Relatively quiet draft closes curtain on NBA as icy labor talks continue
Perhaps there will be a closing flurry of trades over the remaining days of June, but don't count on it. The season all but ended Thursday amid the relative quiet of the NBA draft, where no blockbusters were negotiated and no rookies were greeted as franchise saviors. If this season was an 11-month opus to extravagant theatre (dating back to "The Decision" and all of its popular fallout) then you could hear the song fading down to nothing as deputy commissioner Adam Silver announced the last of the 60 picks in front of his small remaining audience in downtown Newark, N.J.
The unpromising labor negotiations and uncertainty over the rules of the next collective bargaining agreement had an icy effect on trade talks. No one was willing to take the next big step for fear of where it may lead. "Tell me the last time you haven't seen a single trade since the end of the regular season," said a GM on Thursday afternoon, several hours before the draft. "We haven't seen one trade, and it's because no one knows what's coming next. I'm sure we'll see deals tonight involving picks in this draft, but I don't think you're going to see anything big."
Of course he was right. Later that night, moves were made but there were no roster overhauls.
The champion Mavericks made a smart play for Rudy Fernandez, who should fit seamlessly into his new team's offense as well as its international culture. The Nuggets acquired the nonguaranteed contract of point guard Andre Miller, who was terrific for the Trail Blazers last season and will become the best backup point guard in the league. Denver enters next season with flexibility, young talent and many decisions to be made on free agents like Nene, Wilson Chandler, Arron Afflalo and J.R. Smith. But none of those moves can be made until the CBA has been resolved.
The ever-aggressive Bucks acknowledged their chemistry issues by unloading Corey Maggette in a three-team deal with Sacramento and Charlotte that brings in the volatile Stephen Jackson, who should love playing for Scott Skiles every bit as much as Skiles will appreciate his energy and competitiveness. The Pacers, likewise, will benefit from the experiences of 25-year-old George Hill, who spent his first three NBA seasons in the highly demanding world of Gregg Popovich before he was dealt in exchange for No. 15 pick Kawhi Leonard, an athletic defender who won't shoot threes (as most complementary Spurs do) but can make up for it by attacking the basket. Does the move of Hill imply the Spurs are committed to retaining Tony Parker after several days of hearing out offers for him? Apparently so, since they weren't able to package Richard Jefferson into any deals for the point guard.
The runner-up Heat promised to add size at center along with a penetrator in the backcourt, and they may have filled the latter need by dealing for the rights to No. 28 pick Norris Cole, a 6-foot-1 senior guard from Cleveland State who could do for LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh what J.J. Barea did in the Finals on behalf of Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry and Jason Kidd: drive the ball inside to create defensive imbalance for his teammates to exploit. The rival Celtics added 6-10 Purdue senior JaJuan Johnson to come off the bench, the first step in trying to replenish their bench without weakening the cap space they may realize when Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen come off the books after next season.
In the bigger picture, not much happened to affect the next championship race, whenever that may take place. The champs grew stronger while the Heat made the first of several complementary moves that could put them over the top next season. The other contenders will be waiting to see how they'll be allowed to improve under the new bargaining agreement. They may be waiting for a very long time.
Josh Smith, your
So what does this mean for you? Will the next owner have more money to spend than the current group? Or will David Stern create a CBA that will limit costs for every team, which could make the grass less green elsewhere? Patience, Mr. Smith, patience.
Rajon Rondo, the answer is no, you weren't going to be moved this month. As a base-year player it was going to be nearly impossible for the Celtics to retrieve fair value in exchange for you.
Your base-year status will expire in the next CBA. But even then you're going to be a difficult star to trade, because you are unique. Your unusual array of skills -- combined with lingering doubts about your shooting (as much as it has improved over the last two years) -- made you difficult to evaluate in the 2006 draft, enabling the Celtics to acquire you at No. 21. And they make you almost as difficult to value now. Who could Boston retrieve in a deal that would enable it to replace all of your strengths? I struggle to come up with a name.
I'm not saying you will never be traded. But your presence gives the Celtics an opportunity to maintain some of the standards of competitiveness and teamwork that arrived with Kevin Garnett. Some of those qualities can be carried forth by you. There are plenty of good reasons to hold onto you.
Dell Demps, as GM of the Hornets you produced the most interesting deal of all. As everyone knows, your franchise is being managed by the NBA until it can be sold (the goal being to keep the team in New Orleans). Your Hornets were criticized in midseason by Mark Cuban, Phil Jackson and others for your acquisition of Carl Landry, which cost New Orleans $750,000 -- a cost that was to be shared by the other 29 teams.
But you responded on draft night by selling a second-round pick to the Knicks for a reported $750,000. That deal didn't hurt your team -- you'd already done strong work enhancing the roster this season, and you could use the flexibility as you await word from injured forward David West on whether he will opt out to become a free agent this summer. Maybe it's a happy coincidence, but you also appeared to be repaying that midseason debt.
Bleak is the brightest description. It looks more and more as though the NBA is headed toward a lockout, and it's going to take months before it reaches its painful end.
At this time, the owners aren't going to agree to a new deal unless the players accept salary cutbacks totaling hundreds of millions of dollars annually. That kind of result isn't going to happen without some kind of a fight from the players. They don't accept the need for such measures, and, therefore, they aren't going to absorb cuts five months before they receive their first paycheck next season.
The owners have created an appearance of unity, even as they negotiate among themselves over a plan to share revenues. Now it looks as though the players are responding in kind by coming together among themselves. The appearance of 60 players Friday at a union meeting in New York was inspiring for the membership, according to an NBPA source. The owners may doubt the players' ability to hold together once paychecks are being withheld, but the presence of so many players wasn't about convincing the opposition -- its importance was that it gave the players confidence in their own solidarity.
That's why the players walked into the negotiations dressed in matching T-shirts that read STAND. "We have to stand together," explained union chief Billy Hunter. "We have to be unified and be prepared to address whatever the circumstance is, but address it together."
Unless an unexpected idea or a brilliant new perspective arises over the next few days, the two sides are likely to maintain their disagreements throughout the summer. That doesn't mean an agreement won't be reached in time to save the 82-game season. But none of it is promising.
Now consider the drastic change that may be facing the NBA as the owners seek some form of a hard cap on salaries.
During the 2010-11 season, 23 teams managed payrolls that exceeded the salary cap. If a hard cap is installed, its ceiling may be higher than the current $58 million -- nonetheless, the option to spend above the ceiling wouldn't be permitted in a hard-cap world.
I don't know what the future will bring, because it depends on the set of rules that will ultimately be negotiated by the owners and players over the days (or months) ahead. No one can say whether championship teams like the Lakers and Mavericks will have to lop off talent, or whether some kind of mechanism will enable them and other teams to transition out of the current era with minimal pain to their rosters and their fans. (It goes without saying that the players won't be happy, while the owners will retort that 22 franchises are in the red and that their pain must be shared.)
The purpose of this list is to show that teams have made a habit of routinely exceeding the salary cap (as well as the luxury tax) and that those days may be about to end. Think about the different kinds of decisions that will have to be made if all teams are forced to manage player salaries beneath a hard ceiling. I don't know if the NBA will be better or worse. But I do know it is going to be operated in a much different way than it has ever been managed before.
The luxury-tax payers are noted by asterisk:
*L.A. Lakers: $90.4M