Throughout this summer and much of the NBA season, we watched and waited as trade rumors swirled around Kawhi Leonard. The mercurial star played in only nine games in the 2017–18 season and reports of his discontent were consistent during his absence.
Now that the Raptors have swung a deal to land Leonard—who is also rumored to have no interest in Toronto—it makes sense to take stock of the NBA landscape and look at its stars to consider which one could be on the move. The Crossover polled its team of writers in search of the early opinion on the next marquee player to be traded.
Lee Jenkins: Kawhi Leonard
Could the first superstar to move after Kawhi Leonard be… Kawhi Leonard? It’s possible the Raptors are the best team in the East, with the stingiest defense in the NBA, and even if they fall well short of that standard Leonard will be in Toronto all season. But if Leonard does not mesh with point guard Kyle Lowry, and if the Raps falter under rookie head coach Nick Nurse, general manager Masai Ujiri may have to flip his prized acquisition by the trading deadline.
Ujiri’s course will be most heavily influenced by his own team’s record, of course, but it might also be affected by the Lakers’. LeBron James has signaled to L.A.’s front office that he will be patient in his first season on the West Coast, but we will see whether that lasts much past New Year’s. If the Lakers are stumbling with their mishmash roster, calls to Toronto could become more urgent, and offers more enticing.
Andrew Sharp: Karl-Anthony Towns
This is a bit of a wild card entry, and it's entirely possible that Towns will sign a massive extension sometime in the next few weeks, rendering all concerns moot. But at the moment, there's at least a little bit of room to wonder about his future in Minnesota. Towns and Jimmy Butler didn't appear to click in that locker room last year, and while Towns remains obscenely gifted on offense, he was often marginalized while Butler took control of games for a Wolves team that was still learning how to win. If Towns is unhappy with that power structure, it would be understandable. Likewise, a number of young players have looked less thrilled with life under Tom Thibodeau, and Towns can safely be assumed to be among that camp as well. In May, Thibs fired an assistant coach (Vince LeGarza) who had worked closely with Towns through his first three seasons. Apparently that move was made without consulting Towns.
None of these problems are unsolvable, but as uneasiness pervades and Jimmy Butler's free agency looms, trading Towns on his rookie deal would bring back significantly more value than any deal built around Wiggins or Butler. The Wolves are still a long way off from that point, and things would have to devolve in several respects before it becomes viable, but a KAT trade is the nuclear option.
For now, the situation is worth monitoring. Towns is the most talented young big man this side of Anthony Davis, and at a recent public appearance, he was asked about his commitment to the community in Minnesota. His answer was brief: "I think I've done a lot of things here. I'm very proud of the things I've been able to do so far. I've had a lot of things that need to be talked about, so I'll move on."
Matt Dollinger: Kemba Walker
Kemba Walker says he plans to be a Charlotte Hornet for a “long time” but that doesn’t mean the Charlotte Hornets are planning the same thing. The Hornets are currently in an unenviable position of being pretty bad, but not bad enough to secure a top pick in next year’s draft. With Walker, Nicolas Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and a slew of other respectable veterans, Charlotte will be too respectable to fully bottom out next season. That is, unless, they part with the only All-Star on their roster and embrace a full-scale rebuild.
It’s not surprising that Michael Jordan might have too much pride to tear everything down, but maybe new GM Mitch Kupchak can talk him into the long-term approach. At 28, Walker is not only in his prime, but comes at an extremely reasonable price ($12M) and on an expiring deal. There are plenty of teams that could use an upgrade at point guard and utilize the services of a score-first guard to spread the floor and initiate offense. The Hornets could likely get a first-round pick or a strong prospect in return too, which would do more for their rebuilding efforts than a veteran point guard attempting to squeak out wins. Would the Lakers trade Lonzo Ball for Walker? Could the 76ers put together an enticing enough package to add another shooter? Would a team like the Pacers, Bucks or Pistons ante up enough to improve at the point? These are the types of call Kupchak and Co. should be making.
Ben Ladner: Jimmy Butler
Since he became a star, Butler has developed a reputation as a somewhat prickly personality. Not all of his teammates share his relentless, maniacal work ethic, which can rub Butler the wrong way at times. Reports of frustration with younger teammates Andrew Wiggins and Karl Towns have surfaced in recent weeks, as have murmurs that the All Star would rather team up with Kyrie Irving next summer. Butler will be a free agent in 2019 and appears unwilling to sign the Wolves’ four-year, $110 million extension offer. That’s a smart financial decision, as Butler can get more money on a max deal if he opts out of his 2019–20 player option and hits free agency. But his noncommittal—and perhaps contentious—stance toward the franchise raises legitimate long-term concern.
Superstars wield more power than ever in determining the landscape of the league, and if Butler makes it clear he’d rather play elsewhere, the front office would have few choices but to flip him for an asset. As currently constructed, Minnesota is not good enough to compete for a championship, and losing a star player for nothing would severely handicap the team going forward. Butler is the sort of talent for which teams will sacrifice meaningful pieces to acquire. If the Wolves can wrest a promising youngster that more closely aligns with the primes of Karl Towns and Andrew Wiggins, that might be worth the cost of giving up one of the league’s most talented wings.
Jake Fischer: Kemba Walker
Among the many whispers leading up the June's NBA draft, a trade scenario that kept circulating amongst league executives featured Kemba Walker, in some faction, to the Cavaliers. Any substantial discussions of Walker-to-Cleveland obviously were held when LeBron James was still playing in Northeast Ohio and before the Cavs handed their point guard keys to No. 8 overall pick Collin Sexton. Even still, Walker's name has been floated heavily both at the trade deadline and leading up to draft night. In this particular instance, I think true fire isn't lagging too far behind the smoke. Walker is a bonafide All-Star. He's proven to be durable, dramatically improved his outside stroke and continues to star as one of the most prolific scoring guards in the league, all while defending at higher level. Charlotte was actually 5.3 points per 100 possessions better defensively when Walker was on the court this past season.
Yet there's an entire new regime in Charlotte. This is now Mitch Kupchak's front office and James Borrego's team. Similar to a new GM looking to replace his incumbent head coach, neither man was responsible for drafting Walker in 2011 and developing him into an All-Star caliber player. The Hornets aren't exactly rebuilding. And Charlotte has harbored deep interest in making the playoffs each year of the past half-decade. The Hornets aren't exactly competing for the conference crown, either, even in the James-less East, and moving Walker could return some valuable assets to bolster their younger crop of Malik Monk, Miles Bridges and Willy Hernangomez—who flashed three-point range in Summer League! That's obviously not such a promising young core, which is perhaps all the evidence you need in supporting a Charlotte rebuild-esque maneuver.