For Part 2 of the 2018 NBA Trade Value Column, I will be ranking the top NBA players in terms of trade value. This will follow the same rules as Part 1 (Honorable Mentions and 50-26). If you missed Part 1, or just want to take a look back at the rules: CLICK HERE
“Alike, Yet Somehow Unique Point Guards”
25. Russell Westbrook
24. Chris Paul
23. Damian Lillard
I’m sure there will be people who criticize me for putting Russell Westbrook this low. I mean, he averaged a triple double for the second straight season! As is well documented, that is not easy to do – he’s actually the first to do it. But let’s be clear, Westbrook’s triple doubles are unlike other players’ triple doubles. His are manufactured, phony, and come from his teammates letting him take every uncontested rebound. Of the 64 players who had more than 6 rebounds per game, Westbrook had the lowest contested rebound percent at 21.5% per NBA.com. His teammate Steven Adams (the one who gives him most of these free rebounds) had the highest percent of contested rebounds at 55.3%. Westbrook also defends the least shots of any player who plays 30+ mpg so he can go after rebounds. He clearly pads his stats.
If we’re being honest – that doesn’t even bother me! The thing that drops him this low for me is his efficiency. He’s shoots over four 3-pointers per game, and makes just 29.8% of them. That is beyond awful – the league average is 36.2%. In fact, of the 81 players to take at least four triples per game this season, he ranks – you guessed it – dead last. And he’s worse by a staggering 3% than the second worst! Oh yeah, he also signed a supermax contract. That means he gets paid $205 million over the next 5 seasons to be the most detrimental 3-point shooter in the league. Yikes.
Okay, so I’ve piled it onto Westbrook, perhaps a bit too much. Let’s focus on what he does well. He is the strongest, most athletic point guard in the league and has averaged 23ppg over a 10-year career (one of only 38 players in history to do that). He’s shown absolutely no signs of slowing down, and has the ability to take over games like few we’ve ever seen. Despite his rebounding thievery, he’s actually a good rebounder. He has solid vision and a great first step, making him the perfect playmaker for a team without another star. When he focuses on playing good defense (rather than lunging for steals and looking silly) he’s been solid there too. He has the potential to be one of the best – if not the best – players in the league. Despite his flaws, he immediately elevates the talent on any roster. Efficiency be damned – brodie can ball.
Chris Paul is the opposite superstar than Westbrook. He’s an efficient, methodical, tactical floor general. But where Russell is in the middle of his prime, the Point God has already turned 33. He’s been absolutely stellar through his entire career, and even though injuries have plagued him at the worst times, he’s always come back as strong or stronger than before.
Paul is generally regarded as not being good in the playoffs or having some intangible flaw that people use to criticize him never making the Conference Finals (and now it will probably continue since he’s never made the NBA Finals). These narratives are simply not true. He’s the second best point guard of all time behind only Magic Johnson. There are suggestions that he’s signing a 5-year supermax (which would be a tough pill to swallow), but I’d guess that coming off injury, he signs for somewhere around 3 years/$100 million. That’s still a hefty pricetag, but Chris Paul had the Rockets up 3-2 against the greatest team of all-time and could push any contender over the top. He’s worth it.
I’ve been a pretty vocal detractor of Damian Lillard for the past 2-3 years as he entered “superstar status.” In my opinion, he was barely good enough to be the best player on a playoff team, let alone the best player on a contender. He finally won me over this season. He had a fine start to the season, but it was on par (if not slightly worse) than his season prior. He’s a volume scorer who can light it up, but arguably let up more points on the defensive end than he added offensively (which is a big feat for a player scoring 27ppg!).
After the all-star break, Lillard was incredible. The Blazers went from fighting for a playoff spot, to the clear 3-seed after Lillard willed them to a 13-game win streak. They won games through solid defense (where the only obvious change was Lillard playing with much more intensity and a few lineup tweaks that put him in a better defensive position) to keep the game close, and then relying on late game heroics by Lillard. He finally showed that he’s more than just a scorer, he’s a bonafide superstar. He gets paid $30 million per season for the next 3 years, but he’s only 27 and even if he plays exactly the same and doesn’t improve on this season, he’s still worth the max.
“Team-First Defensive Specialists”
22. Rudy Gobert
21. Draymond Green
Rudy Gobert is the best player on the Jazz. He’s a defensive monster who warps the way offenses run solely because of his presence (he will likely be the defensive player of the year). He has great foot speed for someone his size, and excellent instincts when jumping for blocks, which is why he stays out of foul trouble, despite contesting a lot of shots. Offensively, he’s pretty limited. The Jazz mostly use him to set picks and roll hard to the basket, but that’s fine – he’s great at it! And all he has to do is be average offensively since his defense is so incredible.
