Why does it seem like there are more multi-team deals in the NBA? Because there are

The word was nearly as instant as Damian Lillard’s trade request from Portland, along with his preference to land with Miami. For the Heat to have acquired Lillard, the Trail Blazers had no interest in keeping Tyler Herro as part of any package for their franchise icon, so any framework including the sweet-scoring Herro would have required a third trade partner.

Lillard, of course, would not join the Heat, and Herro is off to a blistering start with Miami, scoring 26.2 points per game on a career-best 43.2% shooting from distance. But Lillard did exit Portland by way of a three-team blockbuster with the Bucks. The Trail Blazers also saw an opportunity to swipe former No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton from the Suns. Phoenix had a known affinity for Grayson Allen, dating back to last season’s trade conversations regarding Jae Crowder with Milwuakee — where Lillard would ultimately drop anchor for this 2023-24 season. So all three teams were able to come to an agreement, thanks to Phoenix’s interest in incorporating former Blazers big Jusuf Nurkić into the Suns’ offense as well.

The summer’s other All-Star trade request, James Harden’s effort to flee Philadelphia, would result in a three-team deal, too. In order to satisfy the Sixers’ benchmark of two first-round picks — plus a pick swap, along with other draft capital and players — asset-strapped Los Angeles needed to rope in Oklahoma City to complete its talks for Harden. At first, the Clippers tried to turn their unprotected 2028 pick into two other future firsts with another third team, league sources told Yahoo Sports. But the Thunder, already owning the Clippers’ 2026 unprotected first rounder thanks to yesteryear’s Paul George blockbuster, allowed Oklahoma City to send that pick — or the lesser of two other selections controlled by the Thunder — off to Philadelphia, while taking back a 2027 pick swap from Los Angeles.

The Clippers needed to bring in Oklahoma City to finalize the deal to acquire James Harden from Philadelphia. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)
The Clippers needed to bring in Oklahoma City to finalize the deal to acquire James Harden from Philadelphia. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)

You may have noticed there’s been a boom of multi-team deals across the NBA marketplace. The past four seasons from 2019-23 have averaged eight trades that included three or more teams, according to transaction data provided to Yahoo Sports. That’s nearly double the amount over the previous decade: 4.5 multi-team trades per season from 2009-19.

We’ve already seen five such deals since the league calendar flipped to 2023-24, including the Lillard and Harden mega-trades. And the impending restrictions with the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement have cap strategists preparing for a further rise in three- or four-club deals on the horizon.

“There’s an understanding that if you want to get business done,” one general manager told Yahoo Sports, “sometimes there’s another team that can get business done.”

Many league personnel simply credited this trend to a general rise of savvy and creativity across NBA war rooms.

“It seems like there’s more strategic thinking and planning in the NBA than there was 15 years ago,” an Eastern Conference executive said. “People are offering solutions.”

There’s also a far more conversational environment from front office to front office nowadays, from pro scouts chatting courtside before games to longtime general managers catching up with longstanding contacts. This is a competitive industry that now features far more open secrets than true classified intel. So when most teams have a sense of what various teams are trying to accomplish, these daily talks are often laced with executives reminding their counterparts to let his or her team know whenever they need help getting something across the wire.

Some lead decision-makers simply don’t want the hassle of ballooning a straightforward swap into a multi-team transaction. Sometimes, it's dependent on the particular deal, or the amount of trust a GM has with the particular executive across the phone line. What happens when a secondary element of an original trade foils everything, such as a player failing his physical? There’s a noted example from 2016, when the Sixers waived JaKarr Sampson in anticipation of a three-team deal with Houston and Detroit, only for that trade to become nullified once Donatas Motiejūnas’ back issues were red-flagged by the Pistons.

“Trades are hard enough to get done,” said one Western Conference strategist. “If you bring in a third or fourth team, it’s easier to derail.”

That always seemed to be an impediment among old-school general managers. Why would a crusty executive allow a rival more time to work on a deal it had already agreed to, just to have that team back out of the agreement? But oftentimes, most present-day front offices are willing to agree to a trade construct and then allow the other front office 24 to 48 hours to expand it.

This past February’s trade deadline, for example, saw Portland first agree to send Josh Hart to New York, according to league sources, before the Blazers and Knicks also wrangled in Philadelphia, and then Charlotte, to place Matisse Thybulle in Portland as well as Jalen McDaniels with the Sixers, while the Hornets got further returns and draft compensation from the Knicks.

There are some rules that complicate these transactions, so that a third or fourth team isn’t egregiously benefiting from something that otherwise could have been a standard trade. For a multi-team deal, each team must touch at least two other teams in the overall agreement, either by sending out or receiving some commodity from three categories: a player, a future draft pick that is certain to convey, and either the draft rights to a player or $1.1 million in cash. That last stipulation is why Los Angeles also sent OKC precisely $1.1 million in addition to its unprotected 2027 swap as part of this week’s Harden three-teamer, sources said, because the swap wouldn’t have met the minimum requirements on its own.

The NBA has also made it more restrictive when it comes to including draft rights to a player in these deals. Some team can’t just move the rights to a 50-year-old retiree who was drafted in 1994. In general, the draft-rights player must have been selected in one of the league’s previous nine drafts. But for trades with three or more teams, those players must either have been drafted in one of the five previous NBA drafts, or one of the previous nine so long as they’ve been named to the most recent official All-EuroLeague First or Second Team.

Next season, trades for teams above the first tax apron are going to become even harder under the full implementation of the new CBA. The limitations for tax-paying clubs not being able to receive more salary than they send out will handcuff plenty of executives hoping to improve contending rosters.

That’s partly why the Bucks, Clippers and Celtics have swooped in to acquire expensive All-Stars this year, capitalizing during this last season to make a splashy, expensive trade without those tougher conditions. Especially when the draft-pick allocation has been so scattered across the NBA, where a recent influx of all-in trades among contenders have left many front offices without legitimate or attractive first-round draft capital to spend. Those competitive organizations are going to increasingly rely on nuanced deals, like three- or four-team structures, just to make the basic trade math work.

“Three-team trades will absolutely be more common under the new CBA,” said another team strategist.