irving with two seasons remaining on their contracts, not to mention the possibility of offering them a fifth year on their next max deals by the end of it. Instead, both turned into even bigger headaches for their new teams, which saw diminishing to no return on them in relatively no time.
2021 unrestricted free agents: Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Blake Griffin, Rudy Gobert, C.J. McCollum, Victor Oladipo, LaMarcus Aldridge, Jrue Holiday
Antetokounmpo is the ultimate prize, and you can be sure every team in the NBA has already held a meeting about how they can lure him away from the Milwaukee Bucks in 2021 free agency. But what if he sees the writing on the wall before then? What if a sub-championship ceiling for Milwaukee is apparent by season’s end? What if superstar pairings around the rest of the league lead Antetokounmpo to wonder whether Khris Middleton is really the one he wants for the next five years?
What if Antetokounmpo and Gobert strike up a friendship and decide they want their wingspans to cover an entire court for the same team? At what point would their teams give into their demands if they both threatened to walk in 2021. Heck, they could threaten to go to Europe together, and the NBA might give them their own team on the Mediterranean. This is how unpredictable the league has gotten.
It would not surprise me to see any of the big-name 2021 free agents sour on their situations in the near future. So much changes over the course of a year. Injury and chemistry issues can shake a roster at any time, altering a player’s perspective about his future in an instant. That Leonard and George are on this list already completes the circle of the new NBA life — star players are always on the clock.
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