Trade deadline period can be great entertainment for fans but nerve-racking for NBA players

Veterans understand the business side of making trades, but it can still be difficult uprooting your family in a short period of time

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

We speculate. They dread.

We ponder possibilities. They check off boxes and pack a few, too.

We entertain ourselves with the imagined and, better yet, the real comings and goings of the NBA Trade Deadline. They actually come and go.

This midseason makeover opportunity for 30 teams can be great for fans and even for front offices as they publicly go yea or nay on the current season, charting a course for this spring and beyond. It isn’t so great for the league’s 450 or so players, most of whom wonder and worry if they’ll suddenly have their worlds turned topsy-turvy at this most uncomfortable time of the basketball year.

History and simple math demonstrate that most players do not get traded in midseason. But you could say the same thing about Russian roulette and that wouldn’t necessarily soothe the guy with the gun in his hand. And the fact is, most of us have no idea how it would feel to stomach so much uncertainty. With a clock ticking.

Many fans claim that for the six-, seven- and eight-figure salaries NBA players take with them when they’re dealt, they’d find a way to buck up to a trade, rumored or real. Until you get transferred halfway across the country, though, with no notice or any say in the matter, and get planted in a cubicle with all new co-workers in an unfamiliar city, you can’t really know what it’s like.

“My first one, I was told I wasn’t going to be traded, then I was randomly in a trade,” said Toronto point guard Kyle Lowry, who has been traded twice in his 11-season NBA career. “But it was quick — you’re on a flight at 9 o’clock one night, then you’re playing 20 minutes the next night against Dallas on ESPN. It’s a crazy whirlwind, but that’s part of our business.”

“Until you get that call to the office, you keep it going. Control what you can control.”

Hawks’ Kris Humphries, who has been traded six times

Young players — Lowry was 22 when Memphis sent him to Houston at the deadline in February 2009 in a three-team deal and 26 when the Rockets shipped him to Toronto in July 2012 — can get rudely awakened to the business side of NBA life by a trade. Veteran players usually are more savvy, but often have more complicated lives — wives, children, other commitments in a community — that get thrown into chaos by an unexpected move.

And then, some get callous. Veteran forward Caron Butler, who was traded five times in 14 seasons, recently told HoopsHype.com: “I’ve seen guys go harder on the court to show their value, and I’ve seen guys say, ‘[Screw] it,’ and not care at all. It’s absolutely a distraction because chemistry is at stake. A player may think, ‘Why should I care about these guys or wins or losses if I’m not going to be here?’”

All-Stars aren’t immune to trade chatter

Of the 25 players named to the East and West All-Star squads in New Orleans over the weekend, six had been traded previously in their careers. Three of those — James Harden from OKC to Houston, Kevin Love from Minnesota to Cleveland and Carmelo Anthony from Denver to New York — wanted those trades and maybe even pushed for those particular destinations.

Memphis’ Marc Gasol was dealt before he even reached the league, a stashed Euro prospect packaged by the Lakers to snag brother Pau. That left two, Lowry and Boston’s Isaiah Thomas, who had been traded the old-fashioned way, by a GM thinking he would improve his team with whatever came back.

Then there were two All-Stars down in the Big Easy whose weekends were dogged by trade talk. Chicago’s Jimmy Butler heard it from arrival to departure and still does with Thursday’s trade deadline in play. Meanwhile, DeMarcus Cousins had to actually walk the walk when Sacramento’s deal sending him to the Pelicans leaked during the All-Star Game Sunday night.

Even when someone brings so many of the rumors and eventual reality on himself the way Cousins did through his behavior, statements and antics, there still is a human side to the transaction ledger. It was evident at Cousins’ farewell dinner in Sacramento, when he thanked Kings fans and choked up.

That’s why, for so many players, the best approach to a trade rumor or deadline is to ignore it as much as possible.

“Just keep playing and not think about it,” said Atlanta’s Kris Humphries, who has been traded six times. “You can’t think about things like that. It’s part of the game. Just keep grinding, y’know?”

“The day it happened, I’d gone home and when I got the call, I was taking a nap, actually.”

Hawks’ Thabo Sefolosha on 2009 trade that sent him from Chicago to OKC

Do you at least try to prep family or friends on what might be coming?

“Nah,” Humphries said. “You’re there until you’re not there. Until you get that call to the office, you keep it going. Control what you can control.”

Veteran NBA forward Anthony Tolliver has played for nine different NBA teams in nine seasons. Most of his changes in employment have come via lapsed short-term contracts and the waiver wire. But two seasons ago, just months after signing a two-year deal with Phoenix, Tolliver got a call from his agent, Larry Fox, asking an unexpected question.

“I had fallen out of the rotation and he was like, ‘Hey, what do you think about Detroit?’” Tolliver recalled last weekend. “I said, ‘They’re not doing that well right now.’ But I guess I didn’t have much to say either way about them. They had just released Josh Smith, so they had a spot. He said, ‘OK, cool.’ I don’t know if he knew at that point.

“I went in to practice, got dressed and I hear, ‘The head coach wants to see you in his office.’ I didn’t think anything of it. I figured he was going to say, ‘We’re going to keep you out of the rotation’ or ‘We’re going to put you back in’ or something about the team. He said, ‘We traded you to Detroit this morning.’

“I thought, ‘OK. Guess I’m moving to Detroit. I’m going from 80-degree weather to about negative-20.’ It was Christmas Eve.”

No time for explanations

Sometimes a player hopes to be traded. Other times, even if he hasn’t, he knows the “why” when it does trigger.

