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Attention NBA stars in need of a No. 2: We gotchu.
From afar, and hypothetically speaking, but we still gotchu.
Not every one of the league’s top stars is getting a new second in command. Many already have their much-needed running mate(s).
Kevin Durant has a Hall of Fame cast around him. If he leaves them in free agency, that’s his business. Ditto for Kawhi Leonard with, yes, Pascal Siakam. James Harden has Clint Capela and (whatever’s left of) Chris Paul.
Fringe-star partners count as well. Damian Lillard has CJ McCollum. Giannis Antetokounmpo has Khris Middleton, an All-Star, and Eric Bledsoe, an almost-star. We can revisit his situation if Middleton leaves in free agency. Rudy Gobert has Donovan Mitchell.
This latest batch of trade musings is reserved for big names—i.e. All-NBA candidates—with a more pressing need. Most don’t have a viable lieutenant. Some are on good teams, but they need an upgrade in the form of consolidated star power.
Anyone considered a flight risk over the summer will only be getting the co-star treatment if a new face could feasibly convince them to stay put. This is just a fancy way of saying we won’t waste time trying to keep Anthony Davis in New Orleans.
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Boston Celtics Receive: Anthony Davis
New Orleans Pelicans Receive: Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Boston’s 2019 first-round pick, Memphis’ 2019 first-round pick (top-eight protection in 2019; top-six protection in 2020; unprotected in 2021)
Kyrie Irving doesn’t need a sidekick in the way his other peers do. He has proven talents Gordon Hayward and Al Horford as well as two potential-star teammates in Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. Neither he nor the Celtics may be in a rush to change things up if this core wins the Eastern Conference.
Then again, Irving’s free agency is at least a matter of debate. He admitted to ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan that life hasn’t always been hunky-dory in Boston this year, and some “executives and player agents” already have him fitted for New York Knicks orange and blue, according to The Athletic’s Frank Isola.
Trading for Anthony Davis this summer hedges against Irving’s might-be wandering eyes. And securing his return does wonders for the Celtics’ chances of keeping Davis beyond next season. As The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor wrote in February:
Davis had only the Lakers, Knicks, Clippers, and Bucks on his list of teams he’d commit to long term, but that could change soon. The Celtics could be on the table soon, because Irving is one of Davis’s close friends in the NBA. Irving has spoken to Davis about teaming up in Boston, The Athletic’s Jay King reported in October. Though Irving’s future with Boston is murky now, with LeBron teasing a reunion in Los Angeles and the Knicks angling for Durant and Irving to join forces, if Davis were acquired, league sources believe Irving would stay, which, in turn, would also help retain Davis for the long haul.
Boston has held its status as the most convenient Davis destination for more than a year. That hasn’t changed. No other team can offer the mishmash of high-end prospects, future picks, cost-controlled contracts and reasonably priced salary filler.
Exact terms for prospective packages vary. The Celtics will not want to trade Jayson Tatum. They’ll probably have no choice. They certainly won’t want to ship out Jaylen Brown if Tatum is in play. His inclusion is more malleable. Boston has this year’s Los Angeles Clippers and Sacramento Kings (top-one protection) picks, and all its own future first-rounders to offset Brown’s or Tatum’s exclusion—provided other money is included to make the math work.
New Orleans will be demanding in Davis’ negotiations. Executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin is meticulous. He hasn’t even officially ruled out Davis’ return. But odds are this partnership is finished. And unless the Pelicans are getting Zion Williamson from the draft-lottery winner, they’ll be hard-pressed to beat some version of this package.
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Los Angeles Lakers Receive: Anthony Davis
New Orleans Pelicans Receive: Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, 2019 first-round pick (drafted by Lakers), 2020 first-round pick
LeBron James has a better shot at getting a star running mate in free agency. The Lakers’ top offer for Anthony Davis hasn’t changed for the better since February. With Brandon Ingram recovering from deep venous thrombosis and Lonzo Ball working his way back from a left ankle injury, it actually looks worse.
Maybe David Griffin views Los Angeles’ asset chest in rosier terms than New Orleans’ previous regime. Ingram specifically has underrated star quality. He is consistently disruptive on defense and was piling up buckets at a tantalizing clip in the weeks leading up to what became a season-ending absence.
More likely, the Lakers need a little bit of help from outside sources. Zion Williamson going to a team that won’t move him is a start. The Celtics lowballing the Pelicans would go a long way. Boston might also lose its taste for a Davis trade if Kyrie Irving shows signs of leaving, or has already left.
Scouring the market for a third-team facilitator is another option. Would the Indiana Pacers send Domantas Sabonis to the Pelicans in exchange for Ingram? Would the Phoenix Suns send back Mikal Bridges and De’Anthony Melton for Ball?
Dangling a third first-round pick should likewise put the Lakers in the Pelicans’ good graces. The whole-young-core-and-then-some is a lot to give up, but Davis is one of the five or seven best players on the planet. And he’s a perfect fit beside James—who, by the way, isn’t getting any younger.
Urging a team to give up everything and the kitchen sink is usually done for effect. This is an exception. It isn’t for spectacle or emphasis.
Whatever line the Lakers draw must be in sand. They have to be flexible. Push comes to shove, Davis is too valuable, and LeBron’s title window too precious, for LA to do anything less than whatever it takes to bring them together.
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Minnesota Timberwolves Receive: Mike Conley, CJ Miles
Memphis Grizzlies Receive: Keita Bates-Diop, Gorgui Dieng, Jeff Teague, 2019 first-round pick, Miami’s 2019 second-round pick, 2020 second-round pick
Trying to peg the Timberwolves’ direction is a mental tug-of-war. Their cap sheet is not the least bit clean, and Karl-Anthony Towns is too good to start things over without considering the long-term repercussions.
