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Trends: Preemptive strikes drive stir of action at NBA trade deadline

Examining the driving force behind a wild NBA trade deadline.

Put aside the loaded nature of the term "preemptive strike"—and all the cable news network squawking that comes with it—and it's pretty clear that there's no better way to sum up last week's NBA trade deadline.

Thursday's record-setting deadline, which saw 11 trades involving 37 players, was driven in large part by a number of teams making key contractual decisions before they were required to do so. Last week's preemptive trades were largely defensive, aimed at shipping out players who might later prove to be too expensive to keep or who might bolt for nothing in free agency. The general goal was avoiding a roster apocalypse down the road, rather than achieving immediate world domination.  

A quick survey of Thursday's notable deals underscores just how prevalent this preemptive philosophy was across the league. Contenders and rebuilders alike opted to make crucial roster decisions midseason rather than waiting until the summer.

Phoenix trades Goran Dragic to Miami

The only thing worse than accumulating five or six point guards who need the ball is devoting a huge slice of your salary cap to pay for that redundancy. The Suns were looking at a scenario where Dragic (an unrestricted free agent seeking a max, five-year contract this summer), Eric Bledsoe and Isaiah Thomas could have been earning nearly $40 million next season. Yes, that's $40 million to fight over a single basketball. Even with the Morris Twins signed to quality contracts and Alex Len on a rookie deal, there was no way that was going to allow GM Ryan McDonough to address his shallow frontline. With his hand forced by Dragic's public statements of discontent and without any hope of making real noise in the 2015 playoffs, McDonough swapped his Slovenian point guard for two future first-round picks.

TRADE GRADES: Heat take calculated risk by adding Dragic

Oklahoma City trades Reggie Jackson to Detroit

Since the James Harden trade, there's never been any question as to where the money is going in Oklahoma City: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka are eating first, and everyone else has to share whatever's left. For Jackson (a restricted free agent this summer who reportedly turned down a four-year, $48 million contract offer), salary cap scraps and a permanent backup role didn't sound particularly appealing, especially once Dion Waiters arrived and cut into his minutes and shots. From the Thunder's perspective, everyone outside the core trio is a liquid piece ready to be moved. Facing burdensome roster costs this summer, Jackson's desire to run his own team and pressure to field a championship contender right now, GM Sam Presti orchestrated a three-team deal that netted a quality backup point guard in D.J. Augustin, a young big in Enes Kanter, and multiple shooters in Kyle Singler and Steve Novak. 

• TRADE GRADES: Thunder, Pistons, fare well in 3-team deal

Milwaukee trades Brandon Knight to Phoenix

In Thursday's most surprising move, the Bucks traded away Knight (a restricted free agent this summer), even though he was an All-Star candidate and a key driver of Milwaukee's impressive turnaround this year. In return, the Bucks landed point guard Michael Carter-Williams from the Sixers. Much has been made about their stylistic differences—how Carter-Williams' length fit with the Bucks' pieces and how his all-around game might remind coach Jason Kidd of his own game—but the biggest issue here was their salary timeline. Both players are 23, but Knight is due for a big pay day this summer while Carter-Williams will be on a subsidized contract for the next two years. Trading Knight early ensured that Milwaukee wouldn't get pressed by a major offer this summer, forced to decide between potentially overpaying Knight or losing him for nothing. Given the youthful nature of the Bucks roster and Jabari Parker's season-ending injury, GM John Hammond could make this trade without any true urgency to lock in Knight as part of the team's core.

• TRADE GRADES: Suns shuffle point guards, land Bucks' Knight

Denver trades Arron Afflalo to Portland

The Nuggets have been a mess for the last two seasons, and Afflalo (who holds a player option this summer) wasn't able to meaningfully alter the franchise's trajectory after he was traded by Orlando to Denver last summer. GM Tim Connelly therefore found himself needing to move out Afflalo before the proven shooting guard was able to consider greener pastures come July. Connelly secured a first-round pick from Portland for his proactive approach, a haul that certainly qualifies as better than nothing. 

• TRADE GRADES: Nuggets make savvy decision in unloading Afflalo

Utah trades Enes Kanter to Oklahoma City

As this season unfolded, it became clear that Kanter (headed for restricted free agency this summer) and the Jazz were no longer much of a match. Rudy Gobert swooped in to make a claim for a starting role, leaving Kanter as a secondary priority. His offense-first game didn't fit quite right with Utah's other pieces, and the Jazz's rebuilding struggles were likely taking a toll too. Kanter expressed a desire to be traded in advance of the deadline, and GM Dennis Lindsey obliged, moving him to the Thunder in exchange for a first-round pick. Here again, Lindsey ensured he got something now instead of nothing later.  

• TRADE GRADES: Jazz get good value for former lottery pick

Philadelphia trades K.J.McDaniels to Houston

In a frustrating move for Sixers fans, GM Sam Hinkie traded away McDaniels (a restricted free agent this summer), an ultra-athletic rookie who has been a regular presence on highlight reels this season. This trade left many confounded, as Philadelphia will have plenty of salary cap space to re-sign McDaniels this summer and can obviously use all the young talent it can get. The logical conclusion is that McDaniels or his representatives either indicated or suggested to management that he would prefer to leave in free agency. The scope of the Sixers' rebuild doesn't really allow for public back-and-forths with disgruntled players, as the organization is already taking enough heat for its slash-and-burn strategy. Although the return price—Isaiah Canaan and a second-round pick—wasn't particularly overwhelming, the trade sidestepped any public haggling and allowed Hinkie enough leverage to pluck a prospect that he had coveted.

• TRADE GRADES: 76ers make yet another surprising move

Minnesota and Brooklyn swap Thaddeus Young for Kevin Garnett

For Minnesota, Young really served no useful purpose: he wasn't a particularly good fit, there are youngsters on the rebuilding roster that need minutes, and the losses have accumulated fast this season. Similarly, Garnett and the Nets had run their course; the franchise's brief and narrow championship window had slammed shut due to key injuries (Deron Williams, Brook Lopez), major departures (Paul Pierce, Shaun Livingston), and Garnett's own age-related decline. Acquiring Garnett allowed Timberwolves president Flip Saunders to "win the press conference" by bringing back a franchise icon, and it ensured that Saunders had something to show for the first-round pick he used to acquire Young last summer. Trading for Young gave Nets GM Billy King the opportunity to get younger and avoided the possibility that Garnett simply retired this summer, leaving a roster hole in his wake. Saunders preempted talk of a disastrous one-year rental; King put some lipstick on his pig of a roster and gave himself a chance to avoid another Pierce-like departure for nothing.

Plus, don't forget that Boston preemptively traded Rajon Rondo (unrestricted free agent this summer) to Dallas and Jeff Green (player option this summer) to Memphis earlier this season. In both cases, president Danny Ainge opted to avoid bidding to retain top talents in favor of stockpiling draft picks that could help accelerate his multi-year rebuilding effort. 

• TRADE GRADES: Wolves bring home KG, but fail miserably in trade

So that's the "What" of this year's trade deadline. But "Why" did so many teams with different short-term outlooks employ a similar philosophy? Let's take a look at some of the conditions that came together to create this mass of movement.

Nightmare Scenarios: LeBron James' decision to leave Cleveland for Miami continues to hang over the NBA world like a cloud. The Cavaliers were saved only by James' return in 2014, and their hopeless slog in the interim years cost multiple executives and coaches their jobs. Most teams seemed to take this lesson to heart: losing a superstar for nothing is the absolute worst-case scenario and to be avoided at all costs. One of the teams that wasn't paying attention? The Lakers, of course, who bet erroneously on their prestige and lost Dwight Howard to the Rockets for nothing in 2013, a departure that helped push the Lakers toward back-to-back abysmal seasons. All that losing caught up with coach Mike D'Antoni, who departed last summer. For the rest of the league, it was a clear reaffirmation of James' situation: nobody is immune to suffering for years after losing a marquee free agent if the Lakers can't survive any better than the Cavaliers. 

Better Alternatives: Executives today also have the benefit of looking back on an alternative approach. Rather than engage in staredowns with their franchise players, multiple teams opted to trade them early in the wake of James' departure, netting building blocks in return. The Jazz traded Deron Williams to the Nets for Derrick Favors and pieces in 2011. The Nuggets traded Carmelo Anthony to the Knicks for Danilo Gallinari and pieces in 2011. The Magic traded Howard to the Lakers for Nikola Vucevic and pieces in 2013. All three teams have struggled since making those moves, but at least each had something to show for it. Now, decision-makers can look back on those moves as case studies proving that a proactive "something is better than nothing" approach does indeed have merit. 

