- These stars are unlikely to move before the trade deadline, but the NBA would be a lot more interesting (and better?) if they did.
The NBA trade deadline is roughly a month away, and that means we're about to enter peak rumor season around the league. It's already begun, really. In the past week, we learned that Ricky Rubio is reportedly on the block, and that the Pistons and Wolves were discussing a Rubio-for-Reggie Jackson deal. Meanwhile, the Nuggets are reportedly set on dealing Jusuf Nurkic, the Hawks have pressed pause on Paul Millsap talks, and Carmelo Anthony's future will probably change four to five times over the course of the next few weeks. Trade season is here.
That said, this article is not about what trade season will look like. This is about dreams. I can promise only two things: 1) None of these players will actually be traded, and 2) the NBA would be more interesting if they were. Without further ado...
CJ McCollum, Blazers
Nobody wants to be a prisoner of the moment, and the Blazers have more problems than just their backcourt. But watch Portland play this year. As horrendous as the defense looks with Lillard and McCollum, it's just as striking to see how predictable the offense has become. McCollumn and Lillard trade off possessions, run off a handful of screens each time, and then launch pull-up jumpers. It's a wide-open style that may have caught defenses off guard two years ago, but now looks like a less-efficient version of half the offenses in the NBA. Couple that with the built-in disadvantages the Lillard-McCollum backcourt gives them defensively, and it's tough to win like a playoff team. Patching up the interior could take Portland from 10th place to 7th, but the ceiling is limited from there.
The Blazers won't break up the backcourt for a number of reasons. First, because McCollum's deal—a rookie contract that turns into a $106 million extension this summer—is complicated to trade. Second, because trading Lillard would be considered blasphemy after the past few years. And finally, because there are enough problems elsewhere to convince everyone that Lillard and McCollum could still work in other circumstances.
One of them should move, though. It'd be a win for everyone, including basketball fans. Rather than watch Lillard and McCollum struggle to make this work together, we could watch them torch defenses on their own, with rosters that actually make sense. Both would have a ton of value on the open market, and it's better to admit this isn't working before it becomes obvious to the whole league, and the Blazers lose leverage.
For now, if the Blazers can get the Sixers' first round pick and Nerlens Noel for McCollum, that would give them two lottery picks in one of the deepest lotteries of the past two decades, plus a potential solution up front. It'd be a drastic change after last year's playoff run, but again, watch a Blazers game. Drastic changes make a lot more sense than they did two months ago.
Andre Drummond, Pistons
The Pistons have already been at the center of trade rumors thanks to Reggie Jackson, and that makes sense. Jackson has struggled. Even when he plays well, it often comes at the expense of the team's rhythm. But all of this is secondary if the Pistons actually want to fix anything. The problem is Drummond.
Think about the Pistons. Good talent on paper, rising steadily through the East, but then plateauing for reasons that aren't totally clear.
That trajectory mirrors Drummond, not Reggie Jackson. Drummond's defense has never gotten much better than league-average among centers, and his offense has stagnated just the same. The Pistons best player can't play the end of games, and isn't always engaged on defense. People expected the Pistons to improve for lots of reasons, but the optimism was always rooted in the assumption that Van Gundy would turn Drummond into a monster, and that's not happening. Basketball fans don't need to see Stan Van Gundy waste two more seasons trying to make this work.
The market for centers is tricky across the league, but Drummond is still young enough to sell teams on his potential, and he's signed through 2020. If the Pistons admit this experiment is failing before it actually bottoms out, they can market Drummond as a double-double machine that just doesn't click with Van Gundy. If the problems continue for another 18 months, that marketing job will a lot be tougher. The dream scenario? Drummond, Stanley Johnson, and a 2018 first-round pick to Sacramento for DeMarcus Cousins, who might average 40 playing under Van Gundy. All in favor, please say: Motor City Boogie.