When Draymond Green plays his best, he’s the best defender I’ve ever seen. The best ever. There were times in the conference finals where James Harden (arguably the best offensive player in the league) drove with Capela in a 2 on 1 against Green, where Draymond head faked Harden into throwing a lob which Green stole. He’s consistently on the leaderboard for both steals AND blocks, yet the box score can’t adequately capture the way he affects games due to his intuition, help side defense, and physicality that forces bad passes or contested shots.
Similarly to Gobert, Green doesn’t score often. In fact, Gobert averaged 2.5 ppg more than Green. But I wouldn’t describe Draymond Green as limited offensively. He’s not a great shooter, but his ball handling and playmaking ability is what makes the Warriors system run. Green led the Warriors with 7.3 assists per game, and is often the player who starts the play and sets the off-ball screen to free their shooters. His playmaking mixed with his defensive greatness makes him arguably the most important player on the Warriors next to Curry.
“The Recovery Process”
20. Joel Embiid
Embiid has the potential to be one of the greatest centers in the history of the game. He’s bigger than basically everyone else, and has a soft touch and solid shooting stroke. Defensively, he has elite shot-blocking ability and the agility to adequately defend to the perimeter. He is a menacing force in the lane on both sides of the ball. He has great post moves and his presence on defense alone provokes opponents into difficult mid-range shots. He struggles with inconsistency at times, especially when returning from injury. Unfortunately, he’s always returning from injury. Since being drafted in 2014, he’s been eligible for 338 games (including playoffs). He’s played in 102. That’s only 30% of his team’s games! He is an absolute monster when he’s on the court, but if you can’t trust him to be at full strength when it matter most, and that’s a huge problem.
19. Jaylen Brown
18. Jayson Tatum
17. Ben Simmons
16. Donovan Mitchell
This was one of the hardest groups of players to rank. They’re all young enough that they haven’t yet developed into superstars, but they’ve all shouldered enough of a load that they look like they’ll get there. Yet they still have a wide array of potential outcomes ranging from decent role player to MVP candidate. Only time will tell. Jaylen Brown made a huge leap in the 2nd half of the season. He’s a legitimate 3-and-D wing with good athleticism, length, and a huge motor. Of the group, he probably has the highest floor, but also has the lowest ceiling, as well as having the easiest playing situation (along with Jayson Tatum, who played in almost the same situation).
Jayson Tatum probably moved up at least a half-dozen spots in this ranking over the course of the playoffs, but I was wary of moving him too high. Even though he had plateaued over the second half of the season, he exploded in the playoffs. He increased his scoring output by almost 5ppg and became the go-to scorer during end of game situations, all while continuing his solid defense. However, his increased scoring came with a noted drawback as well. With a larger scoring role, his 3-point shooting percentage dipped 11% – down to 32% – which suggests that while he’s still obviously a good shooter, he may not consistently provide the lights-out shooting we saw during the beginning of the season. Tatum’s ceiling is extremely high, and he is one of the players who could make his ranking look terrible a year from now, but this feels about right.
Ben Simmons was the best player in this group this season. He didn’t play well against the Celtics in the playoffs, but one series for a rookie point guard shouldn’t significantly detract from the dominance he displayed all season (including the round before against the Heat). He’s the best defender of the group, the best passer of the group, and despite his lack of any shooting ability, he still scores effectively. He was the only player in the group to have a positive defensive and offensive box plus/minus (BPM) as well as having the highest BPM total. Simmons might be the hardest player in the entire NBA to rank because of his uniqueness. He has a glaring flaw in his game, yet he’s somehow successful by playing unlike anyone else in the league. His most apt comparisons are a young LeBron James or Ricky Rubio, who aren’t exactly similar players. I’m excited to see how good he can be.
Donovan Mitchell was so dominant as a rookie this season that the Jazz lost an All-NBA level superstar and only won 3 less games (“Gordon Hayward who?” -Jazz Fans, probably). Some of that comes from other development and acquisitions, including a hell of a season by Quin Snyder (who is a finalist for COY), but the biggest reason the Jazz made a playoff push with their 27-5 finish was the increased role and production of Mitchell. His scoring potential after his rookie season compares favorably to the rookie season of any guard in the past decade, and he passes the eye test too. He was awesome in the playoffs, and despite probably failing his ROY campaign against Ben Simmons, he’ll be a regular in the all-star game for years.
