James Harden to the Brooklyn Nets marks the end of a sort of era. While superstar movement has been common for at least the past decade, the period between June of 2018 and January of 2021 was more volatile than any in league history. Five of the seven active MVPs changed teams, and some did more than once. Half of the participants in the 2018 All-Star Game have moved, and much of that movement was concentrated at the top of the league. Five of the top eight players on CBS Sports’ 2021 rankings of the top 100 players in the NBA changed teams in that span. This was not just a period of extreme player movement. It was a period of extreme superstar movement, one that may never again be matched in history.
But realistically, things are probably going to slow down now that Harden has been moved. The greatest driver of star trades is the risk of losing those stars for nothing in free agency. Well, most of the stars that could have exercised that leverage this season simply re-signed during the offseason. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Paul George, Rudy Gobert and LeBron James are all staying put. Victor Oladipo was already traded, and unless his heart is set on moving, he can use the fact that Houston has already surrendered assets for him to secure the long-term contract he wants. Kawhi Leonard is technically on an expiring contract, but the widespread belief around the league is that he will remain with the Clippers after working so hard to return to Los Angeles in the first place.
Things aren’t much brighter in 2022. Yes, there are a number of big-name free agents, but most of them are in relatively stable situations that they themselves chose. Is Jimmy Butler going to leave the Heat? Would Stephen Curry opt-out of his deal with the Warriors? Probably not. Sure, the Brooklyn situation could dissolve and some combination of Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving could test the waters, but that doesn’t seem overly likely either. There are young players in undesirable situations, but they are so far removed from free agency that their ability to force a deal is limited. To some degree, we are about to enter a period of relative superstar stability. The game of musical chairs is over, and most of the league’s best players are where they’d like to be.
Now, this is a fairly naive thought in the context of the past decade of NBA history. Someone unexpected is going to become available because, well, someone always does. But most of the biggest pieces are off of the board, and that’s going to force interested parties to go all-in on the few remaining stars that could become available in the near future. With Harden off of the table, here are the five big names likeliest to hit the market next.
Beal is the obvious name here. The Wizards are 3-8 and have missed the past two postseasons. He has openly complained about his team’s defense and how it continually manages to waste his best individual games. His contract lasts only through the 2021-22 season, and after giving up a first-round to acquire Russell Westbrook, the Wizards are incentivized to get as much back for Beal as possible to help ensure a smooth rebuild. Nothing they’ve said or done to this point indicates a willingness to deal their star shooting guard, but history says that if the Wizards don’t turn things around soon, Beal will force the issue. This much, we can safely assume.
What is more open to speculation, though, is what impact Beal’s potential availability had on the Harden sweepstakes. Brooklyn paid a premium for Harden, and justifiably so. He is a better player than Beal, but he’s five years older and much more difficult to fit within a typical contending roster. Offenses need to be constructed around Harden. Beal can fit within any offensive construction.
Philadelphia was willing to give up Ben Simmons in a deal for Harden, but haggled over Tyrese Maxey, according to The New York Times’ Marc Stein. Miami bowed out early in the process according to multiple reports, but they have reportedly coveted Beal for quite some time. Both teams have star big men in their 20s. Might they prefer to pair those big men with the 26-year-old Beal to the 31-year-old Harden?
We won’t know for certain until Beal becomes available. For now, what we can say is that reports throughout the process suggested that Houston was not interested in Brooklyn’s offer for Harden. That they eventually took it likely means that other teams with preferable packages just didn’t offer what the Rockets expected them to. Beal is the simplest answer as to why. Multiple teams kept their powder dry in the Harden sweepstakes, and without an obvious follower to Beal on the star market, it’s almost impossible to deny his impact on the Harden deal.
The 2-8 Raptors have no reason not to consider trading Lowry if they continue to lose. Aside from the fact that he’s 34 and on an expiring contract, they have the cap space to re-sign him this offseason even after a trade if both sides were interested. For them, dealing Lowry could be as simple as getting assets to give up on the season and trying again in a year.
But moving Lowry comes with its own set of complications, especially after the somewhat callous (albeit correct) decision to trade DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard. Lowry is the most accomplished player in franchise history, He is utterly beloved by Raptors fans, and trading him would likely be even harder on them than the DeRozan deal was as Lowry wouldn’t net a Kawhi-caliber player in return. If Masai Ujiri does decide to deal him, it would likely have to be to a team of Lowry’s choosing to avoid backlash.
