If the Houston Rockets suddenly let it be known that James Harden was available for a trade, how much could they get for him? More or less than the Milwaukee Bucks could get for Giannis Antetokounmpo? What about a theoretical proposition to trade the two superstars for each other: Would the Bucks or Rockets hang up first?
This sort of hypothetical thought exercise is forever the most enjoyable and contentious way to draw someone into an entertaining conversation about the NBA. It's responsible for a string of some of the more digestible and refreshing NBA columns you'll read, and in a league that’s increasingly influenced by the collective bargaining agreement, it doubles as a useful way to look at where the sport is along with where it may be going.
Present-day skill and net impact are key components when ranking players based on their trade value, along with contract length/worth, age, injury history, and potential. (Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler are top-12 players who’re easily better than several names listed below, but neither cracked the list because trading for just about anyone on the final year of his contract is too risky.)
In today’s NBA, one of the most valuable and increasingly rare commodities is certainty. Having someone under your control who you know is good can matter more than a superior talent who can either bolt or subsequently demand a massive contract sooner than later. Risk also applies to players who have health-related question marks or are teetering near the edge of a statistical fall off.
I’m sure everyone who reads this will 100-percent agree with everything that I write because that’s how the internet usually works, but before you do I should note the obvious: there’s no scientific way to parse out which factors are more valuable than others. Think of it more as a subjective attempt to rank these players outside their current team-specific roles and responsibilities, while also projecting how much they outperform their contract. In some cases, what matters is the unknown—i.e. growth potential, development, and looming decline. It allows two people who know what they’re talking about to conduct a healthy debate about whether a decorated veteran at his peak is worth more than an up-and-comer who has no ceiling.
Without further ado, let's dive into my top 15.
(Apologies to: Paul George, Devin Booker, Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard, Jamal Murray, Bradley Beal, Gordon Hayward, Kristaps Porzingis, Draymond Green, Rudy Gobert, Clint Capela, every incoming rookie, and half a dozen more who I definitely forgot.)
15. Kevin Durant
Let’s say you’re happily married to someone you love. They’re awesome. You’re more than ready to settle down, start a family, and set forth on a new, rewarding, priceless chapter with them by your side every step of the way. Joy! Then, one day, like an irresistible wrecking ball, Rihanna slips into your DMs and asks for your number. Do you pursue, step face first into an uncertain future, knowing there are strong odds you’ll be single in a few weeks? Or do you spurn the once-in-a-million-lifetimes chance some men would literally go to prison for, even knowing you’ll forever wonder what could’ve been had you answered her question? Decisions, decisions.
Durant is about to turn 30 as an expiring free agent who’s particularly unpredictable, but sometimes a player is too damn good for anything else to matter. He is not the mysteriously hampered Kawhi Leonard or emotionally enigmatic Jimmy Butler. This is a two-time Finals MVP who eviscerates opponents for fun—potentially one of the 15 greatest players who ever lived when it’s all said and done. Durant transcends rationale, and putting him in the top ten isn’t close to crazy. If an opportunity to harness that inconceivable, league-quaking talent presents itself, then throwing it all away just for a few months of pleasure may, in some cases, be totally worth it. Life is short. Shoot your shot. Dance like nobody's watching.
14. Jaylen Brown
13. Brandon Ingram
It's hard to separate these two wings as long-term projects, even though both have discernibly different playing styles. The rookie-to-sophomore season improvement made by Ingram was breathtaking. As he focused less on scoring from beyond the arc (not the most hopeful trend, but the guy turned 21 earlier this month so we’ll cut him some slack), Ingram upped his playmaking chops and his overall efficiency despite carrying a higher offensive burden. While his frail frame seemingly obfuscates how aggressive he’s willing to be, Ingram was elite at drawing fouls last year. He’ll be one of the league’s premier bucket-getters before too soon; having him on a rookie-scale deal for the next two years before he becomes a restricted free agent makes him a lock somewhere on this list.
Players like Brown, a 21-year-old two-way wing with limitless athleticism who shot 40.2 percent from beyond the arc and successfully squeezed his game into a title contender’s infrastructure, do not grow on trees. Instead of viewing him as a role player, it may be more intuitive to highlight the glimpses of All-Star potential Brown showed last year, during an impressive season in which Boston was miles better with him on the floor.
