Turn back the clock a few months and the average NBA fan could have, quite correctly, dismissed most rumors about a big-name player changing teams. But to the fortune of some, and disadvantage of other teams, one of the defining characteristics of this era of NBA basketball is star-level players being in control of their own destinies and pushing their way into situations where they want to be.
Chris Paul opted into the final year of his deal to facilitate a trade to the Rockets, which was unusual for a player eligible for a 35 percent supermax contract at the age of 32 – a move partially influenced by the Warriors’ historic team and Houston counteracting and going all in with their star James Harden in his prime. For Paul George, Indiana got back a package that strongly signals even Oklahoma City is treating George as a rental, after George told the Pacers he wouldn’t re-sign in the summer of 2018 and been heavily linked to the Los Angeles Lakers. Jimmy Butler was traded with two years left on his contract and Gordon Hayward escaped to the Eastern Conference for a better chance to compete for a title despite the Jazz doing a wonderful job setting up their roster for a run of 50-win seasons.
This is the new norm, and there’s seems to be at least some sort of positive feedback loop from both the player and team perspective to continue re-tooling. Perhaps we’ll see at least a few Top 20 talents move every summer in perpetuity, or maybe the dust settles down in two years once the effects of the salary cap spike are fully realized and teams find themselves in a position with less flexibility to facilitate big trades.
Until then, we’ll see at least a few big names change teams, and here are the most likely candidates.
Carmelo Anthony, New York
For a brief moment that lasted about a week after firing Phil Jackson, the Knicks gave us the illusion of being a patient and competent franchise re-evaluating how they operated and possibly moving forward with a new strategy.
That illusion was quickly shattered after extending Tim Hardaway Jr. a four-year, $71 million offer sheet about five days after the rest of the league had realized the market had completely dried up after crazy splurges the year before. As a reference point, Patrick Patterson agreed to a three-year, $16.4 million deal and is a better player than Hardaway Jr. Presumably, the Hawks didn’t match the offer for their restricted free agent due to being sane.
The fact that the Knicks have tied up half their salary cap to Courtney Lee, Joakim Noah and Hardaway Jr. for the next few seasons is the best indication things aren’t picking up in New York, and the drama that has persisted around Anthony is likely to resolve itself quicker.
Reportedly, Houston and Cleveland are the two frontrunners for Anthony and at some point, one of the two will have done cajoling to snatch up Anthony on the cheap. Even if by some miracle Anthony wasn’t moved to the Rockets or Cavaliers by opening night, as the season starts and the losses pile up, the scope of teams Anthony would be willing to waive his no-trade should increase by the day.
Anthony is much maligned for his mediocre defense, though he’s super strong in the post and better at power forward at this point in his career on both ends of the court – another obvious fact the Knicks decided to ignore after playing Anthony at the four led to a successful 50-win season. Melo isn’t the type of player to elevate his teammates, but in a Team USA-type role on a title contender Anthony should be a dangerous scorer and a positive contributor.
Kevin Love, Cleveland
Love should have already been traded, if the reports are true and the Pacers could have received Gary Harris and a first-rounder with Love heading to Denver in a three-way deal in exchange for George. Harris is one of the most underrated shooting guards in the league and far better value at this point in his career than Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis combined.
The fact that George is off the table and Paul Millsap is now the power forward in Denver has decreased the likelihood of Love moving, but he still remains the one piece the Cavaliers can trade to find a better fit for their roster to play against Golden State. Coming off his best season with the team and being a crucial part of their title run in 2016, Love has done an excellent job in Cleveland and some team could think he can still function as the center of an offense in a high-post role similar to his days in Minnesota. Love is also the likely to piece to be moved in a trade for Anthony.
Looking beyond next season if LeBron James decides to leave the Cavaliers, say to join forces with George in Los Angeles, Love is also the piece the Cavaliers can sell-off to gain assets and re-tool around Kyrie Irving.
Andre Drummond, Detroit
Drummond really isn’t a star player in terms of impact on the court, but has been a big name due to his athleticism, perceived upside and comparisons to Dwight Howard.
Drummond is still young, turning 24 before the start of next season, but also at the point in which we should be extremely skeptical he ever reaches anything near peak-Howard. Dwight was a monster defensively, and could single-handedly blow up pick-and-rolls and be a Top 5 defense by himself in his prime. Drummond hasn’t understood the details of positioning and angles like Howard did, and is perhaps a slightly below-average defender overall for the center position.
