They are the pawns in the chess matches of NBA executives, which is every bit as dreary and humbling as it sounds.
Trade-fillers, or throw-ins (or any other title that highlights their necessary-but-uninspiring existence), appear almost like asterisks on the league's transaction log. They take different forms—maybe a future second-round pick, an unheralded veteran or a "prospect" with limited upside—but they all fill the same essential role: facilitating a trade that really isn't about them.
Or isn't initially about them, at least. Some really good players have slipped through the cracks as an apparent lagniappe in a trade package, though that's certainly the exception and not the rule.
Take former Miami Heat forward Sylvester Gray for instance. Wait, who? Exactly.
Gray played 55 games for the Miami Heat in 1988-89, averaging 8.0 points on 42.0 percent shooting. But his claim to fame came more than a year before his NBA debut. In June 1987, Gray was traded as a future second-round pick in the draft-day deal that sent Scottie Pippen from the Seattle SuperSonics to the Chicago Bulls.
Pippen, of course, would go on to win six world titles with the Bulls and eventually play his way into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Gray would fall off the NBA radar before he ever really made an appearance.
Gray's name could have been replaced with dozens of others. That's why teams are so willing to let a player like him go. If a long-shot scratch ticket is needed to get a bigger deal done, that's a move NBA teams make 11 times out of 10.
But it's still a gamble. Sometimes you throw in the wrong guy and pay for it later. It's a story that has been repeated throughout NBA history, and we have found several recent examples to help bring the issue to light.
The Rotation Ranks Filled by Former Throw-Ins
Earlier this season, the Boston Celtics agreed to a five-player trade that sent franchise mainstay Rajon Rondo to the Dallas Mavericks. In return, Boston picked up two draft picks, a prospect (Jae Crowder), two movable veterans (Brandan Wright and Jameer Nelson, both of whom have since been moved) and a $12.9 million trade exception.
As part of that same trade, rookie Dwight Powell also went from Boston to Dallas. But you could've missed that part of the exchange if you weren't careful. ESPN Insider Kevin Pelton used 851 words to explain the B- grade he handed out to the Mavericks for that deal. None of them were "Dwight" or "Powell."
And, really, why would they have been? Powell, the 45th pick in last summer's draft, arrived in Dallas having totaled nine points, one rebound and nine minutes over five games with the Celtics. He turned 23 in June and averaged a solid-if-unspectacular 14.0 points and 6.9 rebounds as a senior at Stanford last season.
Nothing about Powell made him seem worth mentioning—until he started seeing minutes with the Mavericks.
With no Tyson Chandler or Dirk Nowitzki on Jan. 14, Dallas finally let Powell off his leash. In nearly 29 minutes of action, the 6'11" big man tallied 11 points, five rebounds, two assists and a block before fouling out. Coach Rick Carlisle, who had been hurting for frontcourt depth without Wright, said Powell had done enough to earn another look, per Earl K. Sneed of Mavs.com:
Powell has averaged 5.4 points and 3.6 rebounds in 17.5 minutes over the five games since. The Mavs have put up an absurd 114.8 points per 100 possessions with the rookie on the floor.
"He's playing hard, and he's doing what we're asking him to do, which is defend, rebound and knock down open shots," Carlisle said, per Eddie Sefko of The Dallas Morning News. "... He's done a good job, and this is a really good opportunity for him to get some experience."
A six-game sample won't prove that Powell is an NBA player, but he has shown he deserves a chance to become one.
"Having help to keep Dallas afloat while Nowitzki and Chandler rest is vital for the Mavs," wrote Grantland's Brett Koremenos. "Maybe Powell will vanish from the rotation by late April, but he's got a chance to play the key role of keeping the Mavericks' most important players fresh for what promises to be a grueling postseason."
That doesn't mean the Celtics regret giving him up. They didn't have minutes for him anyway with Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk, Brandon Bass and Tyler Zeller already chewing up the frontcourt playing time.
Opportunity is such a critical aspect of player development, particularly for a player who doesn't arrive as a highly touted prospect. The Celtics already knew that, having fleeced Zeller from the Cleveland Cavaliers at a door-busting price.
With Cleveland needing cap space for LeBron James and the Brooklyn Nets having targeted Jarrett Jack as a replacement for Shaun Livingston, the Celtics accumulated a pile of assets for facilitating the three-team trade.
