clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Trading away a star player: Lessons to be learned from recent NBA rebuilds

Examining other post-star journeys.

NBA: Orlando Magic at Sacramento Kings Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

In February of this past year, Vlade Divac and Vivek Ranadive came to the inevitable conclusion that a bottom-up rebuild was the only realistic path to avoiding another decade in the doldrums of league mediocrity and media ridicule. DeMarcus Cousins and Omri Casspi were shipped away, Matt Barnes was cut, the young guns were given the reigns, and development was given the priority over meaningless wins and unrealistic postseason hopes.

Over the past six years, four teams have found themselves in similar situations by trading their star player in the midst of his contract. Carmelo Anthony was moved to the Knicks in the middle of the 2010-2011 campaign, Chris Paul was dealt to the Clippers just before the 2011 lockout season, Dwight Howard forced his way to Los Angeles in 2012, and Kevin Love joined the Cavaliers in 2014.

As the fifth team to exchange a multiple-time All-Star for young pieces and picks recently, Kings ownership, management, and fans should look to both the successes and failures of four different franchises in their post-star rebuild eras.

Denver Nuggets (Carmelo Anthony)

Significant In Significant Out
Significant In Significant Out
Wilson Chandler Carmelo Anthony
Danilo Gallinari Chauncey Billups
Timofey Mozgov
Kosta Koufos
2012 second round pick (#38 overall, Quincy Miller)
2013 second round pick (traded)
2014 first round pick (#11 overall, Doug McDermott)
2016 first round pick swap (swapped #9 for #7, Jamal Murray)

Post-trade Record: 57-25

Post-trade Record Position: 4th best

Post-trade Lottery Position: 22nd overall

Post-trade First Round Selection: Kenneth Faried

Post-trade Notable Draft Selections:

2011: Kenneth Faried (#22)

2012: Evan Fournier (#20)

2013: Rudy Gobert (#27) - traded for #46 (Erick Green) and cash

2014: Doug McDermott (#11) - traded for #16 (Jusuf Nurkic) and #19 (Gary Harris), Nikola Jokic (#41)

2015: Emmanuel Mudiay (#7)

2016: Jamal Murray (#7), Juan Hernangomez (#15), Malik Beasley (#19)

Denver’s retooling efforts are certainly the most unique in the group. Behind the high-octane offense of George Karl, the Nuggets made the playoffs for two additional seasons after dealing Melo to the Knicks. Although making the postseason should never be criticized, losing in the first round twice after trying to rebuild on the fly caused Denver to miss out on potential star players to pair with the likes of Gallinari, Faried, and Lawson. Seven years later, the Nuggets are trying find their way back to NBA relevancy after too many seasons of quick exits from the playoffs and mid-first round picks. The treasure trove of young, talented players gained in the Anthony deal have become veterans themselves and Denver is now led by an entirely new, inexperienced core. Nikola Jokic however looks like a future star and a new franchise centerpiece, a steal for the Nuggets in the second round.

New Orleans (Chris Paul)

Significant In Significant Out
Significant In Significant Out
Eric Gordon Chris Paul
Al Farouq Aminu 2 second round picks
2012 first round pick (#10 overall, Austin Rivers)

Post-trade Record: 21-45 (lockout season)

Post-trade Record Position: 3rd worst

Post-trade Lottery Position: 1st overall selection

Post-trade First Round Selections: Anthony Davis, Austin Rivers

Post-trade Notable Draft Selections:

2012: Anthony Davis (#1), Austin Rivers (#10)

2013: Nerlens Noel

2016: Buddy Hield

Since trading Chris Paul and drafting Anthony Davis, the Pelicans have been one of the most aggressive organizations in the pursuit of winning quickly. Through different attempts at a postseason berth, New Orleans has traded away a first round pick almost every year since selecting The Brow.

2013: Noel (#6 pick) + 2014 first rounder (#10 pick that became Elfrid Payton) traded for Jrue Holiday and #42 overall pick

2015: Traded 18th pick for Omer Asik and cash (pick eventually became Sam Dekker)

2017: Buddy Hield (#6 pick) + 2017 first round pick (#10 overall) traded for DeMarcus Cousins and Omri Casspi

As evidenced above, the Pelicans leadership has consistently compromised long-term growth for short-term gains. Jrue Holiday hasn’t been able to stay healthy, Omer Asik has been an overpaid disaster, and just about every other young piece has been dealt away in desperation. Six years after the Chris Paul exchange, the Pelicans have made the playoffs one time, reshuffled the deck, and now have a core of DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, and below-average role players. With Jrue Holiday’s free agency and DeMarcus Cousins’ impeding expiring contract, the Pelicans may find themselves mired in another rebuild sooner than they want to admit.

