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Steven Senne/Associated Press
Every NBA team’s offseason goal is to enter the upcoming campaign better than it exited the last one. Franchise-specific aims vary depending on where the club in question sits on the rebuilding-to-contending spectrum, but they all want to get better.
The available tools: internal development, free agency, the draft and trades.
Here, we’ll focus on that last one by zeroing in on some out-of-the-box potential trade targets for every team.
There’s not much shared space in a Venn diagram featuring “surprising” and “plausible” circles, but we’ll do our best to hit that sweet spot in the center. The idea is to find a target who’d help the team improve a particular weakness in its profile.
Hopefully, it’ll be one you haven’t seen suggested several times before.
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Jeff Chiu/Associated Press
The Atlanta Hawks made the conference finals without getting almost anything from De’Andre Hunter or Cam Reddish, so it’s hard to find any clear weakness to address via trade on a roster this deep and balanced.
Tony Snell and Lou Williams are both unrestricted free agents, though, and their potential departures could leave the Hawks a little shorter on knockdown three-point shooters than they’d like to be.
Mychal Mulder hit 38.1 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes for the Golden State Warriors last season, and his nonguaranteed minimum deal wouldn’t cost the Hawks much to acquire. It might only take a lightly protected second-round pick to pry the 6’3″ sniper away from the Dubs, who’ll reintroduce Klay Thompson to a wing rotation that will feature Andrew Wiggins, Damion Lee and (probably) at least one of their two lottery picks.
Mulder is no star, but he could cheaply replace some of the shooting Atlanta may lose in free agency.
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Frank Franklin II/Associated Press
Maybe it’s old-fashioned in a modern NBA where positional lines are blurred and versatility is more prized than ever, but it still feels like the Boston Celtics need a traditional point guard.
Kemba Walker is gone, Marcus Smart has immense value but doesn’t quite fit that mold, and Payton Pritchard hasn’t shown much facilitating knack yet. Two-way guard Tremont Waters may not be ready yet, and Yam Madar, a point guard Boston has stashed overseas, will need seasoning if he makes the jump to the NBA next year.
D.J. Augustin is a bit overpaid at $7 million for 2021-22, but he’d fit the bill.
Boston could give Augustin 20 minutes per game and know it was getting low-usage, high-efficiency shooting (37.9 percent from deep for his career) and capable facilitating that wouldn’t eat into the touches Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown need.
It’s an added bonus that Augustin’s 2022-23 salary is nonguaranteed.
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John Amis/Associated Press
DeAndre Jordan didn’t see the floor at all during the Brooklyn Nets’ playoff run. The general trend of postseason downsizing was a factor, but Jordan’s lack of mobility made him particularly ill-suited for Brooklyn’s most meaningful games.
The Nets figure to continue playing small in those situations going forward, especially if Blake Griffin and Bruce Brown re-sign in free agency. But Brooklyn could still use an upgrade when circumstances call for old-school size.
The Utah Jazz might be willing to part with backup Derrick Favors (because why roster two conventional centers these days?), who could help shore up the defense and control the boards whenever the Nets want to put an actual big on the floor. Though not exactly balletic in space, Favors is a bit lighter on his feet than Jordan, is three years younger and was the superior per-minute rebounder and shot-blocker last season.
Plus, there’s something appealing about Favors coming full circle, returning to the team that originally drafted him as a 19-year-old over a decade ago.
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Troy Taormina/Associated Press
One of relatively few teams with significant cap space to spend this summer, the Charlotte Hornets will primarily use free agency to revamp a roster that could lose up to four players who logged over 800 minutes last season.
Cody Zeller, Bismack Biyombo, Devonte’ Graham and Malik Monk are all free agents. While Charlotte may be glad to move on from the centers on that list, replacing the backcourt scoring of Graham and Monk (assuming neither returns) should be a priority.
Eric Gordon has struggled with injury in each of the last two seasons and is a little pricey with around $38 million in guaranteed money coming his way through 2022-23, plus a nonguaranteed $20.9 million in 2023-24. But the 32-year-old has a long history of effective scoring, as evidenced by his career average of 18.3 points per 36 minutes. When fit, Gordon is also a stout defender with sneaky length. For a Hornets team that should be trying to reach the postseason after peaking at the play-in round this year, Gordon could offer a real boost on both ends.
Better still, Charlotte could pick up some of the Houston Rockets’ draft capital in exchange for taking on Gordon’s money.
