Of the 24 players who have earned three All-NBA selections since 2010, when LeBron James made The Decision, exactly half of them have come to define the league’s player movement era in the decade since.
James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Kevin Durant, Paul George, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook and James Harden have combined to change teams 37 times over the past 11 years. At least one of them has played for every team but the Milwaukee Bucks, Detroit Pistons, Utah Jazz, Dallas Mavericks, Memphis Grizzlies and Sacramento Kings. All of them but Davis and Harden have played for at least three different teams since 2014. They have moved a ton.
Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard are their only true superstar peers still playing on supermax contract extensions with the teams that drafted them. Curry just signed a second one, and Antetokounmpo just won the title, so all eyes are now on Lillard’s commitment to the Portland Trail Blazers.
Philadelphia 76ers star Ben Simmons is available for a steep price, and Bradley Beal remains committed to the reconstructed Washington Wizards. Beyond them, the trade market for stars could dry up for a while.
And the market for superstars might be barren.
Of the 12 aforementioned founding fathers of the player movement era, eight of them requested a trade between the ages of 24-27, at some point in the penultimate year of their rookie-scale contract extensions. James (25) and Durant (27) played out their rookie-scale deals before exiting. Harden and Westbrook joined forces on the Houston Rockets at 30 years old, and then requested trades to cease playing with each other.
Cleveland, Denver, New Orleans, Orlando, Oklahoma City, Indiana, Minnesota and San Antonio have felt the brunt of this era, as all 12 stars maneuvered their way to Los Angeles, New York or Miami. Only Paul, who served as the face of the L.A. Clippers for the bulk of his prime, is not currently playing in one of those three cities. This perspective makes Antetokounmpo’s championship run in Milwaukee all the more remarkable.
The question is whether he is an anomaly or the dawn of a new era.
We know the credentials of superstars who request trades. Curry and Antetokounmpo give us a better idea of the type of bond between a player and city it requires to maintain a partnership. Antetokounmpo did not sign his supermax contract until the Bucks acquired Jrue Holiday and built a bona fide championship team, and Curry already won two rings by the time he signed a supermax deal with the Golden State Warriors.
Constructing a legit contender gives you the best chance of keeping a superstar. Even then, there is no guarantee. Others left playoff teams with a sub-championship ceiling, but Irving asked off a team with whom he won a title. Durant joined the team that beat his in a seven-game Western Conference finals set.
The Irving and Leonard trade requests came a bit out of left field, if only because they won titles in Cleveland and San Antonio, but then again, both of them are a bit out of left field. Maybe we should have seen those coming. Generally, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. From the moment he signed with Klutch Sports founder Rich Paul in September 2018, Davis’ trade request four months later was a guarantee.
Here is when the NBA’s next generation of stars can enter free agency at the end of their rookie contracts:
2022: Zach LaVine
2024: Karl-Anthony Towns, Domantas Sabonis, Jaylen Brown, Pascal Siakam, Kristaps Porzingis
2025: Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, Ben Simmons, Jamal Murray, Brandon Ingram
2026: Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Bam Adebayo, De’Aaron Fox
2027: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
Deandre Ayton, Michael Porter Jr. and other rising stars from the 2018 draft class will join them in either 2026 or 2027 free agency, depending on the length of their eventual rookie-scale contract extensions.
Irving is the only one of the 12 aforementioned stars who did not have multiple All-NBA selections on his résumé before requesting a trade or leaving in free agency. He was a two-time All-NBA player by the end of his rookie-scale extension. That speaks to the caliber of player who feels comfortable enough leaving years and millions of dollars behind by exiting his original team, knowing max money is always around the corner.
Jokic, Embiid and Doncic have already made multiple All-NBA teams. Towns, Siakam, Tatum and Simmons have made one. It would be surprising if Mitchell and Young did not make at least one in the next few years. With the possible exception of Sabonis, nobody else on this list feels like a primary star on the level of the 12 players who defined the player movement era. LaVine leaving the Chicago Bulls next summer would not be earth-shattering news, nor would the availability of Porzingis, Ingram and Fox. They might be had now.
Towns has long been most likely to request a trade. His Timberwolves have made the playoffs once since 2004, and he is one year from the penultimate season of his contract. Simmons is already up for grabs, but his availability stems more from Philadelphia’s desire to move on from him than his own empowerment.
It is harder to read tea leaves on the others. Adebayo reached the Finals with Miami. Mitchell and Embiid played for No. 1 seeds in their respective conferences last season. Had Murray not torn his ACL, Jokic and the Denver Nuggets were a serious championship contender. Tatum and Brown have led the Boston Celtics to a pair of Eastern Conference finals together. Young got there this year. The ink is barely dry on Doncic’s extension in Dallas. All should believe they can win a title with their current teams, as Siakam already did.
You can envision a world where Embiid wants out of Philadelphia if a Simmons trade goes sour. Tatum and Mitchell might get antsy if first-round playoff exits start to pile up. But none of them feel inevitable the way Davis did in New Orleans. If you had to pick someone not named Towns as the next star-level player under 27 years old who could request a trade, it would probably be Sabonis, whose agents count Westbrook and Harden as clients. Sabonis’ small-market Pacers just missed the playoffs after five straight first-round exits.
If coach Rick Carlisle turns Indiana around, you can also envision a world where all 27 of last year’s All-Stars actually are content, save for Lillard. The last year a superstar did not change teams was 2015, and even then LaMarcus Aldridge — a three-time All-NBA selection at the time — left the Blazers for the Spurs.
In 2019 alone, Butler, George, Davis, Durant, Irving, Westbrook and Porzingis all changed teams. Since then, Westbrook, Harden and Paul have been the only major stars on the move, and we could be headed for a drier spell that slows the player movement era to a crawl. If Lillard and Beal are serious about wanting to win in Portland and Washington, respectively, maybe Antetokounmpo really has established a trend.
That is, until a player of Zion Williamson’s caliber becomes the first to accept his $17.6 million qualifying offer in 2023-24, the fifth year of his rookie contract, and enter unrestricted free agency at age 23 with the promise of enormous wealth and championship contention awaiting in a bigger market than New Orleans.
Now, that really would be the dawn of a new era.
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