The trade deadline is less than a month away and for teams like the Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks, additional help for the second half of the season seems like the right course of action. A rebuilding team like the Houston Rockets, with veterans such as Eric Gordon on the roster, is in a prime position to facilitate multi-team deals. The Athletic’s Bucks beat writer Eric Nehm, Rockets beat writer Kelly Iko and Phoenix columnist Doug Haller got together to discuss potential three-team scenarios.
Iko: Hi, guys, thanks for doing this. If history tells us anything, mid-January is typically the time when the phone starts to ring a bit more than usual. The intel sticks a bit longer. There’s about a half of a season’s worth of data — enough information for teams to work with and know what they are, and more importantly what they lack.
The Phoenix Suns are 21-24 and you could point to several reasons why — injuries, inconsistencies, increasing league parity — but as of late, the focus on them has been more about who isn’t suiting up, Jae Crowder. It’s become one of the more puzzling sagas in recent memory.
Doug, you’re boots on the ground in Phoenix. It’s safe to say this has been a strange season to date, right?
Haller: That’s a nice way of putting it. The concern started last season, with how the Suns lost to Dallas in the Western Conference semifinals. Franchise record for wins. Top seed in the West. And then to get blown out in Games 6 and 7? That’s hard to forget.
And, you’re right, this season’s injuries definitely have been a hurdle. It’s hard to win with Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Cam Johnson in street clothes. But at the same time, something is missing. Over the last two years, the Suns played through adversity. This season they seem content waiting it out.
They need roster help, particularly in the backcourt. And that brings us to Crowder. What a bizarre situation. It was clear from media day he wasn’t coming back. But at the time everyone assumed James Jones would work out a trade and it wouldn’t turn into something that hangs over the entire season. Yet, with Phoenix’s ownership situation (transitioning from Robert Sarver to Mat Ishbia) here we are.
Iko: The Milwaukee Bucks are still a healthy 29-16, four games back of first place in the Eastern Conference, but the inconsistency hasn’t escaped them. Just 7-8 in their last 15 games, it’s clear a jolt of some kind is needed. Giannis Antetokounmpo started 2023 off with a bang — 85 points, 31 rebounds and 17 assists in his first two games — but then he scored in single digits twice in three games before sitting out four straight games with left knee soreness.
Eric, I know Khris Middleton’s absence has been a gaping hole and honestly should be discussed more. But what’s wrong with the Bucks right now?
Nehm: It’s a tough balance in Milwaukee because they are still second in the Eastern Conference despite Middleton missing all but seven of their games this season, but they are obviously not playing up to their full potential as a title contender.
Many of their struggles on the offensive end are because of Middleton’s absence. He is their best shot creator (for himself or others) in the pick-and-roll. That has made things much harder for the team, but specifically for Antetokounmpo, who is having the least efficient season of the last five seasons with Mike Budenholzer at the helm in Milwaukee.
Teams are regularly building up the wall against Antetokounmpo and daring anyone else on the roster to beat them. And without Middleton, players that are much better in complementary roles have been asked to do too much on offense, which has left the Bucks 23rd in offensive rating (111.4 points per 100 possessions). For now, Antetokounmpo has been able to will the Bucks to just enough wins to keep them near the top of the standings, but the team is roughly .500 after a 9-0 start. Those wins still count, but the Bucks have not been playing at an elite level for the last few months.
Iko: Late last month, our Shams Charania reported on a potential solution for both parties. Per Shams, the Suns offered a proposal to send Crowder to Milwaukee, draft compensation and salary filler to Houston and Eric Gordon and/or Kenyon Martin Jr. to Phoenix.
The Rockets’ position in this is interesting as a vehicle. It’s clear Gordon is frustrated with the rebuild and wants to be moved sooner rather than later, just as it’s clear Crowder wants a new home in the form of a contender. But there’s a hold-up in this three-team deal. Houston wants more value for Gordon and doesn’t want to trade Martin.
Shams reported four Bucks second-round picks and players would head to Houston. So, something like this.
Eric, what are your initial thoughts on a structure like this? That’s a lot of draft picks.
Nehm: So, the first hurdle to a deal like this would be getting Wesley Matthews to agree to a deal. (He is one of three players on the roster, along with Jevon Carter and Serge Ibaka, who cannot be traded without giving their consent to a deal because of the nature of their one-year contracts.) After clearing Matthews’ no-trade clause of sorts, I think the Bucks would not be interested in making this deal.
First, the Bucks believe Matthews still has something left in the tank, which is why they are managing his minutes this season for a potential playoff run. Second, that is too many second-round picks.
This could be me wanting to play negotiator and have a little bit of fun with the situation, but…if I am Bucks general manager Jon Horst, why would I be willing to give up four second-round picks for Crowder? He has been on the trade block for the entire season and hasn’t been moved yet. So, why should I put four second-round picks into the deal? Let’s start at one, whichever one the Rockets or Suns think is best, and go from there.
Iko: Doug, is a Gordon-Martin addition the type of boost the Suns need right now? At first glance, it seems like the Rockets are losing a lot for the equivalent of Dario Saric.
Haller: The Suns have history here. In 2012, they signed Gordon, who was a restricted free agent, to a four-year max offer sheet worth $58 million but the Hornets matched it and Gordon stayed in New Orleans. (At the time, Gordon issued a statement saying his heart was in Phoenix.)