Zeller, the 17th overall pick in 2012, wasn't completely off the radar. But the 7-footer with a presumably low ceiling seemed like icing on the cake to a package that included a protected 2016 first-rounder from Cleveland and Marcus Thornton's expiring contract.
Zeller has proved to be something far greater than an added bonus. He's shooting a career-best 56.9 percent from the field and posting a per-36-minute line of 17.0 points, 9.6 rebounds and 1.3 blocks.
The Celtics have to be impressed by the production, though they may have held the 25-year-old in higher regard than most teams around the league.
"I knew his makeup and I knew that teams need that," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said, per Julian Benbow of The Boston Globe. "Teams need a physical guy, teams need a tough guy, teams need a mentally tough guy, a guy who's won and a guy who's impacted winning without scoring."
NBA rotations are filled with throw-ins like Powell and Zeller.
Former second-rounder Khris Middleton was an afterthought in the 2013 deal that sent Brandon Knight to the Milwaukee Bucks and Brandon Jennings to the Detroit Pistons. But that label no longer applies to Middleton, who has averaged 11.5 points and buried 41.8 percent of his threes over 123 regular-season games in Milwaukee, the vast majority of which he's started.
Lavoy Allen has seen a similar spike since landing with the Indiana Pacers in last season's deadline deal that brought Evan Turner to the Circle City and sent Danny Granger to the Philadelphia 76ers.
Allen played a minimal role for Indy in 2013-14, but the Pacers thought enough to re-sign him this summer—something they didn't do with Turner. Allen has responded with career highs of 6.7 rebounds, 6.6 points, 0.8 blocks and a 49.2 field-goal percentage.
The Denver Nuggets landed two difference-making frontcourt players in the 2011 three-team, 13-player blockbuster exchange that netted the New York Knicks scoring forward Carmelo Anthony. But Timofey Mozgov and Kosta Koufos were asterisks behind Denver's other acquisitions, namely New York's 2014 first-round pick and forwards Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler.
But Mozgov and Koufos both thrived for the Nuggets, who later flipped both for more assets. Koufos was sent to the Memphis Grizzlies in June 2013 for valuable reserve big Darrell Arthur and the draft rights to 6'11" French forward Joffrey Lauvergne. Denver moved Mozgov to Cleveland earlier this month for two future first-round picks.
None of these players were the focal points of their respective deals. They were more like free dart throws that landed somewhere on the board.
But every now and then, these tosses have found the bull's-eye. Four such tosses have been seen over the last few seasons, two of which involve players who have a shot at being selected to the 2015 NBA All-Star Game.
The Stars That Were Never Seen as Such
The first player to fit this category is the 7'0" Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic.
The 16th pick in 2011 was part of the 2012 four-team megadeal that saw Dwight Howard land with the Los Angeles Lakers, Andrew Bynum go to Philly and Andre Iguodala wind up in the Mile High City in 2012.
The Magic may have liked Vucevic at the time, but the meat of their return package was the three future first-round picks they acquired. After an underwhelming rookie season with the Sixers (5.5 points, 4.8 rebounds in 15.9 minutes), Vucevic looked like the low-risk, low-reward counterpart to the physically intriguing Maurice Harkless.
"He's a capable basketball player, but he'll never be anything more than a backup center on a decent team," Liberty Ballers' Michael Levin said of Vucevic in 2012 (h/t Orlando Pinstriped Post's Evan Dunlap). "He's wholly lacking in upside."
Apparently, no one ever shared that information with Vucevic. The 24-year-old has raised his ceiling each season in Orlando and is currently one of only two players averaging at least 19 points and 11 rebounds.
And the other former throw-in with a compelling All-Star case? Golden State Warriors Swiss army knife Draymond Green, who has routinely drawn praise of the highest order from first-year coach Steve Kerr.
"He's in a lot of ways our heart and soul and just plays with such passion at both ends," Kerr said, per Bay Area News Group's Diamond Leung. "I think it's contagious."
Green stuffs a stat sheet like no one else. He's the only player to have tallied at least 300 rebounds, 50 triples, 50 steals and 50 blocks this season. And those numbers don't even account for his nightly contributions of 11.7 points and 3.5 assists, nor the fact that he's capable of defending all five positions.
