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Following Kevin Durant‘s divorce from the Golden State Warriors, Anthony Davis’ move to the Los Angeles Lakers and now Kawhi Leonard and Paul George‘s teaming up with the LA Clippers, the NBA championship race is as wide-open as it has been in a long time.
Leonard’s move, as first reported by Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports, was what we thought would be free agency’s final major domino to fall. That may still technically be the case, but the trade for George, which came from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, was a ripple effect no one saw coming.
At this point, the Association is watching an arms race that amazes through both quantity and quality. Stars have swapped jerseys like they’re scrambling to keep up with fashion changes. Between the draft, the trade market and free agency, you will find no shortage of organizations that believe they’ve found their missing piece (or pieces) this summer.
But hoop heads know this is only the beginning. Rosters are constantly evolving and teaching executives about what their teams have and what they still need.
Keeping that in mind, let’s examine one trade idea—some worth considering now, others that can’t happen until midseason—that could push each on-paper title contender over the top.
* Note: We don’t have a Clippers slide after their blockbuster adds of both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George early Saturday morning. We’ll have to wait for the dust to settle before we figure out what their next moves could look like.
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Lost in the shuffle of Saturday morning is that Danny Green is also leaving Toronto.
We always knew the swingman’s free agency was largely, if not directly, tied to Leonard’s. The 32-year-old will sign with the Lakers for $30 million over two years, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, and both his shooting and leadership will be sorely missed on a team looking to defend its title in 2020.
But as much as the role guys and the board men make up contenders, Kawhi Leonard is no ordinary board man. He’s a two-time Finals MVP and the kind of player who can put you over the top upon arrival. And unfortunately for the Raptors, he can also send you back down to Earth with his departure.
Regardless of who you root for, don’t take anything away from what Toronto accomplished in 2018-19. And don’t let anyone tell you the risk of signing Leonard wasn’t worth it for a franchise so desperate for a title. It was.
With Leonard leaving, though, the Raptors fall out of the contending ranks for the time being. Don’t be shocked if they become one of the league’s most likely sellers.
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Boston Celtics Receive: Kevin Love
Cleveland Cavaliers Receive: Gordon Hayward, 2020 first-round pick
The Boston Celtics have been linked to Kevin Love for years, and the connection still makes sense since this roster could improve its rebounding and frontcourt shooting.
The 30-year-old remains a consistent supplier of both. He has averaged at least nine boards and two triples each of the last four seasons. The rest of the NBA has had three such campaigns over that stretch.
Slotting him alongside Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum would form Boston’s latest Big Three, and if the latter takes an All-Star turn, this trio could be powerful enough to help the Shamrocks escape the East. That upside is what could convince Boston to part with an actual asset for Love, whose contract is so burdensome that executives feel he’s unlikely to yield positive value in a potential transaction.
Granted, the return is far from overwhelming. Gordon Hayward might never be the same after his gruesome leg injury, but he’ll be paid as such for the next two seasons ($32.7 million in 2019-20, $34.2 million player option for 2020-21). While teams never scoff at adding a first-rounder, this would be the Celtics’ own, so it will probably land in the bottom third.
Still, Hayward’s contract comes off the books two years before Love’s, and fetching any kind of first-rounder for an overpaid 30-something is no minor victory.
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Denver Nuggets Receive: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, 2020 second-round pick (via Cavaliers)
Charlotte Hornets Receive: Will Barton
The Denver Nuggets are loaded with reliable rotation players, plus they have two massive wild cards in Michael Porter Jr. and Bol Bol. While a sluggish start could change things, this might be the roster least in need of tinkering.
But if they ever planned on buying, a big, defensive-minded swingman probably tops the wish list. Incumbent stopper Torrey Craig has been solid, but Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is bigger, stronger and longer. He also has the giddy-up and interior finishing to be a weapon in transition on Nikola Jokic’s deep outlet passes or Jamal Murray’s quick pushes up the floor.
