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The Year of Living Less Dangerously

The Post-Deadline NBA

Here are five unanswered questions in the wake of the ho-hum trading season. Plus, 10 things to like or not like.

Even a blah trade deadline changes the landscape of the league and hints at important big- and small-picture trends. After a few days to breathe, let’s examine some key unanswered questions: Which players are on notice after the roster shifts around them? Which teams should face scrutiny for their deadline action or inaction? And what does the dull deadline say about the league’s evolution?

Oklahoma City’s Try

Oklahoma City came into the deadline as one of the few potential “buyers” with actual currency to buy things — its own first-round pick, some intriguing young players, and a juicy protected first-round pick from Dallas.

That gets at one thing that has been bugging me: the notion that teams are allegedly “overvaluing” first-round picks under a harsh new collective-bargaining agreement that penalizes mega-spending. The idea makes some sense, and has a basis in reality. First-round picks net players on cheap rookie deals, and grease the wheels in trades. Several teams with extra first-round picks, including the Thunder and Suns, opted against trading them — even very low ones — for real NBA talent.

Since the end of last season, a pile of teams have traded future first-round picks: Golden State (to Utah), Washington (to Phoenix), Indiana (to Phoenix), and Brooklyn (to Boston) have all sent first-round picks flying around the league. Miami and Cleveland flipped potential first-rounders in trades that happened before the deadline.1 Most buyers at this deadline had major issues trading first-round picks precisely because they had already traded first-round picks. Some of those prior trades happened under the old CBA, but a bunch happened under the current version.

Teams are indeed valuing first-round picks more highly than they once did, but it’s not as if they are hoarding them underground like Ron Swanson’s gold.

Look again at the list of teams that have moved first-round picks over the last year. They are in buy-now mode, either because they think they have a real shot at winning a title in the near future (Golden State, Indiana, Brooklyn last summer), or because they are under enormous internal pressure to make the postseason.

Teams that are clutching their first-round picks are in rebuild mode — Boston, Phoenix, Orlando, others. Those teams need young players and trade assets. Perhaps the league is learning to value first-round picks more appropriately, rather than “overvaluing” them.

Teams have indisputably gotten smarter in the past few years. Old-guard general managers are losing out to new-school types who combine traditional scouting knowledge with a comfort with analytics and, in some cases, a sophisticated market-based understanding of the NBA. Teams are surrounding a lot of those GMs with front-office execs and interventionist owners who come straight from the business world.

More teams now have a firmer understanding of their position within the NBA’s hierarchy, and of whether dealing a first-round pick for Luol Deng/Pau Gasol will shift that position in a meaningful way. Sure, the Suns could have dealt a pick with an average return of Charlie Ward for two months of Deng, but what’s the point? They might win an extra game or two in the regular season, but giving Deng some of the P.J. Tucker/Gerald Green/Leandro Barbosa minutes isn’t going to dramatically increase their chances of upsetting the Rockets or Spurs in the first round.

Phoenix is already really good, and it has cap room to sign a Deng type over the summer. It may well be appropriate for the Suns to conclude a low first-round pick has more value in their coffers than as a short-term trade chip for an immediate upgrade.

Teams aren’t tricking themselves into thinking they’re better than they really are. The exception might be Cleveland, which dealt five collective picks, almost all second-rounders, for two veteran cogs on expiring contracts — Deng and Spencer Hawes.

The Cavs made this mini leap after a six-game winning streak against mostly awful teams. Guess what. They’ve lost two straight since to actually competent NBA teams, they have the toughest remaining schedule in the Eastern Conference, and they’re six games behind the no. 8 spot in the loss column.2

There are deeper things going on in the NBA that likely contributed to our second straight slow deadline. But I’m now unconvinced that some misguided “overvaluing” of first-round picks is one of them.

Case in point: The Thunder were ready to part with their own first-round pick in exchange for a wing player, according to several sources around the league. That was very likely what Oklahoma City offered New York for Iman Shumpert, a deal Chris Broussard reported, which the Knicks reportedly turned down after pushing to include Raymond Felton in any Shump dump. The Thunder, in other words, were willing to trade a pick for a player, though I’ve heard no indications they were ready to offer the more valuable Dallas pick.

They came up empty, which isn’t a disaster, since they have the second-best record in the league and an All-Star back from knee surgery. And let’s please ease up on the “Are they better without Westbrook?” chatter. I couldn’t watch Sunday’s Clippers-Thunder game live due to a family obligation, and judging from my Twitter feed, I assumed Westbrook had blown the game with four or five terrible jumpers as Durant stood wide open across the court.