That points to Philadelphia, Lowry’s hometown team and a franchise long-considered to be a point guard short of championship contention. Reports linked Lowry to the 76ers when he was a free agent in 2017, and Philadelphia could muster enough salary filler between (former Raptor) Danny Green, Terrance Ferguson and Mike Scott to get a deal done, but what would they give up in terms of value? Are draft picks enough? Maxey is almost certainly off the table. Matisse Thybulle likely is as well.
Beyond the 76ers, there isn’t an obvious fit. Lowry doesn’t need to chase a ring. The Clippers would love to reunite him with Kawhi, but lack the assets and the contracts to make a deal. Miami, like Philadelphia, could be hoarding assets for an eventual Beal pursuit. If Lowry wants a deal, it’s safe to say he can get one. But finding a team that works for both him and the Raptors won’t be easy.
Minnesota is still building around Towns in an effort to convince him to remain with the Timberwolves for life. They’ve even traded what now appear to be two premium assets (the revitalized Andrew Wiggins and their own 2021 first-round pick) to secure Towns’ close friend D’Angelo Russell. In the five stages of losing a superstar, this would qualify as «denial.» Neither Russell nor No. 1 overall pick Anthony Edwards has stood out thus far, and while Minnesota’s 3-8 record is hardly representative considering Towns’ early-season injury, their 28th-ranked defense isn’t going to improve.
Towns is under contract for three seasons beyond this one, but that’s nothing in the grand scheme of superstar deals. Harden and Paul George both forced their way out with two years left, and if Minnesota continues losing, the end of next season will likely be the unofficial beginning of the Towns sweepstakes.
The usual suspects will likely be involved. If Miami hasn’t found a superstar by then, the Heat will make their inevitable offer. The pick hoarders like New Orleans and Oklahoma City may be ready to act by then as well. The Suns will likely open the bidding as favorites considering Towns’ friendship with college teammate Devin Booker and the presence of a readymade replacement in DeAndre Ayton, but this far out, too much can change for anything to be deemed particularly likely. New suitors will emerge, and existing ones will drop out. But eventually, Minnesota is going to have to reckon with the fact that it has taken Towns to the playoffs only once and that isn’t likely to change in the near future. Eventually, his patience is going to run out.
LaVine falls in the rare class of player that is good enough to actively seek out his preferred destination, but not so good that his own team wouldn’t be open to trading him at the right price regardless of his desires. LaVine will be a free agent in 2022 and has never played in a playoff game. One way or another, that is likely to change by 2023. That might involve the 4-7 Bulls improving internally, or it might involve LaVine forcing his way somewhere else.
But the opposite side of that coin is that Chicago has a new general manager in Arturas Karnisovas and a new coach in Billy Donovan. The entire organization is being evaluated right now, and even if LaVine is its best player, he is also the oldest and most expensive part of its core. He and Coby White are fairly similar players, and few teams are interested in long-term backcourt pairings with so little defensive upside. If the Bulls want to extend their rebuild a bit longer and avoid an expensive LaVine extension, they could probably get something close to fair value in a trade right now.
LaVine is only 25. His next contract is going to be pricey, but his current one pays him only $19.5 million. He’s a high-level 3-point shooter as well. Add all of that up and he makes sense on almost any team. Dallas has long been in the market for another high-volume ball-handler to pair with Luka Doncic. That offensive pairing would be nightmarish. Memphis could try something similar with Ja Morant. The Knicks might even view him as the sort of splashy addition they’ve been seeking since Leon Rose took over.
If a LaVine trade comes, it is going to come quietly. The Bulls have no reason to turn this into a media circus. But unless they turn things around, he is going to be available at some point in the next 18 months. That might be through a trade or it might be in free agency, but LaVine will have his chance to join a winner if that’s what he wants.
Sooner or later, enough time on Love’s deal is going to pass for him to become tradeable again. He is owed $91.5 million over the next three seasons, but ask Chris Paul how quickly that time can fly in the right situation. He has hardly played this year due to injuries, and given his defensive deficiencies, it might not even be fair to call him a star anymore. But after adding Jarrett Allen, Cleveland has too many big men to even find playing time for Love anymore. He won’t net major assets, but it’s time for both sides to move on.
Finding a home will be difficult, and might involve taking on some bad money. Memphis has Gorgui Dieng’s expiring salary to push them over the top if they felt like getting more shooting out of the offense-centric front-court spot currently occupied by Jonas Valanciunas. Perhaps Charlotte would dangle Terry Rozier and some filler to open up a starting slot for LaMelo Ball. It takes a rare combination of desperation and lack of ambition to take on a contract like Love’s, but among big-name players, there just isn’t a more gettable option in all of basketball.