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The Extra Pass: What’s behind the slow trade deadline

Feb 21, 2014, 8:06 AM EDT

Oklahoma City Thunder v Boston Celtics Getty Images

That makes two years in a row.

There was more activity at the 2014 NBA trade deadline than in 2013 (25 players got moved this year), but once again the deadline was about shifting around bench players and cap space, there were no difference makers moved. Of the 25 players who changed teams at this year’s deadline only one (Spencer Hawes) has a PER above the league average of 15.

All your role player belong to us.

What gives? Why the slower deadlines?

Blame the quality of the upcoming draft, blame the new CBA, and blame he new breed of GMs.

What drives big trades are really two things: Moving first round draft picks and moving large expiring contracts. Sometimes moving large expiring contracts for first round draft picks. If you’re trading big contracts then you are also trading players who make enough to match those large deals and that usually means a name/quality player.

Zero first round picks in the 2014 NBA draft were moved this year. Why? Because this is going to be a really good, deep draft and nobody wants to give up those picks. No first round draft picks from the next few years were moved either, both because there are some good drafts on the horizon and because in the new CBA rookie contracts are an important way to get quality production at a reasonable price so you don’t venture into the more punitive luxury tax. Teams are staying out of the tax now. Notice even big market teams like the Lakers — a team that prints its own money with that cable television contract — made moves to lessen their tax bills.

However, the Lakers couldn’t find a taker for Pau Gasol and his $19.3 million contract. Only two players making more than $8 million were moved — Marcus Thornton and Danny Granger — and only Thornton has money on his deal past this season (he is owed $8.6 million next year, but Mikhail Prokhorov laughs at your puny American luxury tax).

The reality of the harsher tax and fear of the repeater tax kicking in — the penalties for being over the luxury tax line ($72 million this season) jump dramatically if you are over three out of four years — has teams working to get under that line. They are not going to take on your big expiring contract, and teams weren’t willing to try and sweeten deals to incentivize this. The Lakers weren’t giving away a first-round pick with Pau Gasol to ease the pain of taking on his contract — on the contrary, they expected you to give them picks as compensation.

Which brings us to the real issue here — general managers are getting smarter.

Say what you will about the analytics/big data movement in the NBA and how that applies on the court, the fact is today’s GMs get numbers and they understand trying to find hidden value. They are not going to absorb bad contracts and make their owners pay a more onerous luxury tax unless you give them something of real value. And those genuinely valuable pieces — high first round picks and elite players — just were not on the market. Or not on the market at a price other teams considered reasonable (for example Rajon Rondo was shopped, but reports are Danny Ainge wanted key players and a couple first round picks in return, and other teams balked).

We are still seeing big trades; they just tend to happen in the summer. July is the NBA’s big trading month now, not February. And even in season trades are not waiting until the deadline — Rudy Gay and Luol Deng got traded this season, just much earlier than the February deadline.

Those underlying factors that made this another relatively dull trade deadline are not going away. What you saw this year is more than likely the new February norm.

You’re going to have to get your big trade fix on draft night and into July. Sorry. But the deadline is for role players now.

  1. marksp18 - Feb 21, 2014 at 8:24 AM

    I think you have it wrong about the Lakers Kurt. And you should know better. But you keep perpetrating the myth that the Lakers are worried about any kind of tax.

    Kupchak said yesterday, clear as day, that the Lakers do not make moves for financial reasons. They wanted to move Pau if there were basketball components involved. They traded Blake and got back two young guys that may or may not develop into anything worthwhile.

    The Suns were interested in getting Pau for nothing but the “savings” it would offer the Lakers. Okafor has not even played this season and probably will not. So everyone is saying the Lakers should have just gave the Suns a 7 footer who had a 20-11-3-1 line in the month of January for nothing. Just to save a few million which is nothing to them considering that TV deal they signed.

    The newer GMs are smarter but not that smart. That would have been a huge steal by the Suns if the Lakers just gave Pau to them for nothing but saving some money. Please.

    The Lakers still have option with Pau but the most likely outcome is that he signs elsewhere in the off season and the Lakers get nothing in return.

    • Kurt Helin - Feb 22, 2014 at 12:03 PM

      I think the new generation Suns GM was smart enough to know it was not worth an extra first round pick to rent Gasol. He was right from his perspective, maybe not yours and the Lakers but he did the right thing for him. I did a post on Mitch saying this and he’s right that with the Lakers awash in money they didn’t need to make this move, but that is very different than saying the Suns should have.

  2. ajw21 - Feb 21, 2014 at 8:26 AM

    Bring back the game recaps!
    Go Spurs!

  3. sellahh - Feb 21, 2014 at 9:05 AM

    I’m sure there were takers for Gasol’s albatross contract but I guess it’s just that Kupchak plays hardball and wouldn’t give up him for a similar yet slightly cheaper contract of Okafor without an addition of a somewhat decent draft pick.
    I guess the same goes for Jordan Hill and I’m fine with that, you can’t let other GMs fleece you or else they’d start treating you like they do James Dolan and Steve Mills duo

  4. jcmeyer10 - Feb 21, 2014 at 9:24 AM

    Just makes more sense to trade big names when teams know where they will pick with draft pick compensation. Ainge wants two first rounders for Rondo but he is probably not going to be happy with two picks between 21 and 30.

  5. sdelmonte - Feb 21, 2014 at 9:38 AM

    How can anyone tell what a draft is going to be like in two years? All the potential players are high school juniors!