Kidd-Gilchrist doesn’t do much else offensively, and his shortcomings forced a switch from wing to small-ball big this past season. The Nuggets don’t need more bigs, but they could work around that by essentially using him as a big on offense and a wing on defense. Jokic and Paul Millsap already provide passing and shooting from the frontcourt, so Denver could make do without getting either from Kidd-Gilchrist.
The tougher sell is the subtraction of Will Barton, the Nuggets’ fourth-ranked player in minutes per game. But maybe they feel his offense is redundant with this roster or not consistent enough to bypass a potentially big gain on defense.
Conversely, the Charlotte Hornets could see Barton as a safety valve on offense. He’s a high-level shot-creator (80th percentile on isolations) who could take some defensive focus off their youngsters. At 28, he’s also just young enough to work on a team rebuilt around 25-year-old Terry Rozier.
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Golden State Warriors Receive: Aaron Gordon, Terrence Ross
Orlando Magic Receive: D’Angelo Russell, Glenn Robinson III
When most teams add a 23-year-old All-Star on a max contract, that player immediately vaults to centerpiece status. Things could be much different for the Golden State Warriors and D’Angelo Russell.
“D’Angelo Russell does not fit there whatsoever,” Marc Stein of the New York Times said on The Dan Patrick Show. “They just did not want to see Kevin Durant walk out the door with no compensation. … They will trade him. It’s just a matter of when.”
Not everyone shares that opinion, but the logic behind it is clear. Rather than lose Durant for nothing, the Dubs added an asset on his way out. Russell is a rising star, but he’s an awkward fit for the roster. Golden State lives on ball movement, and he sometimes pounds it into the hardwood. This roster had some obvious holes, but scoring guard wasn’t one of them.
Even if the Warriors aren’t committed to trading him, this gave them some flexibility. He can’t be moved before January anyway, so by that time, maybe this option looks appealing.
Golden State’s defense could hemorrhage points, making the idea of an Aaron Gordon-Draymond Green pairing intoxicating. That combo could cover acres of real estate on defense, and Gordon’s improvements as a shooter and distributor should make this a functional partnership on offense. Terrence Ross boasts the shot-making and quick-strike scoring the second team badly needed last season.
The Orlando Magic, meanwhile, would upgrade the point guard spot over D.J. Augustin and find a much more reliable long-term answer than hoping Markelle Fultz figures things out. Splurging for Russell and clearing some frontcourt clutter could be what this roster needs to make a substantial leap.
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Houston Rockets Receive: Andre Iguodala
Memphis Grizzlies Receive: Iman Shumpert (sign-and-trade), Michael Frazier, 2020 first-round pick (lottery-protected)
In 2017, the Houston Rockets identified Andre Iguodala as their potential difference-maker. They courted him in a near-two-hour visit that a source within his camp described as “the best recruiting presentation of all time,” per Chris Haynes, then with ESPN.
Two years later, the interest remains as strong as ever. The Memphis Grizzlies are trying to trade Iguodala rather than buy him out, and the Rockets are among his most interested suitors, per ESPN’s Tim MacMahon.
Of course they are. As Jenny Dial Creech wrote for the Houston Chronicle, Iguodala is “exactly the kind of role player the Rockets should add for depth, leadership and most importantly defense.” That last part is big. This past season, Houston plummeted from seventh to 17th in defensive efficiency, the strongest indication this club would not make a championship push.
Iguodala would be a godsend. Even at 35 years old, he remains an elite stopper. He finished sixth among small forwards in defensive real plus-minus, per ESPN. His floor presence shrunk the Dubs’ defensive rating by 4.9 points per 100 possessions, and he held Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard to just 37.5 percent shooting across 207 possessions.
Houston would need to jump through a few financial hoops to get this done, but if Iman Shumpert cooperates in a sign-and-trade, Memphis should be all over this. It already added a first-rounder for taking on Iguodala, and it could double-dip by letting him go.