Aaron Gordon, Magic
Orlando should trade Gordon while there's still time to talk another NBA team into his star potential. Another team should trade for him knowing that Gordon's not a star, but understanding that he's been in the worst possible situation for the past three seasons. Even his floor as a player—Michael Kidd-Gilchrist with more dunks—can still help a good team.
What's more, Gordon can be better than what we've seen—he just needs to escape Orlando, where he's playing out of position for a team that's going nowhere. Look at how well Victor Oladipo has played in a coherent situation; that's what's possible for Gordon.
The Magic will shop Elfird Payton at the deadline, because the Magic are never not shopping Elfrid Payton. They will try to offload Nikola Vucevic, and a Serge Ibaka deal is a possibility given his expiring contract. But Gordon's the one with the most value, and it'd be beneficial to everyone to find a deal that works. He'll be due an extension after next year, so his value will get more complicated by this time next year.
For now, all the mid-market teams with assets—Phoenix, Denver, Atlanta, maybe New —should make a play for Gordon as a Swiss-Army Knife at the four. Teams that can't sign stars in free agency have to try to trade for them, and Gordon's a smart gamble. The Magic could take back picks and assets that can help them more than Gordon does, and the rest of us could have the chance to watch one of the NBA's strangest talents unleashed on a team that actually has a chance to play to his strengths.
Eric Bledsoe, Suns
I understand the case for keeping Eric Bledsoe in Phoenix. He's a solid veteran on a team that will need guidance as it grows. He keeps them competitive on a weekly basis, and it helps the development of guys like Marquese Chriss and Devin Booker to put them in close games. The rationale makes sense. But then ... if the season continues the way it has, there's a good chance the Suns will be near the top of the lottery again. Most of the best options will be point guards, especially given the lottery picks Phoenix has already stockpiled. Trading Bledsoe now allows the Suns to max out his value before a crowded backcourt forces them to give him away for 50 cents on the dollar next February (like Brandon Knight, this February).
He had 40 points, 13 assists, and eight rebounds Sunday, and he's been on fire all month. It begs two questions: How can we get Eric Bledsoe to a playoff contender, and why aren't more playoff teams angling to steal him?
For example, Bledsoe would look great in Denver, an asset-rich would-be playoff team that's currently splitting time between Jameer Nelson and Emannuel Mudiay at point guard. Or maybe Milwaukee? Minnesota? New York? Philly? Bledsoe's 27 years old, he's one of the best two-way point guards in the league, and he's got two years left on his deal after this season. There are injury risks, but if he stays healthy, he's an elite option on both ends of the floor. It's a smart gamble. 10 different teams should be harassing the Suns about Bledsoe.
Paul George, Pacers
Paul George: “To be honest, I didn’t even feel the energy within our group tonight, from the huddle to the layup line. It was just dead."— Nate Taylor (@ByNateTaylor) January 22, 2017
It seems like every few weeks, Paul George says something that inspires double takes around the league. Is he really that unhappy? Most players spend the summer with Team USA and come back rejuvenated. Paul George came back and sounds like he's in the middle of a mid-life crisis. Meanwhile, his play has slipped across the board this year, and the Pacers are stuck pinballing between two games below or above .500. The solutions for the future are unclear.
Larry Bird won't trade him because the new CBA is here, and like Sacramento with DeMarcus Cousins, Indiana can offer a gigantic extension this summer. At the very least, they can afford to play out the season with the current roster. Still, the more disenchanted George becomes, the more it seems like this is headed nowhere. And if the endgame is rebuilding around Myles Turner with lottery picks, that process should start sooner rather than later. The Celtics could offer multiple picks (including a top-3 Nets pick) and Jae Crowder (signed through 2020), which comes very close to a fair haul for Indiana. It'd give fans a chance to see George rejuvenated on a contender, it'd make the East twice as interesting for the next few years, and it'd give the Pacers an excellent headstart at building a new foundation.
The George situation is just a reminder. We'll all have plenty of time to talk about Paul Millsap hypotheticals and PJ Tucker's value, but before the next month, it's important to remember the first rule of any trade deadline. The best trades are always the ones that don't happen.