On the surface, the 2016 NBA trade deadline approached with a few similar smoke signals as the 2015 iteration – a manic, borderline ridiculous final day that flipped a previously slow trade period on its face. With an uncertain market, executives around the league once again pegged this year as a late bloomer, one where a flurry of activity to close the window could define the deadline as teams finally put their best offers (or their lowest demands) on the table. With a few big names reportedly on the block, including at least one or two rumors surrounding max or near-max salary players, it would only take one or two matches to once again shake up power balances in various locales.
If you dug a little deeper, though, it became clear by about 72 hours in advance of the final bell that this time around would not be a repeat of last year’s insanity. And while some of the reasons for this tie back to the Occam’s Razor of trade deadline life – big deals are very hard to get done between teams who all want maximum value – others speak to larger uncertainty about the changing market, along with an affirmation of a league-wide talent imbalance that only further complicates things for all but a few teams.
For starters, what amounted to a tame deadline period reflected the enormity of the collective league’s caution heading into an unprecedented cap spike this summer. Few in the game claim any certainty whatsoever regarding how a rapid cash influx will affect nearly every financial aspect of the NBA, even behind closed doors. Rather than throwing money around indiscriminately and expecting the new financial cushion to brace their fall, executives mostly went in the other direction.
Perhaps the clearest indicators here were a few supposedly high-interest commodities who, well, didn’t draw much interest.
Whether it was Al Horford in Atlanta (some executives speculated that he was never truly available in the first place), Dwight Howard in Houston or even a guy like Ryan Anderson or Eric Gordon in New Orleans, these incumbent franchises found tough sledding when looking for homes for expiring guys who could demand gigantic figures in the summer free-agency bonanza.
Again, it’s impossible to discern precisely how much of the inertia in these cases tied back to market dynamics. Teams still have to make the assets work in a desired trade, and bigger names can be among the most difficult to build around in a hypothetical deal. Parsing around the margins, though, reveals just how little interest teams had in bringing in a guy who a) could leave for nothing in a few months and b) would cost a king’s ransom to retain, even in new cap terms, on deals that could ruin a team’s cap sheet in a few uncertain years.
No one is sure whether the cap will remain so high a few years down the line. Howard, for instance, turns 31 next season – the nine-figure mega-contract he’ll certainly demand is legitimately frightening for a guy with both physical and behavioral asterisks next to his name in many circles, regardless of any cash influx on its way. The same can be said to some degree for any of the other rental players who might have drawn more interest in a year where teams could more accurately project the back end of a potential new deal.
Financial uncertainty might not have had quite the dulling effect, however, were it not for what’s simultaneously becoming a glaring on-court reality: NBA parity isn’t very high this year, even for a league where only a handful of teams are realistic title contenders annually. The Warriors were the class of the league at this time last year, but weren’t lapping the field to nearly this degree. Behind them, the pool of true challengers has shrunk drastically with the realization that only historical levels of greatness are slowing things down in the Bay.
So while Cleveland and Oklahoma City, teams ostensibly in this “challenger” group, made mostly minor tweaks to trim fat, many franchises in the next tier down saw little reason to use up any of their potential window. The Grizzlies, down Marc Gasol for an unspecified period, re-tooled with an influx of new draft picks and left their cap sheet intact to re-sign Mike Conley in the summer. The Raptors, perhaps the team best suited to make a splash with several usable assets and a window in the East that might not be open long pending DeMar DeRozan’s future, sat the trade period out altogether; a Celtics team in a similar position did the same.
There are exceptions, of course, but even these seem minor compared to what some had expected. The Clippers pulled a last second swap of Lance Stephenson for Jeff Green, but are likely deluding themselves if they see this as a move that truly places them among the league’s elite. The Wizards, with ample motivation to climb back into the East’s top eight as Kevin Durant approaches free agency, took likely the season’s highest-variance gamble by sending a protected first-rounder and salary fodder for the aggrieved Markieff Morris from Phoenix.
Most successful at straddling the fence were the Detroit Pistons, who preempted any last-second madness with likely the largest objective “win” near deadline time. Their acquisition of Tobias Harris from Orlando was successful on the surface because it was quite possibly a fleece job – Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilaysova, the Magic’s return, represent an expiring contract and a non-guaranteed 2016-17 year, respectively, for two guys who it could easily be argued don’t really approach Harris’ value in a vacuum.
But Detroit’s approach, which included the acquisition of Donatas Motiejunas, who is set to be a restricted free agent, was also notable for the way it signaled Stan Van Gundy’s attitude toward the upcoming summer craziness. By bringing in two names and likely punting his own 2016 first round pick (to Houston in the D-Mo deal, with limited protections that make it likely the pick will convey this year), Van Gundy is functionally taking care of his free-agency period in advance – he now holds matching rights on Motiejunas, meaning he’ll deal with little uncertainty in retaining him as he also re-signs Andre Drummond to what most assume is a wink-wink max. Detroit isn’t challenging for a title this year anyway, and Van Gundy has expertly positioned them to avoid much of the summer uncertainty with the outlines of a group he clearly feels can form a strong core moving forward.
Most of the league took the cautious route, though, and what’s left sets up for every bit of the madness most have been forecasting at least a year in advance of summer 2016. Teams might feel more adventurous in the parity department with a full offseason to re-tool and gauge the Warriors, Cavs, Spurs and Thunder. Exact certainty on the new salary math in early July will make the picture clearer for teams on the edge of one cap threshold or another. A 2016 draft that multiple league sources have already labeled as the weakest in several years (in either direction) could see plenty of activity, with some teams devaluing their picks while others hoard them with knowledge of the sky-high value of rookie-scale contracts in the new environment.
However you look at it, the new money is all that’s on any forward-thinking mind. It clearly played a big role in a docile trade season, and thinkers everywhere are waiting for the first dominos to drop in a summer that could in part shape the league’s balance of power for the next half-decade.
Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal
The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.
It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.
Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.
There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.
Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.
Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.
That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.
Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.
At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.
It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.
One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.
NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind
Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.
When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.
“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.
Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.
That didn’t last long.
“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”
With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.
As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.
After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.
In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.
“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”
Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.
“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”
Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.
“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”
After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.
Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.
“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”
All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.
“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”
Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team
Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.
“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”
Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN