As sluggish NBA trade market nears deadline, history has shown a player’s desired trade destination may not matter

The NBA trade market continues to hum along quietly, with little chatter of substantive deals gaining actual development. There are frameworks being passed around front offices and role players being made available, but this transaction landscape ahead of the Feb. 9 buzzer is desperately lacking significant talent on the block, in the eyes of lead executives, particularly for teams that are searching to add a true All-Star into their respective builds.

That is why someone like Zach LaVine, the Bulls’ two-time All-Star who’s in the first season of a five-year, $215 million maximum contract, would have no shortage of suitors if Chicago decided to move the 27-year-old guard before next Thursday’s deadline — despite some concern about his recovery process from offseason arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. The Lakers, Heat, Knicks and Mavericks have consistently been mentioned by league personnel as holding motivations to land LaVine if the time does arrive. Portland also showed interest in signing LaVine last offseason, league sources told Yahoo Sports. Atlanta loomed as a potential LaVine destination before the Hawks splurged for Dejounte Murray.

For any team holding onto hope for LaVine’s availability, or that Bradley Beal will one day ask out of Washington, or whether Trae Young ever seeks a trade from the Hawks, it might actually be wise for stars to avoid creating a proverbial list of destination teams. Recent NBA history seems to suggest that when such a player expresses his preferences for his next employer, those very teams often come up empty.

James Harden landed in Brooklyn after asking out of Houston, but told reporters upon his 2022 arrival in Philadelphia that he always preferred joining the 76ers. Anthony Davis calling his shot in 2019 — pinpointing the Lakers with LeBron James and then landing in Los Angeles — might be the only clear example in modern memory of an All-Star directly reaching his desired location by trade request.

New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony (7) in the first half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Dec. 17, 2016, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Carmelo Anthony got his wish of joining the Knicks ... way back in 2011. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

You have to go back to 2011 to find another, when Carmelo Anthony was traded to New York as he always wanted, and yet the Nuggets nearly sent him to the then-New Jersey Nets instead. Chris Paul punched his ticket to Houston in 2017 not by requesting a trade but by opting into the final year of his contract, which helped facilitate a package of seven players and a first-round pick to the Clippers in return.

The following fall in 2018, when Jimmy Butler requested a trade away from the Timberwolves, Butler had told Minnesota officials he wanted to be dealt to the Clippers or the Knicks, with the Nets listed as a third preference. And yet to Philadelphia he went.

Brooklyn, Los Angeles and New York, one may recall, were stacking their decks for 2019 free agency, focused on clearing cap space to add two maximum-contract level players. Word of Kawhi Leonard’s interest in heading to Southern California that summer had permeated the league, certainly influencing Butler’s eye toward the Clippers and weighing heavily over Leonard’s own 2018 trade request from San Antonio.

At that time, teams that coveted Leonard, such as Boston and Philadelphia, worried about Leonard’s impending flight risk that following summer — he indeed bolted to the Clippers during the 2019 offseason. Few suitors were therefore willing to meet the Spurs’ asking price for Leonard, and the Finals MVP, of course, wound up traded from San Antonio to Toronto, about as far from Los Angeles as Leonard could have hoped. Don’t forget Paul George, Leonard’s ultimate running mate with the Clippers, was dealt from Indiana to Oklahoma City in 2017 after he’d also communicated plans to flee for Los Angeles when he reached the open market.

It took gap years in temporary locations for George and Leonard to both reach the city they wanted to call home. And the Lakers, of course, missed out on both All-Stars, despite obvious intrigue from George and Leonard. What would have happened to James’ tenure in Hollywood if Davis had chosen to join Kyrie Irving in Boston instead?

The All-Star point guard was indeed recruiting Davis to the Celtics after Irving requested a trade from the Cavaliers in 2017. Irving did not have Boston on the list of preferred teams his representation had delivered to Cleveland leadership either. However, that omission was by design. According to multiple sources familiar with the matter, while Irving’s then-agent Jeffrey Wechsler informed Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert that his client preferred to be dealt to either the Spurs, Knicks, Timberwolves or Heat, the list intentionally excluded the Celtics — the franchise Cleveland had just faced in that previous season’s Eastern Conference finals.

Irving, sources told Yahoo Sports, considered the Cavaliers to be in flux. Cleveland was in conversation with former Pistons guard Chauncey Billups to become its next general manager after Gilbert and lead executive David Griffin couldn’t agree to terms for a new contract. Irving and his representation were already hearing credible rumblings around Cleveland and James’ camp that he too was eyeing Los Angeles in free agency following that 2017-18 campaign. Plus, the Celtics had draft capital and ready-made veteran players to send to the Cavs in return.