What actually happened: Westbrook missed two bad late-game jumpers, including a step-back job with about two minutes left after the Clippers had switched DeAndre Jordan onto Westbrook — and with Durant standing passively on the weak side. Two bad shots, sure. Other Westbrook-related things that happened in the last 6:28 of that game: a fantastic Westbrook cross-court dime on a Derek Fisher 3-pointer; a similar pass to Reggie Jackson, who bricked an open 3; an assist on a Durant triple; an aborted hockey assist on a missed Durant 3, which Westbrook rebounded and kicked to Durant for another missed 3; a game-tying 3 from Westbrook himself; a driving basket; and two other pick-and-roll dishes to Durant that led to Durant misses.

With Westbrook, people only remember the two misses. The other stuff vanishes from the narrative. We have years of data showing the Thunder are better when both Westbrook and Durant play. The data this season, especially the lineup data, is shakier, but Westbrook is coming off three knee surgeries in less than a year! He’s rusty! Can we give the guy some time, please?

All that said, the Thunder ended up standing pat at the deadline, and the Westbrook-Durant thing has always had the potential to be one of those stories that engulfs a team beyond all rationality. I doubt that will happen, because this is not the sort of front office to behave irrationally. But if the Thunder bow out early in the playoffs, and a couple of close losses feature bad crunch-time Westbrook jumpers, it’s not insane to suggest the issue could balloon out of the team’s control.3

But for now, these guys remain the favorites in the Western Conference.

Portland’s Non-Move

Expectations are funny. If you had told Portland fans in October the Blazers would go 51-31 and lose to Houston in the first round, I bet most would have taken that with a stunned smile.

But then the Blazers started 24-5, creating false hope they might be a championship contender even though their defense never cracked the top 20 for an extended stretch. They’re 14-13 since, and if they maintain that .500 pace, they’ll finish with around 50 wins.

They did nothing at the deadline to upgrade their roster, even though two of their four rotation big men are injured. That wasn’t surprising. The Blazers have very few real trade assets. They’re already out a 2014 first-rounder to Charlotte, and while that debt didn’t necessarily prohibit them from trading another future first-rounder,4 smart front offices just don’t want to be in the business of tossing away a pile of picks for non-superstar upgrades.

And that gets at two more trends trickling into the new, smarter NBA:

1. Teams more than ever want to make sure they are in a position for sustained, long-term success. Everyone wants to win a title, but savvy front offices understand how difficult that is and view Mavs-ian long-term very goodness, or even just Hawks-ian goodness, as a desirable outcome. Dallas under the old CBA spent its way to 50 wins every season. Under a new CBA that cripples tax teams, the path to sustainable success comes via the melding of veteran players, draft picks, and salary flexibility.

2. On the flip side, teams understand they need a top-20 player or two to win a title, and they are going to be careful about trading any asset for a player below that level. A phrase I’ve heard constantly over the last six months: “Player X is just a guy.” Seriously, “just a guy” is happening around the NBA in a way “fetch” never could. Front-office types apply it as a mild insult to a pretty good player making something like $6 million to $10 million per year.

The implication is that you can get 80 percent of that player’s production on something close to a minimum salary, making it silly to give up anything of real value — gobs of money, a single first-round pick — for such a player. This was what frightened the players’ union during the lockout — the marginalization of the midlevel guy. It hasn’t yet happened on a massive scale in free agency, where the sheer number of teams with at least $10 million in cap room means plenty of “pretty good” veterans will still get fatty contracts. And these players have real value when plopped onto the right roster. Disregarding them completely is dangerous; not everyone can have a superstar — otherwise they wouldn’t be special.

But the prices for the “pretty good” in free agency are coming down a bit, and more teams see trading for those kinds of players as a fool’s errand.

Regardless: Portland didn’t have a pick to trade, a workable expiring contract, or a pricey expendable veteran other than Robin Lopez. The Blazers could have packaged Lopez and C.J. McCollum in an attempt to find rim protection, but it doesn’t appear they had serious interest in Omer Asik, and they value their current chemistry.

It will be interesting to see if fans accept the stasis, though.

Superstars in Boston and Minnesota Staying Put

Portland stands as a best-case scenario for the Wolves. A year ago, LaMarcus Aldridge was mildly unhappy, and with his contract expiring after the 2014-15 season, the Blazers would have to think about trading him had he stayed unhappy. Now? The Blazers are good, the foundation is solid, and Aldridge is a happy camper.

