Open Floor: Making sense of the madness at the NBA trade deadline
What a day. The kind of day Twitter was made for. When the NBA dropped the curtain on trade season at 3 p.m. ET on Thursday teams had submitted paperwork for 12 trades—many of which were discussed in earnest in the final hour before the deadline—that swapped 39 players and more than a dozen draft picks. In one afternoon a battered contender (Oklahoma City) fortified its roster with badly needed reinforcements while ridding itself of a player (Reggie Jackson) whose dissatisfaction with his role had created a toxic atmosphere in the locker room; a former champion (Miami) loading up with a guard (Goran Dragic) that could spark an improbable run in the Eastern Conference playoffs; and a Hall of Fame forward (Kevin Garnett) returning, improbably, to his roots in Minnesota. And that barely scratches the surface.
Let's begin in Minnesota, which brought Garnett back to the place it all started, to the city he called home for his first 12 years in the NBA. As of Wednesday, the Nets believed KG would finish the season in Brooklyn. There were not any compelling offers—the Nets did not want to take on any significant salaries—and there were no plans to buy Garnett out. Still, Minnesota was lurking. The Timberwolves had discussed bringing Garnett back for weeks but did not know if he would waive his no-trade clause to do it. Finally, on Thursday, less than an hour before the trade deadline, after an agreement between Brooklyn and Minnesota had been reached, he told the Timberwolves that he would.
"Kevin doesn't like change," says Flip Saunders. "That's how he's always been. But I think when he looks back, he doesn't think moving from Brooklyn to here is a big change. I think he looks at it like moving back and being home.”
That Garnett would agree to go back to Minnesota is one thing; that the Timberwolves, according to multiple reports, expect him to play beyond this season is another. In Brooklyn, there was every expectation that Garnett would retire at the end of the year. Garnett worked extremely hard, but the gas tank was clearly running low. Maybe, league sources whispered, if Doc Rivers called, if the Clippers offered an opportunity close to his home in Malibu, Garnett might soldier on. But in Minnesota? On a lottery team? After this season, the next time many expected Garnett to be in the Twin Cities was as an owner.
Whether it’s this season, next or beyond, Saunders has to be ecstatic to have Garnett in uniform. The Timberwolves are a young, developing team. Who better to be a role model than the 19-year pro, lauded by all as perhaps the NBA’s hardest worker? Everywhere Garnett goes he has an impact. On Kendrick Perkins in Boston. On Mason Plumlee in Brooklyn. In Minnesota, Garnett will be a walking, expletive-laced masters class on work ethic for Andrew Wiggins, Ricky Rubio, Anthony Bennett and every 20-something on the ‘Wolves roster. To them, he will be worth every nickel.
- TRADE GRADES: Nets send Garnett home to Timberwolves for Young
Now, over to Oklahoma City, where the Thunder entered the All-Star break a half game back of the Suns for the eighth playoff spot in the West. The Thunder are one of the toughest teams in the league to get a read on: GM Sam Presti operates stealthily, always bargain shopping, only willing to pull the trigger on deals that have short and long term positive effects. Presti knew he had to move Jackson, who rejected Oklahoma City’s four-year, $48 million offer last fall—a contract in line with what Toronto paid All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry—and had become a distraction behind the scenes. And it was clear Jackson’s teammates were not all-in on trying to keep him.
Consider this, from Russell Westbrook: “We have a chance of winning a championship, and if Reggie is not here we still have a chance of winning a championship.”
Or this, from Kevin Durant: “Whoever’s on this team tomorrow around that deadline we’re rolling with. I’m rolling with them today, tomorrow, whenever. So I love Reggie as a teammate. But whatever happens, I have no control over. I really don’t know, to be honest.”
Oklahoma City never wanted it to get to this point with Jackson. But the Thunder had a clearly defined role they saw Jackson in—a backup combo guard—and Jackson wanted more. In some ways, the situation is very similar to that of James Harden, who also wanted a larger role. But while Harden was traded before his final contract season in Oklahoma City, Jackson played his out. And the results weren’t pretty: After averaging 19.5 points and 7.5 assists in 38.2 minutes per game in November—when he filled in as a starter for the injured Russell Westbrook—Jackson’s production dipped to 9.4 points and 2.8 assists in 21.1 minutes per game in January. The midseason acquisition of Dion Waiters, a move made in part to take some pressure off of Jackson, was having a negative effect. Something had to give.
