It’s all fun when it’s time to make the big deal. Everybody wants to push their chips in and go for it — nothing risked, nothing gained and all that. But what happens when you push all your chips in to make that big, put-us-over-the-top move and … it doesn’t quite work? We’re about to find out this summer.
Most interestingly, the NBA landscape seems simultaneously wide open for a team to grab a ring after coming in from left field … and remains littered with disappointed teams that made the same effort but must repair talented-yet-flawed, capped-out, asset-deprived, 40-something-win teams. Rarely have so many teams paid so much for so little.
So, get ready for the Summer of Stuckness. We’ve heard plenty of chatter this could be a very active summer, with a lot of teams willing to shake up their rosters. But willingness is only half the equation. So many teams have painted themselves deep into corners that it’s hard to see how they could plausibly extricate themselves with a meaningful trade.
How can trades happen if nobody can make a deal? The three teams that should be selling (Portland, Chicago and Washington) insist on buying, and the bad teams have nothing the good teams want. But the biggest obstacle to trades this offseason, by far, is that a number of teams that otherwise would be dealing like crazy have choked off all their options.
Consider, for instance, that as a result of their recent excesses, nine teams still owe unprotected future first-round picks. That’s not including the several other teams that owe very lightly protected or multiple future firsts. Even for the ones that are still capable of trading other firsts, it’s not even a question of doubling down anymore; it’s doubling down on doubling down. Quadrupling down?
In a related story, some execs at this year’s NBA Draft Combine wondered if we have seen the last of teams putting multiple unprotected picks in circulation the way we’ve seen over the last few years — even in trades for stars. One reason you might see the pendulum swing back that way is that so many teams are about to pay the piper for their recent excesses. All we’ve seen so far from these trades is the raging party, but we’re about to get to the hangover.
Taking a step back, the underlying problem with most all-in moves is that they basically lock a team into a roster, with little flexibility to make further adjustments. Sometimes it works out: Denver, for instance, is “stuck” flexibility-wise but with an awesome team it actually likes.
Nonetheless, after the initial euphoria of that first run with a shiny new star, we’re about to hit the other side of the wave in several cities.
Take the Clippers, for instance, who started this whole thing with the over-the-top Paul George trade in 2019, sending Oklahoma City five firsts and a future All-Star in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. If you talk to execs around the league, they’ll at least offer that the Clippers overpaid to get two prime stars rather than one, since it also clinched Kawhi Leonard’s free-agent arrival. It also got them a 2021 conference finals bid.
On the other hand, the Clippers are locked into an expensive team — the league’s most expensive in 2022-23, actually — that won 44 games and was eliminated in the first round. A year earlier, they missed the playoffs entirely.
Or take the team they lost to in the first round: Phoenix. The Suns were the most recent enthusiastic plunger into the all-in pool, via the trade deadline acquisition of Kevin Durant. The similarities with the Clippers are clear: a new owner rushing in to make a big deal and encouraging his staff to pay whatever it took. In this case, it was Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson and four first-round picks, which netted the Suns Durant but left him on a roster that may be too short-handed to give them enough help.
Come, take a gander with me and check out how many teams have essentially no option but to run it back and try again:
The Hawks overpaid for Dejounte Murray and now are out unprotected first-round picks in 2025 and 2027 … right after Murray hits free agency. The Hawks can’t extend him at a market rate, and thus, he will definitely hit unrestricted free agency next summer. Even then, re-signing him could get very tricky with the luxury tax.
Meanwhile, Atlanta sits $11 million above next year’s projected tax line with a 41-win team that has no rebuild option between now and 2027 (Related: I don’t see any Trae Young trade possibilities, sorry. A deal like that might help the Spurs more than Atlanta.)
Why Trae Young trade talk makes little sense for Hawks right now
The Hawks likely will burn up the phones to get under the tax line — if you haven’t heard, John Collins is available — and have a future first from Sacramento they can put into a deal. But who is taking on Collins for $78 million over the next three years? The Hawks aren’t a bad team or anything, but they’re very stuck right now. As you’ll see, they have a lot of company.
