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The Trade Deadline Exchange, Part 1

First lesson: Don't trade with Dork Elvis

With the NBA’s trade deadline happening at 3 p.m. ET on Thursday, Grantland’s Zach Lowe and Bill Simmons decided to swap e-mails all day to capture the speculation, the rumors, and maybe even a few breaking trades as they happened. Here’s the first installment, tentatively titled, “Sorry, Sacramento.”

Simmons (6:30 a.m.): All right, I’m up, I’m drinking coffee, I’m ready to go. What did you think of Houston fleecing Sacramento for Thomas Robinson?1 Why do teams continue to trade with Dork Elvis? Everyone, STOP TRADING WITH DORK ELVIS!!!!!

Lowe: That was a shocker. The highest-value player here is obviously Robinson (the fifth overall pick just eight months ago), whom lots of scouts love despite his rudimentary offensive skills; he’s shooting 42 percent and has zero post game, though he is shooting a nearly acceptable 38 percent on midrange jumpers, per Keith Smart was very optimistic about Robinson’s midrange jumper when I spoke to him in Dallas just before the All-Star break.

Simmons: You left out, “Oh, and he’s a 21-year-old rookie getting spotty minutes for the most depressing franchise in the league … maybe that affected his jumper, too.”

Lowe: In any case: Robinson’s a “wow” athlete, and he’s already a better rebounder than Patterson ever will be; Patterson rebounds more like a small forward than a power forward, and he’s the only player of any long-term relevance going to Sacramento here. The Kings do save about $3.6 million in salary for this season, so hooray for that! Cost-cutting may well have been a motive during an awkward period for the franchise, and if it was, well, have fun digesting that one, Sacto fans. Of course, Patterson is a year away from the expiration of his rookie deal, after which point he’ll become more expensive. Robinson has three years left on his rookie deal. Math is fun.

Simmons: There were so many appalling things about that trade, but you just hit on the big one — the Kings gave up on a top-five lottery pick to save a little less than $4 million. It’s the kind of trade that happens when your owners are broke. It’s the kind of trade that would have happened in 1978, back when the league was struggling and they were showing Finals games on tape delay. You know I’m prone to hyperbole from time to time, but I truly believe this — that’s the worst trade anyone’s made in years. A lottery team giving up Robinson … I mean … it’s unconscionable. No, he wasn’t playing that well for the Kings, but can you think of a worse situation for him?

As I’ve written before, the Kings were put together like The Pickup Team From Hell. Before this trade, they had a playing rotation that included four point guards and four power forwards. That’s not a misprint. Robinson was getting scattered minutes off the bench behind Boogie Cousins and Jason Thompson. And they’re owned by a bunch of broke brothers who are trying to sell out to Seattle and inadvertently (or maybe even advertently) turned their season into a total soap opera. Other than that, it was a fantastic situation for Thomas Robinson. I’m amazed he didn’t thrive there.

Lowe: Agree that Robinson had the highest value in the trade because of his athleticism/upside, and because he represents another immediately movable high-value trade chip for Daryl Morey — a lottery pick, basically. The Rockets can deal Robinson right away if they want to make a deadline play for Josh Smith or another big-money guy, since this deal leaves Houston under the salary cap and thus safe from rules against trading a player right after getting him. Houston may choose to wait until the summer for any such chase, since they’ll have max-level cap room. These two deals combined shave about $1.6 million from Houston’s 2013-14 cap figure, meaning they should be able to carve out about $20 million in space in July with a bit of creativity — enough to fit Dwight Howard’s max contract, and certainly Smith’s. They could also use Robinson as a sign-and-trade chip.

Simmons: It was an amazing trade for them. My buddy House and I always called these types of trades “pu pu platter” trades. You know when you order Chinese food in college and it seems like a great idea to order a giant pu pu platter for the table because you get so many things with it? Then the big pu pu platter arrives and it always sucks? You have lukewarm spareribs and overcooked chicken wings and soggy egg rolls? And you wish you had just spent that money on their best entrée? That’s what this trade was. Houston dealt lukewarm spareribs, overcooked chicken wings and soggy egg rolls for a piping-hot dish of kung pao chicken.

I gotta be honest, Zach … I didn’t think trades like this could still happen in 2013. Basketball coverage is so merciless now. We have hundreds of bloggers, dozens of beat writers and too many influential NBA columnists basically lounging around waiting for fresh prey. When you screw up, this entire community descends on you like a pack of coyotes. As weird as this sounds, I think it’s made the 30 NBA teams as a whole a little more competent — instead of plowing ahead with a dumb deal, now they float out possible trades to gauge reactions, just to make sure they’re not going to get slammed if they actually go through with it. But in this case? The Kings just plowed ahead. And thank god. I missed ripping apart a truly atrocious trade! Thank you, Geoff Petrie!

Lowe: I heard from people from at least a half-dozen teams within an hour of this trade breaking, and the universal reaction was: WHAT!!??? I mean, everyone understands the Kings did this to save money, though they may eventually try to conjure up some vague basketball-related justification — that Patterson fits better next to DeMarcus Cousins because he can space the floor, or perhaps because they are friends from Kentucky. Neither comes close to justifying the raw asset exchange they made here.

