By the All-Star break, an NBA team will have one of three goals: a championship, a playoff spot or ping-pong balls.
For championship teams, the deadline is a time to assess their place in the pecking order, and whether they match-up with their rivals in a second-round or Conference Finals series. For the lottery teams, the deadline is a time to assess the roster, to determine which players will be around when the team is good again and which players need to be moved.
And for those in the middle, it's decision time: are we trying to get better now by picking up veterans or get better later by developing younger players?
As you go down the pecking order, veteran players become less and less important. Title teams need experienced vets who understand the importance of defense and how to win playoff games.
While playoff teams need vets to "fit" around their stars, if their stars are already vets, they have to face a difficult question: have we already maxed out our potential? Because the hardest leap in the NBA is to go from a 45+ win team to a 55+ win team.
Of course, cellar-dwelling teams have no need for veterans. All they are going to do is hurt the team's long-term plans by winning games and lowering their chances of getting a high draft pick.
Going into the trade deadline, some teams needed to get worse and start the rebuilding process (sellers), while others needed to get better to improve their chances in the playoffs (buyers). With that in mind, here's a quick look at the six biggest losers from an exciting and frenetic week of trading:
It's hard to blame a team who has won three straight Western Conference Finals and two NBA championships for sitting pat at the trade deadline. And on paper, LA still looks like the most formidable team in the league.
There's a reason no team since Bird's Celtics have won four straight conference championships. That much success goes to players' heads, and they tend to get complacent and overconfident...they might even lose to the worse team in the NBA because they're not trying that hard in the regular season.
Even more important, LA's players all have a lot of miles on their legs. Their core—Kobe, Gasol and Odom—have played in 67 playoff games the last three years as well as international competitions.
With young squads in Portland and Oklahoma City making blockbuster moves to catch them from behind and hungry veteran squads in Dallas and San Antonio separating themselves in the race for home-court, this looks like the most daunting Western gauntlet LA has faced in the last three years.
Some fresh legs and fresh energy would have been huge for the Lakers.
With a 47-10 record and a +7.1 point differential, the Spurs are the best regular season team in the NBA.
But as LeBron's Cavs discovered in the playoffs, that's not nearly as important as how you match-up with your biggest rivals.
And in that category, San Antonio has a glaring weakness—heir non Tim Duncan big men—and they did nothing to address it.
In a hypothetical Western Conference Finals against either LA or Dallas, Duncan will be guarding Tyson Chandler or Andrew Bynum in the low block. At the top of the key will be either Dirk (Dallas) or some combination of Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom (LA), can Spurs fans be confident in who they're sending out there?
DeJuan Blair is too short, Antonio McDyess is too old and Matt Bonner is...Matt Bonner.
John Hollinger projects the Pistons to win 26 games, which would give them the seventh worse record in the NBA. So why are they so intent on keeping overpriced thirty-somethings like Prince and Hamilton?
Detroit won’t be players on the free-agent market anytime soon, not after handing out nearly $100 million in contracts to two bench players in Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva. The only way for them to become good again is drafting young players to put around Greg Monroe; hanging on to memories of their golden years will only delay that process.
While they got a good haul from the Carmelo trade, they still haven’t fully committed to rebuilding. Denver is giving significant minutes to Nene, Kenyon Martin, Wilson Chandler, Aaron Afflalo and JR Smith, all of whom will be free agents after this season. If the Nuggets don’t want to lock them into long-term deals, why play them at the expense of younger players and hurt their draft position?
The Nuggets have a bunch of excellent complementary players but no All-Stars; they’ve managed the impressive feat of trading an All-NBA player while still running head-first towards the mediocrity treadmill—not good enough to win playoff series, not bad enough to get good draft picks.
There are two big differences between the Carmelo and Deron Williams trades: Anthony instantly signed a three-year extension while Williams is prohibited too under CBA rules, and the Knicks have a far larger talent base to replace the bounty they had to give to Denver.
After dealing three important pieces (Harris, Favors and their 2011 lottery pick) to get Williams, the cupboard is almost completely empty in New Jersey. Williams and Brook Lopez are the only two NBA-caliber starters on their roster.
With his impending free agency in 2012, New Jersey will have to make serious moves this off-season to convince him to stay. The clock is already ticking.
I’m reminded of the Texas Rangers dealing Mark Teixeira 1.5 years before he hit free agency. Knowing he wouldn’t resign in Arlington, Texas sold high and got a king’s ransom for him, including Neftali Feliz and Elvis Andrus, from Atlanta. But the Braves couldn’t keep him either, and they were forced to trade him the next seasons for far less than what they gave up.
The Nets will be one of the biggest winners of the 2011 trade deadline if they can keep Williams long-term. I’m just not sure they will be able too.
** They shouldn’t count on a “franchise tag” saving them either. The NFL’s franchise tag doesn’t prevent players from leaving in free agency; it just forces the other team to give up two first-rounders to acquire them. Sports leagues already tried to force their players to stay where they drafted them…it was called the reserve clause. **
Williams lives in San Diego in the off-season and grew up in Dallas; I doubt playing in Brooklyn is that important to him. Especially when he could sign with the Clippers and play with Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Eric Gordon and Minnesota’s first-rounder next year. That looks like a far better situation than teaming up with Brook Lopez and a veteran free-agent like David West.
The first rule of NBA trades is you never give up talented young centers. The second rule of NBA trades is that you never give up talented young centers.
By moving Perkins for Nenad Krstic and Jeff Green, two defense-less jump-shooters, the Boston Celtics front-line just got a whole less intimidating. Perkins was the unsung hero of Boston’s two runs to the NBA Finals, shutting down Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol in the post.
Boston’s aging core was in a great position to contend for one more championship; now they are depending on Shaq and Jermaine O’Neal to stay healthy and move their feet while defending the pick-and-roll in May and June. Good luck with that.
** The spin out of Boston is that this clears cap space for 2012, but I’m not buying that. You never want to give up a chance for a championship, and they could have just let Perkins walk in the off-season if that’s what they were concerned about. **