Less Stigma: Executives will almost always face public criticism when parting with the best or highest-profile player in a trade. Fans and media observers, particularly in the local market, will demand and expect a competitive product and a commitment to winning, and it's been fairly easy for critics to paint an early trade as a panic move or a sign of an executive's lack of confidence in his own team. That dynamic does seem to be changing in recent years.

Open Floor: Making sense of the madness at the NBA trade deadline

​​First, well-respected GMs like Presti and Ainge have taken their lumps while parting with high-profile players like James Harden and Rondo for packages aimed at cap flexibility and asset accumulation. Those moves create safety in numbers for an executive like McDonough, who now enjoys an easier time selling the trade of Dragic, an All-NBA Third Team selection last year. Parting with a star is no longer automatically the mark of a quitter. At the same time, an aggressive tanker like Hinkie provides "Hey, at least we're not Philadelphia" cover for the rest of his colleagues who might need to part with a popular player or key contributor.

Second, the rise of analytics and analytical thinking has spread to the point that many fans are now fully aware of the dangers of being stuck in the middle and the need for elite talent to compete for a title. In many cases, the discussion has shifted: executives clinging to a mediocre team take more of a beating than those who admit defeat and play for the future. The greater availability of scouting resources online helps here too; it's never been easier for an executive to "sell hope" than in 2015, when there are YouTube mixtapes and detailed written breakdowns for prospects from all over the world available at any fan's fingertips. 

Prohibitive Taxes: Institution of a harsher luxury tax system—with escalating tax tiers and repeater penalties—in the latest Collective Bargaining Agreement has left owners thinking twice about assembling super expensive rosters. Look no further than the Big Apple: Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov cut his tax bill at the deadline and the Knicks have been slashing their payroll since last summer. "Paying everybody and figuring things out later" just isn't the wisest plan when the tax penalties add up so quickly now. Presti's trade of Harden famously drew tons of flak because it was a financially-motivated move, but it had plenty of company this time around. Money played a central role in the trades involving Dragic, Jackson, Knight, and Afflalo, among others.  

Shorter Contracts: This is a bit self-evident, but it's still worth mentioning: the latest Collective Bargaining Agreement instituted shorter contract terms. In hopes of eliminating albatross deals, the league eliminated six-year contracts and limited most contract offers to four years. Obviously, shorter contracts will lead to players hitting free agency more often. In turn, it will lead to teams facing decisions on impending free agents more often. 

Opportunistic Agents: The role of agents manipulating the post-Decision free agency landscape shouldn't be understated. Once Anthony, Howard and others made it clear that superstars could create enough leverage to facilitate a move to a new team, the door opened for a trickle-down effect to the Dragics and Jacksons of the world. If an All-Star can force a team to trade him, why can't a near All-Star or a potential future All-Star do the same thing? The laundry list of reports about unhappy players that preceded the deadline—Dragic, Jackson, Kanter, etc.—reflects a preemptive approach on behalf of their representatives. Why should their clients wait until the summer if their current situation isn't maximizing their market value?

Open Races: James' transition back to Cleveland, up-and-down seasons for San Antonio and Oklahoma City, and the total fall-off of Indiana has created an environment in which more teams believe they have a shot at a title compared to the last few seasons. Portland, Memphis, Houston, and Dallas were among the buyers at some point between December and the deadline. It's impossible to preemptively trade an upcoming free agent without a partner who is willing to accept the risk that comes with acquiring such a player. In the cases of Rondo, Green, Afflalo and McDaniels, their buyers were willing to justify the moves in the name of winning now.

Roundup: Recapping every deal from an eventful NBA trade deadline

​Hopefully, lining up all of these circumstances alongside each other makes this year's record-setting level of trade activity seem less surprising. All in all, this looks like a pretty natural and logical evolution.

Going forward, it's clear that a number of these conditions—the luxury tax line, the shorter contracts, the lack of stigma, the role of analytics in roster-building—aren't going anywhere. The arrival of a drastically increased salary cap for the 2016-17 season promises to throw things for a loop, as does the ever-present possibility of a labor stoppage in 2017. Until it's time to climb those mountains, though, it's reasonable to expect teams to continue aggressively seek returns on players that might be headed out the door.