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Michael Dwyer/Associated Press
The star power is strong in the NBA.
So strong, in fact, that several teams who didn’t get an invite to the bubble count at least one celestial body on their roster, be that Stephen Curry on the Golden State Warriors, Trae Young on the Atlanta Hawks or Karl-Anthony Towns on the Minnesota Timberwolves.
But the hoop gods stopped short of going all Oprah and gifting everyone a star. Since seemingly everyone else has at least one, it makes it exceedingly difficult for these clubs to compete without one.
We’re here to change their fates by identifying some realistically available stars and ironing out the trade that routes them to these star-less squads.
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Carlos Osorio/Associated Press
Charlotte Hornets receive: Blake Griffin
Detroit Pistons receive: Nicolas Batum, Malik Monk
The Hornets exceeded most realistic expectations for their first post-Kemba Walker campaign. Devonte’ Graham rocketed into relevance, Terry Rozier nearly played up to his three-year, $58 million contract—no minor accomplishment when it initially seemed a massive overpay—and P.J. Washington proved a draft-night heist as the 12th overall pick.
But Buzz City lacks a centerpiece, and no player on the roster seems capable of rising to that rank. If the Hornets want a fast-track to a clearance star, then converting Batum’s expiring $27.1 million salary and Monk into Griffin is the way to go.
The move wouldn’t be without risk. Griffin is owed a massive amount of money ($36.6 million next season, $39.0 million player option for 2021-22) for anyone, let alone a 31-year-old with an injury history so extensive medical students might use it as a study guide. He looked abysmal in his 18 outings this season (15.5 points on 35.2/24.3/77.6 shooting) and may never get his groove back.
If he does, though, this deal gets remembered as a grand larceny. Charlotte’s 28th-ranked offense is in dire need of a focal point, and Griffin’s healthy version is a tremendous offensive hub. He may not have the bounce he did during his peak, but his shooting range has stretched out to the three-point line, and he’s a borderline brilliant table-setter for a 6’9″ power forward.
If he can dominate the basketball and do the right things with it, that means cleaner three-point shots for Graham, wider attack lanes for Rozier and Washington never being forced into trying to do too much.
This only works if the Pistons want nothing more than an escape from Griffin’s contract, but their deadline dump of Andre Drummond suggests they’re ready for a new chapter.
Batum won’t be a part of it, but maybe his contract brings back something that would, as teams scramble to create space ahead of 2021 free agency. Monk is theoretically interesting as a 22-year-old with hops and an occasionally ignitable three-ball, but Charlotte could be ready to cut bait rather than deal with his 2021 free agency. He’s just a 39.5/32.2/85.0 shooter for his career.
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John Raoux/Associated Press
Chicago Bulls receive: Nikola Vucevic
Orlando Magic receive: Wendell Carter Jr., Thaddeus Young, Tomas Satoransky, 2021 second-round pick
There are a million different factors behind the Bulls finishing 29th in offensive efficiency, but what if the biggest one is insufficient firepower? Zach LaVine was the only player to average more than 15 points, and Wendell Carter Jr. was the lone Windy City hooper to average double-digit points on 46-plus percent shooting.
If the Bulls, who haven’t sent anyone to the All-Star Game since Jimmy Butler made the trip in 2017, want to give their offense some oxygen, putting it in the hands of Vucevic isn’t a bad idea.
It’s true he may not be a marquee name, and LaVine could be the club’s scoring leader again next season even with him. But Vooch might be the piece that solves this offensive puzzle. The 6’11”, 260-pounder, who made his first career All-Star trip in 2019, is one of only four players to average 19 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and a triple both this season and last. Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns and Nikola Jokic are the others.
Assuming Lauri Markkanen gets things back on track, there aren’t many teams that will have a defensive answer for both him and Vucevic. With LaVine providing his customary volume and Coby White potentially building off his late breakout (26.1 points on 48.0/43.2/90.3 shooting his final nine outings), Chicago could have the rough outline of a top-10 attack.
For the Magic to sign off on this swap, they must be less than keen about paying Vucevic $72 million over the next three seasons. Considering he’s a 29-year-old with only a single All-Star appearance on his resume and an across-the-board statistical decline this season, Orlando may decide the contract is too rich for its blood.
Carter is the prized pull, as he’d make the Magic more versatile on defense and might eventually offer some of the same distributing and shooting skills as Vooch—only the 21-year-old Carter is a cleaner fit with 22-year-olds Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz. Satoransky helps ensure the ball stays moving on offense, and Young either offers plug-and-play potential to the Magic or is someone they can shop to a win-now buyer.
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Tony Dejak/Associated Press
Cleveland Cavaliers receive: Victor Oladipo
Indiana Pacers receive: Collin Sexton, Dante Exum, Cedi Osman, 2021 first-round pick (top-10 protected)
The first time LeBron James bolted out of Northeast Ohio, the Cavs plunged into a four-year playoff drought (snapped only by the King’s return). They apparently have no interest in waiting that long this time around.
Cleveland, which has gone just 38-109 since James’ latest departure in 2018, is already feeling antsy. Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert is “turning up the pressure for the Cavs to show real improvement next season,” The Athletic’s Jason Lloyd reported.
It seems like a strange strategy given that the Cavs needed more time before and that group had Kyrie Irving. But if they are looking to win sooner than later, that would be their justification behind throwing multiple long-term assets at a potentially short-term solution.