In any case, my best educated guess for how this went down: Houston has been peddling a bunch of its young guys in hopes of exchanging one for a first-round pick. They were calling around the league. They eventually got to Sacramento, at which point Petrie — still at least using the telephone, I’m told, assuming the Kings have paid the phone bill — probably mentioned Robinson’s availability in a package with Francisco Garcia. Morey probably dropped the phone.

Simmons: I agree. I think he definitely dropped the phone. And there’s no question that he called his guys into an electrical closet and said, “Look, give me all your cell phones. It’s not that I don’t trust you. I do. I 99.9 percent trust you. But I can’t even leave open the 0.1 percent chance that one of you will screw me over by leaking this deal to Stein or Woj. If we get the fifth pick in last year’s draft for a bunch of crap, this will be the greatest moment of my career, and possibly my life. So please, give me your cell phones.”

Lowe: And don’t forget — that $1.6 million in 2013-14 salary they saved could prove very important if they chase Howard.

Simmons: Here’s what NBA history has shown us — you always want to target a high lottery pick who’s available because he’s either underachieving or playing for a team that doesn’t know what it’s doing. It’s the best way to luck out with a potential All-Star if you never actually have the chance to pick high in the lottery. If you get them when they’re young, even better. Some of my favorite examples: Chris Webber, Jason Kidd, Chauncey Billups, Mike Bibby, Rip Hamilton, Joe Johnson, Rasheed Wallace, Marcus Camby … it’s just happened too many times. That’s why I would be targeting Minnesota’s Derrick Williams today. He’s available for 50 cents on the dollar, he’s playing out of position for a lottery team, and there’s a good chance that he might thrive in the right spot. Always bet on lottery talent. Well, unless it’s Jonny Flynn or Wesley Johnson.

Lowe: To be fair, the Rockets did give up a decent rotation guy in Patterson. But that’s all Patterson is. Houston watched him for three years and hoped at various times he’d augment his game by developing some low-post skills or morphing into a mobile defensive force. Neither happened. Patterson did develop a 3-point shot — he’s at a very nice 36.5 percent from deep this season — but he’s a liability on the glass, he gets to the line but once per game, and he’s not much of a passer. He’s a decent defender, but that’s it, and sometimes he’s not even that; he has a bad habit of biting on pump fakes. You don’t sell low on a potential talent like Robinson in order to get a nice player on the back end of his rookie deal, and you certainly don’t do it just because he’s college buddies with your out-of-control center.

Simmons: Enjoy, Kings fans! Is it possible the Maloofs made this deal to try to encourage Seattle’s ownership group to back out? I’m not ruling this out.

Lowe: Who the heck knows what the Kings were up to (other than saving that aforementioned scratch)? A source familiar with the deal confirms GM Geoff Petrie was heavily involved, though it’s unclear who is really pulling the strings there. Did they even call around about Robinson’s availability? Is this the best they could have done? Heck, even Garcia on an expiring deal has a little value as a locker-room guy/passable wing shooter.

Simmons: That was the most startling part for me. Why would any NBA team randomly trade an asset without making sure there wasn’t a better offer out there? This drives me crazy in fantasy whenever another owner does this — it’s the best way to guarantee I will send you a pissy 500-word e-mail with everyone else in the league CC’ed. Also, if I’m dealing the fifth pick in the draft, then I’m at least making you take John Salmons’s contract ($7.6 million next year) and not Garcia’s expiring deal … right? Or would that make too much sense? You know what’s funny? Had Salmons’s deal been in here instead of Garcia’s expiring, I STILL wouldn’t have liked the trade for the Kings. That’s how bad it was.

Lowe: The whole “Let’s save money!” thing raises the question of why the Kings inexplicably took on Salmons’s awful contract in a three-team trade just before the 2011 draft — a trade in which the Kings took on the most long-term money and dropped down three picks in that year’s lottery. It made no sense then, and it makes less sense now, though obviously the context has changed dramatically with the potential Seattle move and the multiple interests involved here. In any case, someone will overpay Patterson next summer/fall.

Simmons: And it will probably be the Kings. That’s a Geoff Petrie specialty!

Lowe: Houston didn’t want to be that team, so they sold Patterson and they got a lottery pick. Not so different from San Antonio’s goal in the Kawhi Leonard/George Hill trade on Draft Day 2011. The deal may hurt Houston a tad in the playoff race this season, since they just dealt away their entire power-forward rotation in Morris and Patterson — two above-average 3-point shooters, especially from the corners, who could space the floor around Omer Asik pick-and-rolls.

Houston could have, in theory, waited until the summer to flip Morris — a lottery pick in his own right — for a second-rounder, keeping him around for the rest of this season.

Simmons: I wondered about that as well and came to this conclusion: The Rockets probably wanted the extra cap space for trade deadline flexibility purposes, and also, they know better than anyone that those second-round picks can become real commodities when you strike oil with them (like Chandler Parsons or Chase Budinger). You don’t think of someone like Parsons as untradable, but with his cheap contract (under a million this year and next) during an era when the cap keeps dropping, he’s semi-untradable — would you rather pay Parsons $900,000 or Rudy Gay $17 million? It’s no contest.

