Looking Deeper at the NBA Trade Deadline

While many players moved at this season’s trade deadline, the most intriguing decisions were likely the ones not made. Teams are becoming more advanced in their interpretation of the market, and leveraging each other’s interests to drive their own desired outcomes. This was the first deadline in years with a new collective bargaining agreement, which had a significant effect on some of the most newsworthy transactions. Some organizations are beginning to face the consequences of certain team-building strategies, and others are faced with big decisions about how far to push their luck. This piece looks to explore these circumstances, and analyze the decisions made prior to the 2017 trade deadline from a front office perspective.

The DVPE Makes a First Impression

DeMarcus Cousins was eligible for a massive extension this summer

The drama of the DeMarcus Cousins trade contained a fascinating sub-plot, driven primarily by the newly instituted ‘designated veteran player extension’, or DVPE. It is fair to wonder whether the deal itself was an unexpected outcome of the new collective bargaining agreement and its first unintended consequence.

This summer, with the new DVPE, the Kings could have offered DeMarcus Cousins a five year contract extension worth $209 million. Cousins was eligible for this extension since he made an All-NBA team in the previous two seasons. That extension served as Sacramento’s leverage to keep Cousins, and he was on the record that he was interested in accepting it.

However, despite Cousins’ interest in staying in Sacramento, and Sacramento’s leverage to retain Cousins, he was traded to New Orleans. It’s arguable that the trade happened now because of the DVPE, the very cap-mechanism designed with the purpose of keeping star players in smaller markets. If the DVPE did not exist, and Sacramento did not face the pressure of offering it to Cousins this summer, it’s perhaps more likely that Cousins is still in Sacramento.

Along with the possibility of prematurely driving star players out of town, the DVPE also presents a conundrum for players outside the top echelon of the NBA. Many players become eligible for this extension in their primes, largely between 27 and 29 years old. If one is not LeBron James or Kevin Durant, it may not be wise to offer such a significant contract to a player who may not age well enough to be worth over 30% of the salary cap. As an example of what these contracts may look like, consider the five-year maximum contract the Hawks might offer Paul Millsap this summer with full Bird Rights. It isn’t the DVPE, but should it be offered, Millsap would earn $47.12 million in the 2021–22 season, when Millsap will be 37 years old.

When considering the DVPE specifically, if Paul George or John Wall earn All-NBA honors this season, they would be eligible for such an extension over the summer. The same would be the case if Kyrie Irving earned the honor next season. In these particular cases, teams may look at their long term cap sheet and deem it unwise to offer the DVPE to their star players, and that may push those teams to trade their stars before they become free agents. Even if that calculation does not force the team’s hand, it may foster animus between the player and his management with the incumbent team, leading to a split over time.

Enter the Draft at Your Own Risk

Nerlens Noel has a new home in Dallas

A theme of the deadline involved trading young rookie-scale players towards the end of their contracts. Examples included Tyler Ennis, Doug McDermott, Cameron Payne, Mason Plumlee, Jusuf Nurkic, and Nerlens Noel. While the majority of these players will see significant minutes with their new teams, the ones who drafted them would rather collect a return and move on than pay them what they are looking forward to in their first taste of free agency.

When teams choose to build through the draft, they often face tough choices on the players they selected as part of their core moving forward. As the clock ticks down on their rookie-scale contracts, teams move on to avoid a potential tax bill when they become free agents. In some cases, like McDermott’s, the team moving on spent a significant sum to acquire that prospect. In others, like Noel’s, the team is deep at that particular position and expressed concern about injury history.

For players, this development is another factor to consider when entering the NBA Draft. Players like Ennis and Payne will have a shot with their new teams, however, if they aren’t productive, it is possible for those players to find themselves out of the league. The rookie-contract provides security for a few years for those lucky enough to be drafted, however, that second contract is not guaranteed to arrive, and teams are moving on more often than ever.

From a front office perspective, these trades are both cautionary tales on a team-building strategy, and a trend to watch for league executives. On the cautionary side, in examples like Nurkic or Noel, a team may discover a youthful star at the same position, and waiting too long may depress the value of a talented player in the market because of the new piece that has taken his minutes and reduced that team’s leverage. Opportunistically, however, an uptick in these traded players may provide chances for front offices to acquire young players they liked in the pre-draft process, often at cheaper prices.

The Eastern Conference Arms Race

A rumored trade was centered around Jimmy Butler and Jae Crowder

A lot has been made of Toronto’s decision to go all-in on challenging the Cavaliers in the East, as well as Boston’s inability to complete a deal involving their multitude of assets for a marquee star. While both strategies should be viewed through the lens of James and the Cavaliers, it’s also important to consider the current standings of both teams contractually as well as through the perspective of their respective timelines.