  6. johnheisman - Feb 21, 2014 at 9:50 AM

    Rondo is worth a lot more than 2 draft picks and there is no way the Celtics get bettter trading him.

    3 point guards have been picked #1 overall recently. Only one of them, Rose has made his team better and he may never be the same. Irving is a great player but where is the improvement in his team? Same with Wall. Rondo is absolutely not a scorer like the others but he is the best QB in the league and he does make his team better He also is a all NBA level defender and far superior rebounder.. He also has been the best PG the last 15 years in the playoffs. Rose has been right up there with him and Parker is not far offf but Rondo is the best. Chris Paul – check it out. He has been a loser and pathetic

    My point is how do you replace an elite player with an unknown and when #1 overall players are often not as good as the elte player. How does that help the Celtics when the Celtics goal is win championships. You can and I believe will win with Rondo.

    • spursareold - Feb 21, 2014 at 10:23 AM

      Sometimes, you have to take something to avoid getting nothing. I’m wondering how badly Rondo will miss being in the playoffs. He will, at some point, be a free agent.

  7. atlbrave5 - Feb 21, 2014 at 10:20 AM

    I totally DISAGREE with the statement that GM’s are getting “smarter”….the fact is, much like the rest of the world, the NBA is a product run by money aka the all mighty dollar‼ Sometimes the people that have the most of that mighty dollar (the Owners) aren’t always the best decision makers. They draft bad players, they hire and fire GM’s and coaches only after a bad season or two (see the Bobcats/Pistons/Cavs and Kings recent history) and because of this there are a group of bad teams that stay at the bottom and there are a handful of teams that are always at the top (see the Heat/Thunder/Spurs/Mavs/Pacers).

    I may be alone in my theory, but I think the NBA draft is totally overrated‼ YES I SAID IT‼ there are less than a handful of franchise players each year and the truth of the matter is, championship caliber teams in this era are built by a combination of good Free Agents, a solid draft pick or two, a great coach and his system! All of these teams right now are lining themselves up to take the next Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (8pt, 4reb a game) after being highly drafted at #2‼‼ You are going to get one or two great ones out of this draft and that’s it! Teams need to place more focus on their organization and how it’s run‼ They need to place more focus on picking up KEY free-agents or trades…for example..Rajon Rondo is expendable…when healthy is a top 3pg in the league but no team wanted to pull the trigger because they didn’t want to give up a 1st round pick…REALLY???? So instead they would rather stay terrible and keep their high draft pick and then go and pick a Anthony Bennet/Michael Kidd Gilchrist…fire another coach and over pay an aging superstar! I can point to multiple teams that have used this method and they actually think that’s going to win them a championship‼!

    • johnheisman - Feb 21, 2014 at 1:43 PM

      You are right the draft is overrated. Look at all the teams that have high draft picks every year both nothing changes. Sacramento, Cleveland for example. Both of them drafted a great players (Irving / Cousins), how many playoff games do you think they are going to win this year and next? I going to guess it will be a low number – ZERO, probably the same amount of playoffs games they will play.

      It looks to me that Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Orlando will have the most chances in the lottery and they most likey will get a very good player but it is NOT a sure thing that they will get a top 5 pick and/or the pick will be as good as advertised. How about these benchwarmers and never will be’s – picked top 5 – Thomas Robinson, Dion Waiters, Michael Kidd- Gilcrest, Derrick Williams, Enes Kantor, Tristan Thompson, Evan Turner, Derrick Favors, Wesley Johnson Hasheem Thabeet.

      How about the Celtics taking Fab Mello at 21 and he is OUT of the NBA in 1 season despite a guarateed contract and him being 7′ tall.

      • atlbrave5 - Feb 21, 2014 at 2:08 PM

        I totally agree with you 100% as you brought up some great points! The Magic I would say are the perfect example of my theory of the draft being overrated. They have no “real” superstar on that roster besides Affalo and Nelson who is always hurt. Big Baby just got bought out and the ENTIRE team are nothing but a D-League roster of picks since D. Howard left. So ok, lets say they get into a high pick this summer and pick up Parker from Duke or Randle from KY..all they will be doing is adding an unknown very high pick to go along a bunch of D. League players! I question sometimes if there are teams in the NBA that even want to win at all. I know business wise it makes sense to try to win as many games as possible and be as far under the cap as possible at the end of the year, but lets face is..there is only one San Antonio and people seem to forget as long as Duncan and their trio are there they will always be a force…not even mentioning the best head coach in the league..Pop! Indiana Is the perfect example of a team made the right way..they used their picks to draft Hibbert and P. George, then went out and picked up D. West, G. Hill, L. Scola and the rest of their supporting cast and now they are #1 in the East. Bottom line they didn’t depend 100% on the draft, they didn’t try to be the team with the lowest payroll…they made smart decisions in the draft and free agency and guess what…they will still be playing in June while the Magic, Bucks, Kings, Cavs, Bobcats and Boston will all be watching them play at HOME! But they will all be in the Lottery..go figure!

  8. savvybynature - Feb 21, 2014 at 11:08 AM

    Did I miss a period in the NBA when mega-blockbuster deals at the deadline was the norm or something?
    Everything I’ve read acts like this is some new reality that we all just have to get used to now, but only delusional homers would expect their team to somehow land a superstar mid-season right? I mean, I know big trades occasionally go down, but usually only because a superstar makes it clear they aren’t resigning somewhere in the offseason. Superstars are pretty rare so teams generally try to hang onto them — that’s not some big development is it?

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