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Jeffrey McWhorter/Associated Press
The Chicago Bulls ranked 30th in the league in percentage of points generated at the free-throw line. That’s not entirely the fault of notorious foul-avoider Nikola Vucevic, who played only 26 games with the team following a deadline trade. But he and his 1.8 foul-shot attempts per game (with Chicago) certainly didn’t help.
Frequent trips to the free-throw line aren’t necessarily a prerequisite for good offense, but the Bulls ranked 21st in offensive efficiency despite finishing ninth in effective field-goal percentage. They shot the ball well from the field but clearly could have used a few extra points per game from the foul line.
Dwight Powell finished last season with a 63.9 percent free-throw rate, good for third in the league among qualified players. That partly reflects the fact that he doesn’t attempt many field goals (because his range is “dunk”), but it also shows how he brings physicality that puts defenders in positions where they have to foul. Powell is aggressive and seeks contact, forcing opponents to feel him around the basket, and that’s something that can’t be said about almost anyone else on the Bulls roster.
Chicago has Vucevic entrenched as the starter, but backup Daniel Theis is a free agent. If the Bulls want to add a new foul-drawing dimension, the Dallas Mavericks’ lob-catching center could certainly help.
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David Zalubowski/Associated Press
The Cleveland Cavaliers could capitalize on the Denver Nuggets’ timing troubles. Jamal Murray will likely miss the majority of the 2021-22 season, and Michael Porter Jr.’s looming extension means the Nuggets have to commit to a core they won’t be sure can win at the highest levels until at least 2022-23, when Murray is hopefully back to full health.
Taking back Collin Sexton and the No. 3 pick in the 2021 draft could help the Nuggets in several ways.
First, it would give them a scoring combo guard to fill the void in a Murray-less backcourt that could be further depleted if Will Barton opts out of his deal. Second, it would allow the Nuggets to add a high lottery pick that might make for a better all-around fit. Nikola Jokic and MPJ don’t figure to give Denver a championship-caliber defense.
The appeal to Cleveland is obvious. Porter is a brilliant young talent. He’s an effortless scorer who shot 54.2 percent from the field and 44.5 percent from distance. Once he scales up from the paltry 13.4 shots per game he averaged in 2020-21, a scoring average in the 30-point range is totally realistic. That No. 3 pick is highly valuable, but the Cavs would be lucky if it developed into a player as promising as Porter.
If Sexton is not a keeper, MPJ would look awfully nice as a cornerstone.
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Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press
This one comes close to failing the “surprising” requirement, as Luka Doncic’s fellow Slovenian is such a logical veteran fit with the Dallas Mavericks. If Doncic’s happiness is a concern (which, increasingly, it should be in Dallas), Dragic, who has a team option with the Miami Heat for $19.4 million in 2021-22, makes a lot of sense.
If Doncic gets frustrated, Dragic could help be the sage voice of reason.
Then again, Dallas goofed up a plan to get Dragic two years ago. Landing him after all this time would be odd and, therefore, would count as something of a surprise.
Practically speaking, Dragic could help address the Mavericks’ dearth of playmaking behind Doncic without compromising the team’s long-term flexibility. When his deal comes off the books in a year, Dallas could bring him back at a discount or let him go and then chase the same marquee free agents it always does.
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Brynn Anderson/Associated Press
Jamal Murray’s torn ACL will most negatively affect the Denver Nuggets offense, but Nikola Jokic can make just about any collection of dependent scorers look good. So instead of searching out a backcourt scorer to sop up minutes until Murray is ready to return, the Nugs should consider bolstering the defense.
Kris Dunn did his best work on that end in 2019-20, when he led the league with a 3.8 percent steal rate and proved he could put the clamps on opponents at either guard spot—and even small forward. Though the ship has sailed on the 2016 No. 5 overall pick becoming a franchise point guard, his defensive impact will keep him in the league for years to come.
Injuries have plagued Dunn throughout his career, and ankle surgery cost him all but four games with the Atlanta Hawks this season. If Denver is more willing to assume some injury risk than the Hawks, and if Dunn picks up his $5 million player option, he’d be a sound fit on a roster that could use a shutdown option in the backcourt.
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Chris Szagola/Associated Press
It’d be nice to get a defensive security blanket for Killian Hayes and (most likely) Cade Cunningham, the Detroit Pistons’ young cornerstones. Cunningham projects as a quality defender in time, but rookies always struggle, and Hayes will face a steep enough sophomore learning curve as it is, having missed most of his first season.
