Jimmy Butler, Chris Paul and Paul George are “Patients Zero” for the trade epidemic that has rocked the NBA the past two years. Following disappointing ends to their respective 2016-17 seasons, each demanded a trade and was subsequently dealt to a new team that June. Butler went to Minnesota. Paul maneuvered his way to Houston. George ended up in Oklahoma City. Little did we know that this was only the tip of the iceberg as seemingly every star in the NBA over the next two seasons was traded, some more than once, and many of them at their own request. Check this out:
I mean, look at that list! It doesn’t even include high-end role players like Danny Green or stars of yesteryear Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard, who were traded multiple times. Also, isn’t it fitting that the three Patients Zero were traded multiple times since the summer of 2017?
Who’s got next?
The next Collective Bargaining Agreement (the current is up after the 2023-24 season) must limit player movement or else (a) small-market teams will have even more trouble retaining top-end talent and (b) the league may start to lose fans as the concept of loyalty and rooting for a team will lose its meaning if most star players are constantly changing teams.
The NBA could tinker with NFL-like franchise tags as a mutually beneficial way for a team to hold onto a player for an extra season or two while paying the player the one-year equivalent of a max contract. The NBA could restrict players from being traded during the first two years of a max or supermax contract. It could lengthen rookie contracts from three to five years before a player hits restricted free agency (or gets an extension). It could make the supermax even more lucrative by extending it to six years, but only paying the player at that supermax rate so long as he remains with the team that signed him to the deal (otherwise his salary reverts to the regular max).
Finally, along the same lines, the NBA could create designated player exceptions, like in the MLS, and allow teams to pay a supermax player an uncapped amount of money, but only have it count toward the team’s salary cap as a max slot. This way, a franchise player could make his true fair market value, but the team wouldn't be completely hamstrung by his contract.
Whatever the NBA and NBA Players Association agree upon, much of those negotiations will depend on whether players continue to demand trades at an alarming rate, as they have the past two years. The following is a list of young stars or potential stars who could find themselves at a career crossroads in the next season or two, and perhaps the focus of the next wave of trade talk.
[Note: For the purposes of this exercise, we are not considering Giannis Antetokounmpo, who will be an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2021. Let’s hope for the good of the NBA’s small-market teams that he doesn’t demand a trade before that summer. If he does, all hell might break loose. Twitter will shut down, Stephen A. Smith’s head might explode on "First Take," and there could be a lockout in 2024. We don’t want any of that.]
Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards: Get ready for this one to start heating up soon if Beal does not agree to the three-year, $111M extension that is apparently on the table in Washington. As Candace Buckner of the Washington Post recently reported, some well-connected people in the league believe that “[Beal’s] out of there.” Beal, who's 26 and coming off the best season of his career (25.6 ppg | 5 rpg | 5.5 apg) would be an ideal fit with any contender. His career 38-percent three-point shooting makes him an excellent off-ball threat, and his improved playmaking (his assists per game have increased each of the past three seasons) would allow him to fit into any backcourt situation. Expect the Celtics, Heat and a bevy of other teams to make strong offers for Beal should he turn down the Wizards’ extension.
Karl Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves: In the past, the idea of Towns demanding a trade in Year 1 of a five-year max extension would be preposterous. Not in today’s NBA. Since entering the league in 2015, the Wolves have made the playoffs once (as a No. 8 seed), had four different head coaches and below-average play at point guard. Also, Andrew Wiggins has regressed and they had the Jimmy Butler fiasco last season. Oh, and did I mention Tom Thibodeau ran KAT into the ground for two-plus seasons, having him finish second in 2016-17 in minutes played? How much more of this crap is he going to take before he gets angry and requests a trade to a more stable organization with a more temperate winter?
Expect Towns to keep quiet this year and give coach Ryan Saunders time to install his system and team president Gersson Rosas time to make a couple of moves (D’Angelo Russell?). If Towns does demand a trade, you can bet he generates the same kind of return as Anthony Davis and Paul George did this summer. Towns’ prodigious offensive talents (24.4 ppg, 12.4 rpg and 50-40-84 shooting splits last season) don’t come available often.
Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns: Booker, KAT’s teammate from Kentucky, has a nearly identical case to demand a trade as Towns. The Suns are probably more incompetent than the Wolves (they’ve had five head coaches since Booker came into the league). But Booker has enjoyed carte blanche to put up inflated stats (26.6 ppg, 6.8 apg assists and 4.1 rpg last season) under the Suns’ merry-go-round of dismal coaches. Booker’s not entirely blameless in this either -- he’s one of the worst defenders in basketball and has never had a per-100 possessions plus/minus better than minus-9. (By comparison, Luka Doncic, a poor defender in his own right, had a minus-2 as a rookie last season.) At some point, Booker must decide that there’s more to basketball than occasionally flirting with 50 points on a 30-win team.
Brandon Ingram or Lonzo Ball, New Orleans Pelicans: With executive VP of basketball ops David Griffin calling the Pelicans Jrue Holiday’s team, Zion Williamson presumably requiring plenty of touches on offense as the franchise centerpiece, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker flashing the ability to be a strong playmaker in the Summer League, one of these skilled former Lakers is going to be odd man out. Ingram, who looked absolutely thrilled to be a Pelican during his introductory news conference this week, is much better with the basketball in his hands. (See his on/off numbers with LeBron James last season.) Ingram also probably still has more trade value than Ball. Thus, it would not be surprising if Ingram struggles with an off-ball role early this season and asks Griffin to reroute him elsewhere.
On the other hand, if Ingram excels alongside Holiday and Williamson, Ball will need to learn to knock down open three-pointers (31.5 percent from three in his career) to provide adequate spacing for his teammates. We know how good a defender and passer he is, but if he’s unable to hit open shots, he’ll lose minutes to those who can. If that happens, expect LaVar Ball to start making more media rounds on all of FS1’s hot take shows, demanding that the Pelicans trade his son.
James Harden, Houston Rockets: This one might come as an absolute shock. However, The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor recently reported on a podcast that Harden was already considering demanding a trade from the Rockets if the team didn’t trade Chris Paul this offseason. The very cream of the crop hardly ever get traded in the NBA, but when they do, as seen by Kawhi Leonard in San Antonio, there are often small warning signs of discontent that get ignored before the trade demand blindsides everyone. Harden had an unfulfilling end to his historic 2018-19 season, capping it off with some interesting post-game quotes about knowing what the team needed to do to get over the hump. Rockets new owner Tilman Fertitta has also displayed some unusual behavior since buying the team -– most notably, allowing coach Mike D’Antoni to enter this season as a lame-duck coach after dismissing most of his staff. If the Harden-Westbrook reunion doesn’t go as planned this season, don't be shocked if Harden thinks about jumping ship in the offseason.
Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers: Although he just signed a five-year, $170M supermax extension, he’s still the fall man if his partnership with Joel Embiid doesn’t succeed. He might decide (or agent Rich Paul might decide) that a fresh start on another team is what he really needs.
Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics: Despite being arguably a better player and prospect, he must deal with Jayson Tatum being Boston’s favorite son. At some point, he might get sick of being dangled in trade rumors and could demand to be dealt.
Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors: If the Warriors run into more injury problems, this season might amount to a “gap year” in the Splash Brothers dynasty. If Draymond (another Rich Paul client) catches wind that the Warriors will not offer him a max deal in the 2020 offseason, he may try to force his way out at the deadline.