Now that the most complained-about NBA event (Slam Dunk Contest) is in the books, it's only right the national topic of discussion shifts to the Association's second-most complained-about event.
Yes, I speak of the NBA's trade deadline, the place where all the countless hours you spent on the trade machine finagling ways for LeBron James to ride in on a white horse and save the Bucks' season goes to waste.
The wonderful and terrible thing about sports media is that we are constantly inundated with every last nugget of information. I barely remember life without the Internet, but I do remember a time when there weren't profitable sites devoted just to trade rumors, retractions of trade rumors and retractions to the retractions of said rumors.
It was a simpler time. Deals could actually come out of nowhere, kids walked to school through eight inches of snow and there was none of this tweeter (twooter?) nonsense. Or something.
Now, the deluge of information leaves most shrugging at the completed deals and dejected about the ones left on the table. Last season, we saw what was supposed to be a flurry of deals turn into a slight drizzle, with J.J. Redick being the highest-profile player switching teams
If the lack of smoke coming out of this weekend's All-Star festivities in New Orleans is any indication, odds are we're headed toward a second straight disappointing deadline. Assuming that happens, here is a preemptive outlook on the biggest reasons why.
Desperate Teams Aren't Waiting; Non-Desperate Teams Aren't Budging
Barring a surprise blockbuster, the season's two biggest trades have already been consummated: the Rudy Gay deal to Sacramento and the Luol Deng-Andrew Bynum swap.
For the Raptors and Kings, the former deal looks like a paradigm-shifter in retrospect. The Raptors have taken off since unclogging their offense of Gay's frustrating, iso-heavy tendencies, while the Kings feel they've received a solid player for the equivalent of NBA flotsam.
Gay is averaging 20 points on 50.5 percent shooting over 29 games in Sacramento, picking his spots and working to better integrate himself within the flow of an offense. He's still wildly overpaid, and the Kings hope Gay opts into his $19.32 million salary for next season at this point rather than give them a decision of whether to sign him to a long-term contract. But Toronto and Sacramento are ultimately happy with what has transpired.
The same can't be said for the Cavaliers, whose ship continues to take on water even after Deng's arrival. Still, Chicago skirted the luxury tax, doesn't have to worry about paying Deng this summer and has somehow continued winning despite being without, ostensibly, its two best scorers. They can't all be winners for both sides.
Those are two relative blockbusters, deals that would be covered with mass fervor had they been consummated this week. Littered elsewhere are five additional trades since the Marcin Gortat deal on Oct. 25, rounding out a period of solid activity where the most desperate teams made their moves.
The recently fired Chris Grant knew he needed to win with the Cavs, so he pushed through the Deng deal. The Kings are under new ownership, have a Brink's truck of money to spend and need to create some excitement beyond "Yay, we're still here!" Hence the Gay deal. Derrick Rose's latest knee injury pushed the Bulls into desperation mode to avoid paying their second luxury tax in team history.
Case in point: The teams that need to make a big trade, whether because of management pressure or to shore up the future, already have. That's typical of most seasons. Seven is roughly an average number of midseason trades.
More (relatively) desperate deals are coming. The Sixers need to trade at least one player from the Spencer Hawes-Evan Turner-Thaddeus Young trio as they rebuild. The Nuggets are also certain to ship Andre Miller somewhere, especially after Marc J. Spears' of Yahoo! Sports reported the veteran guard is refusing to entertain a return.
What you aren't seeing is teams shuffling the deck chairs just because. Omer Asik has been requesting his way out of Houston since July, but general manager Daryl Morey told Sam Amick of USA Today the Rockets will likely be inert on deadline day. Morey already tested the Asik market once, didn't like what he heard and pulled his asset off the market entirely.
Houston is in a relatively good spot as a team, Terrence Jones has emerged as a solid option at the 4 and Asik is still under contract. No one may be happy in that situation, but it's one Morey isn't going to get himself out of just to do it.
And it's not just Houston. Teams are smarter than ever (seriously! Don't laugh!) about the deals they consider and express patience over irrationality when pulling the trigger. When it takes an entire congressional summit to discuss a deal, you're bound to see fewer things get pushed through.
There Just Aren't Any Disgruntled Superstars (for Once)
It's not groundbreaking information that the inmates run the asylum in the NBA.
More than any other major professional sport, basketball is affected by a singular talent. Have LeBron James or Kevin Durant on your roster? Go right ahead and start 32-year-old Eric Snow—you'll still win 50 games. The Durants and the Jameses are impossible gems, but even a step or two down the totem, there are players whose presence alone can make a playoff team a championship contender or an also-ran a playoff team.
NBA teams do not trade these players. They hold onto them, desperately, and hope against hope they want to stick around in their city going forward. Despite mounting evidence Dwight Howard was miserable in Los Angeles last season, the Lakers rolled the dice, kept him and lost. The Cavaliers crossed their fingers with LeBron. Same goes for innumerable teams across history. In the NBA, you keep your true superstars and hope management is good enough to build around them.
One exception: when a star writes it in bold letters that he will be leaving in free agency if you do not trade him now. It's become the league's in-vogue trend post-"The Decision," with Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and Howard (in Orlando) forcing their way out of smaller markets and into possible championship situations.
Left with the "nothing is changing" proposition, Orlando, New Orleans and Denver each hit the detonator in recent years. The Pelicans came up roses a year later with Anthony Davis, the Nuggets wound up building a funky playoff roster around their 'Melo haul and the Magic are building a promising young core that should compete for a playoff spot soon enough.
This season, there are no potential free agents clamoring for a deal. The most obvious of such possibilities, Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo, has given no public indication he'd like a change of scenery. The Celtics are likewise saying all the right things amid their rebuild, highlighting Rondo as the torchbearer of the past and leader of the present.