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Los Angeles Lakers Receive: Goran Dragic
Miami Heat Receive: TBD
The Los Angeles Lakers don’t have a point guard on their roster after including Lonzo Ball in the Anthony Davis blockbuster. They might need a No. 3 scorer too after missing out in the Kawhi Leonard sweepstakes if Kyle Kuzma cannot become that guy.
Both of those itches could be scratched by Goran Dragic, who might be made available to help the Miami Heat’s salary-cap crunch.
The 33-year-old struggled to get his 2018-19 season off the ground because of a nagging knee injury, but he booked his first All-Star trip the year prior. At his best, he’s a pace-pushing scoring guard who can bury long-range bombs and convert close-range looks.
He plays a little faster than LeBron James would like, and their half-court connection could get clunky if Dragic isn’t content serving as mostly a spot-up shooter. But after missing out on Leonard, their chances of adding an impact player could be few and far between. Combine Dragic’s production with the fact that he’s only under contract for one more season, and L.A.’s interest could be piqued.
The Heat probably get nothing more than financial relief from this, as the Lakers could effectively absorb Dragic’s salary. But if this deal expands beyond that, it could take some time for the pieces to surface since L.A. barely has anyone under contract.
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Milwaukee Bucks Receive: Robert Covington
Minnesota Timberwolves Receive: Ersan Ilyasova, Donte DiVincenzo, D.J. Wilson
The Milwaukee Bucks are in all-out Giannis Antetokounmpo retention mode, and that means chasing a championship at all costs. After shelling out major money in free agency for Khris Middleton (five years, $178 million), Brook Lopez (four years, $52 million) and George Hill (three years, $29 million), according to Spotrac, Milwaukee could up the ante by sacrificing some long-term prospects for more short-term assistance.
Robert Covington is the kind of player every modern team could use. He defends multiple positions and buries threes at a consistent clip (36 percent for his career). He finished 2018-19 ranked 37th overall in real plus-minus and 12th overall (third among non-centers) in DRPM. Nevertheless, the Minnesota Timberwolves shopped him around the draft and could do so again, per ESPN’s Brian Windhorst.
If they do, the Bucks should place an aggressive bid.
They don’t quite have the prospect capital to snag a star, but this could be enough for Covington, who’d improve both their league-best defense (104.9 points allowed per 100 possessions) and three-heavy offense. A Covington-Antetokounmpo-Middleton trio should handle defensive assignments of any size and shape, and Covington’s long ball would ensure maximum spacing for Antetokounmpo’s attacks.
The Wolves may be ready to shift their focus forward. In some respects, they already have by trading away Dario Saric and letting players like Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson walk in free agency. Adding Donte DiVincenzo (the 17th pick in 2018) and D.J. Wilson (17th pick of 2017) would add to this growing collection of young talent around 23-year-old building block Karl-Anthony Towns.
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Philadelphia 76ers Receive: Malik Beasley
Denver Nuggets Receive: Zhaire Smith
The Philadelphia 76ers have probably made all their big splashes for the foreseeable future after replacing Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick with Al Horford, according to ESPN‘s Adrian Wojnarowski, and Josh Richardson. If they work around the margins, though, they should sniff out a need for more shooting.
Enter Malik Beasley? The 22-year-old’s perimeter emergence should’ve put him on Philly’s radar. This past season, his first as a rotation regular, he ranked inside the 93rd percentile as a spot-up sniper and was one of only 11 players with at least 150 threes and a 40-plus percent mark from three-point range.
The potential fit in Philly is easy to see. The path out of Denver isn’t as clear.
But maybe the Nuggets see Beasley, who needs a new contract between now and next summer, getting squeezed out of their loaded perimeter group. They’re already paying Jamal Murray ($4.4 million remaining on his contract), Gary Harris ($57.5 million) and Will Barton ($41.2 million if he opts in for 2021-22), and they’ll have decisions to make on Torrey Craig and Monte Morris in the near future.