Offensively, Stan Van Gundy has pushed Drummond to improve as a post-up player but even on that end, apart from his work around the rim, Drummond really isn’t an efficient player. Contrast Drummond’s 51.8 True Shooting Percentage from 2016-17, a mark slightly below the league average, to DeAndre Jordan’s 67.3 percent. That’s the area Drummond should be at, and while Howard was never a great post player he knew how to get deep position from Van Gundy’s pick-and-roll schemes, whereas Drummond’s post-up invariably end up with a 35 percent post-hook eight feet away from the basket. In fact, the Pistons were outscored by 6.3 points per 100 possessions with Drummond on the court, compare to being at +5.2 points with his backup Aron Baynes.
In his joint position as head coach and president of basketball operations, Van Gundy has thrown out $7-10 million per year contracts to role players like Ish Smith, Jon Leuer, Boban Marjanovic, and most recently (and inexplicably) Langston Galloway. That has added up.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope wasn’t able to receive a proper offer from Detroit and was renounced before hitting unrestricted free agency, a superbly atypical situation for a player of Caldwell-Pope’s age and talent. In exchange for Marcus Morris, the Pistons kicked the can down the road a year by bringing in Avery Bradley, who himself is due for a massive pay raise next summer.
The simple version is that the Pistons have a very expensive team and aren’t good, and that’s a deadly combination for every asset on the roster eventually. The good part is that the Eastern Conference is absolutely horrific, and the Pistons could have a successful season finishing as the sixth seed winning 42 games.
Everyone can delude themselves into thinking that’s a good year and the Pistons are up-and-coming, but in reality would be another kick-of-the-can. Unless Drummond and the other young players on the roster start breaking out unexpectedly, that’s by far the most likely outcome here.
LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio
After teams lost their minds a year ago in free agency and everyone had a billion dollars of cap space, and the cap spike going forward wasn’t quite as high as was expected, most teams are already hovering around the luxury tax for the summer of 2018.
At that point, things can get ugly from the player’s perspective and it will be a buyer’s market with very few desirable destinations like the Spurs and Mavericks with significant cap space (and that’s not an accident by the savvy teams). A big part of whether the Spurs have an insane amount of cap space comes down to Aldridge’s player option for the 2018-19 season. And if Aldridge decides to opt in and the Spurs are looking for something else, that’s the latest point you’d expect a move to take place.
There have also been some rumblings that Aldridge has been unhappy in his role with San Antonio. The Spurs value culture and buying into the team concept more than any other organization in the NBA, as Gregg Popovich puts it, players who have gotten over themselves. Not being content with touches and role is a major red flag, and the question with trading Aldridge likely comes down to whether or not the Spurs are able to find a package that is to their liking.
If that’s the case, expect the trigger to be pulled immediately.
Marc Gasol, Memphis
For Grizzlies fans, rumors of a potential Gasol trade is heresy. That’s understandable given how important Gasol is to the franchise. However, the counter argument is pretty simple and we are absolutely certain to see the effects hit some teams in the Western Conference hard.
The West will be an absolute juggernaut next season, and going through the teams expecting to make the playoffs there will be some severe disappointments. The Warriors, Spurs, Rockets, Thunder are locks to make the playoffs as the top seeds, and the Timberwolves may not be far behind. The leaves the Nuggets, Pelicans, Trail Blazers, Grizzlies, Clippers and Jazz competing for the remaining three slots.
Of those teams, the Grizzlies aren’t heavily favored to get in. The last two seasons, the Grizzlies have barely hovered over .500 and last season that was with Conley having a career-year and Gasol bouncing back better than expected from foot surgery. The Grizzlies don’t have much young talent with high upside on the roster, though management has been excellent overall tinkering around the edges with minimum guys. Memphis plays incredibly hard, will use every edge to their advantage and in addition have been one of the great crunch-time teams through the grit-and-grind era. But it’s more than likely that’s not enough.
Suitors like the Celtics are starting to smell blood in the water, and will pounce without a moment’s hesitation if the Grizzlies start the season off slow. Gasol is still a Top 20 player in the league, and has shown himself to age very well, even though foot speed at some point will become a bigger issue.
Gasol isn’t the only player in this category. Blake Griffin will be out for the start of the year with a toe injury and the Clippers could just be absolutely terrible without him, and that’s when everyone and their mother will start calling about DeAndre Jordan.
The Pelicans are building something quite different from every other team with Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins on the frontline, but with Cousins hitting unrestricted free agency in a year their timetable is extremely compressed. There won’t be time for figuring things out and starting out slow before panic starts to set in, and if Cousins decides to join the Eastern Conference with his buddy John Wall, Davis may become touchable.
Blazers are another team that could struggle to make the playoffs, and that’s when we’ll start hearing the CJ McCollum rumblings increase.
You can find Mika Honkasalo on Twitter @mhonkasalo.