Point-guard purge: Players share their 2015 trade deadline experience
Ramon Sessions laid in bed rubbing sleep out of his eyes on the morning of Friday, Feb. 20, 2015, when the phone rang. “You don’t need to go to practice,” Sessions’s former agent Jared Karnes told him. It was barely 9 a.m. on the west coast and the Sacramento Kings had traded Sessions to the Washington Wizards for Andre Miller.
The swap was one of 11 trades on a day that saw a record 37 players moved ahead of the 2015 trade deadline. Over a third of the traded players were point guards, with 11 ball-handlers shipped literally minutes before the 3 p.m. buzzer sounded. In advance of Thursday’s trade deadline, SI.com offers a behind-the-scenes look at the wild purge of point guards in 2015.
Sessions’s phone continued to buzz as multiple members of the Wizards organization called to welcome him to Washington and arrange a travel itinerary. The Wizards hosted LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers at the Verizon Center that night and Sessions was expected to suit up. “It’s a pretty quick turnaround. They want you there ASAP,” Sessions, who has been traded four times, told SI.com,
Sessions packed two duffel bags of clothes—a cousin would later bring the rest of his belongings—and proceeded to the airport. With the exception of a few superstars, NBA players dealt at the trade deadline typically fly commercial to their new city. The Wizards emailed Sessions their playbook to digest during his cross-country flight. “I was just trying to read the stuff they were doing, just the basic parts of their sets,” Sessions said.
Sessions landed in D.C. that afternoon, underwent a league-mandated physical and met with Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld, leaving about 30 minutes to reach his hotel room and prepare to face the Cavaliers. He debuted for Washington that evening, dishing two fourth-quarter assists in six minutes and displaying the speedy playmaking ability the Wizards felt its roster lacked behind John Wall. “That whole day is pretty bizarre,” Sessions said.
For Sacramento, the transaction was simply a salary cap move. “It was a contractual situation where we gave up a two-year contract for a one-year contract to give us some flexibility to make some moves in the summertime,” Kings head coach George Karl said.
As Sessions flew to D.C., the Oklahoma City Thunder and Phoenix Suns each held discussions regarding point guards set to reach free agency. Reggie Jackson had long expressed interest in running his own team and Goran Dragic’s primary agent, Bill Duffy, informed Suns officials Tuesday in a meeting that he would not re-sign in Phoenix.
“I don’t trust them anymore,” Dragic told reporters following the Suns’ Wednesday practice, clearly agitated by Phoenix creating a backcourt logjam by adding Isaiah Thomas during the off-season.
He delivered Suns officials a list of seven teams he would re-sign with following a trade, with the Lakers, Knicks and Heat at the top, Dragic’s international agent, Rade Filipovich, confirmed to SI.com.
Oklahoma City opened its day in talks with the Brooklyn Nets, an attempt to swap Jackson for greater frontcourt depth in Brook Lopez. As the two teams struggled to find a deal that bridged the gap in Lopez’s near-max salary and Jackson’s cheap rookie deal, talks expanded to bring in third-party teams, including the Utah Jazz as the Thunder eyed Enes Kanter as well.
Then the Detroit Pistons, unaware of OKC’s other negotiations, began to make headwind on acquiring Jackson. Shortly after Brandon Jennings—who was recently traded to the Magic—ruptured his left Achilles in late January, the Pistons began their search for another point guard. On the afternoon of the deadline, Detroit general manager Jeff Bower called Thunder general manager Sam Presti.
“We were in such a tenuous situation at that position with Brandon being hurt and going into the last year of his contract,” Stan Van Gundy told SI.com. Less than 15 minutes before the deadline, at 2:46 p.m., Jackson was traded to Detroit in a three-team deal that also landed Kanter in OKC. “It came together quickly, but we had already done all of our homework. It wasn’t a hard decision to make,” Van Gundy said.
Around 2 p.m., Jackson figured he would not be traded and settled in bed for a nap. As the news of his trade circulated, Jackson’s brother Travis learned of the deal on the SportsCenter ticker and shook the Pistons’ new cornerstone player. “I had tears of joy when I woke up,” Jackson told SI.com. Van Gundy called shortly after. “We talked about what the vision was and what the possibilities were coming here and what the team looked like and kind of even the future makeup [of the roster],” Jackson said. “It was good to get his insight and be able to find out somebody wanted you and that they had a vision with you in mind.”
Jackson flew to Detroit on an early Delta flight from Oklahoma City the next day.
In Phoenix, Suns owner Robert Sarver initially refused to grant Dragic’s trade request and encouraged his front office to move Thomas instead, believing the Suns could re-sell Dragic on a future in Phoenix. Dragic’s camp remained firm, however, and his representatives began their own discussions with “seven or eight teams,” Filipovich told SI.com. And less than 20 minutes minutes before the clock struck 3 p.m., the Suns accepted the Heat’s offer, essentially acquiring two future unprotected first-round picks in exchange for Dragic.
Dragic was aboard the Suns’ team bus inside Talking Stick Arena at the time of the trade, preparing to fly with Phoenix to Minnesota for that night’s contest against the Timberwolves. Filipovich called to reveal the news to Dragic. Next, Riley called, outlining the Heat’s plan to contend for the Eastern Conference championship in 2016. It was the second time Dragic had been traded in his career. This time, however, it was not a surprise. “Now I have family, kids,” Dragic told SI.com via email. “Moving to another city with family is bigger step than moving alone.”
The trade ended up including the Pelicans as well, as backup Heat point guard Norris Cole was sent to New Orleans. “I knew it was possible. I knew I had good trade value," Cole told SI.com. “I knew teams were looking to make moves. You can look and read things.” Cole was home on his couch, following the deadline rumors on Twitter just like every NBA fan. He received a call from his agent Rich Paul announcing the news, and Pelicans general manager Dell Demps called shortly after.
Coincidentally, the Heat and Pelicans played the following night in Miami, allowing Cole a rare opportunity meet his new team in his old city. That Saturday, he arrived at the American Airlines Arena as a member of a rival NBA team for the first time. “It was the weirdest thing ever,” Cole said. “I didn't even know my way to the visitors locker room." Cole met his Pelicans teammates for the first time in the locker room and had yet to truly learn New Orleans’s playbook. He said goodbye to his Miami teammates and coaches during on-floor warmups. Dwyane Wade hugged him, saying Cole would be missed.
Days before the deadline, Milwaukee Bucks officials decided they couldn't pay both Brandon Knight and Khris Middleton the following off-season. The Bucks went with Middleton, seeing greater value in his wing shooting and defense. Learning of this development, Jason Kidd’s agent Jeff Schwartz saw an opportunity to get another Excel Sports client, Michael Carter-Williams, to replace Knight in a trade, according to a source within the Bucks organization.
The 76ers, however, weren't interested in swapping Carter-Williams for Knight. However, Phoenix saw Knight as an attractive fit, the front office foreseeing defensive struggles from a small backcourt of Isaiah Thomas and Eric Bledsoe. “It’s probably pretty difficult to start a 5’7” and a 6’0” guy,” then-Suns head coach Jeff Hornacek said. After acquiring two future first-rounders from Miami, Phoenix felt it could ultimately part with the Lakers’ 2015 top-five protect pick in order to acquire Knight in a shocking, last-minute three-team deal. “With Brandon, we were trying to replace what Goran was giving us and what Isaiah was giving us,” Hornacek said.
Knight’s practice with the Bucks ended around 1:30 p.m. that afternoon. A little more than an hour later, he learned of the trade to Phoenix. The move caught Carter-Williams, the reigning Rookie of the Year, off guard after the 76ers had originally assured him he would remain in Philadelphia. “It was pretty surprising to me. I didn’t know it was coming,” Carter-Williams said after a Bucks shootaround last April. “I didn’t know how to handle things. I’m still having some feelings towards me leaving my old team.”
With Miles Plumlee and Tyler Ennis headed to Milwaukee as part of the trade for Knight, the Suns team bus now had four players set to leave, including Goran and Zoran Dragic, who was sent to Miami alongside his brother. “We were like, ‘This is the group we’re gonna have. Let’s finish the year off strong,’” Thomas told SI.com. Moments later, Brandan Wright got a Twitter alert that Thomas had been traded to the Boston Celtics. “I had to get off the bus and go get a few pair of shoes from my locker and wait for my fiancé to come pick me up,” Thomas said.
Meanwhile, the Celtics were preparing to play the Kings in Sacramento that evening.
"I got a call from [Celtics GM] Danny [Ainge] probably 10 minutes before the deadline and said, ‘It doesn’t look like we’re gonna do anything,’” Brad Stevens said. “And I got a call eight minutes later that said, ‘We talked about this real briefly but, what do you think?’ It was obviously a unique, quick, last-minute thing.”
Thomas had to fly to Boston to undergo his physical before joining the Celtics at Staples Center to play the Lakers that Sunday. He met with Ainge at the Celtics’ offices in Waltham, Mass., where they talked to Stevens via FaceTime.
“Don’t change for us, we’re gonna adapt to you,” Thomas remembers Stevens saying. The coach and point guard watched Boston’s playbook together over video chat, and after an overtime loss in Los Angeles, the Celtics won in Phoenix, of all places, on the second night of a road back-to-back. “It was kind of a crazy whirlwind there,” Stevens said.
While the world focused on the mayhem of that three-team shocker and added confusion of Thomas’s ancillary move, the Knicks quietly granted Pablo Prigioni’s trade request as well. About a month before the deadline, Prigioni asked Knicks general manager Steve Mills to be traded. “They need young players and I have no future,” Prigioni joked.
Prigioni checked his phone up until the final seconds before the deadline and started to believe he would stay in New York when Mills called to inform him of a trade with Houston. Prigioni flew to join the Rockets the next morning, with several Knicks fans in the JFK airport asking to take pictures with him, completely unaware he had been traded. “They said, ‘Oh Pablo! We love you!’” Prigioni told SI.com. “I didn’t want to comment and just kept going,” he laughed.
Such is life around the NBA trade deadline.