The Wolves, by all accounts, didn’t even think about trading Kevin Love this season. With the deadline passed, Love is now effectively an expiring contract; he has a player option for 2015-16, and he will almost certainly turn it down, unless he opts into it as a condition of a trade to another team. The new CBA has rendered extensions almost irrelevant,5 a major disservice to incumbent teams in Minnesota’s position, but it’s just very difficult for a small-market team to trade away a top-10 overall player. Utah’s shocking Deron Williams trade more than a year before the expiration of Williams’s contract was an anomaly, and Utah was emphatically correct in betting Williams’s days as a franchise-level star were over.

Love and Flip Saunders can whisper sweet nothings to each other in magazine articles, but Love’s dissatisfaction with the Wolves’ trajectory is an open secret around the league. They are going to miss the playoffs again this season, and if they show no real progress next season, Love will be out the door.

The Wolves have made a large wager on their ability to make a win-total leap, Portland-style, next season. The Lakers and many other teams loom as potential free-agent suitors, and every team hoarding trade assets is doing so with one eye on Love. But the closer Love gets to free agency, the less willing those teams will be to throw a lot of assets Minnesota’s way. And the Wolves themselves lack trade assets, since they’re already out a first-round pick to Phoenix and otherwise stocked with unwanted midrange contracts.

Moving on to the Celtics, Rajon Rondo’s below-market contract expires on the same timetable as Love’s, meaning Rondo too has effectively morphed into an expiring contract. The Celtics put Rondo out there, per several league sources, but they did so quietly and in a targeted fashion, and demanded a very large return.

Any team would be cautious about paying Rondo a max contract after next season, when he’ll be 29 and trying to prove he’s still worth that money on a rebuilding team, after a major knee surgery. But with one deadline passed, it’s possible Boston might be eyeing a middle-ground scenario: Rondo plays very well, but not blow-the-doors-off well, and the two sides agree to a non-max contract after next season.

Both teams can revisit these issues in the summer, and the NBA might be developing into more of a free-agency league than a trade league. The NBA envisioned this transition during the lockout. This is why it talked about “player sharing” and pushed for shorter contracts. It wants to be more like the NFL, where teams can turn things around in a blink. Being under the cap carries other benefits — the ability to absorb extra salary in a trade, renegotiate contracts with current players, and other goodies.

The harsh restrictions for big spenders indeed have more teams primed with max cap room every summer. July is going to be bananas every year, but I’m not sure the league thought it would be sacrificing the trade deadline to goose free agency.

Teams preserving cap room don’t need to surrender trade assets midseason to nab a veteran, since they can sign an equivalent player over the summer. The more teams with clean cap sheets, the fewer that need to exchange a talented player or first-round pick for the relief of an expiring contract. Just two deadlines ago, teams nabbed first-round picks for the expiring contracts of Gerald Wallace, Jordan Hill, and Ramon Sessions. The Pistons in June 2012 gave Charlotte a first-round pick just to get out of Ben Gordon’s contract and acquire an irrelevant player with a contract that ran one year shorter (Corey Maggette). That kind of deal is gone.

Teams don’t have to pay for flexibility anymore, because they’re already flush with cap room. If they need a little extra, they know they have the “stretch provision” in the bag.6 And if they’ve traded a future first-round pick, it’s easier for them to reengage in trade talks after the draft, when that debt might have been wiped away.

Lots of forces have combined to cool the trade deadline over the last two years, though many front-office types caution that reading anything into two years of data is dangerous. This is a highly regulated, unpredictable league of 30 very different actors. But the new rules, plus a groupthink caution and risk-averse approach, have chilled February a bit. No worries, though. July is not far away.

The Brooklyn Spending Bonanza

The Nets passed on sliding Jordan Hill into their disabled player exception, a move that would have vaulted Brooklyn’s payroll and tax bill just north of $210 million. They took on a small amount of money in the Marcus Thornton trade, a solid buy-low move, and that alone resulted in a lot of angry eye-rolling from the rest of the league. Had they splurged on Hill, the discontent would have grown louder.

The new CBA has scared even the glitzy teams with lucrative television deals; the Lakers worked hard to cut their tax bill for the second straight season, and the Knicks tried to attach Felton’s plump contract to any Shumpert deal. The Nets are an anomaly, but they’re such an outlandish one that they alone might push the league toward another work stoppage in 2017, when the NBA can opt out of the current CBA.

