How Much Does Trust Really Matter in the NBA?April 1, 2021
Far more than what occurs between the games' first and 48th minutes, back-room conversations and private intel truly churn the NBA's ecosystem. So little of the NBA is actually about the basketball. And a lot of that business hinges upon some dynamic of trust.
When a team signs a player to a contract, it's trusting that player will be motivated by that situation, in that city, that he'll report to training camp in shape and that he'll give maximum effort on defense. A player trusts the team will then do its best to put him in a specific position, a role. If things were ever to change, well, both sides typically expect they can trust one another there, too. But that outcome typically depends on who the player in question is.
That's why JJ Redick called out the New Orleans Pelicans front office Wednesday. The veteran took to his podcast, Old Man and the Three, sharing his shock at being traded to the Dallas Mavericks. Redick said he requested a trade from New Orleans in November and that Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin had given Redick his word that he would trade the shooter to a team closer to his family in Brooklyn.
There would seem to be one clear motivation to voicing all this sentiment publicly. If you adjust your radar, it almost sounds like a warning to fellow players: "I don't think you're going to get honesty from that front office, objectively speaking," Redick said. "That's not an opinion, I just don't think you're gonna get that. I don't think what happened with me is necessarily an isolated incident."
The communication between any front office and any player is always framed by a hazy line. The buzziest player-team executive arc to unfold at this year's trade deadline, for example, actually took place within the Toronto Raptors organization. Kyle Lowry once felt Toronto president Masai Ujiri betrayed him by trading DeMar DeRozan to the Spurs for Kawhi Leonard. Then Leonard, of course, led the Raptors to the title.
Lowry and Ujiri have purportedly mended much of their broken fence along the way, and Toronto's front office ultimately refused to send Lowry to a suboptimal situation before last Thursday's buzzer. The Raptors never dropped their asking price for him, which seems largely due to upholding his status as the franchise's icon.
That benefits both the Raptors and Lowry, setting the bar for Toronto's value for any of its younger core players—and for how teams will have to consider Lowry in free agency this summer. He's 35 years old but still good enough Toronto wouldn't accept the packages the Lakers and Heat offered for him. This all comes with trust.
It's a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison, but it's all to say that Redick's comments surely won't prevent New Orleans from conducting its business as usual moving forward. For now, there are only 30 teams, and there remain plenty of players and coaches lining up to work for all of those 30 teams.
In the NBA, without that magical lubricant that is winning—specifically, winning championships—any action worthy of forging mistrust between two parties can have consequences. This isn't quite Game of Thrones, but maybe akin to the politicking in a social game. Aside from a few trusted allies, many players succeed in the business of basketball while assuming nobody is looking out for them but themselves. A stable organizational culture may be the only thing that can temper that paranoia. Leonard excluded, look at the Spurs.
In the NBA, success and salaries are so easily determined by wins and losses. Players and coaches, agents and executives, are often exceptionally competitive people who can view the industry through a finite lens of "you're either with me or against me."
It seems Redick has now drawn that line in the sand with the Pelicans. "In terms of this front office, yeah," he said on his podcast, "it's not something where I would expect certainly the agents who worked on this with me to ever trust that front office again."
Redick is represented by CAA Sports' Aaron Mintz, a veteran agent with a starry roster of clients ranging from Paul George to Carmelo Anthony, as well as another Pelicans guard in Josh Hart, who's set to reach restricted free agency this summer.
Maybe the Pelicans' handling of Redick's trade request will impact those impending negotiations with Hart. But most likely not. New Orleans maintains the front office was in constant contact with Redick and his representatives throughout the process, leading up to the deadline and his ultimate trade to Dallas. There's little expectation on the Pelicans' side that Redick's comments are anything more than a player being moved to a team not on his wish list.
"Not many players are happy about getting traded," said a Western Conference executive.
Even if you injected truth serum into all the characters at play here, there is still a lot of time separating the NBA calendar from this offseason. Perhaps Redick joins the Mavericks, and a playoff run sniping alongside Luka Doncic sets up the shooter for one last payday when he reaches the open market this summer.
And Hart is well-liked in New Orleans, a valued spark plug in the second unit. Whether the Pelicans surge into the postseason or fall short of the playoffs will likely impact his free agency more than anything.
On the flip side, there's certainly a precedent of sour grapes. Some violations of trust can become million-dollar mistakes.
James Harden felt the Oklahoma City Thunder slighted him in their 2012 contract extensions, and in turn helped disrupt a budding dynasty. The Utah Jazz didn't offer Gordon Hayward's new contract in 2014; it was Charlotte that signed him to an offer sheet. Hayward then fled for Boston once he became an unrestricted free agent four years later, and he eventually left the Celtics for the Hornets last summer.
The balance of power in the NBA has shifted dramatically over these last few seasons, and the pendulum may have irrevocably swung in favor of the players. But Redick's speech may not have the domino effect he hopes for. None of the Celtics, Nets, Knicks or Sixers offered more than the package Dallas offered, otherwise Redick would be playing for a franchise closer to his family in Brooklyn. New Orleans certainly tried to move him east.
Maybe Griffin could have not traded Redick anyway, instead agreeing to a buyout that would have freed him to sign with any team of his choosing, just as Cleveland did for Andre Drummond. But the Cavaliers only waived Drummond because they didn't find a suitable trade for their dissatisfied big man.
New Orleans received not only a 2021 second-round pick in a loaded draft, but two defensive-minded wing players—James Johnson and Wesley Iwundu, another Mintz client— the Pelicans hope can help support their whirring offense as they look to reach the postseason.
Sometimes, it's simply business.
Jake Fischer covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is the author of Built to Lose: How the NBA's Tanking Era Changed the League Forever.