For several hours on Thursday, the Twitter-sphere was abuzz with reports that the Thunder and Nets were closing in on a deal that would send Jackson to Brooklyn in exchange for Brook Lopez. It made sense: The Nets would get a lead guard in Jackson, who had given the team indications that he would be open to re-signing there long term. The Thunder would get a strong scoring big man in Lopez, who Presti was high on during the 2008 draft. On paper, it looked like a win-win.
But Oklahoma City was never overwhelmed by this deal, for a variety of reasons. For starters, the Thunder felt a one-for-one swap would leave the team extremely thin. And there was plenty of uncertainty about Lopez, who can opt out of his contract this summer and become an unrestricted free agent. So OKC started looking harder at other options. Detroit had been digging into Jackson for some time and for the Pistons—who lost Brandon Jennings to a torn Achilles, an injury that could cost him parts of next season—the price (Kyle Singler, D.J. Augustin) was right. And Utah, which had been discussing a Kanter deal with Oklahoma City for weeks, was willing to part with Kanter for Kendrick Perkins' expiring contract and a lottery-protected first round pick.
Now Oklahoma City had a choice: Flip Jackson for Lopez and roll the dice that Lopez a) stays healthy and b) opts in to his contract or re-signs long term, or turn Jackson into Kanter, a 22-year old offensive minded center entering restricted free agency, Singler, a solid small forward also headed into restricted free agency, Augustin, a quality backup point guard and former Texas teammate of Durant, and Novak, a sharpshooting small forward. For the Thunder, the decision was fairly easy. Oklahoma City has every expectation that Jackson, outside of Westbrook's shadow, freed from the pressures of the last three months, will put up big numbers in Detroit. But it was a deal that had to be done.
Oklahoma City enters the final months of the season with an intriguing roster. There continue to be concerns about Durant, who appeared to irritate his surgically repaired foot against Dallas on Thursday night. But the hope is that Durant, Westbrook and Steven Adams (hand) will be playing together by early March and building some chemistry before the playoffs. Oklahoma City hopes that Kanter—who was unhappy with his role in Utah—will be satisfied playing in a system that will need him to replace much of the bench scoring the team traded away with Jackson. And Kanter will give the Thunder it's first true low post option since, well, ever. Singler, a starter in Detroit, is expected to backup Durant while Augustin figures to adapt much easier to a reserve role with Oklahoma City than Jackson did. Moreover, the Thunder continues to layer its young core with players in the same age bracket, positioning the team to have depth and roster stability for years to come. It was a savvy move by one of the NBA's most forward thinking franchises.
- TRADE GRADES: Thunder add center Kanter, send Jackson to Pistons
In Phoenix, the Suns faced a problem similar to Oklahoma City’s. In a perfect world, Goran Dragic would have been a Sun for life. Dragic was favored by Suns owner Robert Sarver, who viewed Dragic as the heir to Steve Nash. And Dragic delivered with (close to) Nash-like numbers: Last season Dragic averaged 20.3 points and 5.9 assists. He shot 50.5 percent from the field and was named third team All-NBA. Dragic’s production dipped this season (16.2 points, 4.1 assists) but he remained one of the top guards in the NBA and there was little doubt that Phoenix would hesitate to offer him a lucrative five-year deal this summer.
But Dragic wasn’t interested. He was unhappy with the offseason decisions to re-sign Eric Bledsoe and sign Isaiah Thomas, according to sources close to the situation, signings that reduced his playmaking responsibilities. He wanted to play for a team that would feature him as a lead guard. So his agent, Bill Duffy, informed the Suns that Dragic would not be re-signing this summer; Dragic poured fuel on the fire this week by declaring that he didn’t trust the organization anymore.
That left Suns GM Ryan McDonough in a difficult position: Trade Dragic—who submitted, through his agent, a list of specific teams he would be open to re-signing with, a list that included Los Angeles, Miami and New York—in a short window before the trade deadline in a market of teams that knew Phoenix had to move him. Initially, the Suns negotiated with teams that were not on Dragic’s list, including Houston and Boston. But when teams checked in with Dragic’s camp to gauge his interest in re-signing there, they were told, bluntly, no. Eventually, Phoenix turned to Miami—believed to be No. 1 on Dragic’s preferred team list—and cut a deal that sent the Suns a pair of first round picks.