New York (Sigh), New York

Ah, the Knicks, passing on a potential first-round pick because they insisted on jettisoning Felton in any larger deal. A segment of fans were fine with sending Felton and Shumpert to the Clippers for Darren Collison’s expiring deal,7 and they justified the sacrifice of Shumpert by arguing the team needed Felton’s $3.95 million deal off their 2015-16 books to maximize the long-awaited 2015 cap space.

Hogwash. First of all, $3.95 million is nothing as the cap continues to increase. If $3.95 million is standing between you and your grand free-agency plans, you’re bad at planning. And if you really need to dump Felton by July 2015, there are a bunch of other ways to get it done without attaching a Felton-size anvil to Shumpert. Maybe you sacrifice a second-round pick to trade him into another team’s cap space; the Sixers are just a phone call away. Maybe you use this newfangled thing called the “stretch provision” to minimize Felton’s annual cap hit. And, because the Knicks are the Knicks, news just broke that police have arrested Felton on several serious firearms charges. His future is suddenly up in the air. Go Knicks!

Bottom line: This organization is a mess, and they’ve failed horribly in developing Shumpert. The Knicks have actually drafted well — witness Tim Hardaway Jr.’s rookie season — but their defense is broken, their coach a lame duck (with a sweet goatee, though), and their player development shaky. What’s the long-term plan?

More Deadline Questions

• Detroit tried to unload Josh Smith, but his four-year deal looks mammoth in a short-contract universe, and the Pistons wanted real return. They are flexible going forward, but Greg Monroe’s cap hold eats into much of that flexibility this summer, and they’ve kicked the Monroe can down the road at least a few months. Don’t rule out a sign-and-trade.

• Denver has collapsed amid injuries and poor play, and is capped out in both 2014-15 and 2015-16 with a roster that is a borderline playoff team even at full health. The Nuggets made everyone but Ty Lawson available at the trade deadline, per sources with teams with whom they talked, but they only managed to trade Professor Andre Miller, PhD. It just feels like there are a couple of other large boots to drop here.

• Ditto for the Pelicans, who won’t have real cap flexibility as things stand now until July 2016. They’re better off than Denver, since they’re far enough under the tax to use the midlevel exception without worry. They’ve also suffered so many injuries this season that it is hard to evaluate what they have. Anthony Davis will be a top-10 overall player, sooner rather than later. But the Pellies sniffed around a lot of stuff at the deadline, and they have two pricey deals attached to players verging on “just a guy” status in Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans.

10 Things I Like and Don’t Like

1. The All-Star Game

People seem to have enjoyed the All-Star Game this season. There sure were a lot of highlights. I found it boring, perhaps the least-watchable event in a weekend that includes a “skills challenge” and a poorly played celebrity game coached by morons.

You know why there were a lot of highlights? Because nobody was trying on defense. Well, check that. Joakim Noah was trying, because Joakim Noah knows no way to play other than balls-out. I wonder if the other All-Stars find him annoying.

It’s not hard for NBA players to pile up dunks when no one gets back on defense, cares whether their guy is cutting backdoor, or defends the pick-and-roll in a coherent way. There is a numbing effect after the first 10 alley-oops. Can you recall a single play from the game? I have the vague memory of Kyrie Irving pulling a tricky scoop shot, but that’s it.

Meanwhile, what Thomas Robinson, Wesley Matthews, and Will Barton pulled off Sunday night in one six-second sequence will stick in my head for a long time:

Highlights are highlights because they come at the expense of people trying to stop them. Everything else is just empty noise.

2. Terry Stotts’s Dr. Jack Suit

In case you missed it, Terry Stotts wore this getup to honor the legendary Dr. Jack Ramsay on Ramsay’s 89th birthday:

This is fantastic. Stotts could have stopped at the crazy plaid jacket, but no, he broke out the giant 1970s-style open collar, too. Tremendous effort.

3. “Free-Thrower”

A few of the TV guys on your League Pass dial, including Jim Petersen in Minnesota and Steve Albert in Phoenix, use this term as a descriptor: “Steve Nash, as you know, is an all-time great free-thrower.”

At first, it struck me as awkward. Why not say, “foul shooter,” or just “free throw shooter”? But it has grown on me over the years, and it kind of makes sense. If we can have “rebounders,” and “shooters,” and “shot-blockers,” why shouldn’t we have “free-throwers,” too?

4. Detroit’s Defense

The Pistons zombie-walked out of the All-Star break with consecutive dispiriting blowouts in a home-and-home against Charlotte, Detroit’s chief competition for the no. 8 spot in the Eastern Conference.

