Pretty decent NBA trade deadline, amirite?
Considering so many teams were determined to hold onto their first-round picks at all costs -- costs being a big deal in the $200 million-plus max deals world of today’s NBA -- any trades at all would have made for a good, exciting day. And then Cavaliers GM Koby Altman went all Al Capone with the bat on fools.
Cleveland’s implosion merited taking a blowtorch to the roster, and Altman did that, in a day that centered on the Cavs’ remaking of the roster, but was fascinating by not only what happened, but what didn’t. With so many teams bunched up in both conferences in the playoff race, every one of them would have been justified making a deal. But the days of renting a player for a couple of months for the stretch drive are over. Almost every team has a superstar, or is at least paying their best player like one.
And the 2016 spending orgy continues to have ramifications. The outlay from that summer, in large part, has put two-thirds of the league well over the salary cap, with a number of those 20 teams either hard-capped or perilously close to being so. It made maneuvering this year difficult, if not impossible. No role player was worth a team going over the tax apron, or over the tax threshold -- especially if a team would become a repeater tax paying team by doing so.
And yet, teams made moves, and not insignifcant ones. (The Blake Griffin trade to the Detroit Pistons, even though it technically was made the week before the deadline, was close enough to it here to be considered a deadline deal.) Because, as ever, it’s ridiculous to assign ’’winners” and ’’losers” a minute after a trade was made, it’s more accurate to simply observe that some people benefitted from the trades that were made, on and off the court, while others did not, at least immediately.
To paraphrase Al Pacino in the Michael Mann film about whistle blower/hero Jeffrey Wiegand, "The Insider” ...
PERSONS WHO STAND TO PROFIT FROM THESE TRANSACTIONS
1. Altman, reconsidered: Cleveland’s rookie GM had so many things to prove in what was a seemingly impossible spot in his first NBA go-round as the Cavs’ boss. In fact, he was derided as not even being the boss, the notion being that Dan Gilbert was getting his inner Jerry Jones on and making personnel decisions as well as owning the team.
Altman got heat nationally for holding out for more from Boston before pulling the trigger on the Kyrie Irving trade, then was pilloried for what he got in the deal, then was pilloried for not trading the most important piece of the deal -- the unprotected 2018 first-round pick from Brooklyn that the Celtics had held onto for years before including it to get Irving -- for a short-term fix. And as the Cavs continued to struggle and look less and less like a contender in January, Altman was dismissed altogether as a coatholder for Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, who was thought to be the ’real’ GM in Cleveland.
But Altman had his say when it mattered last Thursday, as he pulled the trigger on simultaneous deals that took a blowtorch to the old roster, made the team younger and longer and gave it a foundation for the future regardless of what LeBron decides to do this summer -- while not sacrificing the Brooklyn pick. (And, it must be said, all this happened because Gilbert agreed to take on still more luxury tax payments -- another $7 million -- for this year.)
Out went Isaiah Thomas and Channning Frye, Jae Crowder and Iman Shumpert, Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade (the last a sop to Wade that allows him to finish his career in Miami, where everyone wanted/hoped he would). In came Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance, Jr., Rodney Hood and George Hill, Hill being the only one over 30. Hood will be a restricted free agent at season’s end but the Cavs are almost certain to keep him and/or match any offer for him. That would leave Cleveland with Hill, Hood, Clarkson, Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, Nance, J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver and rookie Cedi Osman all signed for 2018-19, along with whomever Cleveland takes with Brooklyn’s pick, regardless of whether James is there or not.
That may not be a championship contending core, but it’s not nothing, either. And, yes, Altman opened the door to the Lakers being able to make a compelling pitch to James to leave Cleveland. But that’s life in the big city. You can’t make a deal because of what it might do to you down the road; you have to improve the team you have. And, Altman did. If James walks, the Cavs now have a post-LeBron future that would be vastly different from the one they had after he left the first time 2010.
2. LeBron James, revitalized: It was obvious to anyone paying attention that James’ spirit was sapped in the last couple of weeks. His defense bordered on nonexistent; his offensive output collapsed, as he made just 13 3-pointers in 14 games and shot a horrific 22 percent from 3-point range in January. His plus-minus in January, per basketball-reference.com, was -8.3, the worst of his career in a full month’s slate of games. He didn’t believe in the team that Altman had put around him. We will find out what he thinks of his new, younger brethren in due time, but make no mistake -- he’s once again engaged, as his 65th career triple-double Friday in Atlanta showed. And an engaged LeBron can take any group to The Finals.