Orlando (Dwight Howard)

Significant In Significant Out
Significant In Significant Out
Arron Afflalo Dwight Howard
Nikola Vucevic Jason Richardson
Moe Harkless
2013 second round pick (#51 overall, Romero Osby)
2014 first round pick (#12 overall, Dario Saric)
2015 second round pick (top 40 protected, never conveyed)
Either 2019 LAL first round pick or 2 second round picks

Post-trade Record: 20-62

Post-trade Record Position: Worst

Post-trade Final Lottery Position: 2nd overall selection

Post-trade First Round Selection: Victor Oladipo

Post-trade Notable Selections:

2013: Victor Oladipo (#2)

2014: Aaron Gordon (#4)

2014: Dario Saric (#12) (traded for Elfrid Payton)

2015: Mario Hezonja (#5)

2016: Domantas Sabonis (#11) (Victor Oladipo + Sabonis traded for Serge Ibaka)

The Magic have had three main road bumps in their rebuild. First, they haven’t found a star player. Victor Oladipo was solid, but not spectacular in his time in Orlando, Vucevic is in the same boat, Aaron Gordon has battled injury and positional confusion, Payton has never found his jump shot, and Hezonja has shown to be a bust at this point in his career. The lack of a go-to, centerpiece-type player has hurt Orlando on a nightly basis. Second, and this should be unfortunately familiar to Kings fans, has been the organizational instability. Although the chaos hasn’t been as prevalent or as discussed as Sacramento, Orlando has been through five different head coaches (Van Gundy, Vaughn, Borrego, Skiles, and Vogel) in the six years since trading their star center. This constant changing of the offensive game plan and defensive philosophy can only have hurt the development of the young core in Florida. Finally, probably due to the above listed reasons, the now formal General Manager, Rob Hennigan, swapped out young players (Oladipo and Sabonis) for a win-now, expiring player in Serge Ibaka this past summer and sadly traded him four months later for a pittance. Now, the Magic are in a tough spot with their former lottery picks approaching expensive extensions, few promising young players, and no star player to account for.

Minnesota (Kevin Love)

Significant In Signficant Out
Significant In Signficant Out
Andrew Wiggins Kevin Love
Anthony Bennett

Post-trade Record: 16-66

Post-trade Record Position: Worst

Post-trade Final Lottery Position: 1st overall selection

Post-trade First Round Selection: Karl Anthony-Towns

Post-trade Notable Selections:

2015: Karl-Anthony Towns (#1)

2016: Kris Dunn (#5)

The Timberwolves are probably in the best post-trade rebuild position of any of the four teams in discussion. While they haven’t made the playoffs like the Nuggets and Pelicans, they have a young, inexpensive core, most of their future draft selections, a high pick in this year’s draft, and only a few holes to plug in the roster. A coach like Tom Thibodeau is not going to want to lose for long, and although the expectations set for this squad were a bit high this season, Minnesota has one of the brightest future outlooks in the league. A core of Rubio, LaVine, Wiggins, Towns, and whoever is added this summer should be competitive sooner rather than later. It’s no coincidence that the T-Wolves have had the shortest, yet most successful rebuild with their lack of long-term sacrifice for short-term gains as well as the management’s refusal to trade their young prospects and first round draft picks.

Lessons Learned

1. Don’t fritter away draft picks and young talent.

Yes, I realize that the Kings have already done that. Alarmingly, our 2019 first round pick is headed to the 76ers with absolutely no protections. Although it’s likely to be a top-10 selection, at this point, there’s nothing anyone can do to alter the impact of an ill-advised trade. However, what the Front Office must do is suppress the desire to become too good, too quickly and instead, they must focus on building a core of young, talented, cost-effective players. Management simply needs to keep what picks they have, draft smartly, trade veterans for picks if the opportunity arises, and wait for the pieces to come together.

There is not a single example above in which a retooling organization swapped out a first rounder (or multiple firsts for that matter) for an established player or as a money-saving technique and walked away the better for it. Jrue Holiday and Omer Asik weren’t the return on investment that New Orleans hoped they would be, Denver would certainly love to have Rudy Gobert instead of the memory of Erick Green and the Magic’s disastrous trade of the #11 pick and Oladipo for Ibaka eventually and justifiably cost a GM his job.

Similar to surrendering draft picks for win-now players, the Kings must also avoid swapping youth for experience and long-term benefits for short-term gains. Once again, the Pelicans are at the front of the list, exchanging Nerlens Noel in the Jrue Holiday trade as well as Buddy Hield in the DeMarcus Cousins blockbuster. Currently, instead of having seven or more years of control over affordable talent, their point guard is an unrestricted free agent and Boogie is a year away from the same. The Magic are also guilty of this costly miscalculation with the Ibaka trade, the Biyombo signing, and other, smaller moves.

Currently, the Kings have three project players in their fold in Labissiere, Richardson, and Papagiannis and may add one, two, three, or even four more this summer between their draft picks and Bogdan Bogdanovic. While the concern for having too many young players competing for minutes may sound legitimate, Sacramento cannot afford to surrender any of their prospects easily. If the Kings manage to reach the point where they have too many starter-caliber players who play similar positions, we’ll all be in a much happier position than we’re in now. Simply put, let’s cross that unlikely bridge if we get there. Until then, keep your rookies, keep your prospects, and keep sticking to the plan.

