NBA trades are complicated, with agents, salary cap restrictions and myriad other factors making it far easier for a deal to fall apart than come together. And that’s just with two teams in the mix. Add a third or a fourth team into the fray, as I have below, and the chances of a deal working out for all sides are slim. But we’re not letting reality stop us from dreaming big. Here are proposals for two massive trades that would benefit all seven teams at Thursday's trade deadline.
TRADE NO. 1
TRAIL BLAZERS RECEIVE: Joel Embiid (from 76ers), Cory Joseph (from Kings), Bojan Bogdanovic (from Kings)
SIXERS RECEIVE: CJ McCollum (from Trail Blazers), Richaun Holmes (from Kings), Portland 2020, 2022, 2024 first-round picks
KINGS RECEIVE: Hassan Whiteside (from Trail Blazers), Furkan Korkmaz (from 76ers), Philadelphia 2020, 2021 second-round picks
WHY TRAIL BLAZERS WOULD DO IT
Since the start of the 2017 season, Portland is 94-58 (.618 winning percentage) in games center Josef Nurkic has played. Without him, the Blazers are 31-31. The dynamic backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum is usually the first thing that comes to mind when you think about the Blazers, but never overlook Nurkic's value.
Now it seems like a big gamble for Portland to give up three first-round picks, along with Lillard’s backcourt running mate. After all, Nurkic, who's recovering from a serious left leg fracture and recently strained his calf, will come back at some point. So the safe play for the Blazers seems to be remaining patient while Nurkic works himself back into the lineup and hope that the big man once again makes them legit contenders in a more open Western Conference.
But the calendar has already rolled into February; only 2 1/2 months remains in the regular season. Any delay in Nurkic’s return means he’s missing valuable games for a Portland team 1 1/2 games back in the three-way battle for the final playoff spot in the West. Risking a postseason appearance on Nurkic’s health smack dab in Lillard’s prime seems like a bad gamble. It should embolden the team to go all-in on its superstar point guard's best years.
Enter Embiid, Joseph and Bogdanovic. Embiid immediately gives Lillard a star frontcourt player to pair with. His inside-out dominance would be a huge boost come playoff time. When Lillard is keyed on, Embiid could dominate through the post. And the thought of Lillard-Embiid pick-and-rolls is tantalizing.
On top of that, Lillard’s immense talent at creating shots for himself and others makes McCollum’s presence as backcourt scorer almost redundant. McCollum also doesn’t do a great job propping up a thin/weak Portland bench units -- something that is key given the rather limited supporting cast the Blazers are working with this season. In 2018-19, Portland was six points per 48 minutes worse when McCollum played sans Lillard. This season, it’s a massive 13-point swing. Due to Embiid’s immense gravity offensively and his defensive presence, it’s a good bet he would boost Portland’s bench units far better than McCollum.
Joseph and Bogdanovic would be necessary in the deal as well. Bogdanovic would step right into McCollum’s vacant spot while Joseph -- who has struggled this season -- would hopefully find his form and stabilize a shaky guard rotation. Bogdanovic wouldn’t be nearly the scorer/shooter McCollum is, but his playmaking is much better. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that due to Bogdanovic’s passing chops, he might actually make a better pairing with Lillard than McCollum does.
Parting with three first-round picks is a huge commitment -- it would be challenging for the Blazers to build depth around their new star duo. But Embiid complements Lillard in much better ways than McCollum does. He also eliminates the waiting game on Nurkic.
With Embiid in the fold, the possibility of Nurkic failing to return to his normal self becomes a non-issue. And should Nurkic come back just as strong, the team would have a two-headed monster at a valuable position. Plus, Embiid is hardly an 82-game ironman. Given Nurkic is under contract for two more seasons after this one (his 2022 salary is non-guaranteed), it would give the team incredible depth and invaluable cover at center.
Joseph’s deal is a little onerous for a backup point guard, but his salary is non-guaranteed in 2022 as well. Should his performance not pick up, Portland would have plenty of options to move on from him in the short term. Bogdanovic would enter free agency this summer, but in a huge boost for Portland, it’d be as a restricted free agent. Should he pair well with Lillard down the stretch, it should be rather easy for the Blazers to retain his services.
WHY SIXERS WOULD DO IT
The Sixers are fifth in the Eastern Conference’s in point differential -- a better indicator of team strength than record -- only a tenth of a point better than a Pacers team that just got Victor Oladipo back. Philadelphia’s +3.0 differential is less than half that of top East contenders Toronto (+6.7), Boston (+7.2) and Milwaukee (+12.4), all of whom are much better than the Sixers. Philly would be lucky to get out of the first round of the playoffs, not where The Process was supposed to take them.
A possible contributor to this disappointing performance is the on-court relationship between the team’s two young stars, Embiid and Ben Simmons. In the 677 minutes they have played together, the Sixers outscore opponents by 3.8 points per 48 minutes. Other dynamic duos -- Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo and Eric Bledsoe (+19.2 per 48), Toronto's Marc Gasol and Pascal Siakam (+12.4) and Boston's Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum (+12.1) -- combine to make their teams much more dangerous when on the floor.
At the root of this problem seems to be a stylistic clash between Simmons open-floor game and Embiid’s old-school, post dominance. No matter how well you configure the rotation and roster around them, Simmons will always have his skill set mitigated in a half-court setting while Embiid is not going to suddenly fly up and down the floor in transition.