3. Unnamed ESPN Executive, again hopeful: See No. 2. Whoever ultimately replaces John Skipper, the Four-Letter’s longtime president who suddenly resigned last December, will cry Kevin Hart-sized tears of joy if the Cavs re-ignite and find themselves in a fourth straight Finals against the Golden State Warriors, or face ”The Beard” and ”CP3”, in June. Nothing against the Boston Celtics or Toronto Raptors, but LeBron is gold-plated ratings magma, which ABC/ESPN have ridden to wildly successful numbers the last three years in June, among the best for Finals games since Michael Jordan’s days in Chicago.
4. Daryl Morey, sitting pretty: The Warriors didn’t make a move at the trade deadline to bolster what has been a shaky bench, leaving Morey’s Houston Rockets right where they were before the deadline: right on Golden State’s heels. Getting a post-buyout commit from Joe Johnson also keeps him from going to the Warriors, who coveted his low-post abilities as a small-ball four just as the Rockets did. Morey has methodically built his team to this point since getting Harden: Houston, right now, is a real and credible threat to topple Golden State in the Western Conference.
5. Derrick Favors, queued up: The 26-year-old power forward didn’t get traded, as many around the league figured he would once Utah didn’t give an extension last fall. But with Gordon Hayward and Hill already gone from last year’s roster, and with Hood getting dealt to Cleveland, there aren’t many parts of the existing Jazz nucleus left that Utah has to pay signficant dollars. They already have Rudy Gobert, Joe Ingles and Ricky Rubio inked for 2018-19 at a total outlay of around $51 million, with another $11 million due Alec Burks if Utah keeps him. It then stands to reason that Favors, with full Bird rights in Utah, could be in line for some of that money in July that the Jazz offered Hayward last year. Favors has played extremely well next to Gobert when both have been healthy, and he’s been outstanding during Utah’s nine-game win streak. If he doesn’t stay in Salt Lake City, he’ll be among the top free-agent big men available this summer.
6. Jeanie Buss, Tinseltown Boss: Cleveland took on Clarkson’s $12.5 million for 2018-19 in the Thomas deal. Doing so puts the Lakers back in business this summer, giving them the option to make max offers to two free agents at the same time. So, after the Lakers’ president fired her brother, Jim, and former GM Mitch Kupchak last year, and installing Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka in their place, Jeanie Buss has her hand-picked management team in place, plenty of cap room and some promising young guys around which to build. The Lakers have a story to tell that should be compelling. They’ve struck out on free agent after free agent for the last several years, sounding out of touch and tone deaf to elite players and their representatives. It’s Showtime.
7. James Ennis, unearthed: The fourth-year forward was having a solid though relatively anonymous season in Memphis, averaging almost seven points off the bench in 23 minutes a game. A lot of teams were trying to get him at the deadline. The Pistons did, to finish a solid fortnight of trades that revamped their roster and injected life into the franchise as they were sinking in the Eastern Conference. Ennis doesn’t have the start power of Griffin and he’s not as familiar with coach Stan Van Gundy as Jameer Nelson is. But the 27-year-old is going to help the Pistons in the last months of the regular season, as they fight for a playoff spot.
8. Mike Malone, keeping the band together: Denver was much less active at the deadline than many thought the Nuggets would be. In the end, they only moved guard Emmanuel Mudiay, who had fallen out of favor and the rotatiion anyway with Jamal Murray assuming the point. The Nuggets didn’t move Will Barton, Wilson Chandler or Kenneth Faried, all of whom had suitors, and they’re expecting Paul Millsap back no later than early March. So Malone, the Nuggets’ coach, has his team essentially in place for the stretch run, which should result in a playoff berth if Denver can stay healthy and Millsap doesn’t have any relapses. And no one at the top of the West wants to see Murray, Gary Harris, Nikola Jokic and company in the first round.
9. Hornets fans, not abandoned: Some around the Association figured that Charlotte, once it let it be known it would listen to offers for Kemba Walker, would have to move him before the deadline. After all, the Hornets don’t have much of a chance at the playoffs this year, and Walker is rapidly approaching free agency in 2019. The idea was, make a good deal for him now (maybe to his native New York) and get assets around which you could build, before he walks in a year and you get nothing. But the Hornets stood pat and didn’t deal, and it’s a good thing for that franchise.