The Nets are on both ends of this at the same time, having pushed all their chips in for James Harden and then receiving a similar raft of draft equity from Phoenix for Durant. The problem is that the arrival and departure of Harden saddled them with the league’s worst contract (two more years of Ben Simmons at a combined $78 million) and has them owing picks and swaps to Houston through 2027.
That takes tanking out of play, but the Nets don’t have any real possibilities of competing either. Welcome to Stuckville.
Bridges made a big leap after the trade and could make a run for the All-Star team, and Brooklyn has some nice complementary pieces who could keep it in the middle of the pack while it waits out the Houston debt. Beyond that, the Nets are likely moving off one of their surplus wings so they can re-sign Johnson and stay under the tax and waiting on a more favorable cap situation once Simmons comes off the books in 2025.
Sweating out the next three years until Luka Dončić hits free agency should be a blast, especially since the Mavs’ big Kyrie Irving bet yielded a 7-15 charge to the finish line. Of course, that was topped off by an embarrassing final-weekend tank job just to keep the 10th pick in the draft. The Mavs paid nearly $50 million in luxury tax just to land in the lottery. (And it could have been more: Dallas saved several million on this year’s tax hit when Tyrell Terry’s retirement vaporized his $1.78 million salary from their cap sheet.)
The Mavericks and the No. 10 pick: Trade it? Keep it? Front-office decisions to be made
That 10th pick and a 2027 first-rounder are what the Mavs have left to make deals while they dance with the tax and try to figure out how to stock a deeply flawed roster. Good luck. The Mavs have a lot of contracts that nobody wants and depth issues everywhere as the unforced error of Jalen Brunson’s departure continues to haunt them.
Re-signing Irving would seem to be baked into the plan, presuming the Mavs can keep him away from the Lakers; if not, they gave up two firsts for a rental who led them to the lottery. They at least have a brilliant superstar centerpiece in Dončić, but the whispers are growing louder that the underwhelming supporting cast could ultimately cost the Mavs their best player since Dirk.
The Warriors’ all-in-ish move to send Memphis a lightly protected first to dump Andre Iguodala, sign D’Angelo Russell and blow their salary through the roof eventually led to a title in 2022. No regrets.
Stuckness still looms. I covered a lot of this already, so I won’t belabor the point. But the Warriors slipped to 44 wins while cutting a mammoth luxury-tax check to the league, one the new CBA will make more punitive. They don’t have the flexibility to do anything except run it back, it would seem, but also need to cut money (Jordan Poole, most likely) to avoid a stratospheric tax bill. Golden State does have two future firsts it could put into play, but the trade handcuffs on teams above the second apron are significant.
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The Clippers got this whole craze started and now might be the first ones to cycle through the downside. They’re $40 million over next year’s projected tax line, and their two stars are part-time players. They still owe draft picks to the Thunder through 2026, but Leonard and George can become free agents after next season. Meanwhile, the new CBA is coming after them for their profligate spending. They are so deep into the tax that it seems their only option to retain Russell Westbrook is with a minimum contract.
Do they dare extend both George and Leonard and prolong their salary-cap agony? Leonard is still an amazing player when healthy but can no longer hang with the schedule demands — load managing his way through 52 regular-season contests and then tapping out after two playoff games. Over the last six seasons, he’s played an average of 38 games. Meanwhile, George is 33, hasn’t played more than 56 games in a season since 2018-19 and also missed the postseason with an injury.
Surrounding that core is a lot of half-good veterans I’m not sure anyone really wants. Robert Covington, Marcus Morris, Nicolas Batum and Norman Powell all will make eight figures next season; Eric Gordon will make $21 million if the Clips pick up his guarantee, which would cost them an enormous tax hit in the process. They have to decide by June 28.
The Heat are feeling great right now, certainly a lot better than they did after a 44-win regular season with a negative scoring margin. The bad news is that just keeping this roster together will be challenging, and adding to it virtually impossible. With Tyler Herro’s extension kicking in, the Heat are $15 million over next year’s projected tax line, knocking on the door of the second apron … and that’s before we get into the fact that Max Strus and Gabe Vincent are unrestricted free agents.