Then again, those two might also benefit from a rotation-caliber guard who can siphon defensive attention with the threat of his outside shot. With more room to operate, the game could beneficially slow down for Hayes and Cunningham.
The Pistons could ask the Memphis Grizzlies about De’Anthony Melton on the first issue, but that would likely be a quick conversation with the Grizz declining to deal. Grayson Allen, though? He might be gettable and would bring a career 38.1 percent knockdown rate from deep to a Pistons roster that ranked 26th in offensive efficiency last year.
Allen is 25 and can score the ball, but Memphis needs to find minutes for Melton, Dillon Brooks and Desmond Bane on the wing—not to mention Justise Winslow if he could ever stay healthy (and if the team picks up its club option for 2021-22). Allen would be more helpful to the rebuilding Pistons than the playoff-hunting Grizz, who have plenty of depth at the position.
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Doug McSchooler/Associated Press
You have to think big with any Golden State Warriors trade. Maximizing Stephen Curry’s prime by getting back to serious contention isn’t something they can accomplish with cute little value-adds on the margins.
Problem is, the Dubs are such a hot topic that we’ve already seen a million permutations of what they could acquire using some combination of Andrew Wiggins’ giant salary, James Wiseman and their two lottery picks in this year’s draft. Damian Lillard, Ben Simmons, Bradley Beal, Pascal Siakam, Myles Turner and almost any notable name you can imagine has already been tossed out in one speculative exercise or another.
Assuming Wiggins would be among the principals heading to Charlotte for Gordon Hayward, the Warriors would wind up shorter on athleticism and wing defense than they might prefer. But Hayward is an ace playmaker, exactly the kind of intuitive ball-mover and anticipator Golden State has sorely lacked to support Curry and Draymond Green. Everyone pegs Kelly Oubre Jr.’s shooting woes as the most disappointing aspect of his tenure with the Dubs, but his lack of feel and vision was just as damaging to the offense.
Hayward is a better shooter than Wiggins and would give the Warriors another savvy shot-creator, unleashing offensive flow rather than damming it up like so many of the roster’s support pieces did last season.
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Brandon Dill/Associated Press
This isn’t really about Dejounte Murray, an excellent defensive guard who could take a leap the moment his solid mid-range shooting extends beyond the arc. It’s about finding a way to move on from John Wall and the $91.7 million he’s due over the next two seasons (player option for 2022-23).
The San Antonio Spurs have a heap of cap space and are one of the very few teams that can simply add a massive salary to their books without having to send out a matching number. If the Spurs are ready to start operating like a normal franchise by accumulating picks and actually making trades, two approaches that weren’t heavily featured in their two-decade run of annual contention, Houston would make a good dance partner.
The Rockets have plenty of extra first-rounders coming over the next half-decade, thanks to the hauls for James Harden and Russell Westbrook. They could send out two or three of those along with Wall to bring Murray back, adding a hugely valuable 24-year-old piece to a core that skews young and needs defensive ballast.
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Jeff Chiu/Associated Press
It should be impossible to convince the Sacramento Kings to part with the steal of the 2020 draft, but the Indiana Pacers have the trade ammo to at least get past “immediate hangup” on a phone call.
Myles Turner and T.J. Warren could both provide more immediate help than Tyrese Haliburton in the Kings’ efforts to end the league’s longest playoff drought, and Indy has the No. 13 pick in this year’s draft as further enticement.
In addition to finally balancing out the roster by breaking up Turner and Domantas Sabonis, a hypothetical trade bringing back Haliburton would give the Pacers added backcourt depth with TJ McConnell hitting free agency and Malcolm Brogdon a trade candidate himself. Haliburton—a 40.9 percent three-point shooter and a brilliant passer with great anticipation on both ends—would bring a burst of refreshing energy to a Pacers team that has grown stale.
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John Bazemore/Associated Press
Jump shots took the Los Angeles Clippers a long way in 2020-21, but it might not be the best idea to bank on a repeat performance. The only team to ever hit treys at a higher clip (among those that tried at least 2,000 of them) was the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors.
Whether to provide some scoring balance by getting more looks near the bucket or to set up even more attempts from beyond the arc, the Clips should target someone who can pierce the lane. They ranked 28th in paint points per game last season.