Why should Charlotte be any more inclined to move its best player for pennies on the dollar than, say, the Knicks or the Lakers or any big-market franchise that’s struggling this season? People in North Carolina want value for their entertainment dollars just as much as people in California. It’s hard enough to get free agents to commit to Charlotte; why give away a star guard who, by all accounts, likes it there and wants to stay there? The Raptors made the team around Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan better -- they didn’t blow it up after a couple of playoff failures. The Hornets’ fan base deserves similar restructuring and improvement around Walker rather than a fire sale.
10. Andre Roberson, irreplaceable: The Oklahoma City Thunder guard is out for the season after rupturing his patella tendon Jan. 27. His impact on the Thunder’s defense has been written about time and time again over the years. The Thunder aren’t the same without him. Yet, in this season where OKC has put all its cards in the middle of the table -- getting Paul George, then trying to keep Paul George by extending Russell Westbrook, then acquiring Carmelo Anthony -- the Thunder didn’t make a deadline move to get a guard to replace Roberson, at least for the rest of the year.
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OKC was linked to any number of prominent, defense-first wings – the LA Clippers’ Avery Bradley, Utah’s Hood, the Portland Trail Blazers’ Maurice Harkless -- but didn’t make a deal for any of them. Perhaps the Thunder will make a deal with free agent Tony Allen -- The Grindfather would seem a perfect fit for Roberson’s spot the rest of this year, and the Thunder’s been in contact since the trade deadline passed. But, long-term, assuming a return to health, Roberson will have no significant competition for his minutes or role.
On the other hand, some teams did things that were head scratchers, or didn’t seemingly move the needle at all. To paraphrase the dude that former network anchor Dan Rather said attacked him on a Manhattan street in broad daylight in 1986 (turns out, Rather wasn’t crazy):
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KENNETH, WHAT IS THE FREQUENCY?
1. The Tale of Tyreke Evans, in Ten Short Chapters:
A. He was maybe the most coveted and available player at the trade deadline, in the midst of a great bounceback season after signing a one-year minimum vet deal in Memphis.
B. The Grizzlies are going nowhere -- as in a guy sitting at the bus stop who has a game token for Dave and Busters and a coupon for free crazy bread at Little Caesars in his pocket going nowhere -- and Evans was found money, an unexpected asset who could net them something valuable in return.
C. The Grizzlies pulled Evans off the court before their game Jan. 31 against the Indiana Pacers, a signal to all of NBA World that they were going to trade him soon and didn’t want him to get injured before a deal could be consummated.
D. He continued to sit for more than a week, while the Grizzlies kept losing -- antithetical to the team’s notion that they’re not interested in a rebuld/tank job this year and think they’ll quickly return to the NBA elite when everyone is healthy.
E. The Grizzlies, despite knowing full well that almost no one was/would be willing to give up a first-round pick in the current almost-everyone-is-capped-out-environment for a player that could turn out to be a three-month rental, insisted on a first-rounder or nothing for Evans.
F. No one offered a first-rounder for Evans -- see "E" -- leaving Memphis the option of second-rounders and/or 2018-19 contracts for him.
G. The Grizz, improbably, didn’t move Evans by the deadline, hoping that he truly does, as he’s consistently said, like playing there -- he was a star at the University of Memphis -- and that they can re-sign him in July, despite not having his Bird rights, and add him to their Mike Conley-Marc Gasol nucleus.
H. Memphis can, though, get him to Early Bird rights in the summer of 2019 if he were to sign a one-year deal with the Grizz in July, which is the only financial advantage they will have over other teams that could, like Memphis, offer him the full mid-level exception this coming summer.
I. But by keeping Evans the rest of this season, Memphis runs the risk of devaluing its own 2018 first-rounder; if he continues to play well, the Grizzlies could win more games and wind up in worse position in the Lottery.
J. And if he walks out the door ... well, do they have Dave and Busters locations in the Greater Memphis area? Some of the video games are awesome.
2. Atlanta, holding onto rags in front of Johnny Chan: The Hawks, desperately seeking the bottom of the East to bolster their Lottery chances, didn’t trade any of Kent Bazemore, Dwayne Dedmon, Marco Belinelli or Ersan Ilyasova by the deadline (though they did buy out Belinelli, who’s going to the 76ers). Maybe the offers for all of them were junk, but, charitably: so what? You don’t give Dedmon away, I guess, but even a second-round pick for Belinelli or Ilyasova would help continue building the Draft stockpile that’s going to be at the heart of any Hawks rebuild the next couple of years.
