TRADE DEADLINE ADVICE: CELTICS, CLIPPERS, KINGS, & PELICANS

The best week of the NBA regular season is here – the NBA trade deadline.  History tells us that the deadline may be robust, and full of deals, or paltry, and full of rumors that do not come to fruition.  Regardless, there will be a lot of talk about rumored deals, roster shaping, and ideas teams have to pull of major heists.

Inevitably, like any other year, some teams have more assets, and are in a better position to make a big trade than other teams.  However, whenever you have a ton of assets, there is always the danger that you will overpay in a trade,  So here is a word of caution to four teams — the Celtics, Clippers, Kings, and Pelicans — as they mull over their options

Boston Celtics: Don’t Trade the Nets’ 2016 First Rounder for Al Horford 

            Sitting at third place in the East at the moment, excitement is building in Boston.  Their young core is coming together.  Isaiah Thomas was an all-star.  They won on the road in Cleveland, where LeBron’s Cavs are 22-4 on the year (with one of the losses coming to the Warriors).  And with as vulnerable as the East is, you can see reason for optimism.

With that has come the idea that the Celtics, owners of Brooklyn’s 2016 first round draft pick (which will likely fall in the top 5), should deal that pick now, to help boost their 2016 run.  That school of thought has led to the belief that the Celtics should take advantage of the Atlanta Hawks’s sudden desire to rebuild, and should trade the pick to the Celtics for Al Horford.

That would be a mistake, for many reasons.

We tend to look at trades as insular transactions, and tend to argue that, if a team received a better player than the player they sent away, that team won the trade.  And along those lines, it is true that people overrate the draft due to the intrigue of potential, and that it is more likely than not that, over the next 3-5 years, Al Horford will outperform whoever is selected with Brooklyn’s 2016 first round pick.

However, that is not how trades should be judged.  Trades, first and foremost, should be judged by where a team lies on the arc of contention.  In Boston’s case, despite their fantastic recent play, they still reside a very significant cut below Golden State, San Antonio, Cleveland, Oklahoma City, and the Los Angeles Clippers in the league’s hierarchy, and may reside below other teams in the hierarchy as well.  Horford, while a very good player, is not a great player likely to bridge that gap.  In the Celtics’ ensemble system, he introduces a better big to the ensemble, and he is very good, but he is not a superstar.  Were the Celtics closer to those teams’ level, dealing the draft pick for Horford may make sense, as Horford may then make them bonafide contenders, thus lessening the cost incurred in dealing the asset.

Second, and equally important, is opportunity cost.  Opportunity cost is a basic economic principle that essentially tells us that when we do one thing, we cannot do another thing.  When you trade a top 5 draft pick for Horford, that means you cannot trade it for anything else, and you cannot watch it grow.  There is a chance that the top 5 pick becomes a superstar or near superstar: as I said above, that is not the most likely scenario, but that scenario is a very distinct possibility for Boston, foregone by dealing the pick for Horford (who, while very good, is not a player of that caliber).

Not only may the pick develop, but think of the following scenarios.  What if the Thunder lose Kevin Durant, come to believe Russell Westbrook is next, and look to deal him to get a return?  Doc Rivers may blow the Clippers up if they do not win it all this year: between that and the Blake Griffin issues of late, what if Griffin becomes available soon?  What if the Cavaliers actually deal Kevin Love amidst the talk?  What if Daryl Morey cuts bait on James Harden due to the free fall in Houston?

These types of scenarios, or the pick developing into a superstar, are not incredibly likely, but are also realistic possibilities.  And if they come about, the Celtics, armed with a top 5 draft pick and other young talent, would be at the top of the line in terms of striking gold.  Dealing for Horford would put a huge dent in partaking in those possibilities.  While the Celtics have other assets (including Brooklyn’s 2017 and 2018 first rounders), Brooklyn, while undertaking a long road back to competency, will likely be at its lowest point this summer, as the franchise will likely pay players to come aboard the next two summers (who, even if not good, will likely make the franchise at least better than it is now).

Sure, dealing the pick for Horford may seem like the safer route.  But at the end of the day, the goal is a championship, and the Celtics should be more judicious with dealing the pick to maximize that pursuit.  And did I mention Horford is a free agent and the Celtics would be paying 9 figures for his age 30-34 seasons?  For all the assets they have, no asset should ever be wasted; build your assets up just to waste them, and all you become is a good team that cannot contend . . . and then needs to reacquire its lost assets.

Ironically, the team whose pick they have can attest well to that.