We’re nearly 60 games in, and Detroit still doesn’t have a clue defensively. Brandon Jennings and Greg Monroe have been minus defenders for their entire (and relatively short) careers, Andre Drummond is still learning, and Josh Smith hasn’t played this much small forward in years. Detroit was going to have some issues.

But holy cow, put these guys into even a single rotation and they are toast. Get even a foot of dribble penetration on a pick-and-roll and a Detroit player somewhere on the court is going to blow a rotation or lose track of his man. Have a post-up player Detroit has to double-team? Congratulations, you are definitely getting an open 3-pointer or a dunk out of it, because this team has no harmony moving around the floor.

It may just take time to mold a weird roster, get young players to learn the difficult timing of NBA defense, and find the right rotations. But there has been zero progress this season, regardless of who is coaching the team.

5. The Josh McRoberts Double-Team Effect

There is a hard-to-measure positive effect in having both a post behemoth and a power forward who can shoot 3s on the floor at the same time — a rare combination in today’s NBA, mind you.

Watch this Charlotte possession carefully:

Kemba Walker enters the ball to Al Jefferson, and Walker’s man, Jennings, dips down to double Big Al. That makes Walker the “one pass away” outlet for Jefferson. If Jefferson makes that pass to Walker, lots of NBA coaches will instruct the closest perimeter defender to slide toward Walker — giving Jennings time to scurry across the court and find someone on the weak side.

But the closest perimeter defender here is Greg Monroe, since Josh McRoberts, a big with 3-point range, is next to Walker up top. That’s an unusual setup, and it leaves Monroe with the uncomfortable job of switching onto the speedy little guy.

6. Enes Kanter’s Defense

The Jazz early in the season wisely embraced a more conservative style of defense in which their big men drop down toward the paint in containing pick-and-rolls. It hasn’t really worked, but the Jazz are young and poor on talent.

And Kanter, to his credit, has had a string of well-rounded offensive games of late. But he’s struggling even in this scheme, often dropping back so far as to give both participants in a pick-and-roll too much space to build a head of steam:

Tyrone Corbin at the end of games often has to instruct Kanter to venture out further, and Kanter’s happy feet don’t function well in space. The game still looks a bit too fast for Kanter on defense, and he’s often just a beat late on weakside rotations near the rim. Kanter’s clearly an NBA talent, but his ceiling is a mystery.

7. Trade Deadline Games

The night of the trade deadline always makes for fun viewing, with shorthanded teams forced to improvise. The Denver-Milwaukee game on Thursday was like that, but on steroids, since both teams were already thin due to injuries. Nate Wolters was the only traditional point guard on either team, and the Nuggets, having dealt away Jordan Hamilton but not received Aaron Brooks, played giant lineups that at one point featured Kenneth Faried as the nominal shooting guard. It was a weird, disjointed game, and kinda fun.

8. Buzzer-Beating Dunks

They are understandably rare, since players must rush to fling the ball from their hands as time winds down. But we’ve had two in the last couple weeks — Tobias Harris against the Thunder, and Nene just beating the buzzer against New Orleans over the weekend:

They are so unexpected, so jarring, that it takes you an extra second to process exactly what just happened. Wait, Maurice Harkless actually passed the ball backward to Harris, even with time winding down and Harkless right under the rim? The game is over?

You’re watching the clock and the ball at once, and you can’t believe Nene somehow understands he has enough time to dunk with authority instead of laying it up.

9. The Patrick Beverley Experience

Apologies to everyone in Oklahoma City, but watching this guy play lately has been electric. He’s a one-man press capable of pickpockets anywhere on the court, he’s maybe too confident in his ability to go chest-to-chest on defense without fouling, and he’s been knocking down his 3s over the last couple weeks.

That part of his game has been a bit of a disappointment. He’s shooting only 34.7 percent from 3-point range, slightly below the league’s average, and a very disappointing 32.9 percent on the easier corner 3s. But he’s hit at least half his 3s in six of his last 10 games. He won’t keep that up, but if he hones his 3-point shot into a slightly finer weapon, the Rockets have a very dangerous player.

10. The New Pierre

It looks like a pelican now. At bottom, that was the problem with the original horror-movie Pierre: It didn’t look like a pelican. Why was it green? Why was it wearing clown makeup? It didn’t even look much like a bird.

Pelicans exist in nature. You can look up photos of them. If your mascot is the pelican, then the on-court mascot should at least be vaguely identifiable as a pelican. Now it is!

Filed Under: NBA

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ ZachLowe_NBA

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