Shake Milton ranked right between Kawhi Leonard and Kyrie Irving in total drives last year, despite playing 300 fewer minutes than the former and 400 fewer than the latter. Milton is not in either of those guys’ league overall, but he’s got the specific skill L.A. should be seeking.
Ideally, the Clips would bring back free agent Reggie Jackson after the veteran guard proved to be one of their most valuable penetrators in the playoffs. But if he prices himself out of Los Angeles’ comfort zone, Milton is someone they could pursue as a replacement.
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Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press
Prolonged absences for both LeBron James and Anthony Davis had plenty to do with it, but the Los Angeles Lakers’ poor showing on offense this past season is still a problem that needs solving. L.A. ranked 23rd in scoring efficiency (and 28th in turnover rate) in 2020-21, and it’s worth noting that even in their championship 2019-20 season, they weren’t an elite offense.
With Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s matching $13 million salaries as their most trade-ready assets to dangle, and extreme limitations on their ability to trade future first-rounders, the Lakers can’t aim all that high.
It’s hard to know what the Portland Trail Blazers’ plans will be this offseason; everything hangs on whether Damian Lillard decides to pull the ripcord. But if Anfernee Simons is available, L.A. could do a lot worse than a 22-year-old nuclear athlete who shot 42.6 percent on 4.4 three-point attempts per game last season.
Simons has so far been a zero on defense and isn’t what you’d call a natural facilitator. But he’d be an exciting alternative at the point if the Lakers decide Dennis Schroder is too costly to keep and Alex Caruso signs a big deal elsewhere.
If L.A. guesses right on the timing, and 2021-22 is the year Simons puts it all together, he could be a major addition.
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Michael Dwyer/Associated Press
This is a real pie-in-the-sky target for the Memphis Grizzlies, as Jaylen Brown should be as big a part of the Boston Celtics’ plans as anyone other than Jayson Tatum. The smart money is on Boston turning down any proposal that doesn’t bring back a superstar in return.
That said, the Grizzlies could put together a package including Jaren Jackson Jr., Kyle Anderson and one or two of the first-rounders they’ve got coming in from other teams in the near future. The top-four protected 2024 first from the Warriors could be especially juicy if we assume the Dubs are in for a hard crash as their core ages and stays ridiculously expensive.
Brown would give Memphis a top-tier, All-Star wing who made real playmaking strides in 2020-21, a perfect running mate for Ja Morant and exactly the kind of talent franchises like the Grizzlies can’t hope to acquire in free agency.
Shoot your shot, Grizz.
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Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press
The rebuilding Orlando Magic might not seem like a team in position to deal their highest-upside player, but maybe Jonathan Isaac’s myriad injuries—the latest being a torn ACL that cost him all of the 2020-21 season—would force the Magic to consider more reliably upright and available alternatives.
An Isaac addition is no less risky for the Miami Heat, but the reward would be far greater.
Imagine a defense led by Isaac, Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler. The versatility, length and intelligence would be borderline unfair. Though Isaac’s three-point shooting remains a work in progress, he’s at a not-horrible 33.0 percent for his career and could up that number with a full season to catch a rhythm. If Adebayo’s mid-range growth extends a few feet deeper, the Heat’s spacing crunch could be a thing of the past.
Tyler Herro could headline the package from the Heat’s end. Alternatively, Miami could work a sign-and-trade with Duncan Robinson—although his shooting would be doubly painful to lose with Isaac joining the roster.
If the Heat could rehabilitate Isaac’s body with their legendary conditioning program, he could be the type of home run trade acquisition they’re always chasing in free agency.
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Rick Bowmer/Associated Press
With just under $106 million earmarked for Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday next season, the Milwaukee Bucks lack the flexibility to swing a major deal.
Fortunately for the Bucks, their presence in the Finals indicates they don’t need to do anything significant. Instead, they can address less severe needs…like the lack of shot creation coming off their bench.
Even at full strength, the Bucks still suffer through stretches where their offensive gears grind to a halt. They’re short on players who can generate blow-bys in isolation and can look particularly punchless when Middleton’s mid-range game isn’t at its best.
Milwaukee needs a pure bucket-getter.
Jordan Clarkson is fresh off a Sixth Man of the Year season, and maybe the Utah Jazz are reevaluating their makeup after watching a shoddy perimeter defense fail to hold up in the playoffs. Would a package of Donte DiVincenzo and Pat Connaughton, two superior defenders with serviceable offensive games, be enough to bring back Clarkson?
