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NBA playoff eliminations accelerate the grieving process and trim it down to just two steps.
An overwhelming sense of deflation comes first. The realization that an 82-game marathon and first-round tussle have delivered only an early vacation is a gut punch like few others felt in all of sports.
However, bouncing back from said gut punch quickly ushers in a sense of optimism. Once ties to the previous season are severed, then clubs—and their fanbases—can shift all of their attention to the future and work on finding ways to ensure that the next campaign (or, depending on a team’s timeline, perhaps one further down the line) doesn’t have to end the way this one did.
So, while the emotions of the eight postseason exits suffered so far likely remain in their raw and most painful state for now, this exercise is intended to serve as an emotional bandage and a bridge to potentially better days ahead. Let the healing commence, then, as we identify possible summer swaps to explore for the eight organizations knocked out of the playoffs in the opening round.
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The Trade: Clint Capela and John Collins to Utah for Rudy Gobert and Nickeil Alexander-Walker
The Hawks are headed nowhere fast as long as they’re unable to beef up their 26th-ranked defense. If anyone can coax even league-average defense out of a Trae Young-led roster, it’s an all-galaxy anchor like Gobert, who finished third in Defensive Player of the Year voting after earning the honor in three of the previous four seasons.
Offensively, Gobert could slide right into the same screen-and-roll duties handled by Capela. Gobert ranked among the 83rd percentile of pick-and-roll screeners; Capela, who had a more dynamic creator in Young than anyone Gobert played alongside in Utah, was in the 87th percentile. So, while this would be a defense-driven trade, it’s possible for Atlanta’s offense to come out ahead, too, particularly if whoever replaces Collins offers more shot-creation.
Alexander-Walker can’t have much trade value after failing to crack the regular rotation following his deadline move to Salt Lake City, but he’s still a 23-year-old who has flashed an ignitable scoring punch. Given this attack’s struggles to function without Young (10.0 points worse per 100 possessions), it’s possible to picture the Hawks thinking Alexander-Walker might help there.
As for Utah, this is the type of trade its decision-makers could pursue if it deems major changes are necessary, and Donovan Mitchell expresses a willingness to stick around. Check both boxes, and Utah would find a ready-made replacement for Gobert in Capela, plus a scoring (and spacing) forward in Collins who might climb as high as No. 2 on the offensive pecking order.
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The Trade: Ben Simmons to Memphis for Dillon Brooks, Steven Adams, John Konchar and 2022 first-round pick (via UTA)
When the Nets swapped out the 32-year-old James Harden for the 25-year-old Simmons (and a pair of first-round picks) at the deadline, they theoretically widened their championship window. In reality, though, it couldn’t change the fact that this franchise is running out of time to construct a contender around 33-year-old Kevin Durant.
Is it possible the Nets already pivot off of Simmons, knowing his year-long absence would diminish his trade value? It probably should be.
The Nets can’t count on Simmons going forward. They thought he would give it a go in Game 4, then saw him continue to sit with back soreness and “a mental block … creating stress that could serve as a trigger point for his back issues,” per The Athletic’s Shams Charania. Simmons’ decision to sit out reportedly “triggered frustration and disheartenment throughout the organization.”
Maybe Simmons says all of the right things this summer, but should that matter more to Brooklyn than his decision to skip an elimination game? No one has seen him in action since the 2021 playoffs, and that run didn’t inspire any confidence about his ability to contribute to a championship.
This trade, then, would see Brooklyn shedding the idea of Simmons for more tangible help. Brooks is a tenacious defender with a fiery (albeit streaky) three-ball. Adams could immediately plug holes in the defensive interior. Konchar is mainly a money-matcher, but he’s also a 6’5″ swingman with a career 40.6 percent splash rate, so the Nets could find him minutes.
Tack on a first-round pick—maybe two if the Nets asked nicely—and Brooklyn could have the trade chips needed to complete a post-Simmons makeover. If Simmons eventually returns to form, the Nets might lose this deal in hindsight, but if they win a title before that happens, they’ll never need to explain the decision.
As for Memphis, this would only work if the Grizzlies think they’re still one piece short of reaching juggernaut status. If that’s the conclusion they reach, snagging a 25-year-old star at a discount might be too tempting to overlook, particularly for a small-market franchise without a history of attracting top free agents.
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The Trade: Nikola Vucevic to Dallas for Dwight Powell, Reggie Bullock and future first-round pick (lottery-protected)
The Bulls carried major defensive questions into this campaign. Those same questions will follow them into the summer after a 23rd-place finish in defensive efficiency.
Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso masked those shortcomings as much as they could, but injuries forced them off the floor, and cracks had formed in the coverage even before then. Chicago offered very little resistance on the interior, allowing the fourth-most field goals inside of five feet and the ninth-most paint points.
While those issues can’t all be pinned on Vucevic, his limitations at that end were cemented long before the season tipped. In the past, he had compensated with quantity-plus-quality numbers on offense, but he never quite found his niche this season as the Bulls’ third banana behind DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine. In other words, Chicago couldn’t squeeze enough out of Vucevic’s strengths but had to bear all of his weaknesses.
Assuming the Bulls plan to move forward with the DeRozan-LaVine duo—unrestricted free agency awaits the latter—they might have to make a move in the middle. They would lose a little scoring zip in this deal, but they could grow exponentially more mobile and athletic by adding Bullock on the perimeter and Powell on the interior. Toss in a future first, and Chicago’s front office would gain a trade chip if it wanted to pursue further defensive upgrades.
As for the Mavericks, swapping out Powell for Vucevic would add all kinds of wrinkles to the already potent high pick-and-roll game of Luka Doncic, Plus, Dallas could soon be hurting for complementary scoring if breakout postseason star Jalen Brunson takes the money and runs out of town in free agency.
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The Trade: Monte Morris to New York for Alec Burks
The Nuggets had known for a few seasons now that they had one of the league’s top backup point guards in Morris. After seeing the way he pounced on his opportunity to replace the injured Jamal Murray this season—setting a slew of personal bests, including 12.6 points and 4.4 assists per game—Denver might be convinced Morris can function as a starting floor general.
Of course, with Murray on the mend, the Nuggets already have that spot covered, so they could maximize Morris’ impact by using him as a trade bait to help better balance the roster. Denver doesn’t have enough depth on the wings. A point guard-needy club like the Knicks might value Morris enough to provide it.
At worst, Burks could give the Nuggets another three-and-D option to man the perimeter. At best, though, Burks could play above that level by also adding playmaking and shot-creating to the mix. The fact that New York asked him to run point says everything you need to know about the state of that position in the Empire State, but it also speaks to the trust Burks earned with his decision-making and dependability.
The ‘Bockers might have bigger point guard dreams for the summer, but those could be dashed quickly. If they can’t land Jaden Ivey in the draft or Jalen Brunson in free agency, they might be stuck with the same uninspiring group that, well, uninspired this season. Morris may not move the needle in terms of name power, but his steady hand could provide some much-needed stability at such a critical position.
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The Trade: Malik Beasley and Jaden McDaniels to Indiana for Malcolm Brogdon
After punctuating a 46-win season with just their second playoff trip since 2004, the Timberwolves should feel fine with the direction the trio of Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell is heading. However, Minnesota could consider upgrading the roster around them, preferably with someone who plays both ends.
Brogdon scratches that itch, or does so when he’s healthy, at least. The “when healthy” qualifier is critical here, since his growing list of absences (46 in 2021-22) might be the Pacers’ primary motivator for making a deal.
If Brogdon is healthy when it matters, then Minnesota would get an experienced, productive veteran to fill a spot in the starting (and, more importantly, closing) lineup. While he is not quite the on-ball pest Patrick Beverley is, Brogdon offers more size, positional versatility and anything relating to offense (scoring and shot-making chief among the upgrades).
The Pacers, meanwhile, would clear up the backcourt logjam for Tyrese Haliburton and Chris Duarte to handle major minutes while sprucing up their supporting cast. Beasley is a lights-out shooter (potent enough for Indy to shop Buddy Hield if it wanted), and McDaniels remains a tantalizing blend of youth, length, athleticism and upside.
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The Trade: Zion Williamson, Devonte’ Graham and Jaxson Hayes to Charlotte for Miles Bridges (via sign-and-trade), Terry Rozier, P.J. Washington, 2022 first-round pick (via NOP) and two future first-round picks
Let’s pause for a few deep breaths before getting started here; Pelicans fans are gonna need them.
Trading away a franchise talent is never easy. Doing it before said centerpiece turns 22 might actually be against the law in certain jurisdictions.
All of that said, does anyone feel great about Williamson’s relationship with the Pelicans? He never suited up this season and has made just 85 appearances since the Pels picked him atop the 2019 draft. A slew of uncomfortable reports about his conditioning, professionalism and unwillingness to engage with teammates trail behind him. Oh, and his family members might want him out of New Orleans, so add that to the list of thorny issues at play.
