‘Twas December 15, the unofficial start to NBA trade season, when all through the league, 90% of players are eligible to be dealt, even Marvin Bagley. General managers offer players aplenty, in hopes another pays a pretty penny. Disgruntled veterans are seeking new teams, as visions of championships fill their dreams.
I’ll spare you the remainder of my poor attempt to recreate “The Night Before Christmas” as a trade season primer. Most free agents who found contracts over the summer, 74 players in total, can now be packaged to another team for the holidays. The earliest in-season trade of the 2021-22 campaign did not occur until the new year, but the bundle of 18 teams within two games of a play-in tournament berth may inspire some movement before the calendar turns, and if it doesn’t, well, what’s the harm in prepping this shopping list.
I present to you the December 15 trade-eligible NBA player power rankings of the most intriguing players who can now be traded. The rankings exempted players like New York Knicks point guard Jalen Brunson, since neither party is likely to be dissatisfied with their lot in life so soon into their new partnership. Denver Nuggets guard Bruce Brown and Sacramento Kings guard Malik Monk are also among those exempted.
Finally, a special exemption for Los Angeles Clippers veteran John Wall, since only the Grinch would rob him of the gift he has spent the past four years pursuing. Happy trade season to all, and to all a good deal.
The Wizards could go one of two ways if they want to open trade discussions early.
Beal and the five-year, $251 million contract he signed in July are already eligible to be traded. Washington granted him a no-trade clause, so he has veto power over a deal. He also holds more value to the Wizards as a homegrown star than he does around the league, where packaging enough future assets to meet the going rate for elite players comes with great risk, so finding a fair deal for Beal is an enormous undertaking.
After scoring better than 30 points per game from 2019-21, Beal is averaging 23.1 points and shooting 31.5% on 3-pointers in two seasons since — a marked decline, coinciding with injuries, including surgery on his left wrist in February, that have kept him from playing more than 60 games in a season since 2019.
Beal is now 11 years into his career, and the Wizards have not won a playoff series since 2017. They are currently 12th place in the Eastern Conference, as close to the top lottery odds as they are to a guaranteed playoff spot. Trade Beal, and they are immediately a contender in the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes.
It is hard to give up good players for the uncertainty of bouncing pingpong balls, especially a recent All-NBA selection who has made clear his commitment to steering the franchise through a sharp downturn.
Washington could make one last investment into Beal. Everyone else on the roster is also eligible to be traded, including Delon Wright and his new two-year, $16 million contract. There is talent in the rotation. Kristaps Porzingis and Kyle Kuzma are averaging a combined 43.9 points (47/34/77 shooting splits), 16.6 rebounds and 6.2 assists per game. Monte Morris is a reliable point guard. Beal, Porzingis, Kuzma and Morris are outscoring opponents by 13 points per 100 meaningful possessions in a decent sample size.
The Wizards can patch together salaries, including Will Barton’s expiring $14.4 million, with young players (a less-than-inspiring group of Johnny Davis, Corey Kispert, Deni Avdija and Rui Hachimura) and future draft assets beyond this season (the New York Knicks own their lottery-protected 2023 first-round pick).
What could Washington get for that package, and would it be enough to elevate them from mediocrity? Pascal Siakam is probably too rich for Washington’s blood, even if the Toronto Raptors were willing to move him in order to avoid paying his next contract. John Collins does not do much beyond making them more competitive on a tier below the East’s fringe contenders. It is difficult to find players ranked between Siakam and Collins who are a) available and b) worth the investment for a team currently on a 32-win pace.
The decision should come into clearer view once the Wizards survey the landscape early in trade season. They can trade Beal, retain their own draft pick and build around their resulting prospects. Or they could perpetually chase the next rung on the ladder, possibly at the cost of this year’s pick and any true success.
The Bulls were in the same spot with LaVine two seasons ago, when they traded a young prospect (Wendell Carter Jr.), Otto Porter Jr.’s expiring $18.1 million salary and two first-round picks for 30-year-old fringe All-Star center Nikola Vucevic. They went all in trying to build a winner around LaVine, moving Lauri Markkanen and dealing another top-eight protected pick to create room for DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball in 2021.
