NBA Trade Deadline: Blame the CBA as Hamstrung Executives Play It Safe

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NBA Trade Deadline: Blame the CBA as Hamstrung Executives Play It Safe
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If the NBA trade deadline bored you (Roger Mason Jr.! Nando de Colo! Second-round picks!), if you’re furious that your hapless team failed to make a deal (hello, Knicks!), if Thursday left you sad and unfulfilled, you can direct your frustration and despair at one target.   

Blame the 2011 lockout. Or, more specifically, the collective bargaining agreement it produced.

We are living in a new NBA universe, where flexibility trumps talent, draft picks are treated like gold and fiscal prudence is the new virtue.

Owners are recoiling from the luxury tax. General managers are ruled by spreadsheets. Trades are tougher than ever to consummate. And none of the old rules apply.

Large, expiring contracts—once an essential NBA currency, the lifeblood for blockbuster deals—are no longer effective trading chips. Second-round picks, which used to be sprinkled like powdered sugar, are now zealously protected. A general manager might part with a first-born child before he surrenders a first-round pick.

"The 2011 CBA kicked in a little bit," an Eastern Conference executive said Thursday afternoon, with a trace of disappointment in his voice.

The somber tones could be heard in front offices in every time zone.

The Los Angeles Lakers had hoped to parlay Pau Gasol and his $19.3 million expiring contract into something useful. They tried to offload the expiring deals of Jordan Hill and Chris Kaman, capable big men who surely could have helped a contender.

But there were no first-round picks available for Gasol, a four-time All-Star. Nor could the Lakers goad the Brooklyn Nets or any other team into swapping a single second-round pick for Hill.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
First-round picks that could turn into the likes of Joel Embiid or Andrew Wiggins are no longer trade-deadline currency.

"Picks have become more valuable than ever," Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak told reporters Thursday. "It used to be you could get a second-round pick pretty easy. Now they’re almost as hard to get as a first-round pick."

In a prior era, the Lakers could have converted their unwanted players into future assets. Kupchak did just that at the 2008 deadline, sending Kwame Brown’s big contract, two bit-part players, the rights to Marc Gasol and two first-round picks to Memphis for Pau Gasol.

Under the old rules, the Boston Celtics might have acquired a rich package of players and picks for Rajon Rondo on Thursday. Under the old rules, the Houston Rockets might have found a new home for the unhappy Omer Asik.

Under the old rules, the Phoenix Suns almost certainly would have found a way to swap the injured Emeka Okafor—whose expiring, $14.5 million contract is mostly covered by insurance—for a package of players and picks.

“I thought for sure Okafor would have been moved,” one team executive said Thursday afternoon.

Yet none of the biggest names, or the biggest contracts, changed teams by the deadline. There was considerable activity, but nearly all of it took place at the fringes.

Twenty-three players changed teams in the final 24 hours. Only three were starters: Steve Blake, who was sent from the Lakers to Golden State (where he will be a backup); Evan Turner, who moved from Philadelphia to Indiana (where he will be a backup); and Spencer Hawes, who was shipped from Philadelphia to Cleveland. Of the other 20 players traded, few (if any) will have an impact on the postseason.

Eight second-round picks also changed hands just before the deadline, although some are heavily protected and will never be conveyed. Several deals were motivated by money alone.

The Miami Heat offloaded Roger Mason Jr. to Sacramento (for a protected second-round pick) simply to open a roster spot for a later move.

The Clippers essentially gave Antawn Jamison to Atlanta and Byron Mullens to Philadelphia, simply to avoid the luxury tax.

Not a single first-round pick changed hands this week.

There is often more hype than reality in the NBA rumor mill, but there is also no question that the business has simply changed.

The best executives manage their salary cap wisely, avoid the luxury tax and hoard draft picks, which represent cheap talent. That philosophy is being embraced by more teams every year, making picks harder to come by and leaving few places to deposit a bad contract.

“I didn’t think there would be any major players (traded Thursday),” said the Eastern Conference executive. “I think everyone wants their flexibility.”

The rebuilding 76ers were the most active team at the deadline, as expected, but they didn’t get what they wanted, either. Philadelphia had been dangling Turner, Hawes and Thaddeus Young for weeks, in hopes of acquiring some combination of young talent and draft picks. They failed to obtain a single first-round pick and ended up keeping Young, for now at least.

The one significant player the 76ers acquired was Danny Granger, who will probably leave as a free agent this summer (if he isn’t bought out sooner). Mostly, Philadelphia acquired second-round picks, potentially six in all.

Of all the factors inhibiting the trade market, the new luxury-tax system is the most powerful. Prior to 2011, teams paid a dollar-for-dollar tax once they exceeded the threshold. Now the tax starts at $1.50 per dollar over the threshold, and it escalates rapidly. Habitual big spenders are penalized even more, with a “repeater tax.”

Those mechanisms have created a virtual hard cap for most of the league and have forced even the free spenders to think twice before making a deal. The Nets decided against acquiring Hill in part because he would have cost them $17 million in taxes, on top of his $3.5 million salary.

Meanwhile, the Hawks failed to find a team willing to take Jeff Teague’s contract, and the Detroit Pistons failed to find any takers for the overpaid Josh Smith.

"The tax teams didn’t look to add significant money," said the Eastern Conference executive. "The new tax rules took effect."

With so many teams trying to contain costs, it’s no wonder that draft picks have become so highly valued—even overvalued, in the view of some executives. A first-round pick has a fixed salary, based on the rookie scale, for up to four seasons. Second-round picks are even cheaper, typically signing for the league minimum.

How much has the new CBA impacted the landscape? The Knicks, who once tossed around picks without flinching, turned away potential deals because they refused to surrender another first-rounder.

"The days of throwing picks away, I think that’s going to be ending pretty soon here," one team executive said.

The Knicks belong to a group of teams—including the Nets, Lakers and Warriors—that were hamstrung by having already traded away multiple future picks. Then there are teams like Phoenix and Boston, which have amassed multiple first-rounders in prior trades. That combination left fewer picks in play at the deadline.

One other subtle force was at work Thursday: Blind optimism. Team executives are salivating at the free-agent class of 2015, which could include Rondo, Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, Roy Hibbert and Marc Gasol; as well as the 2016 class, which will be headlined by Kevin Durant and Joakim Noah.

That allure has several big-market teams, including the Knicks, Nets and Lakers, guarding their future cap room. Other potential spenders—including Boston, Philadelphia and Phoenix—are conserving cap room for this summer, which surely inhibited any deal-making this week.

"I think the summertime will be a better time (for deals)," Celtics president Danny Ainge told Boston reporters

Distraught fans and antsy team executives can only hope so.

 

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.

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