I suspect this is just public posturing, but Rondo is more likely to be dealt over the summer than before the deadline. He's still recovering from his ACL tear, and teams will be far more willing to consider a surely exorbitant price tag after seeing him play for a half-season. (As it stands, NBA.com's Sam Smith is reporting the Celtics will trade Rondo for two unprotected first-round picks.)
Additionally, Minnesota is still clinging on for dear life to All-Star forward Kevin Love. Reports have been swirling for more than a year, saying Love is unhappy lottery-dwelling with the Wolves and will move on in free agency when his opt-out comes in 2015. A source recently told ESPN's Chris Broussard (Insider subscription required) it is a "100 percent certainty" Love goes to the Lakers after next season.
That may be the case. It just won't happen in 2014. The Timberwolves are going to continue building for the present, hoping they spark a Portland-like resurgence and Love does a LaMarcus Aldridge-type 180.
With Love and Rondo staying put, the disgruntled superstar coffers are just too bare for any earth-shattering deal to go down.
The Lasting Effect of the NBA's New Collective Bargaining Agreement
This is obviously the biggie. Last season's lifeless deadline was the first to indicate a changing of the guard, and it not so coincidentally was the first full season under the new CBA. While there were some who chalked up the 2013 inertia to a mere fluke—dud deadlines happened before the lockout, too—the relative silence this year speaks volumes about what may be a long-term trend.
The new, more punitive luxury tax in particular has obviously placed a governor on deals. Under the previous collective bargaining agreement, teams were penalized a dollar for every dollar they were over the luxury tax. Meaning, if you are $10 million over the tax, you would also pay an additional $10 million into the kitty, which is distributed to non-tax-paying teams.
The new deal is substantially more punitive. The bottom rung of the standard tax begins at $1.50 to every dollar over the tax and gradually increases via $5 million tiers. A team $20 million over the luxury tax will pay $3.75 for every dollar it is over, with the rate increasing $0.50 for each additional $5 million.
|NBA Luxury Tax Levels|
|Team Salary Above Tax||Non-repeater||Repeater|
|Range||Tax rate||Tax rate|
|$20,000,000+||$3.75, and increasing $.50 for each additional $5 million.||$4.75, and increasing $.50 for each additional $5 million.|
If my math is correct, that's a heck of a lot more than the dollar-for-dollar rate—and it doesn't even account for the so-called repeater tax. Larry Coon's CBA FAQ has a full explanation of the rules, but the repeater tax essentially adds an additional dollar to the total all non-repeaters already pay. So, for teams in the bottom rung, they would pay $2.50 for every dollar instead of $1.50.
Suffice it to say, teams do not want to pay the repeater tax.
There are two ways this has obviously affected the trade market: draft picks and expiring contracts. Where the previous collective bargaining agreement allowed for the swapping of these assets like trading cards, general managers are more careful than ever amid tax implications.
Draft picks, even mediocre ones, are cheap labor. Hitting on a rotational cog—or, better yet, a superstar—gives a team four years of control at Amazon Lightning Deal prices. In any season, the best value contract is a star still on a player's rookie contract. Anthony Davis is an All-Star, and the Pelicans are paying him $5.38 million this season. Chandler Parsons is the Rockets' third-best player, and Houston holds his rights at under $1 million for this year and the next.
This, of course, has been true since the beginning of the rookie wage scale but has taken greater importance as teams count every penny. Wesley Matthews and Klay Thompson put up relatively similar scoring numbers, but the Warriors are paying Thompson about $4.6 million in 2013-14 because of he's still on his rookie deal.
Knowing this, teams are (smartly) hanging onto their picks with tighter grips. Some teams still move future first-rounders out of desperation (e.g., the Deng trade) or to land a marquee talent (e.g., Golden State's Andre Iguodala trade), but these are real commodities that better come with true value in return.
A similar story can be told about expiring contracts. In the past, you would think nothing of a team swapping its soon-to-be-expiring bad contract for a better player whose contract had become untenable for his current team. When you hear the phrase "Player X's expiring contract," it's because these deals have become so ingrained in the culture that nearly every upcoming free agent is instantly thrown into trade rumors.
These deals are still getting moved, but just like with draft picks, teams are far more conservative pulling the trigger. League executives are now weighing the advantages of adding a slightly better player versus the cap and luxury-tax implications that come with just allowing their expirings to walk without compensation. Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Josh Smith all stayed put last season despite being all but certain to leave their respective homes.
(Ironically, Smith sits at the other end of the spectrum now. Detroit would almost certainly cut its losses with its big offseason signee for an expiring deal, but no team is budging.)
Even the most flush teams have the machinations in place to avoid hitting the repeater tax. The Nets could trade Paul Pierce's expiring contract for a better player right now if they were willing to take on long-term money. Pierce isn't actively hurting the team, but he's lost at least two steps since last season. Yet as Grantland's Zach Lowe pointed out, Brooklyn would love to get under the tax for 2015-16 and avoid paying repeater rates.
The Lakers refused to trade Pau Gasol's expiring deal for luxury-tax help in the form of Andrew Bynum's golden-goose contract, but they probably would have if they were in a worse spot. With nearly every contract dropping off the books after this season, the Lakers should get under the tax next year and avoid the multipliers.
Hell, even James Dolan refused to trade for Kyle Lowry on the merit of keeping young, cheap assets.
These are things teams had to consider before but are now ruling the way executives run teams. It might force execs stumbling backward into a more stable, smarter way of running teams. But if the trade rumor mill is any indication, it's going to lead to some snooze-worthy deadlines now and into the future.
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