Probably not, but the Bucks are good enough to be overly ambitious and trust they can find a veteran signee for the minimum if the Clarkson pursuit proves fruitless.
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Nick Wass/Associated Press
The Minnesota Timberwolves have interest in Ben Simmons, but even with the two-time All-Star’s value at its all-time low, the price may be prohibitive. Just matching Simmons’ $33 million salary (with players the Philadelphia 76ers would actually want) is tricky.
Minnesota has the right idea in targeting a defensive difference-maker from Philly, but maybe it’s focused on the wrong one.
Matisse Thybulle is more of a pure disruptor than a lockdown individual stopper, but the Wolves should be in the market for help on D in any form. Karl-Anthony Towns has peaked at passable defensively but has generally been worse than that, while D’Angelo Russell and Anthony Edwards are also minuses on that end. Thybulle is a steal-hoarding, shot-swatting, pass-deflecting ball hawk to bust up opponents’ offensive sets. Even if he might not totally transform the Wolves’ defense, he can at least keep other teams from feeling so consistently comfortable.
We know Minnesota has the stomach to slot a suspect shooter into the rotation on the strength of his defense because it gave Josh Okogie and his 26.9 percent hit rate from deep 37 starts and nearly 1,200 minutes last year. Thybulle is at 33.0 percent on threes during his two years in the league, basically making him prime Klay Thompson compared to Okogie.
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Steve Dykes/Associated Press
The hardest part of finding a trade target for the New Orleans Pelicans is deciding which of their many needs to address. Well, actually, that’s the second-hardest part. The most difficult is fulfilling the “surprising” requirement.
Because the Pelicans have so much draft equity and so many movable contracts, they’ve been linked, hypothetically, to almost every name you can think of. From Bradley Beal to Myles Turner, New Orleans tends to find its way into made-up trade chatter.
Let’s go with CJ McCollum, whose ability to space the floor as a catch-and-shoot threat would ease the sting of Lonzo Ball’s potential departure, and whose slick off-the-dribble game would give New Orleans a dangerous second option alongside Zion Williamson.
Brandon Ingram would probably have to go back to the Blazers for salary-matching purposes, but if Portland wants to tear the whole thing down, the Pelicans could package Eric Bledsoe and Steven Adams’ unwanted contracts with a treasure trove of draft picks. New Orleans basically controls the Lakers and Bucks’ first-round picks for the better part of this decade, enabling it to offer an overwhelming number of future firsts.
Adding McCollum to a Pels lineup already short on defensive punch is risky, but another high-scoring big name never hurts—especially when you’re trying to assure your generationally talented No. 1 pick you’re serious about giving him support.
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Nick Wass/Associated Press
The New York Knicks ranked 30th in fast-break points per game and 29th in transition frequency last season, so their surprising trade target has to be someone known for upping the tempo when he’s on the floor.
Most of the players who pile up points on the break are high-priced stars; Jaylen Brown, Stephen Curry and Devin Booker make up the top three (among qualified players) in 2020-21 fast-break points per game. But down a bit lower on the list, yet still in the top 10, is Cleveland Cavaliers guard Collin Sexton.
If the Knicks install Immanuel Quickley as the replacement starter for Elfrid Payton and bring back Derrick Rose to lead the second unit, Sexton would be a natural fit alongside either point guard. In addition to more points on the break, New York could use a “get your own” scorer to find them buckets when plays break down. We saw in the playoffs how Julius Randle was in over his head as the lone high-volume scorer in that role.
New York is first going to use its considerable cap space to fill voids on the roster, but if Cleveland selects another ball-handling guard in the draft, Sexton could be gettable in a trade.
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Darron Cummings/Associated Press
The Oklahoma connection removes some of the surprise factor here, as does the fact that Buddy Hield’s contract is just the kind of ugly overpay the Oklahoma City Thunder have targeted lately. But at the same time, you have to admit a Hield-to-OKC move would be unexpected—if only because of what it would require of the Sacramento Kings.
Cutting bait with Hield would be an off-brand, coldly rational decision—an admission that giving him a four-year, $85 million deal was a mistake.
The Thunder have a mountain of cap space, so the Kings could attach a pick if necessary or take back something insignificant to clear their own books. With De’Aaron Fox maxed out and Tyrese Haliburton looking like he’ll be worthy of a big extension when it’s his turn, Sacramento has good reason to prize financial flexibility.