He is eligible for an extension this offseason, and despite posting max-contract-caliber numbers when he plays, New Orleans doesn’t sound eager to fork over that kind of cash.
“Obviously, that conversation is going to be one that will be a challenge,” executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin said, per NOLA.com’s Christian Clark. “When it’s time to have that, we’ll have it. And right now what we’re focused on is him being healthy, and (being in) kind of elite condition to play basketball and we’ll start there.”
Is all of this enough for the Pels to seriously consider splitting with Williamson? Probably not, but you can easily argue it’s worth a thought. If they saw enough in the rest of this core—they played .500 basketball after CJ McCollum’s debut and pushed the defending Western Conference champion Phoenix Suns to six games—they might want to prioritize putting those players in the best position for success.
New Orleans fans might hate the idea, but as Alvin Gentry once put it, this would be a haul, folks. Bridges could form one of the league’s better forward tandems with Brandon Ingram, and Rozier would perk up the offense with shot-making and table-setting. Washington connects a lot of dots as a do-it-all combo big, and the picks give New Orleans three lottery tickets in the trade.
Would Charlotte consider such a massive shift? For the chance to pair Williamson with rising star LaMelo Ball, it might. They’d be bulldozers in the open floor, and their aerial connections could be equally electric in the half court. Tack on Hayes as a possible fix to the Hornets’ interior issues and bring Graham back to Buzz City as a spot-up sharpshooter, and there could be enough for the front office to bite.
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The Trade: OG Anunoby and 2024 first-round pick (lottery protected) to San Antonio for Dejounte Murray
Toronto surged through the season’s second half, posting the Association’s sixth-highest winning percentage and ninth-best net rating once the calendar flipped to 2022. However, after getting knocked out of the first round a year after missing the playoffs entirely, questions remain about this club’s ability to rub elbows with basketball’s true elites.
The easiest way for the Raptors to quiet that skepticism would be upping their star power, which could be tricky since the organization has never been a major draw for free agents and doesn’t have much financial flexibility. Rookie of the Year Scottie Barnes offers a sizable step in that direction, but Toronto also needs to squeeze more out of Anunoby.
Well, that or flip the intriguing (but often injured) swingman for a more established star—like Murray.
While Anunoby brings more size and length, Murray can be every bit as stingy defensively, plus he’s already several steps ahead as a shot-creator. Murray might not be a Tier 1 star, but if Toronto puts enough players on the next rung (where Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet reside, and Barnes and Gary Trent Jr. may soon belong), it could be the rare contender that isn’t fueled by a superstar (or, more commonly, superstars).
San Antonio, meanwhile, might soon have to wrestle with the height of this core’s ceiling and whether it has enough in-house to ever make the leap from a feisty David to a full-fledged Goliath. If the Spurs are unconvinced such an ascension is in the cards, they might consider dangling Murray to get a crack at Anunoby’s development and a future first to develop or deal.
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The Trade: Rudy Gobert to Brooklyn for Ben Simmons
The Jazz might have slogged through their first-round loss to the Dallas Mavericks—who didn’t have Luka Doncic for half of their wins—but they’re suddenly careening toward an organization-defining crossroads. And, if you believe all of the chatter around this team, their brakes are out, so this is officially collision-course territory, as ESPN’s Tim MacMahon observed:
“[Donovan] Mitchell, [Rudy] Gobert and the Jazz weren’t good enough to get past a team that didn’t have its MVP candidate for the first few games of the series, much less contend for a championship. The duo has spent five mostly successful seasons together, but the Jazz have won only two playoff series in that time, leading to questions about whether the Mitchell-Gobert era in Utah will end for good this summer.”
Everything feels like it’s on the table, including a trade of one (or both) of Gobert and Mitchell and a split from skipper Quin Snyder. Still, the likeliest scenario—assuming Mitchell doesn’t force his way out—seems to involve a trade of Gobert, a dynamic interior defender who is offensively challenged outside of the restricted area.
While Simmons’ offensive range doesn’t really stretch any further, he could prove a more dynamic pick-and-roll partner for Mitchell given Simmons’ vision and distributing. Defensively, Simmons could function as both a small-ball center and the big-wing stopper this roster so badly needs.
If Brooklyn is done playing the waiting game with Simmons, then it might covet Gobert for his paint protection and ball-screening. Spacing concerns could be alleviated by the Nets’ wealth of net-shredders, and they might be fine sacrificing a bit of offensive zip if it meant getting this 20th-ranked defense closer to championship level.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.