The NBA trade deadline was anticlimactic. For years, fans have been conditioned to believe that this is a critical time for their teams to act, so many were disappointed to see their favorite franchises do next to nothing.
The relative silence was a good thing for fans, however, and it shows that the league’s new collective bargaining agreement may be working.
When the owners held the game ransom until the millionaire athletes cried uncle, the motivation was clear: money. Too many franchises, said the league, were losing too much money, and the only way the system could be rebalanced was by the teams getting a much larger percentage of the total revenue earned.
So the owners banded together in a power play.
It worked, as they beat the players in a lopsided rout.
But through it all, the teams said that money was only one factor driving their desire to restructure how the salaries and payrolls of the future would be designed.
For the good of the league, owners claimed, the richest teams needed to be financially penalized if they tried to win a title by out-spending their poorer rivals. There would be no “hard” salary cap, so teams could still spend as much as they want, but there would be huge taxes added after a team paid out a certain amount in salary, and those taxes would be redistributed back to the more fiscally responsible teams via revenue sharing.
This would level the playing field, they said. In addition, these new rules would help ensure that teams would generally be able to retain the top-tier players they drafted for the first eight to nine years of their careers. The Cleveland Cavaliers had just seen the game’s best talent leave them, and Carmelo Anthony and Deron Williams had each forced their teams’ hands to trade them early.
The league wanted the teams to have more leverage in such situations. They wanted the stars to stay where they were. They wanted small-market teams that drafted elite players to build their title hopes and brands around marquee names that would be in town long enough for fans to come to love them.
It all sounded like a smoke screen.
Everyone knew the owners’ real goal was taking money out of the players’ pockets so they could line their own. Ultimately, I believe that was—by far—the primary factor in the lockout.
But all the campaign talk may be coming to fruition, as teams no longer appear willing to trade away draft picks for middling talent, and title-chasing franchises seem hesitant to add to their payrolls even if it means increasing their championship chances.
This is a huge diversion from the past.
Before the new CBA, first-round draft picks were passed around the league like a bong in dorm room as teams mortgaged their futures in exchange for the short-term high of marketing some new player as a key cog for their upcoming playoff run.
The Portland Trail Blazers gave up two picks, plus a few players and cash, for Gerald Wallace in 2011. Wallace is a fine player, but even with him Portland’s management should have known that the deal added little chance that the team would make a Western Conference Finals run—let alone win a title.
Worse was what happened in Memphis the year before. “Hey, guys, we got Ronnie Brewer and all it cost us was a first-round draft pick—get excited,” the Memphis Grizzlies essentially told their fans in 2010.
In 2005, the Boston Celtics got to say basically the same thing about re-acquiring Antoine Walker from the Atlanta Hawks. Along with dumping Gary Payton (who was running on fumes), Tom Gugliotta (who retired after the season) and Michael Stewart (who?), all they had to do was throw in a measly first-round pick to get a player, in Walker, who had been shooting 41.5 percent while launching 19 attempts per game in Atlanta.
But really, it was a good deal.
Why? For one, Walker played pretty well in Boston. But more importantly, the Celtics were able to flip Jiri Welsch to the Cavaliers to replace the first-round pick they had given up.
Back then, this was the circle of life: ditch picks now for any headline-making move since you know you can always find a team to part with one later.
Those days are dead and gone.
Now, teams even balk at giving up a pick for a player as talented as Josh Smith.
If you called a rival GM today asking about a first-round pick for a guy like Welsch, he would either laugh or hang up the phone. Probably both (this may be why Gerald Henderson is still playing for the Charlotte Bobcats).
Because now, in a salary cap era when all teams must be careful about spending too freely, a draft pick is the most valued asset there is after the truly elite player (LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, et al.). Before they are used, they add nothing to the payroll, and they have the potential to return an highly productive player who will make a relatively small salary for the first four years of his career.
Looking at the reality of the new CBA, teams increasingly feel the pressure to draft players like Chandler Parsons or Lance Stephenson, guys who make next to nothing but can be key cogs in a playoff run.
For fans, this pressure and the team-building strategy it necessitates is, for lack of a better word, good.
Every fan base wants to see its team win a title, but that doesn’t happen for 29 different cities every year. So while flashy deals at the deadline inspire (usually false) hope, they also undermine a dedication to long-term roster planning.
They are the get-rich-quick scheme.
As teams continue to realize that they need picks and a long-term roster-building strategy to put together a team they can actually afford, the outcome will be a better fan experience.
Fans will less often be asked to pay good money to go see a duct-taped together assemblage of players who just met last year. Instead, they will be able to watch a group of guys who developed together try to find a way to win in the league.
With less player movement at the deadline, teams will resonate better with cities. We will likely see more “unsuccessful” but locally beloved teams, like the Utah Jazz and Indiana Pacers in the 1990s.
Moreover, teams’ unwillingness to trade away picks or take on players with high salaries at the deadline means that the elite teams of the league will have a tougher time cherry-picking the most valuable assets from those not headed to the playoffs.
This is a much larger problem in MLB than it is in the NBA, but we have previously seen many title contenders try to load up at the deadline.
The Cavaliers tried to improve their championship chances in 2008 by acquiring a vastly overpaid Ben Wallace, Wally Szczerbiak and Delonte West. This was part of an arms race among the league’s top clubs that went nuclear after the Los Angeles Lakers plucked Pau Gasol from the Grizzlies a few weeks earlier.
In 2010, Cleveland would make a similar move, dealing a pick for Antwan Jamison. The Celtics countered by adding Nate Robinson.
And of course, the Detroit Pistons once made a similar deal that actually paid off. There is probably no way they win a title in 2004 without picking up Rasheed Wallace halfway through the year.
While midseason shakeups can add interest to the league, such moves alienate fans of bad teams. There is often a feeling of inevitability that the Lakers, Celtics or Miami Heat will win out.
But if they are able to leverage their inherent market advantages while also knowing they can always pick up a key player or two on their quest for a title, it makes the league seem all that more stacked against teams in cities like Milwaukee, Portland and Memphis.
There is also just something to be said for teams finishing the season largely as they started it. Moves will continue to be made in the offseason as teams re-evaluate their on-court needs, but the panic-induced, headline-making deals at the deadline have largely done more harm than good in many cases.
This trade deadline may have been boring, but it shows that the new changes to the system are likely to keep players where they are.
In the long run, that will make the league more appealing to more fans.