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Kim Klement/Associated Press
NBA superstars almost never hide in plain sight. The constant search for the next big thing means we misidentify potential greats a lot more often than we get the forecast right.
Teams tend to operate the same way, highly prizing players they believe have even the slimmest shots at greatness. Acquiring one potential superstar almost always means giving up another in return. Unless it’s a last resort, organizations don’t let go of their highest-ceiling talent.
That just means we have to approach this creatively, highlighting trades that don’t always directly involve a possible superstar but instead clear the decks for takeoff. In some cases, that’ll mean shuffling up rosters in ways that push a promising player into a more prominent role, theoretically giving him the chance to thrive.
We’ll also throw in a huge challenge trade, just as a fun thought experiment.
Finally, the superstar label is inherently hazy. It doesn’t really mean anything concrete. Just to keep things honest, we’ll take “potential superstars” to mean players who have yet to make an All-NBA first or second team. And yes, that rule exists so we can involve Ben Simmons, a third-teamer from 2019-20.
Other than that caveat, any player with enough potential is fair game.
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Kevin C. Cox/Associated Press
The particulars of the trade don’t really matter here, just so long as Chris Paul moves on from the Oklahoma City Thunder and nobody coming back in the deal matches his playmaking and leadership chops.
Send Paul to the Milwaukee Bucks for Eric Bledsoe, picks and filler. Send him to the Philadelphia 76ers for bad salary and draft capital. Send him to the New York Knicks for the same.
The point will be freeing up touches for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who joined Jayson Tatum and Luka Doncic as the only players 21 or younger to average over 19.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists with at least a 56.0 true shooting percentage in 2019-20.
A critical distinction: Gilgeous-Alexander’s usage rate was far lower than either Tatum’s or Doncic’s. That’s the result of playing alongside the Point God.
SGA isn’t an overwhelming athlete or a knockdown shooter, but his change-of-pace mastery and ball-handling craft give him uncommon command of the other nine players around him. Most 21-year-olds spend their time on the ball desperately trying not to let defenders speed them up. Gilgeous-Alexander has an inborn knack for dictating the pace, constantly keeping opponents off-balance and getting to his spots.
Players can learn to shoot, and they can improve their strength and athleticism through hard work. But the things Gilgeous-Alexander does well? Those can’t be taught.
If he becomes a superstar, he’ll be an unconventional one. But with Paul gone and the Thunder his to lead, SGA would have a real shot to expand his game.
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Mike Erhmann/Associated Press
- Utah Jazz trade Rudy Gobert and Joe Ingles to the Atlanta Hawks for Clint Capela (who’d move to a third team), De’Andre Hunter, Kevin Huerter and the No. 6 overall pick in 2020.
- Utah Jazz trade Rudy Gobert to the Chicago Bulls for Coby White, Lauri Markkanen, Thaddeus Young and the No. 4 overall pick in 2020.
Rudy Gobert is eligible for a supermax extension this offseason, but the Utah Jazz shouldn’t give it to him. Though his defensive dominance is beyond question, the Jazz can’t invest anywhere near 35 percent of the cap (which could mean nearly $250 million) in a conventional center.
If Utah can’t come to an agreement with Gobert on a more modest deal—four years and $110 million seems closer to the mark—there’s a decent chance this hypothetical becomes reality.
Though Gobert is a net-positive player who elevates Utah’s defense, he actively cramps its spacing. Because he’s so valuable on D and, admittedly, useful as a roller in half-court sets, he plays a ton of minutes. So Donovan Mitchell has almost no experience operating with a fully spread floor.
Mitchell posted career highs in points (24.0), assists (4.3) and rebounds (4.4) in 2019-20, making the All-Star Game for the first time. He’s almost impossible to stay in front of in isolation, and he’s shown flashes of advanced passing in tandem with a vast array of finishes in traffic. If he got increased reps in centerless lineups, it stands to reason he’d improve in both regards.