Green is headed for restricted free agency at season's end, and ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy recently said he thinks Green will be "a max player," per ESPN.com's Ethan Sherwood Strauss.
If that sounds unreasonable for a player who doesn't dominate traditional categories, just consider this: Green leads the league in defensive rating (96.1) and defensive win shares (3.0). He ranks 10th in Basketball-Reference.com's all-encompassing box plus-minus (5.0) and is tied for 11th in ESPN.com's real plus-minus (5.86).
It's impossible to know now if a jackpot payday sits in Green's future, but it seems nearly certain that he will command an eight-figure salary on the open market.
That makes Green's method of arrival in Golden State look all the more absurd.
It's not just the fact he fell to the 35th pick of the 2012 draft. It's also that the pick was originally acquired by Golden State as a future-second rounder in the 2011 deal that brought Troy Murphy (briefly) back to the Bay Area and delivered Brandan Wright and Dan Gadzuric to the Nets. The Warriors waived Murphy after only five days—and won that trade with ease thanks to Green's unexpected rise.
But that's what can happen when the NBA treats second-round picks like the pennies of the trade-currency market. Every once in a while, one of them turns out to be a gold coin.
Before Chandler Parsons emerged as a do-it-all forward for the Houston Rockets and snagged a three-year, $46 million deal from Dallas, he too was a part of this phenomenon.
The Rockets traded their 2011 second-round pick (38th overall) to the Minnesota Timberwolves in a five-player exchange. Houston then bought the selection back from Minnesota and used it on Parsons, a wildly productive player during his three years there who also played a pivotal role in the recruitment of Howard.
Diminutive Phoenix Suns scoring guard Isaiah Thomas has his own story of slipping through the cracks. Before unleashing his potent offensive arsenal on the NBA, he was traded twice prior to becoming the NBA's "Mr. Irrelevant" in 2011.
The Chicago Bulls originally owned the selection, but they parted with it in the 2010 trade that brought Joe Alexander and Hakim Warrick to the Milwaukee Bucks and John Salmons to the Windy City. The Bucks later dealt the pick and Darnell Jackson to the Sacramento Kings for Jon Brockman.
Thomas has averaged 15.3 points over the course of his career. Alexander, Warrick and Brockman averaged a combined 15.7 points over theirs. And Salmons has only posted a player efficiency rating above the league-average 15.0 mark in one of his 12-plus NBA seasons (16.0 in 2008-09).
The Lessons Learned
The biggest takeaway from all this is that there really isn't one. Teams aren't going to stop using afterthoughts to smooth out bigger deals, because for every Draymond Green there are a dozen Sylvester Grays.
Front offices cannot—and should not—deny themselves an opportunities land stars because they want to keep all their second-round picks or end-of-the-bench "prospects" around. In the grand scheme of blockbuster dealing, that's an easy pill to swallow.
What this shows, however, is that all NBA labels are fluid.
There are no such things as lost causes. Forgettable statistics aren't always a reflection of that particular player's ability. The lack of production could just as easily result from a poor systematic fit, a denial of opportunity to prove one's worth or being refused the time needed for proper development.
Talent alone doesn't make for a successful career. Several different ingredients go into that recipe, including unpredictable ones like fortune and timing.
Just look at Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside. His NBA run seemed over before it started, having vanished from the big-league ranks after making 19 appearances for the Kings from 2010-12.
"You can ask just about anybody in Charlotte at the downtown Y, I was there just chilling, just working on my game," Whiteside recalled recently, per Shandel Richardson of the South Florida Sun Sentinel. "I couldn't even get a team to pick up the phone."
But the Heat needed an athletic rim deterrent at the defensive end and above-the-rim finisher at the opposite side. So they came calling with a two-year deal at the veteran's minimum. And the former second-rounder has been piling up the production since, highlighted by Sunday's brilliant 14-point, 13-rebound, 12-block triple-double.
These things happen. Guys slip through the cracks. And in hindsight, they can make teams look really bad if they wind up finding the right place to showcase their ability elsewhere.
Don't expect that to keep clubs from making these players or these picks unavailable leading up to the Feb. 19 trade deadline. But remember to withhold judgment of these transactions until all the pieces have had the chance to show what they can become.
History has shown how quickly players can change from expendable to valuable—or in some cases even indispensable.