In Toronto’s case, both Kyle Lowry and Patrick Patterson are unrestricted free agents this summer. Should Toronto lose both of these players, their chance of dethroning Cleveland vanishes, and they face a difficult retool ahead with a core of DeMar Derozan, Jonas Valanciunas, DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph, and their rookie-scale players as depth. They lack the draft assets and young core to compete for a Conference title for a sustained stretch into the 2020s. Thus, Toronto was motivated to challenge Cleveland sooner rather than later, and both Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker will assist those efforts. The Raptors now go 10 players deep with above-average rotation pieces, are extremely flexible in their lineup options, and are poised to re-sign their core pieces of Lowry and Patterson. Furthermore, should they lose Patterson, they have the upper hand to bring back Ibaka, who would constitute an upgrade at their weakest position.

Boston, on the other hand, has faced significant criticism for their inability to trade for either Paul George or Jimmy Butler. The concept of a George trade was far-fetched — George has expressed his desire to play for the Lakers, and it would behoove the Celtics to trade their most valuable draft assets for an 18-month rental. Butler, on the other hand, is on a five-year, $92 million contract through 2020 that makes him one of the best bargains in the league. He is one of the NBA’s most effective ‘LeBron-stoppers’ defensively, and an MVP candidate in the prime of his career. One would think that the Celtics’ endless pursuit of assets would manifest itself perfectly in a trade for Butler. According to Brian Windhorst, the Cavaliers were internally on ‘pins and needles’ when it was rumored Boston may trade for him. However, it never did happen. Why — and was that ultimately a good decision?

We may never know what exactly Boston offered Chicago for Butler. David Aldridge reported that Jae Crowder was the sticking point on the deal. It seems that Chicago would have accepted an offer including the 2017 Nets draft pick, Jae Crowder and Jaylen Brown. One theory why Boston was disinterested in making such a deal is the possibility of Gordon Hayward reuniting with his college coach, Brad Stevens, in his upcoming free agency. If one subscribes to this theory, logically, why would Boston elect to trade away two core pieces as well as its most valuable asset if they plan to sign a comparable player this upcoming summer? Is a bird in hand worth two in the bush?

Boston is playing a dangerous game in electing to hold onto their Brooklyn picks into the summer. They have carefully cultivated draft assets and young players, and that strategy is beginning to reach its boundaries as consequences begin to seep into the equation. This season, the Celtics have cut two of their draft picks, R.J. Hunter and Ben Bentil, have stashed two first rounders in Guerschon Yabusele and Ante Zizic, and traded two 2nd round picks to Memphis for another future 1st. They have done a brilliant job of buying cheap assets, signing valuable contracts and developing young players to do what many franchises crave — compete and rebuild at the same time.

However, their asset collection dwindles in upside potential each day. The value of one’s assets are only equal to the trade they can produce. By failing to trade for Butler or George, Boston enters a territory of high risk. From Boston’s perspective, there are two potential reasons for this course of action. On one hand, Ainge may view the Brooklyn pick this summer as a more valuable asset than either George or Butler. Perhaps he loves Markelle Fultz and is concerned about Isaiah Thomas’ next contract. Or, perhaps he thinks the market for George or Butler may be depressed come June. There is significant risk with both of these outcomes. For one, there is an unnecessary amount of weight given to the draft lottery, which may push Boston out of the running for Fultz and decrease the value of the asset. Secondly, one opens the door for potential packages for Butler or George that may supersede Boston’s.

Boston’s inaction at the deadline was surprising to many because it seemed to be the perfect storm. Ainge had acquired these assets with the goal of a consolidation trade, the ideal combination of young players, draft picks and expiring contracts to trade for a top-flight superstar to challenge Cleveland. It’s possible that Boston sees LeBron and Cleveland as a mountain too great to climb, and instead of taking that hike, they have elected to wait until the conditions are more welcoming. Or, it is possible that Boston was simply intrigued by the allure of the unknown, and were willing to roll the dice (or ping pong balls) this summer.

With a significant minutes allotment for LeBron James, injuries to Kevin Love and J.R. Smith as well as the loss of Matthew Dellavedova, the Cavaliers seem ripe to be challenged in this season’s Eastern Conference Finals. The Raptors chose to stock up their ammunition and make an elusive run at the NBA Finals. The Celtics, on the other hand, were presented with the opportunity they have been anxiously awaiting, and chose to pass. The outcome of these two decisions will do much to set the stage for the draft and free agency, as well as the Eastern Conference for years to come.

Basketball, culture, politics, associated musings. Email me: mikehmargolis@gmail.com