Beasley is an ignitable scorer with some defensive limitations. The Nuggets probably have enough of that player type, and while the Sixers probably aren’t rushing out for that description, they also know they have enough stoppers to work around a liability or two.
What they don’t know is whether Zhaire Smith will provide enough shooting to function alongside Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. The Nuggets, who get shooting from almost everywhere, wouldn’t have the same issue and could determine Smith’s defensive potential is more valuable to them than Beasley’s quick-strike offense.
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Portland Trail Blazers Receive: Kevin Love
Cleveland Cavaliers Receive: Hassan Whiteside, Gary Trent Jr., 2020 first-round pick (lottery protected)
The Portland Trail Blazers have quietly crushed this offseason. What they haven’t done, though, is land that elusive third scorer who could blow the top off what’s already the Association’s third-most efficient attack.
Love, born in California but raised in Oregon, might be that missing piece.
This isn’t an especially original idea. The Blazers have explored it themselves, in fact, per Mike Richman of Locked On Blazers (h/t Bryan Kalbrosky of HoopsHype). Bleacher Report’s Greg Swartz also suggested getting Love to Portland, albeit with different pieces from the Blazers’ side:
“Is Love still productive when healthy? His 17.0 points and 10.9 rebounds in just 27.2 minutes per game this season suggest so. Can he be the third-best player on a championship team? Again, check. Will his presence open the floor and create even more driving lanes for [Damian] Lillard and [CJ] McCollum? Absolutely.”
The fit isn’t perfect. It’s tough to say whether a Jusuf Nurkic-Love frontcourt combo is even usable or what kind of liability it might be defensively. Moreover, Love was a championship-level third wheel when alongside LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. Lillard and McCollum aren’t on that level.
Still, the cost is low enough for Portland to take the plunge. Hassan Whiteside arrived with an expiring contract. The 30-year-old probably isn’t a keeper. Gary Trent Jr. barely saw the floor as a rookie, and the backcourt remains congested. If this trade helps the team retain or improve its prominent position in the Western Conference, the pick will land near the end of the opening round.
On the flip side, Cleveland finds salary relief, another first-round selection and a 20-year-old shooter in return for a player most feel wouldn’t deliver any kind of asset. That should be enough to appease the Cavs.
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Utah Jazz Receive: Al-Farouq Aminu
Orlando Magic Receive: Dante Exum
The Utah Jazz’s trade for Mike Conley was a stroke of genius and a warning shot for the rest of the Western Conference. The subsequent deals with Bojan Bogdanovic; Ed Davis, per Wojnarowski; Emmanuel Mudiay; and Jeff Green functioned as alarms to any portions of the basketball world still sleeping on Salt Lake City: The Utah Jazz are coming!
The Jazz may have extinguished their desires for change, but that’s just as well since Al-Farouq Aminu—who agreed to sign with Utah at the beginning of free agency, per Woj—can’t be traded until December. By that time, Utah may have discovered it lost too much defensive versatility and toughness when Jae Crowder and Derrick Favors left the fold.
Orlando, meanwhile, might’ve learned that neglecting the point guard spot and adding another frontcourt piece only worsened its roster’s imbalance.
Could that set the table for a straight swap? It seems plausible.
Aminu hasn’t been a great shooter (42.3 career field-goal percentage), but neither is Crowder, who made the Jazz absurdly efficient when he swapped in for Favors. Aminu is a better rebounder than Crowder and perhaps the superior stopper. Plus, Aminu’s mediocre shooting is less of a worry given the massive upgrades Utah has made to its perimeter core.
Orlando’s lead guard spot remains in flux, so why not turn to a player some have likened to the next Penny Hardaway? Exum isn’t living up to that wildly optimistic expectation, but he still shines for his combination of size (6’6″, 190 lbs), length, athleticism and playmaking potential. If he could ever get healthy, he’d make the Magic’s backcourt more interesting than it’s been in years.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.