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.
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