That’s why it makes sense to get McCollum, whose shooting prowess and off-ball scoring seems like a far greater pairing with the pass-first, defensively versatile Simmons. By swapping out Embiid for McCollum, the Sixers come much closer to the ideal lineup you’d put around Simmons, a young, slashing superstar with shooting limitations. A starting lineup of Simmons, McCollum, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris and Al Horford would be a nightmare for opponents.
Holmes, who was on the team at the start of The Process, would be a necessary bench addition. His vertical presence rolling hard to the rim would provide a nice, contrasting option to the rest of the Philly front court. Overall, Holmes would pair with stretch big Mike Scott, wings James Ennis and Matisse Thybulle and point guard Trey Burke to give the Sixers a versatile, five-deep bench mob.
The first-round picks from Portland would help Philadelphia re-shape its roster around its new core, perhaps extending The Process in a better direction.
WHY KINGS WOULD DO IT
Sacramento is 18-31, so hopes that its young core could propel it into the playoffs are gone. The Kings should spend this deadline re-tooling for the future.
Whiteside fills a position of need, and while his contract has far more money on it, it doesn’t extend past Joseph’s ill-conceived deal and should give the team much more value. Bogdanovic is a restricted free agent playing in a backcourt that already has De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield, whose massive new extension kicks in next season. Swapping a potential free agent for a cheap, young prospect like Korkmaz (while getting a couple of second-round picks) seems like a nice win for a team still stuck in rebuilding mode.
TRADE NO. 2
TIMBERWOLVES RECEIVE: John Wall (from Wizards), Phoenix's 2020 second-round pick
SUNS RECEIVE: Marvin Williams (from Hornets), Ish Smith (from Wizards)
WIZARDS RECEIVE: Nic Batum (from Hornets), Tyler Johnson (from Suns), Josh Okogie (from Timberwolves)
HORNETS RECEIVE: Andrew Wiggins (from Timberwolves), Jordan Bell (from Timberwolves)
WHY TIMBERWOLVES WOULD DO IT
In 2017-18, the talented, young duo of Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns pushed Minnesota into the postseason with a 47-35 record -- the T-Wolves' first playoff appearance since 2004-05. It seemed like that would be the beginning of many seasons of playoff runs. At 15-33 and fading fast this season, though, Minnesota seems further from the playoffs than ever.
Wiggins has failed to develop and Towns' commitment to defense remains a big concern. The rest of the roster is filled with flawed prospects and average veterans. Plus, Minnesota is a mess at point guard.
Trading for Wall is a massive risk. He’s 29, coming off an Achilles tear, and has a game that might age poorly. On top of that, his contract is huge -- he’s owed over $170 million through the 2023 season. The market for Wall is extremely limited despite the Wizards' rebuilding state. But given Minnesota's lowly status, the Timberwolves are probably the only team in position to roll the dice with the former All-Star, who has not played this season.
The Wiggins-Towns partnership has limited upside. The team’s lottery pick from this summer, Jarrett Culver, is hardly having a season (9.3 points per game on 38.9 percent shooting from the field and 27.3 percent from 3) suggestive of a future franchise savior. No one else on the roster makes a case for being anything more than a rotation piece. Unless the Wolves hit the jackpot in the 2020 draft, this is a team far, far away from a playoff contender (and might still be even if it does hit the jackpot this summer).
At least with Wall in tow, there’s the chance for something resembling a respectable team. The ability for Towns to step outside the arc would pull opposing centers out of the paint for the slashing Wall. Robert Covington and Culver could provide defensive cover on the wings while the team fills out the rest roster with draft picks and veteran free agents. If Wall returns anywhere near his former self, you could squint and see a 45-win team anchored by him and Towns. That seems like a better option for Minnesota rather than rolling the dice in the lottery once again.
WHY HORNETS WOULD DO IT
Much like Minnesota, Charlotte is in a position that could find it stuck in the cellar of the Eastern Conference for the next few seasons. The team has a few promising prospects. Devonte’ Graham, PJ Washington and Miles Bridges seem to be on track to be legitimate rotation players -- maybe even starters on good teams -- but it’s hard to see a true star emerging from that group. Terry Rozier, the team’s big free-agent signee in the off-season, is a solid if unspectacular presence in the backcourt. Aside from that, the rest of this Hornets roster is gridlocked with flailing prospects or underwhelming veterans.
All other pieces aside, this would basically be a swap of Wiggins for Batum. Wiggins is owed almost $95 million through the 2023 season. That’s a lot for a volume scorer who hasn’t shown much of an impact on winning. But it’s important to remember Wiggins is just 24, not even into his prime years. And given Charlotte’s track record, it’s hard to imagine the club attracting a free agent with a higher ceiling than Wiggins.
Rolling into the 2020-21 season with a starting lineup featuring Rozier, Wiggins, Bridges and Washington, supported by Graham as an electric sixth man, might be enough to make Charlotte relevant again.
WHY WIZARDS WOULD DO IT
This team clearly is rebuilding. Batum seems past his days as an effective player and still has one more season left on his deal at $27.1 million. Johnson’s expiring contract gives the team immediate salary relief this summer. Okogie is another young wing Washington can take a long look at while turning the controls of the offense fully over to Bradley Beal.
WHY SUNS WOULD DO IT
For the first time in what seems like an eternity, the Suns have a squad capable of a playoff push. Smith would stabilize the backup point guard spot and, along with Ricky Rubio, keep an up-tempo distributor at the controls all game. Williams (37.9 percent from 3-point territory this season) provides additional front-court shooting on an expiring contract. Combined with Smith, Williams would make the Suns one of the deepest teams in the league and set them up nicely for a late playoff push.