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Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press
Usually, we reserve the “one move away” analysis for championship contenders. Even then, it’s always an oversimplification; a single player is rarely enough to suddenly put a team over the top.
Maybe things are different lower down the competitive ladder. After all, if a team is off to a disappointing start, the jolt of a personnel change could have a bigger impact.
Here, we’ll cook up trades that, hopefully, will put a charge into some of this season’s most notable sluggish starters. These are all quality teams (or at least teams we thought would perform better than they have so far) that could use a little help.
We know a team’s struggles are complex. And we’re still early enough in the year for small samples and bad luck to have outsized influence. That’s to say nothing of the rhythm-disrupting complications brought on by health and safety protocols and a short offseason. Realistically, some of the problems plaguing the teams in this exercise will solve themselves over time.
But a few hypothetical shakeups never hurt anybody.
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Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press
The Trade: Dallas Mavericks send Jalen Brunson, Tyrell Terry and a future second-round pick to the Charlotte Hornets for Devonte’ Graham
The Dallas Mavericks finally have the roster they expected after losing several players for weeks at a time due to the league’s health and safety protocols. Winners in four of their last five and suddenly looking much more like the offensively dynamic group everyone anticipated, the Mavs are already sorting themselves out.
Still, Dallas is 12-14. It has only recently gotten its threes to fall, and opponents are finding it a little too easy to score against a team that sacrificed shooting for wing defense over the offseason. The defensive problems of last season were supposed to be solved.
The Athletic’s Tim Cato noted the Mavericks’ recent return to form while also listing some lingering concerns. Of those, Dallas’ lack of shot creation beyond Luka Doncic looms largest.
The Mavs lean too hard on their superstar, and though their clutch efforts have been better this year than last, they remain one of the more predictable late-game offenses in the league. Dallas has to diversify, which will have the added benefit of easing the creation burden on Doncic.
Devonte’ Graham is a buy-low candidate. His inability to finish inside the arc is a real concern, but it’s what he can do beyond the three-point line that matters most. He’s one of those rare and valuable primary ball-handlers who can rise up and fire treys at high volume off the dribble.
Yes, Jalen Brunson has outshot Graham this season. And yes, the Mavs’ savvy point guard has the sturdier, more theoretically switchable defensive frame. But Brunson isn’t anywhere close to the pull-up deep threat Graham is.
The Charlotte Hornets guard attempted 366 (5.9 per game) pull-up threes last season, hitting them at a 34.4 percent clip. This year, his attempts and hit rate are both down on those shots. But he’s proved a dynamite catch-and-shoot weapon as LaMelo Ball has spent more time on the ball.
Brunson has only attempted 132 pull-up triples in his three-year career. Defenses aren’t concerned about him punishing drop coverage or exploiting defenders who go under screens.
Graham, though struggling through a down year, has the kind of quick-strike reputation defenses have to honor. He could operate on the ball, command attention and free up Doncic for some less stressful stretches. That would make a real difference in Dallas.
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Troy Taormina/Associated Press
The Trade: The Miami Heat send Andre Iguodala, Kendrick Nunn and a 2025 first-round pick (lottery-protected, conditional on Miami’s 2023 obligation to the Oklahoma City Thunder) to the Houston Rockets for Victor Oladipo
Victor Oladipo is a free agent this offseason, which means the Miami Heat could just sign him outright if they’re willing to wait. But wouldn’t it be better to bring him aboard now for a relatively low cost so the organization (and, mostly, Jimmy Butler) can get a sense of whether the former All-Star has what it takes to thrive in the Heat’s notoriously militaristic environment?
Better that than signing Oladipo to a fat deal in free agency, only to find out after the fact that he’s not cut out for Heat life.
Andre Iguodala is 37 and averaging under 5.0 points per game for the second straight year. His IQ, hands and defense still matter, but it’s hard to argue he projects as an impact postseason player—even in a limited role.
Oladipo could slot into the first unit alongside either Tyler Herro or Goran Dragic, taking on the tougher defensive matchup and, hopefully, getting into the best shape of his life, which is a thing that tends to happen in Miami.
The Heat are shockingly outside the East’s top eight. They’ve had several key players miss time, and perhaps the Finals hangover is still fogging their brains. But it’s concerning that this group is scoring at a bottom-five clip while leading the league in turnover percentage.
Oladipo, playing for a contract, could inject new energy into a team that needs it.
Meanwhile, the Rockets would tack on a first-round pick and get a look at Nunn ahead of his own free agency, and they could cut ties with Iguodala by declining their team option for 2021-22. If they were prepared to let Oladipo walk for nothing and pocket the savings, this would be a better alternative.
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Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press
The Trade: The New Orleans Pelicans send Lonzo Ball to the Dallas Mavericks for Maxi Kleber
This might sound controversial given Lonzo Ball’s draft pedigree and superior counting stats, but the New Orleans Pelicans might have to sweeten this deal. At an underwhelming 11-13, maybe they’d feel compelled to sprinkle in some extra draft compensation.
Ball, despite a recent uptick in three-point accuracy, still doesn’t seem central to the Pelicans’ long-term plans. He would have signed an extension this past offseason if New Orleans was sure of his keeper status.
Kleber is under contract for two more years after this one at an average of $9 million per season, which is surely less than Ball will get on his next contract, wherever he signs it. That Kleber’s 2022-23 salary is partially guaranteed only adds to his value.
For the unfamiliar, Kleber is a 6’10” frontcourt option who can block a shot (1.6 swats per 36 minutes for his career) and handle himself admirably when tasked with guarding high-end wings. It’s not a coincidence that he’s spent time checking Kawhi Leonard in playoff matchups. Kleber is also at a blistering 47.2 percent from deep this season, which will come down. But he owns a career three-point hit rate of 36.4 percent on 718 attempts, so his stroke is real.
The Pelicans need mobility and stretch up front. They committed a heap of money to Steven Adams, who offers neither of those qualities, and it has never made sense to clog Zion Williamson’s lane with conventional bigs. Kleber would operate as a poor man’s Myles Turner, the guy we’ve all worn out the trade machine trying to get to the Pelicans.
Ball could address the secondary playmaking issue we touched on in Dallas’ section, and the Mavs would have match rights in restricted free agency if they liked what they saw from him.
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Nick Wass/Associated Press
The Trade: The Denver Nuggets send Gary Harris, Michael Porter Jr., Vlatko Cancar (to make the money work), three unprotected first-round picks (2021, 2025 and 2027) to the Washington Wizards for Bradley Beal
There’s no sense in messing around with this one. For as long as Bradley Beal has been the subject of trade rumors (despite both his and the Washington Wizards’ insistence he’s not going anywhere), the Denver Nuggets have made sense as a destination.
They’ve got the salary-filler in Harris and the young prospect in Porter, and they’re good enough to justify swinging big for an upgrade. This season’s 13-11 start might only up the urgency to capitalize on Nikola Jokic’s MVP-worthy play. You can’t waste this if you’re Denver—not after making it all the way to the Western Conference Finals last season.
Young teams that assume their window to contend will stay open indefinitely are always wrong.
Beal wouldn’t help the Nuggets defense much, although it would be hard for him to do more damage than MPJ on that end. Offensively, he’d combine with Jokic and Jamal Murray to form one of the most dangerous offensive trios in the league. Only the Brooklyn Nets would have a more intimidating three-man crew.
The Nuggets would have to get creative with the draft capital they’re offering as they owe the Oklahoma City Thunder a top-14-protected pick in 2023 that could stretch to 2025 if it falls within the protections. But that’s a minor concern. If Denver wants to get this done, it has the ammo.