The Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2011 changed the financial landscape of the NBA in a major way. Gone are the times where the trade deadline is a General Manager’s playing field for star-studded blockbuster deals. The new NBA is all about cost preservation, talent evaluation and assets.
Back in the winter of 2011, when the Board of Owners and the Players Association agreed on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), experts and analysts predicted that the ramifications would be drastic in terms of how teams spend their money on players in the future. Being part of a two-tier society divided by big-market and small-market teams, the owners wanted a new CBA that allowed equal opportunities for everyone. Though being apparent that teams in smaller markets could never stop franchises in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles from spending considerably more money, they realized that the old contractual system was their own demise when trying to compete in a world that favored big spenders. Against substantial resistance by the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA), the Board of Owners implemented several of their aggravated rules in the new agreement, henceforth changing the league in significant ways.
Young Management and a New Approach
Three years ago, the New York Knicks struck the last blockbuster deal at the trading deadline, acquiring Carmelo Anthony from the Denver Nuggets. It was the season before the lockout, preceding the new agreement. Anthony himself had the option of becoming a free agent in that very same summer he chose his new team. The fear of losing money within the realm of the new CBA made him force his way to New York while the old system was still existing.
Melo’s deal could be seen as a prime example of the old distribution of roles in the NBA. Small-market teams develop stars through the draft but ultimately lose them to big-market teams and sore temptations of becoming a global brand. The new CBA is in full effect now. Tax penalties, cap flexibility and healthier contracts are the language of a transformed league.
Several teams like the Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz changed their managerial approach. In fact, one third of the NBA’s 30 teams changed their management team. Eight of these ten new hirings never played basketball on any level. And it shows. Driven by numbers and statistics, young general managers are not influenced by their own experience as a player. They value sheer stats rather than theoretical talent or past performances. Old-school general managers that were NBA players seem to look at things differently. They valued established players more than their contracts and were much more willing to take risks.
The Extinction of the Pretender
This year’s trade deadline came and went unremarkably, with talk of improvement but no real progress. A stark contrast to past years in which multiple teams actively swapped big contracts in hopes of a last effort push for the playoffs. This year, just like 2013, continues the ongoing process of eliminating the teams that pretend to be relevant. Golden State, Washington and Charlotte were active yesterday, dealing medium-level contracts and acquiring players that realistically help them stay in the playoff picture. The Wizards’ trade for Andre Miller, the Warriors getting Steve Blake and the Bobcats securing the services of Gary Neal and Luke Ridnour bolster their rotation in light of a probable playoff appearance. None of these contracts put these teams into dire financial conditions.
There was only one team that grasped the straw of hope. The Cleveland Cavaliers forced their own hand by acquiring Spencer Hawes from the Philadelphia 76ers. This trade is a followup to the Luol Deng deal in December that doomed the franchise to stay on their path of trying to force success. Cleveland spent four draft picks alone this year to bring in players that convey the hope of becoming an immediate playoff team. The Cavaliers paid a steep price for this short-term goal.
Rebuilders and Contenders
In many ways, the NBA is restructuring itself into two camps. By trying to avoid the near-certain doom of mediocrity, franchises are either a contender or a rebuilder.
Philadelphia began their rebuild last summer when they traded all-star Jrue Holiday for a young player and a 2014 draft pick. They went into the season knowing that it would be a lost one. Posting the second worst record in the league, the Sixers traded two of their main rotation players for financial reasons and draft picks, which allowed them to acquire cheap young players in the draft or use the assets for later deals in the coming summer. Philadelphia realized that their efforts in the last several years didn’t bring any significant success and began a fire-sale of their productive players.
The biggest deal of the night was in fact with the Indiana Pacers. The number one team in the Eastern Conference acquired Philadelphia’s top-scorer Evan Turner in exchange for the expiring contract of Danny Granger and a draft pick. Knowing that they don’t see Turner as part of their future, the 76ers gave up talent for cap space and assets. When speaking about contenders, you have to mention the Indiana Pacers which were a rebuilder the last several years. After a strong run in the early 2000s, Indiana had to build a new team from the ground up. They went through the draft (characteristically for a small-market team) and developed into a championship-level team last season. Being aware that the chances of winning it all is palpable, Indiana invested heavily.
Their main rivals on the other hand stood pat. Neither the Miami Heat nor the Oklahoma City Thunder (OKC) or San Antonio Spurs were part of a big change at the trade deadline. The Spurs and Heat did minor things while OKC, armed with assets and young players, couldn’t find the right deal and declined to do anything stupid, knowing that more players would be available soon once teams begin to waive or buy out players.
The Tragedy of the Big Spenders
Analyzing the trade deadline and not mentioning the New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers or Brooklyn Nets seems odd given their history as one of the more active franchises at the deadline.
Every one of these three teams went a different route. While the Brooklyn Nets made a deal that involved Marcus Thornton from the Sacramento Kings in exchange for Jason Terry and Reggie Evans, the Lakers were sellers this year and tried to get below the highest cap hit in order to minimize their tax expenses. Unlike the Nets, the Lakers are far outside the playoff picture and are already planning for the next season.
The New York Knicks, facilitator of the last blockbuster deal in 2011, still seem to be trapped in the old system. Handing out massive contracts before and right after the new CBA, the Knicks are tied up in their investments and do not possess any assets to shake up their roster. In many ways, the Knicks’ business decisions can be seen as the ultimate example of an old world that died out. Like the dinosaurs, the Knicks weren’t able to adapt to a modern, leaner system that understands the importance of healthy management, talent evaluation and assets in sports.
For us as fans, the trade deadline continues to become more dull. Bigger deals are likely to happen earlier in the season or in the summer which leaves the once spectacular deadline as the odd man out. Being afraid to make any deal that ruins the aforementioned goals, front offices would rather do nothing. As a direct result, however, teams are much more willing to develop younger players and a team-oriented strategy. By doing this, they ultimately become more appealing than a big market full of shallow promises.
Written by Robert Jerzy for Highsnobiety.com