2. Bottom-out

Three of the four teams who initially dealt their star player plummeted down the league standings in the season following their blockbusters. New Orleans finished third worst and grabbed their franchise cornerstone, Anthony Davis, with the first pick in the draft. Orlando finished worst and ended up with the second pick, Victor Oladipo. Unfortunately for the Magic, the 2013 draft was one of the weakest in history, but Oladipo was still the second best player on a playoff team this year. Finally, Minnesota finished with the worst record in the NBA and won the lottery in 2014, acquiring future star Karl-Anthony Towns.

On the other side of the coin, Denver continued to make the playoffs for multiple seasons after the Anthony deal. Unfortunately for Sacramento, it’s simply unrealistic to hope to replicate that success in the next few years.

After trading Boogie, the Kings finished the end of the season with an 8-25 record which translates to 26 victories in an 82 game season. The mitigating factor in those wins is the fact that many of the teams that they faced were actively trying to lose and several of the bottom feeders will pass the Kings in overall talent level this summer. Realistically, assuming the front office doesn’t do anything stupid and shortsighted, fans shouldn’t expect to see more than 20-25 wins in next year’s campaign which should result in a top 5 pick, at worst.

Over the past five drafts, the average wins for each position have been as follows:

Average Draft Positions

Position Avg. Wins
Position Avg. Wins
1 16.2
2 19.6
3 22.4
4 24.4
5 27

Theoretically, the Kings should easily finish with a bottom three record and a top three pick. If that happens, Sacramento has a pretty good chance of finding their building block in the 2018 draft, whether that be Luka Doncic, Michael Porter Jr., or some other player yet to shoot his way up the rankings.

3. Find a star

As much as everyone who follows the NBA loves to dream up blockbuster trades involving multiple star players changing teams, that scenario never really plays out in real life. Instead, the hopeful contender surrenders developing talent and picks in exchange for a star player. Historically, the replacement star isn’t going to come through the trade, even as an up-and-coming prospect. In fact, of the 21 players included in the four blockbusters above, either directly traded or drafted with a traded pick, not a single one has made the All-Star team.

The same situation will most likely play out for the Kings. Currently Sacramento has several possible starter-caliber players, but there doesn’t seem to a Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo or other building block on the roster. Buddy Hield has certainly demonstrated his fearlessness and offensive prowess, Cauley-Stein and Skal have shown flashes of brilliance, and the 8th, 10th and 34th overall picks are nothing to laugh at, but Sacramento’s best probability in landing a true star player and cornerstone piece resides in the 2018 draft. The combination of no top-100 players on the roster, multiple raw players, and a lack of focus on making the postseason should create a perfect opportunity to find that key piece next June.

The Plan

It’s often easy to overcomplicate a simple solution. For the Kings, the simple solution is to keep all of their draft picks, aggressively pursue bad contracts in exchange for assets, swap vets for draft considerations, find a potential-star in the 2017 or 2018 draft, and let their young foundation grow together under the tutelage of Dave Joerger.

And here’s some fantastic news for Kings fans; some of these steps were started before dealing DeMarcus Cousins. Two years before blowing things up, we drafted the player who would become our replacement center. Just the year prior, we dealt a veteran for a first rounder when we sent Marco Belinelli to Charlotte for the 22nd pick as well as an early first rounder for two picks and an up-and-coming European prospect. Vlade Divac managed to load up on projects and prospects, even while the reported directive from ownership was to win games.

Between the Nuggets, Pelicans/Hornets, Magic, Timberwolves, and the Kings, Sacramento had the youngest as well as the most young contributors (minimum 5 PPG and on rookie-scale contract in the post-trade season) prior to the trade.


Player Age Experience
Player Age Experience
Ty Lawson 23 3rd year


Player Age Experience
Player Age Experience
None N/A N/A


Player Age Experience
Player Age Experience
None N/A N/A


Player Age Experience
Player Age Experience
Derrick Williams 22 3rd Year
Ricky Rubio 23 3rd year


Player Age Experience
Player Age Experience
Georgios Papagiannis 19 Rookie
Skal Labissiere 20 Rookie
Willie Cauley-Stein 23 2nd Year

Some of the pieces are there and others are due to join us in just over a month while more will be added in 2018. For Vlade and leadership the blueprint must follow the successes above. First, continue to develop the young talent that you already possess. Second, refuse to deal away draft picks or prospects unless you are receiving more or better of the same. Finally, move with patience and care. A full tear down and rebuild is a delicate, dangerous path for a team that has been losing for the past decade. Avoiding short-term moves, drafting the best player available, and just a hint of luck should lead us back to the postseason quicker than any other path.