“Elite Two-Way Wings”
15. Victor Oladipo
14. Klay Thompson
13. Gordon Hayward
12. Paul George
11. Jimmy Butler
10. Kawhi Leonard
The obvious most improved player from the 2017-18 season, Victor Oladipo shocked those who thought he’d hit his peak. In an expanded role, he increased his usage, scoring 7 more points per game, while actually shooting better from the field. He averaged career highs in points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, FG%, 3P%, offensive and defensive BPM, and wins. He also led the league in steals and steal %. A worthy inclusion on the All-NBA 3rd team. Oladipo is just starting to touch on his potential, but he’s only played one season at this caliber.
I moved Klay Thompson around this list more than any other player. I went back and forth about his value over and over, finally settled on a place that I’m still not sure about or happy with. Ironic, for one of the most consistent players in NBA history. If I had to choose one player who I’m most confident is making an open look at a three-pointer, it’s Klay Thompson. Sure, a handful of players make more triples every season, and a few players shoot a better percentage, but no player at Klay’s volume has shot a better percentage. Ever. It’s sometimes a pity he plays with Steph Curry – Curry will probably break every 3-point volume record in history, but Thompson might be the best 3-point shooter in history. Combine that with excellent defense and a reported bargain contract, and you have a guy every team wants, who (again, ironically) plays for the only team who doesn’t need him.
Don’t let the Celtics success fool you – their best player only played 5 minutes this season. You may think Gordon Hayward is too high coming off injury, but when Gordon Hayward is at full strength, damn he is good. For some unknown reason, people tend to underestimate Gordon Hayward. As a basketball player, he’s basically everything you want in a wing. He’s a great defender across multiple positions, can create off the dribble or shoot from deep, and rarely turns the ball over. When he comes back next year, he’s going to make everyone who suggested trading him look foolish. I mean, who else could crush LeBron James 1-on-1?
Additionally, while I agree that injury history matters, not all injuries are equal. Are you more confident that Gordon Hayward or Joel Embiid will be available at the end of next season? I am taking Embiid’s injury history into account, while assuming Gordon Hayward will be back to full strength. Unfair? Maybe, but certain injuries affect trade value more than others. Gordon Hayward is coming off a gruesome injury, but it reminds me more of Paul George’s injury in 2014 than it does of a lingering issue. George played an average of 71.5 games per season prior to his injury. Upon his return, he’s only missed 11 games over 3 seasons. Hayward, similarly, played an average of 73 games per season prior to his injury. I expect he’ll be back to full strength by next season.
If you assume Paul George will bolt in the offseason – which I do – he will play for his 3rd team in 3 seasons. That usually means they’re part of the problem. Due to his looming free agency, and the likely departure to
obviously the Lakers whichever team he chooses, that’s not completely wrong. But that blurs the fact that Paul George is a monster on the court. He’s bigger, longer, and faster than most wings, is a lockdown perimeter defender, shoots 40% from deep, and was second to only Oladipo in steals.
I’m not sure how George developed the reputation of a secondary player, but he definitely doesn’t deserve it. How did everyone forget he went toe to toe with the big 3 Heat in back to back conference finals. Sure, he lost in 6 and 7 games, but why doesn’t anyone remember how great Paul George was in those series (and has been since)? People remember Lance freaking Stephenson! Even though Paul George scored 10 more points per game on better shooting (including 10% better from deep), and guarded LeBron more than him! I hope Paul George finds a new home that gives him the appreciation he deserves.
Jimmy Butler was a marvel this season. He led the Timberwolves back to the postseason for the first time in over a decade. I wrote a bit about how important he was to the team here. Minnesota was excellent when he played, sucked when he didn’t, and despite missing 23 games, he still managed to carry them to 47 wins. He turns the ball over the least of the group (yes, even less than Klay, who rarely holds the ball or dribbles) while drawing the most fouls. He can fit into any offense, and I can’t wait to see
how the Timberwolves mess it up him play the rest of his career in Minnesota.
Kawhi Leonard could prove to be the worst placing of anyone on this list. At the end of the 2016-17 season, I’d have ranked him first. He only played in 9 games this season, and didn’t seem to be quite himself. Combined with the confusion around his maybe-injury, and his attitude surrounding the situation doesn’t bode well for San Antonio fans. Still, at his peak, he’s arguably the best player in the league next to LeBron James, and certainly the best wing defender.
Using his 2016-17 stats, Kawhi scored the most points on the highest eFG% of all “non-potentially-the-greatest-3-point-shooter-ever” players in this group. And he’s somehow even better on defense. He was the youngest player ever to get multiple DPOY awards, and that somehow still doesn’t fully encompass what he brings on that end. Defense is usually about responding to or anticipating offense, but Leonard actually attacks while on defense and forces opponents into bad situations that cause turnovers. It’s a sight to see. Yep, 10 is probably too low. I can’t believe Kawhi didn’t even make it to Part 3…