High-Profile Buyouts, Trade Demands Creating Havoc for NBA Execs

A. Sherrod BlakelyContributor IMarch 17, 2021

Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images

The NBA's best teams, no matter how stacked their roster may be, are always in the mood to add above-average talent at a below-market cost.

This is especially true this time of year when the league's buyout market begins to take shape.

Increased talent on the buyout market—that's a good thing, right?

Not for a number of league executives.

Having a more robust buyout market, executives believe, is great for teams that are already among the NBA's better squads. But for the bulk of the league, a deeper, more talented group of players on the buyout market has a trickle-down effect that negatively impacts potential trades, a key component of every team's blueprint for success.

League executives were in agreement that public trade demands are part of what ultimately leads to a deeper pool of talent on the buyout market by adding another layer of difficulty to getting trades done.

And when the player involved is a non-star such as then-Cleveland guard J.R. Smith, who demanded a trade from the Cavs in 2018, getting a trade done becomes even tougher because of an already smaller core of interested teams.

Cleveland waived Smith in 2019, and he wouldn't join another team until 2020 when the Los Angeles Lakers signed him to a substitution contract prior to the Orlando bubble as a replacement for Avery Bradley. 

"Doing trades has always been harder than the general public thinks, but it's harder now than ever," a veteran Eastern Conference executive said. "If a player or his agent says he wants to be traded, which happens a lot these days, teams usually wind up with a couple of pretty crappy options at the end of the day: Make a deal that you're not that thrilled about, or keep a player on the team that the entire world knows doesn't want to be there. It's a bad look, and, like I said, it makes the job of getting deals done harder."  

Richard Carson/Associated Press

The Houston Rockets were able to move on from James Harden after his desire to play elsewhere became known by the masses.

Because Harden's trade demand was so publicly talked about and scrutinized, league executives believe it had a negative impact on what the Rockets were able to get in return for the 2018 MVP and nine-time All-Star.

"Houston had to trade him; we all knew that," an Eastern Conference executive said. "That's why they [Houston] never saw the best deal teams could offer. They did the best they could, under the circumstances, and got a decent haul when you think about the fact that they had no choice really but to trade him. But for a lot of teams with players that are good but not James Harden good, the savings in a buyout might be more worthwhile, to be honest, than a couple of draft picks. No one you see on the trade block is going to get anything close to what Houston got for Harden."

The domino effect of the Harden deal, executives said, could be seen in the way the Pistons handled parting ways with Blake Griffin. 

Detroit made no secret about wanting to trade the All-NBA third-team member from the 2018-19 season, going so far as to release a statement indicating as much.

But the Pistons could not find any takers willing to swing a deal for Griffin, who was owed $36.6 million this season with another $39 million next season. So Griffin and the Pistons reached a buyout agreement that included him leaving more than $13 million on the table to become an unrestricted free agent. 

Cleveland has kept 27-year-old Andre Drummond off the floor since Feb. 12 with the intent to trade him as well, but league executives anticipate the two-time All-Star will become another talented player not far removed from his prime added to the buyout market mix.

"He's got a lot more to offer than Blake does at this point," the Eastern Conference executive said. "But the thing is, what Andre does well isn't necessarily something you invest heavily in through a trade. He scores around the basket and rebounds the ball really well. But he doesn't stretch the floor and despite his size isn't the best rim-protector, either.

The East executive added: "At whatever he's making now [$28.75 million in the fifth and final year of his five-year, $127.2 million contract], that'll make you hesitate to do a deal for him. But if he's bought out and you can sign him straight up for a lot less, adding him becomes far more attractive."

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

And that is why, as the buyout market becomes richer with talent, it becomes an attractive alternative for top teams.

It allows teams that are on a successful track and have already invested heavily in their roster to add a player who will likely outperform his post-buyout contract.

For the player, it affords an opportunity to be on a team whose sights are set on making a deep playoff run and has a roster that, with him on board, is stronger and built even more than ever to compete at the highest levels.

A stronger buyout market also strengthens the players' sense of empowerment, with the one unavoidable downside being its impact on potential trades.

Is having a stronger buyout market worth it?

When it comes to NBA executives and players, it all depends on who you ask.