Hield may be overcompensated, but he’s an absolute knockdown high-volume shooter. He could thrive alongside drives-per-game leader Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, feasting on clean looks generated by his teammate’s defense-collapsing attacks. With Lu Dort around, Hield could also take on the easiest perimeter defensive assignment. If OKC’s trend of rehabilitating the value of distressed assets continues, it could flip Hield to a contender in short order.
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Ron Schwane/Associated Press
This is really about the Orlando Magic leaning all the way into their rebuild, going beyond young-talent acquisition and taking the longer-term step of eating bad money with draft picks attached.
Gary Harris’ $20.4 million expiring salary would get Orlando close to matching territory on the $31.2 million Love is owed for 2021-22, and if the Cleveland Cavaliers threw in a protected future first-rounder or two, the deal would make sense for both sides. The Cavs rid themselves of arguably the worst contract in the league, add a flippable asset in Harris and don’t have to surrender any of their stable of young players in the process.
Orlando, meanwhile, increases its pool of draft assets. Even compared to Cleveland, the Magic are woefully short of potential difference-making prospects. More bites at the apple in the draft is the best way for the franchise to secure a new cornerstone.
The pain of rostering Love and his contract need only last one full season. Orlando could just buy him out or move him in 2022-23, the final year of his deal.
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Eric Gay/Associated Press
If the Warriors traded Klay Thompson just when the five-time All-Star is finally ready to retake the floor following two years ruined by injuries, the damage to fan sentiment might be irreparable. He’s beloved like few Dubs in history, and his healthy return is a critical piece of Golden State’s hopes of getting back to contention.
That’s not the Philadelphia 76ers’ problem.
If superstars in the Damian Lillard tier aren’t available, and if the Sixers are completely certain that Ben Simmons can’t be on the roster to start the 2021-22 season, Thompson—or at least the version of him we all remember—could be the best return they can get.
His spot-up shooting, off-ball movement and quietly serviceable pick-and-roll ball-handling would fit cleanly into Philadelphia’s offense, providing more space for Joel Embiid to pulverize foes in the paint. The risk of Thompson never getting close to his past peak is real, but you’ve got to balance that against the fun of Philly getting to start a Curry-Thompson backcourt.
Those tend to work pretty well.
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John Raoux/Associated Press
Among the most striking qualities of the current Phoenix Suns roster is its completeness.
Chris Paul is the traditional point guard, Devin Booker is the “walking bucket” 2, Mikal Bridges is the lab-engineered three-and-D wing, Jae Crowder is the flexible and gritty combo forward and Deandre Ayton is the quintessential dive man in the middle.
The Cams, Payne and Johnson, add an ideal high-energy reserve guard and floor-spacing forward, respectively.
Assuming those seven players all return, the only potential holes are at the backup wing and center spots. Because it’s easy to find dirt-cheap bigs, the best trade target, by default, has to be a rotation-caliber wing upgrade over Torrey Craig and Abdel Nader.
Little used 2020 lottery pick Jalen Smith and Dario Saric could anchor a package going to the Orlando Magic for microwave scorer Terrence Ross, with the forgotten Gary Harris and his expiring $20.4 million 2021-22 salary representing the bigger risk-reward play.
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Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press
With a 39.5 percent field-goal percentage and more turnovers than assists in his two-year career, Darius Bazley is, charitably, very raw on the offensive end. The lanky 6’8″ big has plenty to offer on D, though.
The Oklahoma City Thunder tasked Bazley with guarding everyone from Russell Westbrook to Carmelo Anthony this past season, and that’s exactly the kind of switchable option the Portland Trail Blazers could use when old-school center Jusuf Nurkic’s lack of defensive mobility becomes an issue.
Granted, the Blazers have defended surprisingly well with Nurkic in the middle during the regular season, and he knocked 9.7 points per 100 possessions off their defensive rating when on the floor this past year. But Portland has long struggled to get stops with its backup 5s in the game and certainly hasn’t been well-equipped for the predictable downsizing that occurs in the playoffs.
Bazley could give the Blazers an exciting and necessary new dimension on D.
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Eric Gay/Associated Press
The Phoenix Suns were too good and too (rightfully) focused on winning in the present to give rookie Jalen Smith a real shot at playing time this past season. If the No. 10 pick in 2020 doesn’t figure in the plans of the contending Suns going forward, the Sacramento Kings should swoop in and try to pluck the guy who went two spots ahead of Tyrese Haliburton.
Smith was a bit of a reach at No. 10, but all the athleticism, defensive versatility and shooting potential that landed him in the lottery is still in there somewhere.