The ability to make teammates better has yet to be seen, but opportunities to showcase that side of his game have been few and far between; any attempt would be, thus far, accurately seen as an unwanted step outside his lane. In the long-term, do not doubt Brown’s capacity to learn and execute on the fly. There’s an attractive rawness to his game, one that hints at an inevitable rise to a higher tier. At his disposal is every physical instrument needed to shine in a league that values versatility, strength, speed, and relentless dynamism.
12. Victor Oladipo
Oladipo’s ascension at the age of 25, in the first season of a reasonably-priced $21 million-per-year contract, makes him that dude. The context can’t be ignored—he was traded to an organization that crafted its entire personality around his gifts—but a vast majority of what Oladipo accomplished last year can be attributed to his own drive. He was a first-time All-Star who made third-team All-NBA, won Most Improved Player, and cracked an All-Defensive team. (Oladipo nearly doubled his steals per 36 minutes.)
He’s a franchise player, and a testament to how fast status can shift in the NBA. Two years ago, Oladipo was Westbrook’s flailing sidekick. Last year, he was part of a trade that was widely viewed as lopsided in favor of the team that sent him away. Today, the Pacers wouldn’t even think about moving Oladipo for George or Westbrook. (Not that it means all that much, but neither player is on this list.)
11. Nikola Jokic
10. Joel Embiid
9. Karl-Anthony Towns
It is impossible to rank these three without feeling like you messed up. Each stands at least seven feet tall with preternatural gifts. Each has yet to celebrate his 25th birthday. Each has recently signed a five-year contract worth between $146-190 million.
Embiid is sandwiched between two players who’re held back by defensive deficiencies, while his own proven dominance on both ends makes a first-overall finish on next year’s list conceivable. It’s exhausting to bring up his various injuries, and how badly they marred the start of his career, but it’s understandable to want more than one season of top-shelf production before vaulting him any higher. Meanwhile, Towns has yet to miss a game and possesses a near-flawless offensive repertoire. His touch is 50/40/90 accurate, which is completely unfair inside his Adonis body.
Jokic is not cut like Towns, but pairs similar shooting numbers with fantastic rebounding acumen and some of the most comically avant-garde passes you will ever see. When compared to the other two, Towns nudges past by a hair because his contract lasts one season longer and there are no options. He’s two years younger than Embiid and one year younger than Jokic, with zero health concerns and, well, if he can figure out how to rotate from the weakside, the league won't have a more dominant player.
8. Donovan Mitchell
7. Ben Simmons
6. Jayson Tatum
It’s tempting to compare Tatum with Simmons. Both will eventually (if not already) be expected to escort a historic NBA franchise to the promise land for the foreseeable future. And it's reasonable to assume their biggest obstacle will be each other.
Tatum ranks one spot ahead for a few reasons: He’s almost two years younger, has one more year on his rookie-scale contract, outplayed Simmons in last year’s playoffs (including a series in which they were matched up head-to-head for several pivotal possessions), and only one of them dunked on LeBron.
Beyond a silly and fruitless head-to-head comparison, Tatum is shaping up to be a splendid bridge between the league’s old and new school, with the toolbox of a traditional scoring champion crossed with a threatening wingspan, insatiable work ethic, and effortless three-point shot. Tatum is fearless, hungry, and already comfortable with or without the ball in his hands, in the biggest moments on the most consequential stage.
Guarding him one-on-one is already not possible. He can create space from just about any spot on the court yet also understands the need to be selfless. The fact that he’s only 20 years old, still three years away from max-contract eligibility (upon which he’ll earn as a restricted free agent), means there’s only a tiny handful of players the Celtics would move him for; all are already established as perennial top-five guys.
None of this is to take away from Simmons, who has "best player in the universe" qualities and within a few years may be the best passer on Earth. Most teams don't have anyone who can even think about guarding him. He's a 6'10" lightning bolt. But even though his coach says he won't be defined by his jump shot, Simmons will be defined by his jump shot. It's a critical glitch in an otherwise perfect game. Tatum has no such flaw.
Mitchell ranks below Tatum because of his age (22) and below both because of his size. He’s already shown an ability to thrive as the lead ball-handler on a very good playoff team—and should see his efficiency bolstered by healthy Ricky Rubio and Dante Exum sharing more responsibilities next season—with vision and flair that can best be described with the word absurd. But he doesn’t have the defensive upside Simmons or Tatum share, two huge wings who will be able to defend four or five positions by the time they reach their prime.