But Minnesota just hired Gersson Rosas to be its president of basketball operations. New front-office regimes like to imprint their own direction. He could opt for a more gradual approach that halts any theoretical search for another star.
Targeting Mike Conley is very much a step in the win-now direction. He shouldn’t be a costly acceleration. He’s guaranteed a little more than $67 million over the next two years, his age 32 and 33 campaigns. The Grizzlies cannot hawk him as if he’s a net-positive asset. He is on the back end of his career and, it seems, no longer married to the idea of finishing his career in Memphis.
Stomaching Gorgui Dieng’s contract is not ideal. It’s also not a farce. He costs less than half as much as Conley over the next two years ($33.5 million), and the Grizzlies are getting what projects to be the No. 10 pick. (The framework of this deal falls apart if Minnesota jumps into the top four of the draft.)
That’s worth the trouble of paying Dieng. No other team is giving the Grizzlies a top-10 selection, who would have two lottery picks if they keep their own (top-eight protection to Boston), and they’re restocking their rather empty second-round shelves.
Josh Okogie can be subbed in for Keita Bates-Diop if the Timberwolves are desperate to make a splash. Including Dario Saric goes too far. Bates-Diop is intriguing on his own. He is 6’9″, can play three positions and is a self-aware off-ball defender.
Pairing Conley and Towns is an offensive dream for the Timberwolves. Their two-man game would verge on unstoppable, and Towns has never reaped the benefits of a point guard so comfortable launching jumpers off the dribble. Plus, Minnesota’s perimeter defense takes on new life with Conley, Okogie and Robert Covington all in tow.
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Charlotte Hornets Receive: Jrue Holiday
New Orleans Pelicans Receive: Bismack Biyombo, Malik Monk, 2019 first-round pick (drafted by Charlotte), 2020 first-round pick (top-12 protection), 2020 second-round pick (less favorable from Brooklyn and New York)
Charlotte needs to shake things up if Kemba Walker’s free agency is going to become a non-issue. He will have other, better options.
Walker is intrigued by the idea of playing for the Knicks and Nets, according to SNY’s Anthony Puccio, and the Dallas Mavericks plan to pursue him “with gusto,” per the New York Times‘ Marc Stein. Bet on the Indiana Pacers and Utah Jazz trying to get face time with him, too.
The Hornets have a financial trump card in their back pocket. They can offer a five-year max worth $189.7 million. That final number can climb to $221.3 million if he makes an All-NBA team.
Never mind the merits of paying Walker that much. Money might not be enough. He has missed the playoffs in six of his eight seasons. Winning should loom large when compensation will be comparable elsewhere.
Adding Jrue Holiday at least gives Charlotte a semi-automatic line to the postseason. He alleviates the ball-handling burden ferried by Walker but has cut his teeth over the past few years in an off-guard role, and his experience defending the 1 through 3 spots allows the Hornets to freely tinker with individual matchups. Between he and Miles Bridges, Walker may get to spend more time on standstill assignments.
Pelicans fans will have to forgive us. We’re not trying to imply that everyone in New Orleans is for sale. David Griffin said he considers Holiday a core piece. But gauging his market is the next logical move if they bite the Anthony Davis bullet.
Snagging two firsts and Malik Monk without absorbing any long-term money is a quality return. Bismack Biyombo comes off the books after next season, so the Pelicans stay lean, and this year’s Charlotte pick should land at No. 12. (The deal must be reworked if the Hornets leap into the top four.)
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Denver Nuggets Receive: Bradley Beal
Phoenix Suns Receive: Jamal Murray
Washington Wizards Receive: Mikal Bridges, De’Anthony Melton, Mason Plumlee, Michael Porter Jr., Torrey Craig, 2020 first-round pick (via Denver), 2020 second-round pick (via Phoenix)
Busting up the Nuggets, even hypothetically, is uncomfortable when they’re still fighting for a Western Conference Finals bid. Failing an NBA Finals appearance, though, it doesn’t make sense to ignore the obvious: Nikola Jokic needs a traditional co-star.
Paul Millsap isn’t it. He’s past his heyday and more of a hard-nosed gap-filler. That ship hasn’t sailed for Jamal Murray, but his hot-and-cold acts persist. A healthy Michael Porter Jr. is intriguing, but Jokic has played the Nuggets well beyond wait-and-see mode.
Bradley Beal is a dream fit beside Denver’s 7-footer. Spending his entire career next to John Wall has prepared him for the duality needed to complement Jokic. He is shooting better than 40 percent on catch-and-fire threes since 2016-17, and he’s a deceptively slippery cutter.
At the same time, he’s a more consistent from-scratch initiator than Murray or Will Barton. Close to 50 percent of his buckets went unassisted this season, and Washington posted a 117.3 offensive rating in the 1,304 possessions he played without Wall and Tomas Satoransky.
Putting together a fair package for both sides is complicated. Murray is the Nuggets’ best trade chip, but the Wizards owe Wall $170.9 million over the next four years. They don’t need another point guard—especially one set for restricted free agency in 2020.
Porter is a cornerstone prospect but missed the entire season while recovering from back issues. The Nuggets need a third team to adequately entice the Wizards. They may also need to sub in Malik Beasley for Torrey Craig. Including a protected 2022 first-rounder should not be entirely out of the question.
The Suns are a good alternative destination for Murray if they don’t end up with Ja Morant or Darius Garland in the draft. They have wings galore and can justify sending out Mikal Bridges and De’Anthony Melton when it nets them a 22-year-old scorer capable of co-opting the half-court playmaking with Devin Booker.