By the time Thabo Sefolosha got dealt by Chicago to Oklahoma City in February 2009, he knew his days with the Bulls were numbered. “It was time for me to leave Chicago,” said Sefolosha, now with Atlanta. “I didn’t ask to go. There weren’t many rumors. Me and the coach at that time, Vinny Del Negro, kind of bumped heads and didn’t see eye to eye, so I think that was a factor.

“The day it happened, I’d gone home and when I got the call, I was taking a nap, actually. I had a bunch of missed calls from my agent, my brother, the team. So I thought something was happening. It was the first time and I didn’t really know how it works. [OKC] wasn’t a very good team at that time, but it was a team with a lot of talent.”

Once a trade is official, a player has 72 hours to report to his new team and complete a physical. That’s a lot of uprooting and reorienting to do in a mere three days, even more when a spouse or significant other is involved. Mix in kids and fuhgedaboudit.

“I was so young then, I was just like ‘my next chapter begins,’” Lowry said. “You just have to understand that this is a business. Yes, we have passion, we care about it, we love it. But you know that teams are going to make decisions to make themselves great and try to get to a championship.

“It’s not disruptive if you’re going into the right situation where they want you and accept you. If you go to a team that’s fighting for a playoff spot, you just want to fit in. That’s all you want to do. Go in with an open mind and let yourself take it in.”

Eric Gordon was weeks shy of his 23rd birthday in December 2011 when, in a transactional one-two punch, he was going to have All-Star point guard Chris Paul playing alongside him for the L.A. Clippers … and then, six days later, wound up being traded to New Orleans in a package for Paul. That controversial turnabout – courtesy of the league office overseeing the New Orleans franchise at the time and vetoing the initial deal – only made the relocation more difficult, Gordon said.

“As a growing player, it’s always tough,” said Gordon, who chose Houston as a free agent when he dictated his own whereabouts last summer. “You’re able to understand it more when you get older, that it’s the league and it’s a business. But always remember, you’re a basketball player.

“Coaches have different styles of play. Cities [are] different. A lot depends on how you’re used. Every system is different. It’s all about figuring out a way to balance your career.”

Everyone who gets traded talks about adapting to a new team’s terminology, which differs more than the actual playbook that most teams use. Tolliver’s experience moving around on relatively short notice helped his lone trade experience from Phoenix to Detroit. And he said the Pistons helped even more.

“They absolutely welcomed me with open arms, paid for everything, helped us get moved,” he said. “Made sure everything was done seamlessly, as easy as possible.”

There were a few extra details, though. He and his wife Jessica had their first-born, Isaiah, who was not quite 2 years old to consider.

“They were coming with me. I guess it wasn’t as hard, because my son wasn’t old enough to be in school,” Tolliver said. “My wife was pretty chill. She did demand that I buy her a winter coat. But I say everything happens for a reason, and I had a great year-and-a-half run in Detroit.”

He also took the little family to a beach for All-Star break that year.

Surviving the deadline

As hands-on, some might even say touchy-feely as NBA teams are these days, you might expect some extra TLC as the trade deadline approached. But just as every team’s trade strategy is different, so are their trade-preparation and trade-cushioning strategies.

“Every situation is different,” Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer said. “I think the more professional your group is, the more focused they are and probably the more mature they are, the less of a distraction it is, the less of a negative. Regardless, the more you can be honest with them the better.

“That’s kind of how we’ve approached our group, really in all situations. Not just around [the deadline].”

One way a player can steel himself to the talk-radio chatter is to assume, every year, that his team and maybe even he are going to be mentioned as trade fodder.

“If you think about it, pretty much every type of team, there’s talk about it,” Tolliver said. “If you have a really good team, you want a trade to push you over the top. If you have a pretty good team, you want that trade that gets you to be great. If you’re a bad team, sometimes you start dumping stuff because you’re out of it. And if you’re on the cusp of being in the playoffs – like ourselves – I don’t know if we’re going to do anything. But it wouldn’t surprise me if there were one or two trades made.”

Tolliver talked about this on Friday. His teammate ‘Boogie’ Cousins was on the move Sunday.

Though little is sacred in professional athletes’ locker rooms, with even the most personal traits subject to teasing, several NBA players confirmed that the likelihood of a teammate getting traded is no laughing matter. This is one of those areas where real life intrudes on the so-called dream.

“Everybody understands how it feels,” Tolliver said. “It’s not something we joke about. At least, we won’t joke about you being traded. We might joke about ourselves being traded. ‘If I’m here next week.’ That type of thing.

“But for the most part, it’s not something you joke about. You could be, ‘Ha-ha, you’re getting traded next week…’ And then you get traded. No one knows. Most of the time it just happens.”

And when the deadline passes, there is a palpable sense of exhaling for a lot of NBA players. Whatever job-security issues remain that season, they’re small and navigable compared to that big one.

“It’s a little bit of a relief for everybody once that day is over,” Sefolosha said. “You have a feeling of, ‘I know what to expect for the next few months at least.’ You think ‘I’ll be here.’ It’s something you don’t have to have in the back of your mind anymore.”

Sefolosha said his early career overseas acclimated him to the uncertainty that rears up in the NBA at the trade deadline. “I played in Europe, where you only get a one-year or two-year deal. They let you know quickly it’s a business,” he said.

“We players always know, they love us while we are on top. But if you get injured or something, the phone stops ringing and it’s a different feeling.”

In the 24-48 hours leading into Thursday afternoon, a lot of NBA players were on edge lest the phone start ringing.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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