In Dragic, the Heat pick up a badly needed offensive weapon. Miami is 23rd in the NBA in offensive efficiency this season. Dragic will single-handedly change that. His presence will take the scoring burden off of Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and give Miami a dynamic starting five, one that, if it can stay healthy, could make a deep run in the postseason. Following LeBron James’s defection to Cleveland, the Heat appeared to be setting its books up for a run at some of the big names in 2016; with Dragic on board, that plan will obviously change. Still, Miami now has an All-Star caliber guard in the prime of his career that will likely quickly commit to a long-term deal this offseason. All for the price of a Danny Granger, Justin Hamilton and couple of picks. Not bad, Pat Riley. Not bad.
Phoenix did salvage something on Thursday. Milwaukee, uncertain how much it would cost to retain rising star Brandon Knight this summer, was willing to listen to offers. And Philadelphia, in full on, we-don’t-give-a-bleep-about-this-season mode, was willing to move Michael Carter-Williams. So the Suns, with an appealing asset in the Lakers' top-five protected pick—a pick that becomes top-three protected next year—were able to poach Knight from Milwaukee. Knight isn’t an upgrade over Dragic but he is a big, rangy point guard who is having his best overall season. The price was steep—if the Lakers fall to No. 6, plenty of people in Phoenix will cringe—and they also flipped Thomas to Boston for Cleveland’s protected first rounder in 2016—but if Knight fits in well, the Suns may be able to save a little face.
- TRADE GRADES: Suns ship Goran Dragic to Miami in three-team deal
No team took more phone calls at the deadline than Denver, which heard offers for nearly every player on the roster. The Nuggets are in a tailspin, losers of 13 of the last 15, and in dire need of a shakeup. But GM Tim Connelly wasn’t about to give his top players away. After picking up two first round picks for Timofey Mozgov last month, Connelly set the bar high: You want one of our guys, you better have a pair of picks, or a pick and a good young player. Ultimately, that led to Denver completing only two deals: Sending Arron Afflalo to Portland for a package that included Thomas Robinson and a protected first round pick and shipping JaVale McGee—and a first round pick—to Philadelphia.
To Denver, Afflalo was its most movable asset. Afflalo has a player option next season and if he opted out, the expectation internally was that he would command between $9 and $10 million per season in a new deal. With the team floundering, the Nuggets were not inclined to commit to that kind of contract. No team was willing to offer two first rounders for Afflalo but Portland, in win-now mode, according to GM Neil Olshey, was ready to offer up its 2016 pick.
"We want to win,” Olshey said. “Not everybody's contract is going to be the perfect contract relative to a long-term decision. That's why we moved the draft pick out to 2016. No matter what, it does not impact us this year in terms of our business. We'll address Arron's contract situation later. But we've strategically planned to have budget flexibility this summer to keep this group together while adding other pieces. We're going to be fine. If this works out and we can keep all of them, we'll be in a position to do that.”
The McGee deal was a little tougher for Denver to swallow. But in the Nuggets minds, McGee had to go. Beyond McGee's contract, which will pay him $12 million next season, Connelly and Shaw believe in building a winning culture in Denver and there was a strong sentiment inside the walls of the Pepsi Center that McGee’s presence was adversely affecting that. And as difficult as it was to part with the pick—which, if you are scoring at home, belonged to Oklahoma City and is 1-18 protected this season and lottery protected for the next two—the Nuggets believe that the $11.2 million trade exception that was created in the deal will be useful in acquiring a more valuable asset down the line. And the Nuggets could have five first round picks over the next three years anyway.
- TRADE GRADES: Nuggets ship JaVale McGee to 76ers in salary dump
Brooklyn almost had a great day. The Kevin Garnett-Thaddeus Young swap was a win for the Nets, who replace a fast fading Garnett with the versatile Young, a player GM Billy King drafted in Philadelphia. Brooklyn believed it had a deal for Jackson, only to have that scuttled at in the final minutes before the deadline. A subplot of that failed deal: It ended Washington's pursuit of Jarrett Jack, who likely would have been shipped to D.C. if the Nets could have acquired Jackson. Now, Brooklyn will finish the season—and maybe beyond it—with a big man in Lopez who has nearly been traded multiple times and clearly isn’t meshing with head coach Lionel Hollins. Worth noting: It’s likely Oklahoma City was not pleased at reports that the Thunder were discussing Jackson’s future in Brooklyn before a deal was completed.
The NBA will look considerably different when a full slate of games resumes on Friday. Boston picked up a quality guard in Thomas, who will boost the backcourt in the short term and give GM Danny Ainge another asset to play with after the season. Houston fortified its backcourt with the acquisition of Pablo Prigioni from New York. The arms race that began in December and picked up steam in January evolved into an all out war this week. And boy, was it a lot of fun.
Now, onto buyout season...