Los Angeles Clippers: Don’t Trade Blake Griffin

            In the wake of the Clippers playing strong regular season basketball while Blake Griffin is injured, rumors are abound that the Clippers may deal away Griffin, perhaps in the name of a future rebuild or belief that he fits the current roster better.

They should not.

First, the record should be clear.  Griffin punched a team employee, and that was an awful thing to do.  He was suspended for four games, and I would not have minded he be suspended for ten, required to apologize to the employee and pay for his medical care, and maybe even required to attend some anger management classes.  This was an atrocious act by Griffin.

That said, one bad act along the lines of what Griffin did should not define a person for the rest of his life.  Griffin made a mistake, and it is a mistake he is allowed and should be encouraged to learn from, in becoming a better person.

But given the timing of the Griffin rumors, let’s be clear: this has nothing to do with trading for a “small ball four” to play faster.  This is about dealing Griffin because the organization may be overreacting to what he did and changing the fate of their roster for the next 5-10 years around that overreaction.

For all the talk that the Clippers have thrived with Griffin on the shelf, if the Clippers want to experience bigtime playoff success, that success is only going to come if their best players are the ones on the court, against the league’s best teams.  And the Clippers have shown signs – not anything definite, but signs – that they can reach that gear.  Lineups where Griffin pairs with Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan, or JJ Redick have excellent net ratings between 9.1 and 13.0, and the Clippers’ best five man group, those four together with Lance Stephenson, have a fantastic net rating of 19.9.

Some are saying the Clippers are not a contender which warrants breaking things up.  That would be a dramatic overreaction to their current state.

The Clippers have been clear contenders since Paul has joined Griffin’s side.  After winning 40 games in 2011-2012 (prorated to 50 if evaluated on an 82 game scale as that was the lockout year), the Clippers have won between 56-57 games per season, and are currently on pace for 54 wins.  In three of their four playoff runs, they advanced in the grueling western conference to round 2 (in one of the years, they lost a bloodbath to the Grizzlies that, given the records of the teams and quality of play, was much more akin to a second round series or even a conference final than a first round), and in two of those advancing seasons, they gave their second round opponent everything they could handle.

Yes, the Clippers have not won a championship.  And, frankly, the most likely outcome for the Clippers if they stay together is that Paul and Griffin will continue to come up short.

That said, you cannot guarantee a championship, or frankly, even the likelihood of winning a championship, from management’s seat.  All you can do, from that seat, is put together a team that, with a bounce of the ball here, or break there, can win a championship.  And once you have that, you try your best to keep putting yourself in positions where you are knocking on the door, with the hope that one day you burst through.

It often does not happen, but you have got to try.  Nobody thought the 2011 Mavericks after years of cores built around Dirk Nowitzki coming up short would bust through the door.  Or the 2015 Broncos, albeit in a different sport, would bust through after years of failing and Peyton Manning finally declining to the point of being benched. Or that the 2004 Pistons would beat the star studded Lakers.  Or that the 2006 Miami Heat would go just 52-30, yet win it all.  Or, despite the seeming inevitability to many now, that the 2008-2010 Lakers, after Kobe Bryant forced Shaq out of town, would actually build a champion under Kobe – that was not an expected development at that point in time.

The Clippers, for as much as many hate them because of their on and now off court antics (and frankly, I do not like them either), have that ability right now.  This is a team that wins 55 games per year regularly, beat the Spurs in the playoffs, had the Thunder shaking in pick ‘em games in the playoffs.  How many teams would you favor over them in a playoff series: probably just four, although three are in their conference.

It can be so tempting to say that the Clippers, who have not done it yet, should scrap and rebuild, to avoid the Warriors’ window.  Here is the problem with that.  When the Heat formed in 2010, there was talk of avoiding their window.  Now, the same talk is being had with these Warriors, who became what they are now right after the Heat disbanded.  Those two groups now span six years and counting.  If you keep trying to time your success around the lack of an elite team, you will exist in a state of perpetual rebuilding.  And then, in that odd year a non-dynastic group sneaks through, it is more likely to be a contender constantly knocking on the door than it is you.

To disband the Clippers would also be a refusal to acknowledge how difficult getting to that level truly is.  Almost every single franchise is run by a smart GM right now, and knows what it is doing: you cannot just outsmart other teams to become a contender, and you can do it all right, and still not become a contender.

Look at the above discussed Celtics.  They have basically aced every single move they have made over the past three years!  They got an all star for a late first round pick in Isaiah Thomas, traded Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett’s twilight for multiple lottery picks, got a draft pick for their coach but found a way better coach, got a draft pick for a falling off relic of a point guard in Rajon Rondo, gave extremely cap friendly contracts to core youth in Bradley and Crowder, drafted well to find quality talent like Kelly Olynyk, scoured the trade market to find useful talent like Zeller as third team facilitator in deals . . . and yet, after all those masterstrokes, they still are not, as of the date of this article, a bonafide title contender!  A team like the Orlando Magic, similarly, has been masterful in trading a then peak but now declining Dwight Howard for a haul in return, and building a very strong young core . . . yet is not even close to contention.

That should tell you how hard getting there truly is: it is that hard because you need a top 15-25 player to even have a chance at contending, and more likely need a top 5-15 player to truly contend.  Those players clearly do not grow on trees: by definition, at least 15 teams cannot have top 15 players, and a few teams have more than one, so that number is higher than that.

The Clippers have one, in Griffin.  To trade him because they had a good mid-January and early February without him, or because he committed one very stupid act in punching a team employee, would be a bad decision.

There is even another reason to keep Griffin: look at the Spurs.  Everyone thought they were done when Duncan got old.  But rather than succumb to that and launch a rebuild, they said to themselves, “we can take advantage of consistent winning because players will want to be a part of that, to find our next crop of talent.”  Yes, drafting Leonard was HUGE.  But the Spurs leveraged keeping their core together into attracting their next young core.  The Clippers, rather than trade Griffin (or Paul for that matter), should engage in a similar endeavor.  And, if there is one player on the Clippers to be a bridge between their current contender and a future one, that player is clearly Griffin, in light of Paul’s age.

Don’t. Trade. Blake. Griffin.

Sacramento Kings: Don’t Trade DeMarcus Cousins 

            The Kings are a never ending cycle of dysfunction under Vivek Ranadive, who has done nothing but damage since his one sincere good act of making sure Sacramento fans did not lose their team.

That dysfunction raises the same issue, seemingly every year: “the Kings should trade Cousins because he is going to leave anyway.”

And yet, that would be a massive mistake.

As with Griffin in the Clippers’ advice section, top 25 players are the best assets to have, but they do not grow on trees.  Cousins is one of those, and the Kings would make a big mistake to willingly let him go.

Second, to say the Kings have to deal Cousins right now is to ignore his contractual situation.  The Kings have Cousins under their control until the summer of 2018: that is 2.5 seasons worth of control.  Plenty of time, in other words, to improve or adjust the roster, cleanse the poor culture by installing a stable coaching and management team, and showing Cousins that things in Sacramento can change.

Third, and most importantly, is the lesson that Neil Olshey in Portland taught us, in handling LaMarcus Aldridge’s impeding free agency.  The school of thought with elite players is that a team perhaps in danger of losing such a player better trade that player first, to “get something in return,” or otherwise face being in a disastrous position.  However, the bottom line is, as with the calculated risk Boston should take in not dealing Brooklyn’s pick for Al Horford, that a team that loses a star, be it by free agency or trade, is inevitably going to be worse off than it was when it had the star: you never recoup full value in the trade.  Even the Timberwolves, in dealing Kevin “he’s not as good as we thought” Love, for Andrew “Rigging for” Wiggins, AND drafting Karl Anthony Towns as a result of their plummet down the standings – arguably the best result possible when dealing a star – still are nowhere close to as good now, record wise, as they were in Love’s last season.

The best case scenario for the Kings is Cousins signing his third contract in 2018, and the Kings need to pursue that reward.  The supposed risk of trying: that they will get nothing as opposed to something for him, is only a small risk, in that the return will be nothing close to what Cousins provides, and that risk warrants trying to keep Cousins.

That risk, further, is mitigated by following Olshey’s model in Portland, and addressing the situation head on, and right now.  Olshey discussed this in more detail on The Vertical With Woj (a must listen podcast).  Essentially, the Blazers knew there was a chance Aldridge could stay (there truly was, they were a contender out West, and Aldridge was a happy camper: leaving required a sacrifice in salary, role, and certainty with regard to comfort, and in bolting to San Antonio, clearly was not running to a big city); but they also knew he could leave.  What they did to counter that was, while they built contenders around Aldridge and Lillard, they also stocked the roster, to the extent possible, with as much youth, upside, and athleticism as they could find.

Then, once it became clear the chance of Aldridge leaving was rising, if not certain, during the summer of 2015, the Blazers built on that youth, and shifted gears, diverting their focus from surrounding their two stars with quality veterans, and towards maximizing the amount of youth they placed around Lillard, to grow with him.

Now, look at the Blazers.  They are 27-27 in the still stronger West, and have surrounded

Lillard with an army of young talent in McCollum, Aminu, Noah Vonleh, Mason Plumlee, Meyers Leonard, Ed Davis, and more.  For all the narrative that a team is doomed if a star leaves, back to square one, and rendered hopeless, the Blazers avoided that, and are in extremely healthy condition, by identifying it as a possibility, and shaping their roster accordingly.  Sacramento should do that, so that Plan B is ready if Cousins leaves, as opposed to conceding Plan A and not even trying to retain him.

The reward of keeping Cousins outweighs the risk of losing him, especially if that risk is well managed.  You have Cauley-Stein.  You have McLemore.  Build that stable.  Try to keep Cousins, and mitigate the loss if you don’t.

Many believe (rightfully) that the Kings are dysfunctional, and that group often advocates for the Kings to trade Cousins, a talented and fun-to-watch player.  Sometimes, I wonder if those advocating for trading him aren’t saying it because they think it’s best for the Kings, but really because they want to see DeMarcus someplace else.

Memo to the Kings: don’t buy what they’re selling.

New Orleans Pelicans: Shop Everyone But Anthony Davis, and Launch a Rebuild

The general rule with young players: as Allen Iverson expertly predicted, everyone is waiting for them to slip up, before the criticism comes.  The “cycle” is a clear one, for most young stars.  They enter the league as the darlings of the NBA.  Everything they do is praised, their potential alleged as limitless.  They can do no wrong.  Once something happens, however: they leave a team, they lose a playoff series, or hopefully not but are involved in a transgression, everything changes.  The critics come.  The same exact deficiencies you had before – deficiencies people glossed over – are suddenly magnified, criticized, and by some, distorted.

Anthony Davis is a great young player.  But between terms like pterodactyl and freak of nature, he is clearly in that initial honeymoon phase of the cycle.

That has led to nobody discussing a topic that is soon to become the elephant in the room: the Pelicans have done an atrocious job of building a team around Davis, and if they do not stop, the possibility that he becomes agitated as his extension nears expiration (no extension lasts forever) becomes a distinct one. And when that happens, suddenly Davis will not be the golden boy nobody has a single negative thing to say about (and the negatives, like his injures, playoff record, and regular season record, will start being brought up).

It is a highly under discussed topic, but the Pelicans’s building of a roster around Davis has been reminiscent of the way the Cavs built a roster around LeBron during 2003-2010.  With an incredible talent in tow, they forewent patient development, and, rather than surround Davis (or LeBron) with other young talent to grow with, tried to win immediately by adding veterans (young and old veterans alike) on the free agent and trade market.  In Cleveland, that ultimately led to LeBron deciding to join other core talent of his age group someplace else.  The Pelicans need to work to avoid that happening with Davis: the summer of 2021 is not exactly tomorrow, but it gets closer with each passing year, and the Pelicans are sewing the seeds for that summer potentially being a bad one for them.  Once you have a star, you need to start building a culture and roster that star wants to be with when he hits unrestricted free agency: and while the Pelicans get nine years to do that with Davis, four are already wasted.

The Pelicans have plenty of time to build a winner, the right way, around Davis.  He is just 22 years old, going on 23.  And they have him under control for another 5.5 years.  However, if they keep recycling B and C level win now type pieces around him, they will continue to fail to build a winner.  That may seem fine, for now, but as his contract gets shorter, and years of losing get longer, it only gets easier and easier to look elsewhere and say “I want what they have.”

The Pelicans are in good shape from a future draft pick standpoint.  Sitting at 20-33 at the break (rather than close to contention, wherein it would be smarter to keep trying to win, and use that lure to bring in free agents), why not get into better shape?  Can a piece like Eric Gordon net a modicum of future assets?  Is Jrue Holiday still an open market value?  Holiday is a nice guy who played for UCLA, a bigtime collegiate program, which likely leads to his being overrated – he is at best average at point guard given the talent of the position.  Ryan Anderson?  He may fit perfectly next to Davis if Davis is your center going forward, so perhaps you hang onto him, but players of his ilk are in demand.  Can Omer Asik and Alexis Ajinca net you anything – their contracts, given their production and the presence of Brow and Anderson, highlight the going nowhere nature of this program.

The Pelicans should be kicking the tires on everyone, with the goal of building a young core through the draft for Davis to grow with.

Otherwise, Davis may one day find that core someplace else.

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