Could Oladipo be an option? He needs a new deal by 2021, and preseason extension talks were tabled quickly, per ESPN’s Zach Lowe. Oladipo is Indiana’s brightest star—by stature, if no longer by statistics—but it’s far from a no-brainer he’ll stick around. He’ll have other suitors, and the Pacers might balk at his price, since he has effectively had two years rocked by a knee injury and only has a short window of elite play.
But his best-case version is a top-tier athlete with few holes at either end. He can be a transformative talent, and that’s exactly what Cleveland needs to get going. If the Cavs are sincerely aiming at the 2021 postseason, a healthy Oladipo is the kind of player who can lead them there.
If the Pacers don’t love their chances of re-signing Oladipo—or think the risk of a huge deal with him outweighs the reward—they’ll want to move him while they still can. His uncertain future and recent injury woes would limit the return, but Cleveland’s desperation would put this package in the respectable realm.
Collin Sexton is already a 20-point scorer, and he’d become a two-way problem if Nate McMillan works his defensive magic the way he did with T.J. Warren. Exum gives the Pacers a legitimate defensive weapon on the perimeter, and Osman helps extend the rotation. The 2021 draft is deep enough that even a pick with top-10 protection carries substantial appeal.
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Mary Altaffer/Associated Press
New York Knicks receive: Chris Paul
Oklahoma City Thunder receive: Bobby Portis, Taj Gibson, Frank Ntilikina, Reggie Bullock and 2020 first-round pick (via Los Angeles Clippers)
The merits of a rebuilding team like the ‘Bockers making an aggressive play for the 35-year-old Paul are up for debate. Here’s what isn’t: New York’s clearest path to a franchise face leads directly to the decorated floor general.
He’s on the radar, too, which should surprise no one given his former agent, Leon Rose, is now the Knicks’ president. Rose wasn’t even on the job a full week when Sirius XM NBA’s Frank Isola reported the Knicks were “gathering intel” on Paul and “could make a run at him this summer.” SNY’s Ian Begley said some within the team felt Paul could “jump-start the franchise’s effort to build a winning culture.”
There is value in a culture changer, especially for clubs with a—how should we put this—less-than-stellar reputation. As Kevin Durant put it during an October interview on HOT 97 (h/t Chris Bumbaca of USA Today), “The cool thing right now is not the Knicks.”
New York needs that to change before the next batch of mega-stars hits free agency. Adding Paul could be a big step in the right direction. And inside the lines, he could work aerial magic with Mitchell Robinson and show RJ Barrett the finer points of shot creation.
The structure of this swap is highly flexible, since New York could renounce rights on several players to effectively absorb Paul into cap space. It all depends what Oklahoma City wants, which presumably starts with not owing Paul $41.4 million next season or his $44.2 million player option for 2021-22.
Saying that, the veteran does rank sixth overall in ESPN’s real plus-minus, so the Thunder probably don’t want to part with him for nothing.
Here, the Thunder collect Frank Ntilikina (who could be swapped out for Kevin Knox or Dennis Smith Jr.) and a first-round pick. It’s by no means a king’s ransom, but it’s not nothing. Ntilikina is a wrecking ball on defense, and his offensive limitations might be masked a bit by sharing a backcourt with rising star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
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Frank Franklin II/Associated Press
San Antonio Spurs receive: Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie
Brooklyn Nets receive: DeMar DeRozan
It’s important to remember that stardom is a relative designation. Certain clubs—specifically those with win-now intentions and offensive shortcomings—might consider both DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge as stars.
But as the Spurs shift their focus to the future, the 30-somethings can’t be their centerpieces any more. Without substantial offensive growth from Dejounte Murray or night-to-night consistency out of Derrick White, San Antonio probably doesn’t have its next franchise face on the roster.
This deal could bring one to the Alamo City, provided Gregg Popovich and Co. work their player development wonders on the 25-year-old LeVert. (Dinwiddie, who averaged 20.6 points and 6.8 assists this season, is far from a throw-in, but his ceiling stops short of LeVert’s.) As ESPN’s Zach Lowe observed, LeVert has “back-end All-Star potential” thanks to his scoring instincts, shot-creation and vision.
The scoring swingman earned the moniker “Baby Durant” for a reason. He can look effortless when he’s in a groove, and his per-36-minutes averages spiked to 22.2 points, 5.1 rebounds and 5.0 assists this season. For context, only seven players have a 22/5/5 line for the season.
Now, how high could a club climb with LeVert at its epicenter? That’s a fair question, and one that probably highlights how he’s not an all-galaxy superstar in even his best-case scenario. But with his scoring, Dinwiddie’s offense, Murray’s suffocating defense, White’s glue-guy game, Lonnie Walker IV’s bounce, Keldon Johnson’s aggressiveness and Jakob Poeltl’s paint protection, the Spurs would have a strong foundation for their next chapter.
For the Nets, this is about converting their up-and-comers into an established third star, which is something they’re already exploring, according to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst. DeRozan isn’t the cleanest fit for Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, but this might be the best the trade market has to bear.
If Brooklyn gets enough spacing from its other spots, it should still have room to function on offense. DeRozan’s threat as a scorer and creator is steep enough to prevent opponents from overloading on the Nets’ stars.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.