That said, building an elite offense around Mitchell shouldn't be too hard. He's an ideal building block, with Dunk-Contest-winning athleticism and the same contract situation as Tatum. Scary.
5. Steph Curry
This is a little self-explanatory. Curry is still a mirage. He turns 31 this year, but has revolutionary ability that may pummel Father Time in ways we haven’t seen before. So much of his game is about finesse and expertise, panic-inducing movement that can’t really be game-planned to stop.
Curry is the NBA’s highest-paid player—deservedly so, being that this era will ultimately be defined by his three-point shot—but the value of having him under contract for the next four years, without a player option, may outweigh the $166.4 million he’s still due (especially under a salary cap that’s expected to reach $118 million by 2021).
Age combined with frequent health issues knock Curry down to five, even though, sentimental weight aside, it’s hard to imagine Golden State exchanging him for anybody in the world.
4. Anthony Davis
It’s reasonable to believe that Davis can be the world’s best player before he turns 26, and then hold onto that spot for (at least) half a decade. His peak is a hazy dunk-everything/block-everything-else nightmare that, when mixed with a legitimate three-point shot, perimeter skills, and consistent Defensive Player of the Year intangibles, may permanently position him above everyone else.
Why he’s not number one? Only two more seasons remain before the most anticipated free agency decision since Durant supplemented a dynasty in Northern California. (Semi-related: On his current contract, Davis will earn less money than Otto Porter.) He recently hired Rich Paul as his agent, too. That may not be a great sign for 29 teams.
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo
Giannis has stopped growing, but would you even blink if someone told you he still is? There are priceless advantages in his game, with a body that was designed to dominate. He’s almost exactly ten years younger than LeBron (23 freaking years old!) and under contract for the next three seasons, scheduled to make the same amount of money as Steven Adams.
I don’t think Giannis will be one of the three best players in the league next season, but a(nother) breakout is possible, if not likely. And even though he’ll be an unrestricted free agent in 2021, having Bird Rights for a player who’s still improving and will be worth every penny on his next deal assuages some worry from the situation. Unlike the two players ranked ahead of him, age-related decay is out of the question. He ranks below them because his jump shot is technically still a legitimate question mark, and it’s impossible to crown someone who’s yet to win a playoff series.
Then again, do the Bucks move him for anybody in the league? Probably not.
2. James Harden
In the first draft of this article I had Harden at number one. Coming off his first MVP season, he just turned 29 and is under contract for the next four seasons (with a $46.8 million player option in 2023). He’s one of the NBA’s best scorers, passers, and ball-handlers, with timeless strength and a skill-set that succinctly meshes with the league’s modern aesthetic.
His attack leans on traits that should age well through his current deal, and meaningful decline may not be visible for another few years. The dollars are massive, but, even with logic that applies to just about any team that has an MVP candidate in his prime, it’s so hard to imagine a scenario where the Rockets trade Harden before his pact expires. He doesn't have the defensive impact like Davis or Giannis, but his overall impact is powerful enough to lift a team to championship contention, so long as certain pieces are around to help out.
Will Harden be better than Giannis three years from now? Probably not. But it may not be so clear, and I'd like to think that not having to worry about Harden's free agency for an additional year matters, though it's clearly fluid at the top.
1. LeBron James
There’s only one LeBron. Even though he turns 34 in December, him finally locking into a contract that’s longer than one season makes him the most important and reliable foundational piece in basketball. Still!
His invincible armor will eventually chip away, but nobody knows when exactly that day will happen. If it’s four years from now instead of three, having the best player alive on your team until then virtually guarantees success, relevancy, and unparalleled attention. And even when James isn’t unanimously viewed as the best of the best, watching him navigate life as a second fiddle in search of more championship rings will be fascinating, especially if he's at a point in his career where he's willing to take a pay cut.
What he did during last year’s postseason was poised virtuosity, with the second-highest usage rate of his career, averaging an insane 34 points per game and competing one-on-five in a Finals that could’ve been more competitive had his epic 51-point, 8-rebound, 8-assist Game 1 ended with a questionable call going the other way, or George Hill making a free throw, or J.R. Smith knowing where he was. This man is rewriting the rules as he goes along, physics, history, and logic be damned.
There’s still no player in the league any team would keep off the table if the Lakers called with an offer. Which they would never do. Because we’re talking about LeBron.