For the Kings, who may not want to pay market rate to bring back free agent Richaun Holmes and who could use some insurance in case Marvin Bagley III underwhelms for a fourth straight year, Smith is an intriguing upside play.
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Carlos Osorio/Associated Press
Dejounte Murray doesn’t have score-first wiring, but his defense and floor game make him an ideal complement to a backcourt partner built to get buckets.
Enter Tyler Herro.
With Patty Mills and DeMar DeRozan both hitting free agency, the San Antonio Spurs could use a scoring infusion, and Herro could provide it.
If the Miami Heat are focused on winning in the short term, which they often seem to be, Derrick White could provide a more complete, playoff-ready upgrade at Herro’s position. Six years older and far more defensively accomplished, White profiles as a perfect fit with the Heat. At 27, though, White may have topped out developmentally. In San Antonio, where a rebuild may finally be afoot, the 21-year-old Herro’s upside makes much more sense.
The culture clash between a cocky young guard whose off-court life concerned the Heat and the no-nonsense vibe of head coach Gregg Popovich could create some fireworks. But Herro has the potential to be a first-option scorer, and the Spurs, who tend to get the most out of their young talent, could help him maximize it.
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Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press
Aron Baynes didn’t provide the shooting or interior heft the Toronto Raptors were hoping for, and restricted free agent Chris Boucher’s lack of bulk made him a somewhat limited and matchup-dependent option at the 5 this past season.
Mitchell Robinson struggled through an injury-hit campaign in 2020-21, and maybe that rough year will be enough to make the New York Knicks uncertain he’s the long-term answer in the middle. Nerlens Noel’s stellar defensive work at center should make him a key retention priority in free agency, and Julius Randle has played more than a quarter of his minutes at center in four separate seasons. The Knicks could talk themselves into viewing Robinson as expendable.
He won’t come cheap, though. Robinson is due just $1.8 million via a club option for 2021-22, and that low price tag makes him valuable. The Raptors won’t just be able to toss out a couple of second-rounders to get him.
Robinson’s shot-blocking and lob-catching would provide the Raptors with critical new dimensions. Those are worth paying for. At 23, he could be a keeper in Toronto’s core, and there’s no way he’d do less with the minutes he’d get at center than last year’s group.
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Matt York/Associated Press
Rudy Gobert took a lot of heat after struggling to defend in space against the Los Angeles Clippers’ five-out, small-ball lineups in the West semifinals. But it would have made his job as a help defender a whole lot easier if the Utah Jazz’s perimeter defenders could have stayed in front of their assignments or disrupted passing lanes once in a while.
The Clippers’ drive-and-kick spin cycle broke Utah’s base schemes.
Donovan Mitchell was hobbled, but Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles and Jordan Clarkson don’t have the same excuse. They’re just not high-quality defensive disruptors.
Utah could target a shutdown isolation stopper, but those are hard to find and might not be the ideal solution anyway. Better to hone in on someone who can fly around, switch and survive in the downsized, sped-up havoc opponents try to visit on the Jazz.
That describes Robert Covington almost perfectly. Though he’s overrated as a one-on-one defensive weapon, Covington has posted elite block rates in his career, and those indicate his unique skills as a help defender. Few wings recover in space better than he does.
Throw in his 3.6 deflections per game last year, good for second in the league, and you can see how he’d thrive in exactly the kinds of scattered situations that undid Gobert and the Jazz in the playoffs.
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Say this for the Washington Wizards: They tailored the scheme to their personnel in 2020-21.
Loaded with hulking, drop-coverage-only centers (after Thomas Bryant went down), the Wiz stationed whoever was manning the 5—mainly Robin Lopez, Alex Len and Daniel Gafford—at the basket and invited mid-rangers. Switching in the pick-and-roll was off-limits.
Thaddeus Young was strictly a power forward for most of his career, but the 6’8″ veteran logged significant minutes at center in undersized Bulls units last season. He’d give the Wizards a badly needed alternative to straight drop coverage, allowing them to switch more liberally when certain matchups call for it. Flexibility matters much more in the playoffs than in the regular season, but the Wizards should be operating as if they plan to be a playoff team—if they want to keep Bradley Beal happy.
The Bulls have some options this offseason, and one of them is clearing the necessary cap space to extend Zach LaVine. Moving Young’s partially guaranteed salary could help in that effort.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Salary info via Spotrac.