Lowe: But Houston plays chunks of every game with Chandler Parsons at power forward, and this move may signal that they are confident Terrence Jones and/or Donatas Motiejunas is ready for more time. And Robinson projects as a much better pick-and-roll player and rebounder than either of the departed power forwards. Perhaps Houston can make up for the offense in other ways.

Simmons: I like the way Robinson (in my head) will fit on that Houston team. That 18-footer is always open for them because they have two elite slash-and-kick guys. In college, that was Robinson’s bread and butter. And as you mentioned earlier, he could always end up being a poker chip for a much bigger move. You’re not getting someone like Josh Smith for the pu pu platter, but you might be able to get him for, say, Robinson, Jones and Garcia’s contract if that’s the best Atlanta can do. For me, Houston is a massive wild card heading toward the playoffs, especially if they make one more monster move today. Did you see what the Rockets did to Oklahoma City last night? They skewered them! They remind me of one of those Spurs/Nuggets teams from the 1980s — you know they won’t win the title, but you’d also want no part of them in a seven-game series. Dork Elvis went into the summer with a slew of “if”s and came out of it with a franchise guy (Harden), two starters on fair contracts (Lin and Asik), the fifth overall pick AND cap space for 2013. That’s spectacular. I’m so happy that he’s not getting fired, and that he won’t be moving into my guest room. What do you think of Houston’s playoff chances?

Lowe: I don’t think this really moves the needle in that sense; their chances of snagging a spot are still good to very good. They’re still three games up in the loss column over the Lakers, and that home win against Oklahoma City last night was huge. They hold the head-to-head advantage for tiebreaker purposes over all three of Utah, the Lakers, and Golden State, though all three of those teams have a chance to tie the Rockets. And the Warriors are slumping.

Simmons: And then some. At what point is someone going to break the news to Warriors fans that they could have had James Harden for Klay Thompson before the season? Should we do it in stages? One at a time? How should we handle this? We might have to do an oral history called “The Last Few Days Before Oklahoma City Traded James Harden.” I still can’t believe that Washington and Golden State evaluated that situation by saying, “Hmmmmm … no thanks, we’re gonna roll with Bradley Beal/Klay Thompson over adding a franchise guy.” Sorry, I interrupted, go back to breaking down Houston’s playoff chances, please.

Lowe: Look, the Rockets might be a little undermanned up front down the stretch. They were playing Aldrich at backup center in search of some additional size, and barring some future moves, they’ll have to get by again with some undersized lineups when Asik is on the bench. Houston’s defense and rebounding have both collapsed when Asik sits; they’ve allowed about 101.9 points per 100 possessions when he plays and 108.5 when he hits the bench, roughly the gap between Miami’s 11th-ranked defense and Sacto’s league-worst defense. So they’ll suffer some on that end, even with Greg Smith back from the D-League to assume backup center duties, but it’s not as if Aldrich was making much of a difference. They might miss Douglas a bit, since he was shooting 38 percent from 3 after bombing out in New York last season. But Patrick Beverley can grab those minutes, I guess.

Simmons: Let’s talk about the other part of this deal …

Lowe: You mean, the Suns getting a shooting power forward whose twin brother is on the team already, as a shooting power forward?

Simmons: Exactly! I think the Suns have officially hit rock bottom — they couldn’t acquire a marquee player to get their fans excited this week, even though they were trying to overpay for everyone from Josh Smith to Iman Shumpert, so they went with Plan B. What was Plan B? TWINS! Who’s up for seeing some twins! Anyone? These guys look exactly alike! And we’re gonna play them at the same time! COME SEE THE TWINS!!!!!!!

Lowe: I’ll give the Suns a wait-and-see.

Simmons: I’d rather give them a wait-and-don’t-see. But go ahead.

Lowe: I didn’t like their offseason beyond the Goran Dragic signing — I predicted they’d be the league’s biggest disappointment, and couldn’t believe anyone thought they’d pulled a quick post-Nash rebuild — but they’ve got lots of flexibility both today and going into the summer, and a ton of picks. (They get the Lakers’ first-round pick if L.A. misses the playoffs.) They’ll spend the rest of this season seeing what they have in Wesley Johnson and Kendall Marshall —

Simmons: It’s like you’re trying to provoke me to make a snarky joke.

Lowe: — and their climate and training staff appeal to free agents. Marcus Morris can play some small forward, though there is some crowding now at both positions, with Michael Beasley, Luis Scola, and Channing Frye (next season) all on the books. But really, the Suns are a bit player here. Houston and Sacramento are the stars in this weird, weird drama.

Simmons: Let’s hope and pray for more inexplicably weird trades that make you say, “Wait … what???????” Keep your fingers crossed.

CLICK HERE for Part 2.

Filed Under: Art, Bill Simmons, General topics, People, Simmons, Zach Lowe

Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

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