Every year around the trade deadline, there are familiar sirens. As rumors of unclear legitimacy fly around in media and online, fans of various franchises galvanize around specific hypotheticals, setting their targets on various players from a category we’ll call the Trade Machine Saviors — players who, stuck in varying NBA purgatories, are often imagined as the missing piece in a championship contention puzzle. A long-time member of this cohort has now formally put himself on the block, by requesting a trade from his Orlando Magic: Aaron Gordon. Gordon is not the general manager of the Magic, of course, so it remains to be seen whether he’ll actually get his wish. The trade market might be a little too stuck to move, at the moment, with too few teams lacking financial and roster flexibility for anything too notable to happen at this deadline. And so if he isn’t traded, Gordon will probably continue to be a man upon whom fans project very specific dreams of glory.
Bradley Beal, who has never actually signaled a desire to leave his middling Washington Wizards, has been atop the Trade Machine Savior category for quite some time. In recent years, no player has so often slotted in as a canvas for fan dreams, despite a very uncomplicated commitment to the team he’s already on. Efforts to perceive things otherwise has been considerable. When the Wizards limped through the beginning of a rough, COVID-tinged season, there was a flurry of memes and commentaries about Beal’s body language. As he slumped through Washington’s indignities, many speculated this was a sign that he was finally ready to demand his way out.
It never happened. Beal has, to the contrary, remained firm enough about wanting to stay with the Wizards that his name is practically unmentioned with a few days to go before the trade deadline hits. But since he still has two more years under contract with the Wizards after this one, and the team’s path to relevance is dubious, if not not non-existent, it won’t be long, we can deduce, before he is once again spoken of as a solution to many team’s problems, whether he is truly available or not. The non-sweepstakes of a Giannis Antetokounmpo free agency that never happened — and that we never had any real reason to believe would happen — showed us what’s at the core of this stain of yearning, too: a purely imaginary form of superstar availability, perhaps the result of over-exposure to manager mode in NBA video games, or to a 24-hour newscycle that demands constant scuttlebutt as chum for its business model.
In Gordon, though, we do have an example that shows how this imaginary availability can become real. In the modern NBA, not much stays put for long. And whether it’s now or later, it does seem that Gordon will be out of Orlando. Hardly the producer that Beal or Antetokounmpo is, you will not see nearly as many photoshops of him in different teams’ uniforms splattered over social media. Gordon is a relatively marginal player in the context of teams looking for guys to supplement a deep playoff run, but he’s still an effective one, and is pretty moveable at his salary number. This is largely because of his annually descending salary, part of an increasingly tradable contract structure which makes him an exception within a constipated marketplace. As things generally stand, this deep into the latest collective bargaining agreement, it is basically just very difficult for good players to get moved without teams making totalizing shifts in their present and future.
Gordon could move soon, but what we have, overall, is a vast disparity between the imagination and desires of roster construction possibilities and the realities of them. Categorically, Trade Machine Saviors are players who are more likely to remain fantasy solutions than actual ones — even, in most cases, when they actually do change teams. But they will continue to be spoken of otherwise, because for too many people, the experiment of sculpting a slightly different basketball world is too fun to resist. The mere image of certain players in certain different uniforms produces an associational thrill that fans of the sports are likely addicted to, at this point. Bogdan Bogdanovic in Boston Celtics green just made someone’s day. You could build a media company around streamlining the collective will to see players go where they are not, and are not going. Some have done it. The status quo rarely changes at the trade deadline, though, so we’re all best off recognizing this whirlwind of information good and bad as a hot air to get silly off of, and stay prepared to get what we already see.