You get used to it is what the vets say.
It’s just part of the business.
But for the 450 players currently manning NBA rosters, some for the first time will endure the shock and disappointment of seeing a friend moved elsewhere on Feb. 6, the NBA’s trade deadline. Sure, it’s old hat for some. But that doesn’t allay the sting of what’s become the inevitable for the ultra-competitive NBA, where one move or a series of them can immediately enrich a team’s fortunes for years.
“This is the tension in the NBA,” Milwaukee Bucks forward Kyle Korver told NBA.com.
Traded four times himself over a career spanning 16 years in the NBA, Korver slipped on a jacket, leaned against a locker and sighed hard recalling his first heavy dose of the league’s uncomfortable reality. It was 2006, his fourth season in the league with the Philadelphia 76ers.
“The first trade that really opened my eyes to all of this is when Allen Iverson got traded from Philly,” Korver said. “He was such a big part of my early career, giving me advice and building me up; [and me] seeing how he was a Philly icon, an NBA icon.”
The 76ers moved Iverson, then a four-time NBA scoring champion, on Dec. 20, 2006 to the Denver Nuggets for Andre Miller, Joe Smith and a pair of 2007 first-round picks. The transaction served notice to Korver that nobody’s safe.
“If he can get traded, then we can all get traded,” Korver explained. “That was kind of the first moment that was tough for me. This is my 17th year, and I’ve been through a lot of trades, and I’ve had coaches fired mid-season. I’ve had a GM taken out. It’s all part of the business, unfortunately. It’s a beautiful game and a beautiful job in a lot of ways. I don’t think GMs and teams purposely look at you [as just a name on a piece of paper].
“But it’s their responsibility,” Korver said. “Their jobs are on the line. They’ve got to do what they’ve got to do to create the best teams. But the best teams have chemistry, and chemistry happens through relationships on and off the court. So if you play with guys for a certain amount of time, you build relationships with them; when you go through playoff series, when you lose the last game, when things don’t go well, when you win and the tough moments of the season. Incredible bonds are made through all that. When I was younger, having a coach be fired mid-season, and having players be traded, it felt like such a big deal. But after you spend time in the NBA, you realize this is just a part of it, and you can’t take it personally. Everyone’s just trying to keep their jobs.”
San Antonio Spurs guard DeMar DeRozan understands the situation intimately.
Traded from Toronto — the franchise he never wanted to leave — in July of 2018 along with Jakob Poeltl and a protected 2019 first-round pick in exchange for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, DeRozan was initially crushed by the Raptors’ decision to part ways and gamble on Leonard for a shot at a title.
DeRozan spent his first nine NBA seasons in Toronto and developed a close relationship with point guard and now best friend Kyle Lowry. Current teammate Rudy Gay, who played two seasons with DeRozan and Lowry in Toronto, helped smooth the transition into San Antonio. (And, for the record, Gay was dealt twice in 2013 before signing with the Spurs as a free agent in 2017.)
I’ve had so many teammates that that happened to I can’t even remember the one that hit me the hardest. The truth is, man, it just keeps on going and going.”
Bucks guard Eric Bledsoe, on trades
“Rudy and Kyle have always been close,” DeRozan told NBA.com. “When Rudy came to Toronto, Kyle was there. But only me and Rudy were close. I didn’t talk to Kyle at all [early on]. But me and Kyle became brothers. So now when we call, even if it ain’t about basketball, we can talk [expletive] to one another. [After the trade], first I called Kyle. Then I called Rudy and he laughed. But that’s just our friendship in the sense of Rudy being like, ‘Man, I’m laughing because I got my man back.’ I’m pretty sure if I said I had gotten traded to somewhere else [other than San Antonio], he would’ve been just as mad as me. Rudy said: ‘To where?’ I said: ‘Man, to y’all.’
“He started laughing,” DeRozan said. “If [the trade would’ve occurred] early in my career, I don’t know how I would have taken it, not being established fully in life, still growing, still trying to understand the business of the league, how things work, understanding cities. Now, there’s not much I haven’t seen or been through in the league. Even coming here, I had played against one of the assistant coaches (Ime Udoka, a former Spurs player and assistant, who joined the staff last summer of the Philadelphia 76ers). I knew him from playing and coaching. You have these different relationships with coaches all around the league. So, when you make that transition, they know you and you know them. That made the trade a lot easier.”
Still, the suddenness of these transactions can be neck snapping.
Orlando Magic forward Terrence Ross played with DeRozan and Poeltl in Toronto. On a Raptors road trip in February of 2017, news came down as the team prepared for a rode trip that Ross would be traded to Orlando along with a 2017 first-round pick in exchange for Serge Ibaka.
Poeltl was a rookie at the time.
“All of a sudden, he’s just standing there like, ‘Guys, I’m out. I just got traded,’ ” Poeltl told NBA.com. “That’s the first time something like that really hit me. I was like, ‘Wow.’ It really just goes that fast. It’s hard because us as players have to kind of try to put ourselves into a mindset where it’s all business. You try and get close with these guys, and obviously you want to be around people that you want to spend time with. The reality of it is any day, one of them could just get traded or you yourself could get traded. Now all of a sudden, you’re in a completely different locker room.”
Portland Trail Blazers wing Trevor Ariza quickly pointed out just how differently the public reacts when it’s the player wanting out instead of the team making the decision.
“When a player decides what he wants to do, the narrative isn’t always the same as when it’s the organization that decides to make a trade,” Ariza told NBA.com. “That’s just the way it is. It’s hard on families, especially when you have little children and they’re getting moved around like that. I think most people in this league have had friends traded, and after so long you sort of just get used to it happening. Nothing surprises me anymore.”
