2016-17 Trade Deadline League Trends and Outside Factors

(Originally published in January 2017 on Deep(ish) Thoughts, but written by yours truly)

League Climate

A lot of teams went for it this year despite Cleveland and Golden State strengthening their grip on their respective conference title bids over the summer. Five teams have the option to race for the eight seed in the West, while nine clubs will split five seats on the East. With the best and the worst teams bookending half the league in the middle, a lot of franchises will consider their approach to the trade deadline carefully.

That there are bad teams with uneven depth charts further increases the amount of trade counterparts available. Among the most uneven depth charts: Sacramento, Orlando, and Dallas. A number of organizations with dubious to ambiguous hopes for the playoffs have veterans on who might rather lace up for higher stakes competition. Dallas, Atlanta, Denver, Chicago, Phoenix, Miami, Sacramento, and the Lakers fall into this category. Whether or not guys like Deron Williams or Goran Dragic request trades remains to be seen. However, teams can build some good word-of-mouth, not to mention snag actual team-building assets, by shipping such players to more competitive environments.

Some squads could even sell in-court assets without losing their playoff bids. Examples include Sacramento, Denver, Boston, Atlanta, and Portland. There are also clubs whose executives are under pressure to win immediately or else risk losing their jobs. However, there aren’t any general managers with expiring contracts, which diminishes the odds of someone getting sacked. Nevertheless, popular picks for hot seats are Orlando’s Rob Hennigan and Washington’s Ernie Grunfeld. These situations bring up a huge challenge for franchises beyond the struggles that lead to them. Under-pressure GMs often make bad long term moves in an effort to save their jobs. Generally, the guy gets fired anyway, leaving the team to rebuild without the benefit of the recently discarded resources. Such an issue of agency has plagued the league for many years, leading Nate Duncan to recommend that owners fire and hire general managers before the trade deadline, not during the offseason, once the damage has been done.

Valuation Differences

Something that impacts every trade, regardless of when it occurs, is that different executives will value assets…well, differently. This applies mostly to players, but also to draft picks. As each franchise holds a slightly different position in its lifecycle, the prospect of more draft selections will appeal unevenly across the league. Moreover, how much a front office trusts its player development staff might color its take on picks (and prospects, too). As any negotiation expert will tell you, however, different takes on the value of multiple assets could make for a symbiotic deal.

This ultimately underlies every deal in the league: Contending Team A values a role player more than Rebuilding Team B which, in turn, places a higher premium on draft picks. Rebuilding Team B then sends said role player to Contending Team in exchange for a draft pick. But let’s say Contending Team A is already loaded at the role player’s position; Rebuilding Team B will likely have to look elsewhere in its pursuit of a pick. Those are examples of contextual differences in how assets are valued. But there are material differences which mainly apply to players. League scouts and personnel decision makers routinely take polarized positions on the same players.

Typically, teams will value their own players more than other franchises. That can certainly make finding a deal difficult, as no GM wants to feel swindled. Since these factors are so key in negotiations, it is of extreme importance for executives to have a read on the assessments of their peers.

Placating Stars

Every general manager’s ultimate goal in building a team is to acquire a star (or multiple stars). The work, however, is not finished at that. Despite being virtually essential to winning, the presence of a high-end player does not guarantee consistent victory. Stars will fill the seats and pay the bills, but only a couple can singlehandedly manufacture wins. Franchises bend over backward attempting to acquire these players but will go just as far trying to keep them around. Most times this involves convincing a player that the organization is committed to, and capable of, winning games at a high level. If that pitch or the team’s performance falls flat, elite talents will explore other options once they hit the free market. In the worst conditions, they’ll try to force a trade.

Several star players on undistinguished contenders can enter free agency within the next two years. DeMarcus Cousins, Paul George, John Wall, and Gordon Hayward, to name a few, will all have to deliberate internally on whether or not their incumbent teams can give them a serious shot at a title. A desperate organization could make a short-term, win-now deal to sway a player’s consideration. But if that deal fails to deliver victories, the franchise now has to face a future without its best player and the future assets useful in rebuilding.

Not only will clubs have to weigh the risk of making such a move, they will also have to gauge the probability of retaining potential free agents. If a team’s pegs a player to bolt in six months, they might prefer to send him away now and receive assets in return. A team’s competitiveness for the rest of the season also plays a part in this decision. Handling impending free agents requires strong relationships between a club, its players, and the rest of the league.

CBA Closure

Now that the league’s new collective bargaining agreement has been ratified, the trade deadline could be more impacted by teams positioning for the offseason than in the past couple years. As teams’ ability to pay their own star free agents expands drastically, players will leave far more money on the table to switch rosters than in the past. That could lead to more trading and less signing of the league’s best talents, who will be hard pressed to pass on life-changing paydays.

As maximum salaries increase, so will minimum salaries. That will likely depress the value of contracts for role players, especially as pacts from before the cap explosion expire and are renewed at higher numbers. All of this means less overall cap room in the NBA, more similar to 2005’s free agency than that of the past couple of years.

What’s perceived as a good draft may also impact what will definitely be restricted cap room to change how some teams view their offseason. Less upcoming cap room means that more teams will operate over the cap. That salaries are expected to shrink for middle-of-the-rotation players converges with the fact that over-the-cap player signing mechanisms like the mid-level exception will increase; restoring their utility. Now that over-the-cap player signing exceptions are once again relevant tools, some teams may consider making moves now in order to operate above the cap this summer.

Conversely, some could have salary they’d like to dump, now that less of the league will have money to spend. The nailing down of these details will inform many decisions of the coming weeks about what many franchises plan to do in the coming years.


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