Deadline Day: What Makes a Good or Bad Trade?

For a basketball fan, there are few more fun days than today, the NBA trade deadline.  If your team wants to add a piece better than a 10th man, it has to be done today by 3:00.  Twitter will likely be abuzz with rumored deals, completed deals, and rapid developments.  Amidst the craze, fans tend to want their team to be involved in the rumors – to do SOMETHING to get better.  Human instinct kicks in, and fans want to be apart of the craze.

 

Nevertheless, what fans – and sometimes teams – forget, is that when the dust settles after a transaction done under the pressure of time, you are left with are the assets or players you traded for, and lack those which you dealt away.  And if what you dealt is better to have around than what you acquired, you ultimately have hurt your organization.

 

Do teams need to try to get better at the deadline?  Without a doubt.  Outside of June 23-July 15 (or thereabouts), the deadline is the only time to make significant roster moves.  However, teams also need to be prudent, and avoid making moves that can be harmful down the line – no matter how tempting they may be.

 

So, looking back at deals past, what are some hallmarks of good and bad transactions?

 

 

1: Teams Make Bad Decisions When They Feel That They “HAVE TO” Do Something:

 

Example: 2015 Suns

 

The 2015 Suns put together an awesome trio of point guards in Isaiah Thomas, Goran Dragic, and Eric Bledsoe, in a league where point guard is the most important position to have talent.  In doing so, the Suns failed to grasp one simple human emotion: point guards often see a team as theirs to lead, and when you have three that good, at least one is going to feel slighted.

 

With chemistry issues abound, the Suns decided that they HAD TO break it apart.  The results have not been kind.  The Suns undersold on Isaiah Thomas, giving him away to the Celtics for the Cavs’ 2016 first rounder (a known low first with LeBron around), and Marcus Thornton, a close to worthless veteran.  Thomas has been a monster in Boston, and the pick has become Skal Labissiere, who has underwhelmed.

 

The Suns did get fair value back for Goran Dragic.  However, in an effort to save face and pin the blame for their relative struggles on their point guards, the Suns felt they HAD TO bring another in to save face: enter Brandon Knight, in exchange for a Lakers first rounder that will convey if it is not top 3 this year or an unprotected next year.  That deal also looks awful today: the Suns would be lucky to give Knight away, and they gave up a potential top 5-10 first round pick for him.

 

One aside with the Suns here: the Magic just added Serge Ibaka to a loaded front line, and were forced to sell low on him.  The Sixers have a glut of big men and likely must sell low on Jahlil Okafor or Nerlens Noel to reduce the glut.  The school of thought of selecting the “best player available,” in the draft or in trades, and just figuring it out later, may be overrated.  What often happens is what happened with the Suns point guard trio, with the Magic, and perhaps with the Sixers: when everyone and their mother knows you will be trading a player, you do not get fair value in the deal because you have no leverage.  Maybe you were better off going with the player at the other position in the first place.

 

Look for teams to lose deals today, and reports stating that they felt they had to get something done.

 

 

2: Teams Make Good Decisions, Likewise, When They See No Urgency To Make a Deal

 

Example: Post Garnett and Pierce Celtics

This is the corollary to the above.  Teams act irrationally when they feel they must get something done.  Likewise, teams are at their best when they see no urgency that a deal must get done, because they act from a position of strength: “This is what we want, and if you will not do it, we are ok not making a deal.”

 

The Celtics have been criticized lately for not making a big trade and being reluctant to part with assets.  Given they are 37-20 and asset loaded, I fail to understand the criticism.  I also believe it comes from a place of boredom: NBA fans want fireworks, the Celtics can create them, but they have not.

 

However, it has to be noted: the reason Danny Ainge is a successful GM is BECAUSE of his patience: he will not do a deal out of feeling he must, but only out of a feeling that the deal is a steal for the Celtics; and that is why he hits home runs.  When the 2007 Wolves needed to distress sell Garnett, he was there.  Same for the 2013 Nets when Prokhorov “HAD TO” make a splash. Same for the 2015 Suns when they “HAD TO” scapegoat and trade Isaiah Thomas.

 

Ainge does not waste assets.  He understands that there are always teams, be it due to owner pressures or other issues, that develop the feeling they MUST get a deal done. These teams are usually the most poised to do something stupid.  He then pounces on those teams.

 

The popular take of late is that Ainge needs to get deals done because, with so many assets, how can you overpay? Well, believe it or not, do you know who once was asset loaded?  The 2011 Nets.  Overpaying in deals is how you eventually become a sub-contender lacking assets … and thus need to rebuild.

 

One rule everyone should follow today: never believe you MUST get a deal done.

 

Look for teams to pounce on vulnerable teams today in making good deals.

 

 

3: Teams Make Bad Decisions When Ownership Meddles in Basketball Operations:

 

Example: 2017 Kings

 

This article sums things up nicely in Sacramento.  Some owners fail to realize that just because they were incredibly successful in a non basketball field (to acquire the money to buy a franchise), does not mean that they understand how to build a basketball franchise.  The best owners hire a good general manager who builds a robust staff, and stay out of the way for the most part, aside from approving or vetoing deals of significant financial expense (simply because their money is what’s on the line).

