NBA trade deadline: Julius Randle, Marcus Smart and the trade-him-or-pay-him dilemma
Restricted free agency is tricky, so young and talented players keep surfacing in rumors
It wasn't huge news when T.J. Warren signed a four-year, $50 million contract extension with the Phoenix Suns in September. The 24-year-old forward is quietly having the best season of his career, though, averaging 19.5 points on 50.4 percent shooting as the Suns' second option behind Devin Booker.
Phoenix must feel good about that. If it hadn't reached an agreement with Warren, it would have to be estimating what he'd command in restricted free agency this summer, weighing that against what it is comfortable paying him and figuring out what he could return on the trade market.
This is what is happening with most members of the 2014 draft class, and it is why names like Aaron Gordon, Marcus Smart and Rodney Hood -- young, talented and productive players! -- have surfaced in trade rumors recently. With Thursday's trade deadline just around the corner, here's a look at 10 of the most interesting trade-him-or-pay-him guys at the end of their rookie contracts:
How could Boston possibly trade this guy? He personifies the culture Brad Stevens has tried to create: competitive as heck, better in big moments and capable of guarding multiple positions. There isn't another player quite like him in the NBA -- he's sort of like a wing version of Draymond Green, I guess -- and ex-Celtic Evan Turner recently called him "the best dude you'll ever meet."
He might just be too expensive. Boston has max money committed to Gordon Hayward and Al Horford, and Kyrie Irving will need to be paid in 2019. If some team bets on Smart fixing his jump shot and becoming an All-Star, the Celtics could find themselves making an unpleasant choice: match a risky offer sheet or lose a player they drafted and developed for nothing. Trading Smart now would hurt their chances of making the NBA Finals and, honestly, be a bit of a bummer. But it would be understandable from an (admittedly boring) asset-management perspective.
Right after we put Gordon on a list of The Athletic's Michael Scotto reported that the Magic have tried to gauge his market value. This does not, however, mean that I think they should trade Gordon. He is only 22, and he would be in the running for Most Improved Player this season if everybody hadn't already decided that his former teammate Victor Oladipo should win it. Gordon has to do too much in Orlando, but he might look amazing on a team where he got more easy buckets.,
The trouble with Gordon, though, is that we have only seen him on bad Magic teams. After working so hard on his shooting and playmaking, would he be OK with being a third or fourth option on a winning team? He has the tools to be an all-NBA defender, switching onto point guards and centers, but is he driven to be that kind of guy every night? It's hard to answer these questions, and when you're looking at a maximum contract or something close to it, you want to be absolutely sure you're making the right call. This is why ESPN's Zach Lowe threw out the idea of trading him to the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Brooklyn Nets' first-round pick on a recent podcast. A move like that would give Orlando's new front office more flexibility.
It is impossible to separate Randle's situation from everything else that could happen in Los Angeles. The rumors about LeBron James and Paul George have not died down, and the front office needs to shed salary if it wants to pursue them -- though they may be backing off that already. This has made Randle's season weirder than a normal contract year: Not only has he been competing with teammates Kyle Kuzma and Larry Nance Jr. for minutes, but he also has been continually hearing that the front office isn't committed to him.
To some extent, everyone on this list is trying to show the entire league what he can do. For Randle, though, it is different: This season must feel like an audition. To his credit, he's playing the best basketball of his career in response. Still, if the Lakers don't trade him, it will be a big surprise.
On Monday, Hood scored 30 points in 27 minutes on 12-for-14 shooting, making all four of his 3-point attempts and making the New Orleans Pelicans' defense look helpless. It was the kind of night that Jazz fans envisioned when he said in September that he wanted to win Most Improved Player. With Hayward in Boston, Hood was supposed to become the Jazz's primary playmaker, increasing his usage rate and pairing his pick-and-roll aptitude with a more aggressive attitude.
Hood's usage rate has indeed increased from 22.9 percent to 27.5 percent, per Basketball-Reference. His assist rate is identical to last year's, though, and nights like Monday have been the exception, not the rule. When it comes to the franchise's big-picture outlook, the emergence of rookie Donovan Mitchell has changed everything. How much can Utah afford to pay Hood if he is going to remain a complementary player? How much more development can they expect from a guy who played three years in college and will be 26 when next season starts? These calculations and projections are not easy, and the Jazz have to consider the present along with the future -- now that they have won six games in a row, they are only three games out of the playoffs.
What are the Bucks supposed to do with Parker? He hasn't even turned 23 yet, but he has torn his ACL twice -- the same knee ligament -- in his professional career. It feels risky to invest long-term money in him, but when healthy he has been an excellent scorer. Milwaukee could be scary if he ever gets a chance to develop real chemistry with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton.
There are arguments for re-signing Parker. He is wise way beyond his years, and he improved his 3-point shooting last season. He has a rare combination of size, footwork and athleticism. There are also arguments for trading him, even beyond the health stuff: He is a below-average defender and weak rebounder, and his fit next to Antetokounmpo is still questionable. While you must be rooting for Parker to become his best self with the Bucks, it isn't crazy to imagine them going a different direction.
The Blazers are pretty good, and Nurkic is a part of that. The problem is that re-signing him leaves them with little flexibility to make moves in the name of becoming great. The big, burly center has regressed a bit since all of Portland caught Nurk Fever last season, and the front office is in a rough spot because of its spending spree in the silly summer of 2016.
I am optimistic about Nurkic's production getting closer to where it was after last year's trade deadline. I am not sure, however, about the Blazers' path to a brighter future. It is unclear how much they can ask in return for a Nurkic rental, but it'll probably be easier to find suitors for him than to move Turner or Meyers Leonard. Sigh.
Payton is a conundrum. His stats don't look bad -- he is averaging 13.2 points, 6.2 assists and 4.0 rebounds while shooting 52 percent and making 37.9 percent of his 3s -- but the Magic have been much better with him on the bench. He entered the league with a reputation as a defender, but Orlando Magic Daily published a story titled "Deconstructing Elfrid Payton's disastrous defense" on Monday. He is young enough to expect improvement, but his 61.8 percent mark from the free throw line suggests that the (low-volume) 3-point shooting is flukey. Defenders still routinely ignore him when he doesn't have the ball in his hands.
The simple solution: If Orlando isn't excited about Payton being its starting point guard for the next few years, it should move him. The issues: there are not many teams looking for new starting point guards, and Payton is likely more valuable to the Magic than he is on the trade market. If there were enticing offers out there, he likely would have been moved last season, last summer or at any point since this season started.
Exum has played only 67 regular-season games in his career. He separated his shoulder in the preseason, right when he. If the Jazz are still high on him, they should try to keep him on a reasonable deal and see if he and Mitchell can be their backcourt of the future. If they have doubts about his durability, then they should see if someone else wants to make a bet on his upside.
No one has a more appropriate nickname than "SlowMo," an earthbound, long and truly unique player who seems destined to be a Spur for life. I don't like even picturing him on another team, but there will be interest when he hits restricted free agency. In a league starved for versatile forwards, there is no guarantee that San Antonio will be able to keep him at a low cost.
I feel safe saying Capela isn't going anywhere unless LeBron becomes available on the trade market. He has improved every year, he complements the Rockets' stars perfectly and he deserves the enormous raise coming to him this summer. It is unbelievable that Houston got him at No. 25 in the draft, especially given how things have worked out for Bruno Caboclo (No. 20), Mitch McGary (No. 21) and Jordan Adams (No. 22).
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