There’s never been an NBA trade deadline quite like that one, that’s for sure. So dense and crazy that it’s taken a week for all the dust to settle and we’re still not quite there yet with the whole buyout season now on the cards. And the greatest bit of NBA front office wizardry ever conducted, wizardry that makes anything Danny Ainge has ever managed look like an eight year old just got a How To Magic book for their birthday, the greatest bit of NBA front office wizardry ever conducted didn’t even involve a single contract or draft pick changing hands.
NBA teams, like all sports teams at the elite financial level, are constantly in a state of whatever the state immediately before panic is. Unease? Distrust? Something like that anyway. Even a team in the enviable position of the Golden State Warriors know that it could all go awry with one injury or free agency decision. Well, in their case probably more like two or three of those things… but still. The OKC Thunder are the perfect example. Back in 2012 they had a young trio, all drafted by the organisation, of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. All future MVPs. They swept the reigning champs in the first round, murdered the last decent Lakers side in the second, held off the perennial contending Spurs in the conference finals… and then lost in five to LeBron’s Miami Heat in the finals.
Guts there on that one, but at least the future was bright. Gotta lose one to win one and all that. The Thunder were poised for an era of greatness. Yeah… then James Harden didn’t come to terms on an extension, kinda wanting to put an end to his sixth man thing, and that was that, traded to Houston. The Thunder made the conference finals two years later, with KD as league MVP, but it still felt like they’d let something special slip away. But wait, Billy Donovan came in as coach and they found it again as fellas like Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams and even a bit of Enes Kanter took them to a new level. They were 3-1 up in the conference finals against the Golden State Warriors. They were on the brink. Then some stuff happened and they lost. Then Kevin Durant left to sign with the Warriors in the offseason.
Like all intensely corporate functions, the NBA is a push and pull between labour and establishment power. Everyone’s looking out for themselves because everyone knows it’s in everyone else’s best interests to prevent that. Teams are salary capped, if they can pay a dude less than he’s worth then they’re doing well. The irony here is that both parties are most invested in winning championships and max talent for minimum dollars really tends to help that matter. But then so do All Stars. You don’t win a damn thing without a couple of them – the saying goes that one All Star will get you into the playoffs, two will win you a series or two and three will win you the whole damn thing. Four… well now you’re just being greedy, Golden State.
So when Anthony Davis decided that he’d taken his career as far as it could go with the New Orleans Pelicans and wanted to spread his brow elsewhere, the vultures came circling. Media vultures and front office vultures. Most famously the Los Angeles Lakers, who were absolutely best poised to offer something worthy of Davis’ status.
Thus the first thing the Pellies did was admit the situation and plead the NBA to take extremely close notice of the tampering rules over the upcoming weeks. Then they leaked every single trade offer they got from the Lakers, and the Lakers played into their hands with entitlement and desperation by offering basically the entire team except for LeBron James, pretty much shredding the Lakers’ on-court chemistry before making it clear that they never had any intention to trade AD to them in the first place. Hence the greatest bit of front office wizardry of all time. They played Magic Johnson, Rob Pelinka and Jeanie Buss for absolute fools. They humiliated the most glorified brand in the sport. It was utterly, utterly brilliant.
They didn’t need to trade him in any hurry anyway, there’s another year on his contract and at the end of the season the Boston Celtics will be able to enter negotiations as well – creating a high stakes bidding war. We’ve seen in recent times that getting value on player trades is tough. You’ve gotta be clever about it, especially midseason. Sometimes what you think is a steal turns out to be a bust and vice versa – who’d have thought that Paul George for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis would work out so perfectly for both teams? Or that Chicago would easily get the better buyer satisfaction from the (first) Jimmy Butler trade? Anthony Davis will get his move eventually. It might well be to the Los Angeles Lakers after all, who knows. But he’ll patiently see out the season with the Pellies first, having kickstarted a bloody avalanche in the meantime.
