Trade talks and inflation aren’t just topics for PBS and the network news channels. They’re a part of what’s going on in the NBA this offseason as well.
Now, there always have been trade talks, a primary means of doing basketball business. And anyone who hasn’t noticed inflation – from, say, David Robinson’s $5.7 million salary in 1992-93 to Kevin Garnett’s $25.2 million 10 years later to Steph Curry’s slated $59.6 million haul for 2025-26 – hasn’t been paying attention.
But there’s a combination of the two in play these days that might be having a chilling effect on the current vs. future whereabouts of Kevin Durant, Donovan Mitchell, perhaps Kyrie Irving and potentially NBA stars into the future.
All thanks to what the Minnesota Timberwolves decided Utah center Rudy Gobert was worth to them.
Gobert’s value, as established by the Wolves in an agreement finalized on July 6, was set by arguably the biggest trade haul in league history: four first-round Draft picks (with only light protection in 2029), an unprotected swap in 2026 and five players (Malik Beasley, Patrick Beverley, Leandro Bolmaro, Jarred Vanderbilt and freshly drafted first-rounder Walker Kessler).
All for a player known almost entirely for playing the less-glamorous half of the court.
Even as a three-time Kia Defensive Player of the Year, a three-time All-Star, a six-time All-Defense honoree and, with Mitchell, a pillar of the Jazz’s system for years, Gobert is, what, a top 20 player overall? He has made an All-NBA team four times in nine seasons, missing on third-team status in 2022 behind Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns.
Now they’re teammates, giving Minnesota either a new-age Twin Towers advantage or a throwback alignment out of step with most of the rest of the league.
Either way, that’s what the Wolves’ brain trust – new president of basketball operations Tim Connelly, coach Chris Finch and the transition ownership from Glenn Taylor to Alex Rodriguez and Marc Lore – felt Gobert would be worth to them.
Does that mean he would be worth the same to other teams? Does it lock in a floor, a minimum package of assets, for any team trying to trade for a player as good as or better than the 7-foot-1 “Stifle Tower?”
The Dejounte Murray trade that sent the young Spurs guard to Atlanta recently was pricey too: First-round picks given up by the Hawks in 2023, 2025 and 2027 with a pick swap in 2026, along with Danilo Gallinari (promptly bought out).
In real life, an asset’s value can fluctuate widely, ultimately worth only what someone is willing to pay for it. Just because the neighbors dropped $40,000 on an in-ground pool doesn’t mean you’d even want one. Then again, the pool contractor can’t go around selling them for whatever someone is willing to pay.
In this case, Brooklyn’s Sean Marks would be criticized if he dealt Durant – a top 75 all-time player whose 29.9 scoring average, with a few more appearances, would have tied for second among NBA leaders last season – for a package deemed inferior to what Utah’s Danny Ainge got for Gobert.
And Ainge, having just extracted that haul from Minnesota, isn’t inclined to dump Mitchell for significantly less. He might want more, which would constrict the pool of potential buyers considerably.
Historically, blockbuster trades were focused on the players changing teams, with a quality vs. quantity scale applied. Salary-cap rules dictated the amount of the contracts taken in, requiring something approaching equilibrium. So an All-Star making $20 million might get traded for a rising star earning $10 million, a rotation guy being paid $5 million and two or three role players added to make the math work.
Future draft picks, however, hit a team’s salary cap at zero value. The only real restrictions are prohibiting teams from trading picks more than seven years in advance, or from trading future picks in consecutive years. So any deal in whole or in part involving picks comes down to the arbitrary value the participating executives – and their fan bases – put on those building blocks of the future.
That latter group, the fans, are the ones most likely to lock in on the picks, if only because Utah’s bounty for Gobert and San Antonio’s for Murray included so many prime ones. Or maybe semi-prime, contingent on what the Wolves and the Hawks do in the standings as those picks are made. Lottery or end of the first round? Still to be determined, with Gobert and Murray being counted on by their new teams to minimize the sting.
What about that other group, interested rival team execs? Would a general manager or a team president feel pressure to impress them, thus requiring bigger hauls for their reputations now or resumes later?
“I don’t think that matters much anymore,” said Wayne Embry, senior basketball advisor to the Toronto Raptors. “Ever since with LeBron a few years ago (joining Miami in 2010), players are making their deals, players are wanting to play together.”
That relegates teams more to facilitating than concocting trades. And in these times of “player empowerment,” a star’s preference for where he goes can severely limit his current team’s negotiating power. No-trade clauses are rare, but concerns about a player’s willingness to re-sign with his new team or even cooperate on the floor come into play.
For example, Durant might only want to go to Phoenix or Miami. And if the Suns or the Heat have to give up too much – especially in current players going out – then Durant might not like that team’s chances of winning. Meanwhile, will those teams rid themselves of Draft picks for a star with an injury history who will turn 34 before training camps open?
By the way, these recent deals also involved skid loads of picks: Four to Boston in 2013 when it shipped Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn, three to New Orleans in 2019 in the Lakers’ deal for Anthony Davis and five (plus two swaps) to Oklahoma City for Paul George four days after that.
But in one of the NBA’s granddaddy blockbuster deals – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s trade from Milwaukee to the Lakers in 1975 – people forget two first-rounders were also involved, pre-salary cap days.
When the deal was announced publicly on June 16, 1975, Milwaukee’s return on 28-year-old Abdul-Jabbar was center Elmore Smith, shooter Brian Winters, forward Dave Meyers and wing Junior Bridgeman. But trade talks had played out over several months, with Abdul-Jabbar and the Bucks managing to keep his October trade demand mostly in-house for the whole 1974-75 season.
So between the time the details were agreed upon by Embry and Lakers general manager Pete Newell in mid-May and the announcement was made, the NBA held the 1975 draft. The Lakers held the No. 2 and No. 8 selections that year, taking Meyers and Bridgeman at Embry’s instruction.
The players Milwaukee got, notably Winters and Bridgeman, were part of a retooling around Marques Johnson, Sidney Moncrief and Bob Lanier that saw the Bucks average 55 victories from 1980-81 through 1985-86. That and the fact league peers knew Abdul-Jabbar had forced Milwaukee’s hand meant Embry never faced real second-guessing for the return.
Kareem was at the end of his contract. Durant has four years left, Mitchell three before his player option. So Marks and Ainge have more leverage. Still, it isn’t infinite.
“You end up having to get the best you can get,” Embry said. “It’s not much different now.”
No matter what Minnesota paid to get Gobert.
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