Despite the cold nature of it all, some organizations make it a point to strongly consider the human element of the decisions they’re pondering. Families are often left uprooted, forced to move into new cities after settling into their living situations. Children have to enroll in new schools and find new friends.
When I was younger, having a coach be fired mid-season, and having players be traded, it felt like such a big deal. But after you spend time in the NBA, you realize this is just a part of it, and you can’t take it personally. Everyone’s just trying to keep their jobs.”
Bucks swingman Kyle Korver
Cleveland Cavaliers assistant coach J.B. Bickerstaff said the top organizations consider all those factors.
“Some organizations handle it differently,” he said. “Things like how long guys have been there, the relationship they have with their families, those types of things always play a part because the decision-makers are human too. If a guy’s been there eight or nine years and you’ve watched their kids grow up, that’s a huge part of the decision you have to make. What I think you have to do in that situation is you have to put your emotions to the side.
“The team’s responsibility is what’s best for the organization,” Bickerstaff said. “That’s why their jobs are so difficult. I’ve been in situations on a bad team where you have a good veteran, and out of respect for that veteran, you trade them to a contender and give him an opportunity to succeed. So, I think it can go both ways. I think the good organizations take that into consideration.”
That’s certainly the case in San Antonio, according to Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who said the human element is considered “to a significant degree,” when making personnel decisions.
“It depends on your relationship with the player, how long that player has been around, how important or not important he’s been, how it will affect the rest of the group,” Popovich said. “Do you have something else in mind, like whoever’s coming in in his place, does that suit what you thought you needed and didn’t have? There’s a lot of considerations. But the human element is there just like when you cut a guy. This guy has been thinking about this his whole life, and you cut him or maybe he’s in a trade. He falls in love with San Antonio and everything is going well. His kids are in school, and then you decide for the good of the organization, you need to make a trade. That’s hard stuff. So, the human element is always there.”
That goes for the players, too, as they spend more time with teammates over the course of a season than their own families. When a friend changes uniforms after being traded to another team, those close-knit relationships remain as strong as ever. Minnesota Timberwolves forward Robert Covington can attest after playing five seasons for the 76ers, “where I literally had 29 teammates within one season.”
Now in Minnesota, Covington grew close to Treveon Graham and Jeff Teague, who were traded to Atlanta on Jan. 16 for Allen Crabbe.
“Your routine kind of gets messed up a little,” Covington said. “You and a guy might hang out or go do certain things together, but once the person leaves, it’s different. I kicked it with T.G. a lot. We had a good routine where we’d hang out, talk about life, a lot of different things. I was close to his family. Overall, there were just a lot of things we had in common.”
Did that change when Graham joined the Hawks?
“Nothing changes,” Covington said. “He’s a part of what we went through, part of this team. So how you look at him doesn’t change at all.”
Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert agreed. The Jazz cut Gobert’s best friend, Raul Neto, over the summer. He eventually caught on with the 76ers. By then, Gobert had witnessed organizations move plenty of friends over seven years in the NBA.
“It happens. I mean, when Kyle Korver got traded. Alec Burks got traded for Kyle Korver, then Kyle Korver got traded with Jae Crowder for Mike Conley,” Gobert said. “And Derrick Favors in the summer [July 2019]. It’s always tough when you go through so much with these guys. Especially us. We feel like we’re a family. We go to war every night. Then you wake up the next day and find out they’ve been traded. It’s not just a business, but that’s the business part. You don’t win championships if you’re not close, where you feel like you’re a part of the family.”
That’s partially why Gobert believes “loyalty is kind of an illusion” in the NBA. The reality is “if your team can trade you for something better,” he said, “most of the time, they’ll do it.”
It still stings every time, Utah guard Donovan Mitchell said.
“Alec Burks got traded right before a game,” Mitchell said. “Dante [Exum], the same way. Jeff Green got [waived] right after a game. There are so many times when you don’t expect it to happen. At the end of the day, those guys are your brothers. They’re the guys you went to war with. So, you’re always going to have love for those guys. I always keep in touch with pretty much all of them.”
Jazz forward Joe Ingles said every teammate that has been traded over the last five years “has hurt me some way.”
“I’ll always be a friend, whoever it is,” Ingles said. “Obviously, Dante [Exum] is a recent one. When we play [the Cavaliers], we’ll enjoy kicking their [expletive]. But regardless, we’re going to miss him every day. We still have relationships. I speak to Dante. I spoke to Jeff Green today.”
Back in San Antonio, Korver had just slipped out of the Bucks locker room after a Jan. 6 loss to the Spurs when point guard Eric Bledsoe caught wind of the trade conversation in which his teammate engaged. Coincidentally, when Phoenix traded Bledsoe to Milwaukee in 2017 for Greg Monroe and two 2018 draft picks, his first game with the Bucks came against the Spurs in San Antonio at the AT&T Center.
Bledsoe laughed recalling the morning shootaround with his new team.
He barely knew any of Milwaukee’s plays, but still managed to score 13 points and dish seven assists hours later in his Bucks debut, a 94-87 win over the Spurs.
“You’ve just got to realize, man, that it’s just the business,” Bledsoe said. “You learn that early. You don’t understand it at first, but as you get older you understand it. You definitely don’t in the moment. You get so many teammates, man, throughout your career that you’ve just got to learn to adjust. I’ve had so many teammates that that happened to I can’t even remember the one that hit me the hardest. The truth is, man, it just keeps on going and going.”
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NBA.com’s Steve Aschburner contributed to this story.
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