Miami has some pathways to cleaning up the cap, especially since the Heat have never been shy about trading picks. They could trade the 18th pick in this year’s draft and a future pick in 2028 to unload contracts such as Victor Oladipo ($9.5 million and likely out rehabbing much of next year), Kyle Lowry ($29.7 million) or Duncan Robinson (three more years at $58 million). The endgame would be to parlay those picks into a third option orbiting Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, but in an ideal world, it also gets them enough wiggle room to either use their midlevel exception or re-sign at least one of Strus or Vincent.
One possible reason the Bucks decided to change coaches this offseason is that they have so little flexibility to do anything else.
Milwaukee has a key free agent in Brook Lopez and a possible second in Khris Middleton (he can opt out of a $40.4 million salary for next year). Putting those two back on the team will have the Bucks pushing the second apron in salary in the new CBA while handcuffing them from doing much of anything else.
Having Middleton opt out and re-sign at a lower number could be key. Also, letting him walk if he gets too rich of an offer from a rival is a conversation the Bucks need to have, as it is the one way Milwaukee could realistically un-stuck itself.
Milwaukee also owes future firsts to New Orleans in 2025 and 2027 from the Jrue Holiday trade; the only first it can trade is in 2029. That Holiday deal got the Bucks a title, so I don’t think they regret it for one second, but the hangover is still coming.
Otherwise, the Bucks’ situation may force them into moving role players (such as one of Grayson Allen, Pat Connaughton or Bobby Portis) just to keep the tax bill manageable. Either way, the fun doesn’t stop here: Holiday can become a free agent in 2024, and Giannis Antetokounmpo can hit the market in 2025.
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Welcome to the capital city of Stuckville. If you thought winter was cold, wait until you see how frigid this summer is when the Wolves make outbound trade calls. They have two centers on behemoth contracts, owe future firsts to Utah through 2029 and are over the cap. A year from now, a possible supermax extension for Anthony Edwards will hit just as Karl-Anthony Towns’ max extension does; it’s possible Minnesota will have three players taking up nearly the entire salary cap. Extending Jaden McDaniels on top of that could have the Wolves pushing toward the tax line with just four.
How do they get out of it? They have three years to run on a Towns-Rudy Gobert partnership that doesn’t really work, no picks to trade and very limited cap flexibility.
Like a lot of teams on this list, the Timberwolves aren’t bad. They just aren’t notably good, and that wasn’t the plan here: They pushed their chips in for something more than a gentleman’s sweep in the first round. And, like a lot of teams on this list, extricating themselves from the current situation with any moves beyond minimum contract signings and late draft picks seems difficult.
The Suns may have gone overboard in their pursuit of Durant, giving up four firsts and a potential All-Star in Bridges. They now owe draft picks through 2029 but have no clear pathway to contention for that whole cycle, making the back end of this trade look particularly dangerous.
Durant turns 35 in September and has an elite sidekick in Devin Booker, but the Suns will be pushing the tax line even if they surround Durant, Booker, Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton with 10 minimum contracts. Staying below the first apron to use their full midlevel would seem virtually impossible, and even skirting the second one will take some dancing. The out years don’t get much better: Durant, Booker and Ayton combine to make $144 million in 2025-26.
This is particularly notable because Denver already exposed the shortcomings of the Suns’ supporting cast in the playoffs, but Phoenix has very limited capacity to change or add to it. The obvious out is to trade Ayton and split his contract into smaller pieces, but if that were easy, he’d already be gone. Ditto for Paul and his $30.8 million obligation for this coming season; only $15.8 million of it is guaranteed, but cutting him doesn’t give the Suns enough flexibility to acquire a replacement.
The Suns, at least, are early in this process, and it could still work out; Booker and Durant were a phenomenal 1-2 punch this postseason. But the Suns finished with 45 wins and a second-round exit this year, and the back half of the decade could get ugly.
(Top photo of Dejounte Murray: Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images)