Trade Deadline Redux: What Happened, and What Didn’t

The NBA trade deadline came and went.  While some saw it as underwhelming, several significant moves did occur, all of which showed the direction in which multiple teams seem to be headed.  The deadline, by virtue of its relative quiet (no superstars or elite players were moved) also may signal that we have a busy summer ahead.

 

Here is a look at the trades, and what they mean going forward.

 

Magic and Pistons

Pistons Get: Tobias Harris

Magic Get: Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova

Why They Did It:

For the Pistons, the rationale to this great trade for them is a simple one: if you are building a team, and you can add a core player without subtracting a core player or a noteworthy draft pick, you do it.  The Pistons clearly made their team better with this deal.  Jennings had no real place with the team (was he going to stick around as a change of pace reserve forever), while Ilyasova was in many ways a place holder upon Monroe leaving, playing the four because the Pistons felt he fit their spread the floor vision.  Harris is a way more talented piece to place in his stead.

There are other takeaways here involving the Pistons.

First, the argument that you cannot rebuild through the middle, despite so many recent contenders proving otherwise (the Rockets before this year; the Pacers before last year, are examples, among others) continues to be exploited by actual evidence that you indeed can.  There is nothing wrong with the middle of the standings, if you have flexibility: because that puts you in a spot where you have talent, and the ability to add talent.  The Pistons were widely viewed as a mess stuck in neutral when Stan Van Gundy took over, and are now building around three core players.

Second, the Pistons are establishing a sneaky way to build: with so many teams building through the draft, teams are inevitably accruing multiple young pieces, and then realizing for various reasons that they cannot, or do not want to, pay every one of those young pieces.  That opens the door for teams to snag those players below market value – as the Pistons did here, and with Reggie Jackson last summer.

As for the Magic, I dislike the deal on their end.  You have heard the two primary reasons for the deal: first, the deal opens up significant cap space, and second, the deal opens up time for other young players like Aaron Gordon to play more.

However, the deal is unpalatable given the rising cap and loss of talent.

With the cap rising, and contracts increasing, teams should feel incentivized to bring players under contract into their program at 2015 year numbers and lower prior numbers, rather than needing to fill their cap with more players outside the program at the coming higher numbers.  The Magic went the other way.  Cap space is always intriguing to fans, but there are so many more teams with cap space, and so much more money to spend, than there are players to spend that money on.  Inevitably, multiple teams – perhaps Orlando included – will be looking around the league for players under contract to fill their rosters – and they will not have leverage in those deals.  Harris is a good player, and he beat having another $16 million to spend.  In the event the Magic could have pulled off a coup this summer and needed to shed his number – a deal like this or similar could have been done at that time.

This deal is also puzzling because Orlando, after four years of rebuilding, should be trying to take the next step, from respectable young core to good or elite young core, and contention.  The Magic took a step back here.  It is true that this deal shows how difficult it is to rebuild due to the need to acquire top 20 players and the lack of availability of that talent – the Magic did so well to acquire their deep young core, but no player in the core appears to be a star talent – facts are facts.  And the Magic face the prospect of having to choose between young players now, as you cannot pay the entire core in restricted free agency if the core cannot contend without outside help.

As a note, this is pure speculation, but Rob Hennigan, who loves rebuilding and analytics, does not seem like the type to trade a young player for Brandon Jennings; and, furthermore, Jennings and Ilyasova were Skiles players in Milwaukee and ownership in Orlando has been rebuilding for four years now.  It stands to reason: did Hennigan get the rug pulled from under him by ownership and coach Skiles, a favorite in Orlando from his playing days?

The Magic should have spotted this issue a year or two ago, and in doing so, should have traded up for talent, rather than water down the core.  The Magic, over the past year or two, should have looked to dangle packages of their young talent for a star or near star, to see what they could have obtained, rather than turn core talent into non-core pieces.

Sure, the risk reward here is the ability to pitch elite free agents.  But with the amount of competition they have for the services of those players, together with the ability to do a deal like this one in the summer, the risk is too high.

Hornets, Grizzlies, and Heat:

-Hornets get: Courteney Lee from Memphis

-Grizzlies get: Chris Anderson, and two second round draft picks from Miami

-Heat get: Brian Roberts from Charlotte (who Miami later flipped to Portland together with a second rounder for cash considerations)

Why They Did It:

For the Hornets, the rationale is obvious.  The Hornets are a low rung playoff team, but a playoff team nonetheless.  They just received a very good shooter and solid defender in Lee who can step in immediately, on a friendly contract, and help the Hornets contend for a playoff berth.  After spending money to import Nicolas Batum this summer, and dealing future picks to nail down Frank Kaminsky as their man during the Draft last year, the Hornets are playing for now.  Lee makes the team better, and the price paid here was next to minimal.

The Hornets also have Lee’s Bird Rights now if they choose to keep him this summer.  The majority of key free agents left summer stayed put due to the rising cap and rules skewed toward an ability to pay your players more than other teams can.  The rules make it imperative to bring in, by draft and trade, as many players into your program as you can.  To pay such a small price to bring Lee into their program was a no brainer for Charlotte, which helps them now, and next summer when building for next year.

For the Grizzlies, despite all the talk about putting together a team full of a slew of big personalities, to put it mildly (in adding Lance Stephenson, Chris Anderson, and PJ Hairston to Matt Barnes, Zach Randolph, and Tony Allen), what the deals by the Grizzlies really signified was that the Grizzlies may be admitting to the world that they are no longer a contender in the west.  They dealt two rotation players in Lee and Jeff Green, and while they received Lance Stephenson, the Clippers could not wait to dump Stevenson: the main return at the deadline for the Grizzlies was three draft picks (one first and two seconds).  This is not how contenders operate, which tells me the Grizzlies no longer see themselves as one.

Whether this signals the start of a total rebuild, or a retool by placing different players around a core of Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, remains to be seen – perhaps Conley’s free agency decision will make the choice for them.  It appears the Grizzlies have taken a page from the Blazers’ book last summer when they readied for a rebuild if LaMarcus Aldridge left, but were also prepared for him to stay.

Regardless, expect a very different Grizzlies team come this summer.

Finally, as for the Heat, this deal was a simple one, when considering that the Heat did

the following subsequent deals: they dealt Roberts and a second rounder to the Blazers for cash considerations, and they traded Jarnell Stokes for a future second round pick.  Essentially, the Heat dealt Chris Anderson, Jarnell Stokes, and two future second round picks for cash considerations.  Both of those contracts are expiring, so there is no future flexibility benefit here: the Heat clearly decided to dump two second round picks for absolutely nothing, except to save ownership some cash.

The reason ownership will make deals to save money is obvious, but when a deal has no future utility and does nothing besides save money, it always sits wrongly with me. For all we say about how valuable teams view the draft now, sadly, teams often value their wallet more.  Second round picks are a valuable roster building tool.  You can get all stars, like Draymond Green or Isaiah Thomas.  You can get very good players like Chandler Parsons.  The second round is not to be dismissed, or thrown away – especially for a team like Miami which just dealt two first rounders for Goran Dragic.  You can even package second round picks to move up into the earlier second round or late first round on Draft night.

The takeaway here: if you need draft picks to build your team, try to exploit teams looking to save money. You may find a second rounder or two really cheap.

Cavaliers, Magic, and Blazers

Cavs get: Channing Frye

Magic get: Jared Cunningham and a Cleveland second rounder

Blazers get: Anderson Varejao and 2018 first rounder

Why They Did It:

This was an excellent deal for the Cavaliers.  Some will criticize the dealing of a first rounder, but contending is extremely difficult, and LeBron James is 31 years old.  They need to maximize this window, right now, and given Varejao’s decline, the Cavs just significantly upgraded their roster in their pursuit of a win.  Moving forward, in a much larger way, I have never put much stock in the Kevin Love rumors, but now, if they deal him for a different type of piece (a wing, perhaps), they have a stretch four on the roster without Love (albeit a much, much lesser one).  This upgrade was worth it for Cleveland.  While it also saved money on the tax bill, that is not something I care about (or which fans should, as that money does not funnel down into ticket and merchandise prices).

As for the Blazers end of things, I wrote on this site that Neil Olshey is an elite GM, and this deal is further proof.  Fans tend to view cap space, and roster spots, as things that must be exhausted by free agency spending, but cap space has one other large use: renting cap space for assets.  Olshey headed into the year with cap space, with the idea that, if a deal came about for a team needing to park a player into cap space, he could take the contract on, and charge assets for doing so.  Look at the moving parts in this deal – the Blazers took advantage of the Cavs’ desire to upgrade their roster by saying “hey, you can just throw Varejao into our space . . . but we’re going to charge you.”  Portland just got a free first round pick, and it cost them nothing – they were under the salary floor and, instead of paying all of its players pro rata distributions to reach the floor, that cash goes to Varejao.  And the Blazers got a free first rounder for the trouble.

As for the Magic end of things, they are yet to cut Cunningham, but there were rumors that they may look to.  They essentially turned Frye into a second round pick and moved the chains.  Unlike the Tobias Harris move, this is a move I understand for Orlando – when a player clearly is not a core piece, there is nothing wrong with turning that piece into a small asset before moving on.  One wonders if they could have gotten the Cleveland first rather than the Blazers, but the deal makes conceptual sense.

 

Wizards and Suns

Wizards get: Markieff Morris

Suns get: 2016 first rounder from Wizards (top 9 protected), and Kris Humphries and DeJuan Blair

Why They Did It:

The takeway here is a simple one: ownership should never feel like a player, at any time, has to be dealt.  If you wish to deal a player, do not jump at what is out there: wait for the best return.  Inevitably, on various levels, there will always be someone desperate to make a move, for whatever reason.  Wait for that moment, and cash in.

I have been critical of Ryan McDonough and the Suns at various points since last deadline, but he played this situation very well.  Morris despised being a Suns player.  Everyone felt the Suns lost all leverage in a deal, and would be forced to undersell on the asset.  But McDonough stayed the course, figuring that eventually, someone would give him a good deal.  When dealing a player, it is critical to understand that the league wide perception of the player does not matter as much as the individual assessment of every GM: if there is one team that wants to pay a king’s ransom for the player, it does not matter what the other 29 GM’s think.

McDonough stayed the course, and, in getting the Wizards 2016 first rounder for Morris, maximized the return.  At this moment, the Wizards have the league’s 12th worst record.  They are three games out of the playoffs, behind multiple teams who either reloaded or have regularly contended for playoff berths in recent seasons.  Should the pick convey as a low end lottery pick – a distinct possibility under the current circumstances – that would be a great haul for a player that was fighting his way out of town.

As for the Wizards, I certainly understand the logic here.  For all the talk about the Wizards nice young core, they have multiple veterans around John Wall and Bradley Beal, aside from Otto Porter and Kelly Oubre.  Morris is very talented, and the Wizards just gave their core a huge boost.  The Wizards now head into free agency with a significantly upgraded talent base, and still have significant cap space next summer.

My one issue with the Wizards doing this deal is the price they paid.  Were the Suns just dealing Morris because they were rebuilding, I would understand this price, in a vacuum: over the next three years, it is likely Morris outperforms a late lottery or early non lottery selection.  But with what has happened to the relationship he has with Phoenix, the Suns had no leverage to get full value here.  More broad protections on the pick were perhaps attainable here.

 

Clippers and Grizzlies

Clippers get: Jeff Green

Grizzlies get: Lance Stephenson and a first round pick

Why They Did It:

I do get why the Clippers did this: they clearly believe they are a contender (they should), and clearly believe Green can upgrade the roster (they should not).  Green is a well liked player.  He has been through more than anyone should with his heart condition.  He is a very good person and professional.  And he was drafted as a high upside player; GM’s are often way slower at changing their collective player evaluations than fans are at reading about them and changing them with time.

All of that aside, Green is an average NBA player, and the Clippers should not have traded a first rounder for his services.

The small takeaway here is the same one as always for the Clippers: Doc Rivers is in over his head as an NBA GM.  I get why he got the job: Chris Paul, then a free agent, wanted him to get the job, and getting Paul’s signature on a contract was more important than finding the GM of the future.  And, since Rivers inherited Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, and Eric Bledsoe, he has not done much damage, as he has essentially rolled with the core he was given, to success.  But between the nepotistic signing of his son, underselling on Bledsoe as an asset (I like JJ Redick, as do many, but that liking has gotten people to forget that this was a big overpay), and the atrocious building of the role players around the core (it has become the norm to overpay a role player, then waste picks to dump the never should have been added role player in the first place), Rivers clearly is bad at the GM side of his job.

That is not an issue, now.  But if the Clippers ever decide to rebuild or substantially retool, Rivers’ incompetence becomes a gigantic issue.

As for the larger takeaway, Griffin was obviously placed in multiple rumors this deadline.  And while it never came up, Rivers has already touched on this issue implicitly, implying that if the Clippers do not win it all this year (and it looks unlikely) that he may go in another direction).  Does Rivers believe that Green can replace Griffin as a small ball four going forward, thus enabling him to deal Griffin for an athletic wing?  That seems unintelligent, but the seeds have been planted for such a move this summer.

On the Grizzlies end of things, the analysis here is similar to that of the Lee deal: shoving Stephenon’s personality aside because that is not why this deal was done, the Grizzlies this deadline traded two rotation pieces surrounding their core, for future assets.  That could signify that a total rebuild is coming, or a mere retool around the core.  Either way, it is an admission that the current group will not get the Grizzlies where they want to go.

 

Pistons, Rockets, and Sixers

Pistons get: Donatas Montejiunas, Marcus Thornton

Rockets get: Pistons 2016 first round pick (top 8 protected)

Sixers get: Second round pick, Joel Anthony

 Why They Did It:

For as well as the Pistons did in the Harris deal, this one is a little puzzling.  I understand the concept, that Stan Van Gundy may believe the building phase is progressing into the contending phase.  Still, the Pistons are currently in the lottery picture.  Like the Markieff Morris deal, the pick here is likely to be in the low lottery or high end non lottery range: is that worth a player in Montejiunas who, while talented, has had significant back trouble?  I understand that the medical review the Pistons did over the weekend led to their approving the trade, but it still raises an eyebrow.  When considering the goal in acquiring Harris is presumably to play him as a small ball four (where I think he will excel most) it makes this deal all the more puzzling.

On the Rockets end of things, this deal makes perfect sense.  A substantial retool around James Harden, after the on and off Dwight Howard rumors of deadline week, seems to be on the horizon, and, in rebuilding, the Rockets just significantly upgraded their asset pool.  Montejiunas is set for his rookie extension this summer (he can easily get 8 figures in this market), and to get a mid round first for his services is a find.

As for the Sixers, this was a simple case of good opportunism.  The Rockets and Pistons needed a place to park Joel Anthony, and the Sixers were smart to mortgage a tiny asset out of that.

 

Thunder and Nuggets

Thunder get: Randy Foye

Nuggets get: Two second round picks, D.J. Augustin, and Steve Novak (the latter of whom they bought out)

Why They Did It:

This is your classic buyer seller trade in most respects.  The Thunder are a contender who need to win as much as possible this year to further convince Kevin Durant to stick around.  Augustin had no real role anymore with Cameron Payne beginning to thrive beyond Russell Westbrook, so it made sense to turn him into a rotation player at another position, and you can never have too much shooting.

While I do wonder if the Thunder needed to deal two second round picks for Foye, in a pure vacuum, deals are not made in vacuums, but in real life context.  In the real life context, upgrading this team, this year, to help get Durant’s signature on an extension, (and Russell Westbrook’s on another 12 months later) is what matters.

As for the Nuggets, this was a no brainer for them.  They are rebuilding, traded a piece who is not a factor in their rebuild, and got assets in return.

As much as the NBA is changing, some things never change.  There will always be buyers and sellers (at least some), and their interests can easily align in deals.

 

Blazers and Heat

Blazers get: Brian Roberts and a future second rounder

Heat get: cash considerations

Why They Did It:

There is little to this deal that has yet to be said.  On a smaller scale than the Frye-Varejao deal, this deal is an example of Olshey’s ability to identify teams needing a dumping ground for assets, and cashing in.  The Heat were desperate this deadline, and the Blazers did well to pick up Roberts and a second rounder for free.

The Heat angle here is obvious, and was discussed above in the Lee trade section: this deal is simply ownership saving scratch on their end.

Pelicans and Heat

Pelicans get: Jarnell Stokes

Heat get: a second round draft pick

Why They Did It:

This is the trade on which there is the least to say.  I liked this one for Miami because unlike a pure money dump, they actually got value for Stokes.  As for the Pelicans, the parts on paper do not make second — second round picks rarely pan out, but the chance of one panning out beats the chance of Stokes mattering going forward.

Seeing as how the Pelicans waived Stokes after making the deal, there is likely something deeper happening here – the Pelicans knew the Heat wanted to shed their tax bill, and decided to be willing helpers for the Heat to accomplish their goal.  That type of goodwill is helpful when you look to make bigger transactions in the future, and the Pelicans likely assume that goodwill trumps a protected second rounder.

 

Hawks, Bulls, and Jazz

Hawks get: Kirk Hinrich

Jazz get: Shelvin Mack

Bulls get: Justin Holiday and a 2018 second round draft pick from the Jazz

Why They Did It:

This deal shows how little teams value second round picks, which, given the need to integrate players into your program before free agency in light of the current climate, and the chance, albeit slim, that a second rounder becomes a star, is simply surprising.

The Hawks’ motives here may appear obvious in that they see Hinrich as a roster upgrade over Mack or Holiday at the guard spots.  That may be true.  The Hawks also open a sliver of cap space this summer, as Holiday was guaranteed for next year.  Hinrich does not fill a need with Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroeder around, but one may be traded this summer, and perhaps Hinrich sticks around as a reserve insurance policy.  This trade makes sense for the Hawks.

As for the Bulls, they likely only did this to save money by ridding themselves of Hinrich, but I actually like this deal for them more than any of the three because of the 2018 second round pick.  That is the only asset in this deal of tiny assets that has any chance of really mattering.

As for the Jazz end of the deal, they likely believe Mack can help provide competent guard minutes as they push for a playoff berth, but he has been anything but in limited action this year, and I simply do not like wasting a second round pick on a player like Mack.

 

A Brief Look Ahead: the Bigger Deals not Done

I never bought the Clippers and Cavaliers dealing Blake Griffin and Kevin Love at the deadline, but both, while keeping their players, planted some seeds to make a future deal possible, by acquiring players who play their positions.  If either does not go as far as they hope this playoff season – which is likely considering both see themselves as championship contenders and the Warriors and Spurs still exist – perhaps they look to go in another direction, although I personally would not.

The takeaway: as with Morris in Phoenix, why make a deal just because you can.  Wait for a desperate, or at least very willing and desiring, suitor to come to the table.  That is when you will get the best return.  If that was not available this deadline season, the Clippers and Cavs were right to stay the course.

Beyond the Clippers and Cavs were the next big deadline topic: the Celtics. Armed with more assets to make a deal than anyone, the Boston Celtics did nothing.  But often, the right decision is to do nothing, and I think the Celtics made the right decision.

Some have been saying that with all the assets they have, the Celtics should have made a deal, because of “assets to spare.”  That is an approach I disagree with.  You know what happens when you trade your assets for too little value?  You develop a subcontender, and then you are hopeful to rebuild for your future . . . and on the hunt for those same assets you parted with.

The Clippers and Cavaliers kept Griffin and Kevin Love, but does that last through the summer?  Do other stars become available?  All of this availability is certainly possible.  And if elite players are moved, rather than be out of the running because they undersold on significant assets just to do some consolidating, the Celtics will be at the forefront of potential suitors.

Many feel Ainge should have done something, whether they truly believe that, or just wanted the Celtics to do something big just to have something to discuss.  Ainge is going to look smart for resisting dealing his assets for a “B” piece if he can get an “A” piece.

In a last bit on the Celtics, David Lee’s approximate $15 million expiring contract got them nowhere on deadline day, which highlights a big market shift.  In the era of shorter contracts, deals roll of the books faster, and in the era of increasing per annum contracts given the new TV money all bad contracts are not as bad as they were.  Both factors conspire to make expiring deals have little value.

On the other hand, in buying Lee out, Ainge did accomplish something this deadline: he showed his understanding of the value of goodwill.  Players talk. Agents talk.  And when David Lee and Dan Fegan talk about the Celtics, they will share that the Celtics are a classy organization who treated them well during the process.  This is a people business where players often have to decide to be with your franchise: those things matter.

As for “B” pieces, Dwight Howard is underrated, but he is no longer a franchise carrier, and he also was moved.  The Rockets were smart, if Howard is leaving, to not just take what they could get for his services, and just win as much as they can now, with him.  For starters, it shows a commitment to winning.  Beyond that, look at the Blazers and losing Aldridge last summer: losing a star is not an automatic franchise crippler, if one prepares for it ahead of time through roster planning.

 

Management and Coaching Changes

As for the management side of things, the most positive thing to happen to the organization since winning game 7 in Toronto in the 2014 first round, the Nets hired Sean Marks as general manager, and he said things about team building that the Nets have never said or done.  He talked about culture.  He talked about this being a process going forward that would not be done all in one free agency period.  He talked about deliberately building a staff.  And he talked about spearheading the process with backing from ownership . . . rather than ownership meddling in his decisions.  Couple that with owner Mikhail Prokhorov actually admitting he’s made mistakes, and for once, there’s moderate reason for excitement in Brooklyn. A GM and owner saying the right things means little.  But the first step in solving a problem is admitting you have one, and at least for the Nets, they have done that.

Now let’s see if Prokhorov’s letter was a candid admission, or nothing but lip service.

Finally, the Kings, after deciding to fire George Karl but not fire Karl, then fired Vance Walberg, one of his trusted assistants.  Ownership meddling with management breeds chaos, and Vivek Ranadive clearly needs to change his style if the Kings want to sniff success.

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