He’s already on the verge of superstardom as it is, and removing Gobert from the equation could push Mitchell over the edge. The Jazz wouldn’t be an objectively better team without their two-time Defensive Player of the Year, but that’s not what this is about.
This is about springboarding Mitchell to a new level.
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Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press
The Trade: Ben Simmons for Devin Booker.
Straight up. That’s it. That’s the trade.
Why would the Philadelphia 76ers cut bait on one of the league’s most versatile defenders, one who can also dominate in transition, can facilitate better than almost anyone else his size and just made the All-NBA third team?
Because they’ve seen enough of the Simmons-Joel Embiid pairing to know it’s never going to work.
In the wake of Booker’s sterling age-23 season (26.6 points, 6.5 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game on a 48.9/35.4/91.9 shooting split), the Phoenix Suns would probably be more hesitant than the Sixers to make this move. Phoenix would have to be convinced Simmons has another level to his game, which isn’t all that far-fetched considering his undeniable skill and the ease with which everyone can identify the areas he must improve.
It’s cliche, but Simmons is still a jump shot away from having no weaknesses.
If Simmons had full control of the Suns offense and the psychological benefit of a fresh start with head coach Monty Williams (who, notably, helped develop a young Anthony Davis in New Orleans), he could explode.
Booker might also reach new heights in Philly, where his improved playmaking would make his pick-and-roll work with Joel Embiid unstoppable.
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Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press
The Trade: New Orleans Pelicans trade Jrue Holiday to the Brooklyn Nets for Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie.
This would be quite a haul for the New Orleans Pelicans, whose leverage diminishes with every second that brings Jrue Holiday closer to the end of his current contract. He’s a much better player than either Caris LeVert or Spencer Dinwiddie, and he’s a defensive ace, which is why the Brooklyn Nets might consider a swap along these lines.
The goal of moving Holiday from the Pels roster is to force Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson into larger leadership roles. That’s a lot to ask of those two young players, but Ingram made the All-Star team this past season, and Williamson was a dominant offensive force in his limited playing time.
JJ Redick is still around to be the adult in the room, but shipping out Holiday would alter the team dynamic. There’s a risk in creating a leadership void, but you’d think both Ingram and Williamson would have picked up enough from him to begin filling it. Holiday’s absence would also saddle New Orleans’ young cornerstones with greater defensive responsibilities—Ingram in particular.
This is a risky approach, but sometimes the best way to see if young birds can fly is to push them out of the nest.
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Kathy Willens/Associated Press
The Trade: Brooklyn Nets trade Caris LeVert and Taurean Prince to the San Antonio Spurs for DeMar DeRozan (opt-in).
Caris LeVert is best with the ball in his hands, so there’s no way he’ll be maximized on a roster with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant—despite what Irving’s face-palm-worthy talk of egalitarianism suggests. And if the Nets are committed to finding a third star, LeVert is the best trade chip to include in a deal.
DeMar DeRozan would probably be an awful fit in Brooklyn, but the franchise clearly cares about big names, and the shooting guard has one.
Anyway, this is about LeVert. Let’s get back to him.
The 6’6″ wing has slick ball-handling skills and the ability to get his own shot. Though injuries have cropped up several times during his young career, LeVert has excelled whenever healthy and given the opportunity to play a significant offensive role. In 31 starts with the Nets this past season, he averaged 22.1 points, 5.2 assists and 4.9 rebounds while hitting 37.4 percent of his threes.
The San Antonio Spurs almost never make trades, but with DeRozan’s contract expiring after the 2020-21 season, they’d be foolish to pass on this one.
Dejounte Murray hasn’t proved himself worthy of “let’s plan around this guy” status yet, so it shouldn’t be a big deal to install LeVert as the primary ball-handler. Plus, Murray offers enough value on defense and as a secondary playmaker to work well with LeVert. Derrick White falls into the same category.
LeVert has the game to post huge numbers and elevate his profile. He just needs a consistent, big-minute role to prove it.