 

Vivek Ranadive has been a poor owner in Sacramento and that only continued with the Cousins trade.  He decided, given the CBA change of January that Cousins could receive a $200 million extension, and a recent incident involving Cousins cursing “f**k” the Warriors after a game.

 

Trading a star is a significant undertaking, and getting a good return is essential.  Vivek flipped out, and decided Cousins had to go due to the recent Warriors incident.  He required his management staff to get this done and do it now.  That led to a rushed trade, by which the Kings failed to survey the market, and thus failed to get a good return.

 

Any other method of handling this would have been better. They could have kept Cousins.  They could have surveyed the market earlier, like last summer, built up offers, played offers off one another, and then taken the best one.  If the new CBA’s increased max is what caused this, they could have started the process right at ratification in January.  And EVEN IF recent incidents caused the Kings to make the decision to let Cousins go, they could have drummed up a large market, regrouped if nothing was there at the deadline, and circled back in the summer if things did not go well.

 

What the Kings did was the worst choice.  Vivek flipped out, and did not allow basketball people to make basketball decisions. Keep in mind, it is not the first time.  Remember when Vivek forced his management to draft Nik Stauskas? The Kings brought in a host of people to create models, run analytics, and come to a conclusion on who to draft in 2014 … and Vivek hijacked the process because he liked Stauskas.  Did I mention he wanted Buddy Hield in the Cousins package because he thinks he’s the next Steph Curry?

 

Look for teams to make bad deals today, and reports that ownership was mandating a playoff push, that ownership was involved, or that the GM’s job security (ownership pressure) is at issue.

 

 

4: Teams make good decisions when they are creative in asset management:

 

Example: the post LeBron Cavs

 

The push and pull in the debate of whether LeBron runs the Cavs is a fun one.  The reality is there is a middle ground.  On one hand, LeBron absolutely has a say in the organization as related to big ticket transactions, and the targets, or types of targets, he would like to see added to the roster.

 

On the other hand, GM David Griffin has done an excellent job of creative asset management to accrue talent, in a manner that LeBron simply would not know how to do, if he were at the controls without guidance.

 

Sure, Griffin inherited Kyrie and Tristan Thompson, LeBron’s decision was not due to Griffin being GM, and Kevin Love, it should be noted, was a relatively easy get with Wiggins an inclusion in the package. However, Griffin has done good work in crafting a deeper roster, by managing assets.

 

The Cavs found Matthew Dellavedova on the scrap heap, and he contributed to a championship.  When Delly left for a payday, Griffin turned him into a trade exception used to acquire Mike Dunleavy; who was then part of the deal to acquire Kyle Korver.  In addition, the Cavs turned Anderson Varejao into Channing Frye, rather than allowing a bad contract to languish.  Furthermore, the Cavs identified the Knicks and Nuggets as teams desperate to dump personnel, and added JR Smith, Iman Shumpert, and Timofey Mozgov for a relatively cheap price.

 

Accordingly, the Cavs, despite clogging their cap around LeBron, Kyrie, Love and Tristan, cobbled together a nice supporting group by creatively maneuvering trade exceptions, draft picks, and smaller assets. So yes, LeBron has influence, but he would not have known of those team building options.

 

Sure, Korver was not a Cav last year, and Griffin did not optimize assets to obtain his stars.  However, the Cavs clearly needed every last bit of juice they had to win the title last year.  Every small move Griffin made had meaning.

 

Look for teams to win deals today by being creative with smaller assets like second round picks, cap space, and trade exceptions, to squeeze talent into deals.

 

 

 

5: Teams Make Bad Decisions When They Consider Fan Desires and Marketing Interests Rather Than What is Best For Building a Winner:

 

Example: the 2013 Nets

 

The plight of the Nets is something all NBA fans are aware of.  After a 49-33 season around Deron Williams, Brook Lopez, and Joe Johnson, the Nets decided that Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett would take them over the top and gave the Celtics three first round picks and one first round pick swap, just to get it done.  They did this despite not having confidence in Deron as a star (he was bought out two years later), and despite no desire to keep Pierce and Garnett long term.

 

Why did they do it? As an investment in the Brooklyn brand.  The whole idea was to build the Nets as a marketable franchise, make a splash, and get fans interested in the team.

 

It is so, so, so hard to build a title contender in the NBA.  Check out a team like the Celtics and how, despite fleecing the Nets, Suns, and Mavericks in deals, and making virtually no errors since 2013, they are not quite contenders.  Incredible amounts of fortune are necessary.  And as Alex Kennedy describes, so much work goes into the team building process.

 

That difficulty is only magnified when the reason for trades has nothing to do with the best interests of building a winner in the short or long term, but rather, trades that do not even consider those interests.  Trades to boost the brand of a team, make the team marketable, or to sell tickets, are the worst things a team can do.

 

Look for teams that lose deals today, and see if justifications like “a new arena is coming,” or “fans want to see progress” are mentioned.

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