3. The Brothers Lopez, stuck in neutral: There was buzz around the league that at least one of the two Lopezes would be relocated one way or the other. Brook Lopez, with the Lakers, seemed the liklier candidate; he’s on an expiring deal and has to be renounced by the Lakers in July for them to have the cap space to go after two max free agents, which they can now do after getting Jordan Clarkson’s deal off their books for 2018-19. Robin Lopez is playing very well for the Bulls this season, but he’s got a year left on his deal ($14.3 million), making a trade more likely. But neither Lopez was traded, and as of this writing, neither has been bought out, leaving mascots around the league still vulnerable to the wrath of two seven-footers with chips on their shoulders.
4. The Southeast Division, falling asleep: Okay, Miami brought Wade back, and it was a feel-great story, to be sure. But he’s 36 now, not 26. It wasn’t a balance of power move as much as a balancing of the Heat’s karma. The Wizards and Hawks made a deal for Sheldon Mac, who hasn’t played a minute this season after tearing his Achilles in exhibition play for Washington, and whom Atlanta promptly waived. The Hawks traded Luke Babbitt to Miami for Okaro White, who they promptly waived. Charlotte got Willy Hernangomez from New York for a couple of seconds, and the 23-year-old will no doubt help and be in the Hornets’ rotation. Orlando sent its former first-round pick, Elfrid Payton, to Phoenix for a second-round pick, but didn’t have the fire sale that many around the league thought was coming: no deals for Evan Fournier, Mario Hezonja or Arron Afflalo, much less Aaron Gordon or Nicola Vucevic. It’s not that Atlanta or Orlando had to do something; their big moments will come this summer. But for a trade deadline, it was decidedly underwhelming.
5. Mark Cuban, mostly silent: The Mavericks have almost always made a deal at the deadline, going all the way back to when Don Nelson traded five of his players to the New Jersey Nets in 1997 for four of theirs. (Nellie then told a reporter on the phone of his departing players, ’’they’re a bunch of [bleeping] babies. And you can quote me on that.” Since I was the reporter, I did.) But this year, the Mavs didn’t move the expiring contract of Wesley Matthews or Nerlens Noel. Noel hadn’t played well before getting hurt early in the season, and he turned down a four-year, $70 million offer. The Mavs did bring in Doug McDermott as part of a three-team deal that sent Devin Harris to Denver, and maybe McBuckets can finally find a home there.
6. Golden State, lacking nails: (Because the Warriors have a rickety bench. Get it?) The Warriors couldn’t get Johnson or Belinelli, each of whom could have provided production in reserve, following their respective buyouts. Johnson was especially interesting, given that the Warriors saw him as a perfect fit for them, and they’ve almost always gotten their man the last few years. That he chose Houston over the Warriors must cut to the quick.
7. Portland, out of the red: Wheee!! Trading Noah Vonleh to Chicago officially got the Blazers out of luxury tax jail for this year. They’d already done the heavy lifting last July by sending the rest of Allen Crabbe’s $75 million deal to Brooklyn last summer. Moving Vonleh’s $3.5 million to the Bulls just finished the job. And while even owner Paul Allen is entitled to save money when he can, that’s not quite as sexy a move as, say, getting DeAndre Jordan for the stretch drive would have been.
8. Al Jefferson ... you’re still here?: The veteran big man is only playing 13 minutes a night for the Pacers, and that’s understandable. Myles Turner’s in the middle for the bulk of Indiana’s nightly run, and should be. But it’s hard to imagine Jefferson couldn’t have played the Nene role for someone else who still doesn’t mind dumping the ball into the paint every once in a while and watching someone score from there.
9. Georgios Papagiannis, unemployed: Wasn’t the Greek center one of Sacramento’s first-round picks in 2016? Wasn’t he part of the reason the Kings traded DeMarcus Cousins, because they had such a promising young big man who wouldn’t cause nearly as much trouble ready to replace him? Didn’t the Kings also acquire Malachi Richardson in the first round in 2016? Didn’t they just dump him last week, too? Okay, they did get the rights to Bogdan Bogdanovic in that 2016 Draft, too. One out of three is ... decent.
10. The Pelicans, quizzical: Already down an All-Star after losing DeMarcus Cousins for the season, and putting Omer Asik into the deal that brought them Nikola Mirotic, give the Nets a solid veteran big in Dante Cunningham ... why? Maybe they are, as the buzz has been for days, about to sign Andrew Bogut, in which case jettisoning Cunningham would make more sense.
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