The best thing anyone can say about all of those moves is that it made them a first-place team three months into last season. Injuries to Ball and Alex Caruso sent them spiraling over the next three months into sixth place, where they were promptly eliminated from the playoffs by the Milwaukee Bucks in five games. They are now 11th place in the East, fighting for their playoff lives, right back where they started.
In the meantime, LaVine has not finished a season healthy and required arthroscopic surgery this past summer on the same left knee in which he tore his ACL in 2017. Not two months after the 27-year-old’s most recent procedure, the Bulls committed another $215 million to LaVine through the 2026-27 season.
Chasing respectability has already cost them Markkanen, Carter and Franz Wagner. It could cost Chicago its top-four protected pick this season and its top-eight protected pick in 2025, too. To what end? For the hope that they get healthy and return to their peak as a paper tiger for a few months of the regular season?
The Bulls are better off tearing down the roster around LaVine. Vucevic will be a 32-year-old free agent at season’s end, and the 33-year-old DeRozan has a year left on his deal. The Los Angeles Lakers may make a desperation move for both. Caruso carries value for a playoff team, as could Andre Drummond and Goran Dragic (both trade-eligible today). At that point, Chicago might as well make LaVine available, too, if anyone would trade anything of value for an oft-injured star whose explosion is at risk of imploding on max money.
The Bulls have reached the postseason once with LaVine and won a single playoff game. They are two games from a 45.2% chance of keeping their top-four protected pick in a top-loaded draft, and that would be far better than the odds of Chicago winning anything of consequence on the life of LaVine’s contract.
Which of the many superstars who have played alongside Harden — from Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook (twice apiece) to Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving and now Joel Embiid — have been left with fond memories of the last time they played together? The on-court relationships devolved between all of them, and that should be a real concern for Embiid in the midst of a third straight MVP-caliber season.
Harden is 33 years old and on his third straight season of cycling through injury and conditioning concerns, a considerable step slower than the version who was a top-three MVP candidate every year from 2016-20. He will have a decision to make this coming summer on the $35.6 million option he holds for next season.
Philadelphia has to brace itself for whichever path Harden chooses.
The Sixers are 15-12, fifth place in the East, a tier or two below contention, right around where they were last season, when they lost in the Eastern Conference semifinals for the fourth time in five years. Harden took a $15 million pay cut so they could sign P.J. Tucker, Danuel House and Montrezl Harrell. They are also now eligible to be traded, and maybe they are fodder for another restructuring around Embiid and Harden.
Or maybe Harden is not the solution the 76ers had hoped he was. Harden and Embiid were the league’s deadliest pick-and-roll combination after they acquired the one-time MVP last season, and Philadelphia is outscoring opponents by 10.6 points per 100 possessions when the two share the floor this season. That could be enough for Sixers executive Daryl Morey to stick with his plan, but it would also be a bet against the playoff track record of his two best players, neither of whom has met lofty expectations on that stage.
If Harden opts out, should Philadelphia really invest more years of Embiid’s prime in an aging partner in decline? If Harden opts in, the 76ers will be committed to the pairing beyond Embiid’s 30th birthday. It is enough to consider moving Harden before he ever gets to make that decision, especially if the next month presents no cause for optimism, but that would require finding a team willing to trade real assets for him.
After Utah executive Danny Ainge dealt Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert over the summer, his team started 10-3 behind a hodgepodge of players acquired in return for the two All-Stars. They are 6-11 since, owners of a plummeting net rating. The result is a 16-14 record entering trade season, good enough for a play-in tournament berth and seven wins better than any team within a 14% lottery shot of Wembanyama.
The Jazz also own a first-round pick from the Minnesota Timberwolves, who currently hold an 8% chance at a top-four pick. That is lottery insurance if Utah has already headed too far down the road to tank this season. Even if the Jazz pursue a playoff spot, it’s not like they’re a serious threat to emerge from the West, so either way they should be evaluating which players will serve their best interests beyond this season.
Where Sexton falls on Utah’s list of priorities is a fascinating question. He is averaging 21.1 points per 36 minutes on 49/36/83 shooting splits, but the team’s slide coincided with his insertion into the starting lineup in place of the injured Mike Conley. Sexton signed a four-year, $70 million deal this past summer, a fair deal for a 24-year-old who has shown promise as a spark-plug scorer and sometimes playmaker off the bench.
Conley, Jordan Clarkson and Kelly Olynyk have all been more significant contributors to Utah’s success, but all three are in their 30s. Should the Jazz not consider them part of the team’s future, each should see the door before Sexton. Utah owns a club option for the 2023-24 season on 26-year-old Malik Beasley, another backcourt scoring threat off the bench, but he and Sexton as a pairing is not viable in big minutes.
Markkanen should be the only untouchable on the roster, and Ainge will survey the market for teams willing to overpay for anyone else. The interest in Sexton, Clarkson and Beasley will tell us a lot in regards to how the league feels about a few interesting mid-tiered players, and Ainge could benefit from a bidding process.
5. Jusuf Nurkic, Portland Trail Blazers
Are the Blazers truly beholden to Damian Lillard as the foundation of the franchise? If so, they should commit to maximizing the team around him now. He fights for every inch, sporadically returning from the worst stretch of injuries of his 11-year career to average 28.3 points (45/39/90) and 7.1 assists per game.
Lillard’s current teammates are doing all the Blazers could ask of them. Anfernee Simons is somehow a more efficient version of CJ McCollum. Jerami Grant is somehow even more efficient than Simons and, along with Josh Hart, providing the sort of two-wing play Portland has sought throughout Lillard’s career. Shaedon Sharpe and Nassir Little are giving the Blazers good minutes on longterm affordable contracts.
Nurkic is a really solid starting NBA center. He is averaging a double-double and a few assists in 29.4 minutes per game, spelled mainly and competently by Drew Eubanks. Nurkic has also struggled to stay on the court for three years running. He is still only 28 years old and on an affordable contract of his own.
Nurkic’s deal is also the highest of anyone on the team that Portland might entertain trading. Gary Payton II, who is expected to return soon from preseason abdominal surgery, joins Nurkic on the list of players who just became trade-eligible. Package Nurkic with some combination of Payton, Sharpe, Little or draft picks, and the Blazers can starting matching salaries and compensation for any upgrade that becomes available.
Bol Bol, Orlando Magic
Who could’ve imagined Bol would hold this much value two months into his tenure on the Magic? The Denver Nuggets didn’t, because they threw him in as compensation in a three-team cap-saving transaction in January, and the Boston Celtics didn’t, because they shipped him to Orlando for a pittance a month later.
Now, the 7-foot-2 son of Manute Bol is averaging 17 points (61/40/78 splits), 10 rebounds and two assists per 36 minutes, displaying the dynamic skill set that made him the No. 4 prospect in his high school class.
If the Magic think this is his sell-high moment, they could get a whole lot more than the top-55 protected second-round pick they traded to get him. And if the Magic think this is merely the start of something special, they would be crazy to trade him, and that could mean one of their other bigs becomes available.
Donte DiVincenzo, Golden State Warriors; Kyle Anderson, Minnesota Timberwolves; Bismack Biyombo, Phoenix Suns; Otto Porter Jr., Toronto Raptors; Lonnie Walker IV, Los Angeles Lakers
All helpful rotation players on teams that figure themselves for contenders, and all means for an upgrade.
Jalen Smith, Indiana Pacers; Marvin Bagley III, Detroit Pistons
Smith appears to be falling out of favor, as Pacers coach Rick Carlisle has relegated him to a reserve role and slashed his minutes in recent weeks. Bagley is about what the Pistons should have expected, which is to say he is struggling to stay on the floor, and when he is on the floor, he is struggling to meet the value of his new three-year, $37.5 million deal. If another team believes in either player, they are probably attainable.
Danilo Gallinari, Boston Celtics; Joe Ingles, Milwaukee Bucks; Ricky Rubio, Cleveland Cavaliers
All three are currently taking up salary cap and roster space on serious contenders. Gallinari is out for the season with a torn ACL at age 34, Ingles is nearing his return from a torn ACL at age 35, and Rubio is a bit further from returning from a second torn ACL at age 32. None of their teams knows what to expect from them this season or for the length of the contracts they signed this past summer. They are all making enough money to package with picks to chase a healthier (and more helpful) player on a similar salary.
JaVale McGee, Dallas Mavericks; Patty Mills, Brooklyn Nets
Their age is just a number … to throw midlevel salaries into trade packages now, too.
Gorgui Dieng, San Antonio Spurs; Aaron Holiday, Atlanta Hawks
A couple of those similar salaried players who might be had for little more than a second-round pick.
– – – – – – –
Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach