Pau Gasol is staying in Los Angeles. He's also staying stoic, and stylish. (Getty Images)
So, in the end, this all makes sense. Expiring contracts and upcoming cap space? It’s not all it’s cracked up to be, not with several teams putting themselves in a quite flexible position salary cap position for the summer of 2014. First-round draft picks? They’re to be coveted, not just in this hyped up 2014 NBA draft, but for several drafts to come – young, potentially good players on cheap contracts. Win now moves? What’s the point, when just making the playoffs dooms you to mediocrity, and with the top four or five teams in the league already having made their hay through shrewd signings, draft choices, trading, and sometimes by pure luck.
It was easy to see why some predicted that this would be an “epic” NBA trade deadline – those guys have to influence you to buy their product, after all – and it’s just as easy to see why this was a snoozer of a deadline. Eleven deals took place over Wednesday and Thursday, but just one of those transactions featured a player with a Player Efficiency Rating above average. Several of the players dealt will likely be waived or bought out, not a single first-round pick was sent anywhere, and the team that traded for perhaps the most impactful player – your East-leading Indiana Pacers – may not have enough minutes per game to dole out to new addition Evan Turner to turn this into a boffo move.
This is what you get, though, when you sign up for a more restrictive (although trading is now technically easier than ever) set of tax and contract laws in a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, and this is what you get when you set out to make a massive impact some 50-plus games into an NBA season, adding players without the benefit of a training camp while on the fly. Very good players – Luol Deng, Pau Gasol – were available, as were scads of veterans straight out of central casting (Jameer Nelson, Thaddeus Young, Glen Davis, Tony Allen, Brandon Bass) that would have been easily dealt in years past.
And yet, the NBA held tight. Teams couldn’t talk themselves into paying the luxury tax for a Brandon Bass, or giving up a first round pick for the right to field an aging Gasol or Deng for two months plus a potentially truncated playoff run. Of course there was potential there, and of course there were assets – from young players still on rookie deals to vets making what once felt like the appropriate league average to expiring contracts drawn out to chip away at payroll woes – but that doesn’t mean there has to be two to tango.
Just because something seems appropriate or feels like it should be “epic,” that doesn’t mean it’s the best thing for a team to be sending a conditional first-rounder for Jameer Nelson because it feels like he would push you over the top, or diving into the repeater tax for Thaddeus Young because it seems like he would bring the scoring punch you need to think three rounds or more. These are the sorts of moves that fans and media that obsess over Trade Machines and use words like “epic” love to fawn over.
In reality, though, these are the sorts of moves that get general managers and coaches fired. These are the sorts of moves that lead to lockouts.
Better to leave the bum moves for summer, when you and your owner can talk up just about any ridiculous transaction – “I’m sure Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith will reverse years of playing that way once they team up together!” – because everybody is tied for first in July. Because far more players are without contracts in July than there are players available to trade for in February, and because owners have a strange way of splaying out ridiculous amounts of money over the summer before crying poverty to the NBA’s front office every few years when the CBA runs out.
That’s the time to get stupid. It’s not the time to dump a brand new rotation part on your coach’s lap, someone who is going to be living out of a hotel from now until the end of the year, while giving up a potentially impactful future asset along the way. Yes, there is something to be said for knowingly going after a “win now” sort of player while giving up a draft pick or player that you know will eventually contribute more, but there just weren’t a lot of those trades out there.
(That said, I worry if this current draft pick fetishism isn’t a trend of sorts, not unlike league GMs going bonkers for high schoolers in the 2001 draft, or pulling back into overseas prospects and orthodox big college names in the 2002 draft. I understand the value – it was second round picks that allowed teams to deal for players like Spencer Hawes this month, and next June’s draft is fantastic. I just worry if this may have been taken too far.
With that in place, it will be impossible to judge this as the years roll on, because we’d be dealing with completely hypothetical “what if?” non-deals in the face of actual, tangible draft selections.)
Teams didn’t need point guards like Jameer Nelson to put them over the top, because teams that are near the top already have good point guards and good reserve guards. Teams didn’t need short, scoring forwards to come off the bench at a potentially prohibitive cost. And teams didn’t need, in their eyes at least, to give up a first rounder for a player that seems certain to leave in the summer, when several teams will be working with potential cap space, all ready to overpay for free agents.
This is where the NBA is at, now. Sure, it’ll get stupid again in the summer, but for now the confluence of varying agendas, smarter GMs, stasis in the standings, and the talent involved led to this. Double-figure deals, to be sure, but none of any consequence. Lest you think Evan Turner (a fabulous pickup, let there be no doubt) is going to be on the floor in the final minutes of an Indiana/Miami Game 7 this spring.
Maybe, in that way, this turned out to be an “epic” trade deadline. The days of throwing assets into the mid-February wind may be over. And for good, this time. It may make for a boring trade deadline, but it also may make for smarter, more dynamic NBA teams.
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