Obviously, 10 years later at age 34, Gordon isn’t the same player, but the guy has scored more than 12,000 points in his career. The Suns need scoring off the bench and that’s something Gordon could provide. Plus, he knows how to play with Chris Paul, having done so in Houston.
The 6-foot-7 Martin would give the Suns versatility at the four. He’s undersized but he plays above the rim. He’s great in transition. He’s a solid help defender. He’d give the Suns what they probably need most right now – a burst of energy.
Iko: The Rockets brass have been adamant for a while about their valuation for Gordon, the biggest reason why he’s still on the roster. Continuing to hold out for a first-round pick and/or young player has gotten them to this point, but Gordon’s value is never going to be higher than what it is. It will only decline with time and miles on his body.
With Martin, it’s going to take something more than second-round picks for them to give him up — as Shams and I have reported in the past. I understand the notion of moving on from Gordon but don’t get the thinking behind trading Martin. He’s talented, he’s continuing to develop, he’s young and he’s not expensive right now.
But let’s not get things confused. Outside of Jalen Green and Jabari Smith Jr., everyone else in a Rockets jersey can be had for the right price. It’s about what that price is.
For example, I get Houston wants first-round picks to let go of Gordon and/or Martin. But what if they could get another developmental player instead? This might get a bit crazy, so stay with me and let me explain. I think it helps all parties.
Houston took Tari Eason at No. 17 but make no mistake, MarJon Beauchamp was a serious target for the Rockets leading up to the draft. A legit one. Had he still been on the board at 29, he would be in a Houston jersey. Trading away Martin, 22, would hurt some from a rebuilding standpoint but getting Beauchamp would be welcomed. He fits the mold of young players they want on board.
Torrey Craig and Dario Saric might not be in town for long but they would provide some veteran leadership in the locker room, which is desperately needed right now. The draft capital is nice too, a future first from Phoenix and Portland’s 2024 second-round pick which could be decent.
For Phoenix, they rid themselves of the Crowder mess and swap Saric and Craig for Gordon and Grayson Allen. The former pair are great shooters — both flirting with 40 percent from deep on decent volume — but Allen is, too. Gordon is still shooting 36 percent from distance on five attempts per night, despite Houston’s offensive mess.
Milwaukee adds Crowder, a tough-nosed 3-and-D combo forward who can play in closing lineups and Martin, an athletic, smart low-usage wing.
So, am I crazy? Or could there be something there?
Nehm: It’s possible. Martin is a big wing (or maybe a forward playing on the wing) and the Bucks can never have enough of those with the Celtics waiting for them on their path to the NBA Finals, but Martin’s contract situation makes things difficult for the Bucks.
While Beauchamp is three months older than Martin, he is in the first year of his rookie contract with the Bucks. This is Martin’s third year in the NBA and, if the Bucks would trade for him, he has one more year on his rookie contract before the Bucks would need to give him an extension. Martin might be more prepared for playoff action than Beauchamp since he has been in the NBA longer, but having more years of team control might be more important to the Bucks than getting another big body on the wing like Martin.
And Martin might not be the best fit for the Bucks’ offense either. He can absolutely bring more size and athleticism to the roster, but he is shooting just 32.5 percent from 3 on low volume, so he might not be a great fit in lineups with Giannis Antetokounmpo, which is the most important thing for any player joining the Bucks.
On top of that, the Bucks really like Beauchamp. They had not used a first-round pick since 2018 when they selected Donte DiVincenzo and they used the pick on Beauchamp. They could have used the pick for a cap-clearing move like they have in the past or tried to trade for a proven player, but instead they selected Beauchamp. So, I don’t think this is going to work either.
Haller: I agree, this trade has better balance. Torrey Craig has started at the 4 since Cam Johnson hurt his knee in November and has played well. He’s dependable, shooting 40.7 percent from 3 and grabbing 5.7 rebounds per game (both career bests.) The best thing about Craig is he knows who he is. He seldom strays beyond his skill set. Every time he plays you know what you get.
Allen would help the Suns. Since he’s started for most of the last two seasons my first thought is, “Would he be OK with coming off the bench?” but with so many Phoenix guys out lately that probably wouldn’t be an issue for a while. At minimum, the Suns could use his toughness, which is something they’ve lacked all season.
Nehm: At this point, I’m not sure the Bucks need to give up all that much to get Crowder because I’m not sure there are any other beat writers at The Athletic going through this same exercise. I’m not sure there is a robust market for Crowder. I’m honestly not even sure of the need to give up Allen to get him, but I’d suspect offers might become slightly more desperate as the trade deadline approaches.
So, is there a three-team deal out there that sees the Bucks give up:
• Grayson Allen
• One or two second-round picks
• Some combination of Nwora, Hill and Serge Ibaka (who shared discontent with his role with Gigantes del Basket on Jan. 7 before missing the Bucks’ road trip for personal reasons) to make salaries work
If there isn’t a three-team deal and the price for Crowder is seemingly as low as it appears, the Bucks might just be able to get something done with the Suns without involving the Rockets.
While Allen might not be the big wing the Suns want back in return for Crowder, Allen is a great shooter at the shooting guard spot. He might not be able to defend the Jayson Tatums and Jaylen Browns of the world, but that doesn’t disqualify him from being a quality player who can contribute positively to a championship run.
(Top photo of Eric Gordon against the Phoenix Suns: Joe Camporeale / USA Today)