Because he might not have gotten traded but it seems like everybody else did. Any player with half a grievance and a legal contract was on the block. A quick roundup of the more major deals…
Kristaps Porzingis, Courtney Lee, Trey Burke & Tim Hardaway Jr to Mavericks / Dennis Smith Jr, Wes Matthews, DeAndre Jordan & two future 1R picks to Knicks
Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic & Mike Scott to 76ers / Wilson Chandler, Mike Muscala, Landry Shamet, 2020 1R pick, 2012 1R pick & two future 2R picks to LA Clippers
Otto Porter Jr to Bulls / Jabari Parker & Bobby Portis to Wizards
Markelle Fultz to Magic / Jonathan Simmons, 2019 1R & 2R picks to Sixers
Harrison Barnes to Kings / Zach Randolph & Justin Jackson to Mavs
Marc Gasol to Raptors / Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, CJ Miles & 2024 2R Pick to Grizzlies
It’s funny because a few years ago there was a huge cap spike and these middle talent players all got overpaid at once and then the cap spike levelled out the next season and everybody’s books were buggered. Without much flexibility and with one team in particular taking advantage of the bonus salary space by signing an MVP to their championship calibre roster thus defeating the chances of all but a few teams in challenging for the title, not to mention some sketchy draft lottery rules that needed updating, we saw an epidemic of tanking where if you weren’t playing for first, you were playing for last.
Now it’s free agency where fortunes will be made. With those ugly deals from the cap spike expiring/expired, teams have room to move again and passing off heavy contracts is the new tank. That’s what’s funkiest about the Porzingis trade – neither the Mavs nor Knicks are playing for the playoffs. I mean, the Mavs could still crack it but even if they do they won’t go past the first round. And the Knicks have lost eighteen games in a row going into All Stars. This was a midseason trade which had nothing to do with the current season. Porzingis isn’t even going to play until preseason next term. Both Porzingis and Dennis Smith Jr, the two player headliners in the deal, had expressed a firm desire to be moved on so there was some urgency there but it all seemed to happen very quickly even though neither side was short on time.
Obviously not as quickly as they’d have you believe, though. There’s a lesson in there about how folks like Woj and Shams work, how leaks are filtered by interested parties, how the NBA news cycle in general operates. About thirty minutes before the first inklings of the Porzingis trade emerged, there was a report about KP demanding a trade. The Knicks were willing to chat with him and sort it out but the Latvian was an unhappy chappy. Thus painting Porzingis as the one who pushed his way out when we now know that discussions were ongoing for a couple days previous to this. Wouldn’t be stunned if the first vestiges of this deal were spoken into existence a week or two earlier when Dennis Smith Jr pretty much demanded to be shopped around by the Mavs.
But that’s the way it goes, just can’t get too sucked into narratives like Porzingis (or Smith, for that matter) being the bad guys, the disloyal folks, when both teams came to an agreement on the deal – like, nobody had a gun held to their head. The Knicks could always have just not traded Kristaps Porzingis… they’ve done it before.
Instead this was symbolic, as all blockbuster trades are. The Knicks were moving on from a stroppy youngster whose timeline for winning didn’t match their own and they’re hoping they can do better with a couple future picks – hilariously Dennis Smith Jr was a player they passed over two drafts ago for Frank Nkilitina and should have instantly regretted it. Meanwhile the Mavs are symbolically announcing that this is Luka Doncic’s team and they’re pairing him with a fellow (European) superstar now because he’s so bloody good that winning now is essential. ‘Now’ meaning next season, of course.
It’s symbolic that the Lakers didn’t get the fella they wanted. It’s symbolic that the Pelicans are taking their time to ensure they get the best possible deal for him. It’s symbolic too that the Memphis Grizzlies traded away franchise cornerstone in Marc Gasol and it’s symbolic that they kept Mike Conley (at least for now). It’s symbolic that the Toronto Raptors acquired Gasol when they’re in the midst of a scrap for first in the East with the Bucks, who symbolically also acquired Nikola Mirotic (who made such a difference for the Pelicans last season from this time onwards).
All of these trades are symbolic in one way or another, since they’re all signalling shifts in the franchise. Shifts in perspective or priority or playing style, etc. Perhaps the most symbolic of all was the Philadelphia 76ers bringing in Tobias Harris. Sure, they dumped Markelle Fultz too but that was always on the cards. Brining in Harris, that’s a thumping fist on the table saying enough is enough. They gave up four picks for him, two of them first rounders. Harris is basically the fourth option on this team with Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and Jimmy Butler already there. No idea how that balance is supposed to work but at least for Simmons’ sake he can focus on his immaculate passing since he’s never going to have to shoot another shot again this season. Harris was on a breakout campaign as the main man at the Clippers. Big changes. But for the 76ers, a team that has been hoarding assets over actual players for half a decade now, the message is clear: We’re playing to win now so get out of the way.
You know what else is symbolic? That three top Eastern Conference sides are going all in at once the very first season that LeBron James is out of the picture. And it’s symbolic that the Boston Celtics, with all the confusion about the futures of Kyrie Irving and Anthony Davis, didn’t do a thing.
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