Once Wechsler secured permission from Gilbert to contact opposing teams, sources said, he and Celtics president Danny Ainge engaged in frequent dialogue about Irving’s trade market. This is not to characterize Irving-to-Boston as some elaborate, clandestine operation. Cleveland’s front office valued the 2018 Nets draft pick that Boston held — by way of the fabled 2013 Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce trade to Brooklyn — as a top-five pick in that upcoming draft, sources told Yahoo Sports. The Cavaliers considered that selection the premier draft asset that was offered to Cleveland as part of the incoming packages for Irving. The Celtics, though, would not have been as emboldened to trade for Irving, himself two years away from reaching unrestricted free agency, without learning of his untold interest in Boston first.

Lo and behold, after those two seasons in Massachusetts, Irving of course departed the Celtics in favor of teaming with Kevin Durant in Brooklyn during 2019 free agency after the Knicks were once considered the frontrunners to land the pair of All-Stars. New York famously dealt Kristaps Porzingis to the Dallas Mavericks ahead of that 2019 trade deadline after Porzingis, then a one-time All-Star, met with Knicks officials and requested to be moved. Parting ways with Porzingis then, and clearing a road to a massive amount of cap space, signaled New York’s confidence it could secure two max-level players like Irving and Durant.

Porzingis’ agent at the time, Andy Miller, also proffered the list of preferred next teams for his client: the Nets, Raptors, Heat, Clippers and Spurs. “Dallas was top six, for me,” Porzings told Yahoo Sports. It does not appear that the Mavericks’ absence from his communicated group of desired teams was as intentional as Irving’s with Boston. In this instance, Porzingis felt unappreciated in New York and was merely looking for a fresh start, and the 7-foot-3 center then recalled carrying out directions from Miller that he didn’t necessarily agree with. He did not want to meet with Knicks leadership and awkwardly demand a trade. He did not want to be the center of a Midtown-based news cycle, where a sweepstakes unfolded for his services.

Dallas Mavericks center Kristaps Porzingis (6) walks the floor during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Toronto Raptors in Dallas, Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
Kristaps Porzingis had an interesting experience getting traded to the Mavs. (AP Photo/LM Otero) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

“Just the way things escalated to get there, it’s just not my style. It’s completely not my style,” Porzingis said. “I would have done things completely different if I had the mind that I have now. But you’re young and you trust people, and people do things for you or it seems like you’re doing things people are telling you. You are doing the things, but it’s somebody else’s mind.”

Brooklyn’s front office discussed the possibility of trading for Porzingis “ad nauseam,” said a Nets staffer at that time. Toronto held bonafide interest in Porzingis as well, sources said, which carried all the way through the 2022 trade deadline. The Clippers were preparing for their splashy 2019 summer, and Los Angeles’ front office, spearheaded by Lawrence Frank — also a longtime client and close friend of Miller’s — was interested in Porzingis, too. And still it was Dallas, with a quiet mind toward pairing budding superstar Luka Doncic with an All-Star counterpart, that swept in under the radar to land Porzingis without any preliminary fanfare. “No matter how it was going to be done, it was probably going to be talked about,” Porzingis said. “But you end up with a team nobody was talking about.”

Buyers beware. Even this past summer, when the Jazz put All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell on the market, Mitchell’s known determination to join New York, coupled with the Knicks’ obvious yearning for Mitchell, seemed to have somehow derailed New York’s approach to landing Mitchell. Utah personnel maintain that the Knicks’ approach for Mitchell suggested New York felt that the franchise was negotiating against itself, sources told Yahoo Sports, because no rival suitor could offer more draft capital and a more favorable destination for Mitchell. Even Cavaliers front office members didn’t believe they were truly in the running for Mitchell, sources said, until Utah redialed Cleveland and moved forward with its package of five years of Cavs draft capital, Lauri Markkanen and Collin Sexton — the player Cleveland ultimately selected with the 2018 first-rounder it received for Irving.

Mitchell has thrived with the Cavaliers, most recently being named an All-Star starter. Leonard lifted the Raptors to a championship. That’s the thing about worldly basketball talents. The best players in this game seem to thrive so long as the ball finds their hands, no matter their location. There’s no telling which team will pounce on the opportunity to land their services, even if it’s not the apple of that player’s eye.