You’re on Notice: The Players to Watch Post-Trade Deadline

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The trade deadline, even a mild one, reshuffles rosters and hints at franchise priorities going forward. The changes and the signals combine to heighten the scrutiny and pressure placed on certain players. Here, we present a list of who — and what — is on notice after last week’s relatively uneventful deadline:

The New Collective Bargaining Agreement

The deadline was a quiet bust for transaction addicts, leading a lot of smart folks around the league to conclude the harsh new collective bargaining agreement had general managers gun-shy when it came to acquiring long-term salary and/or dealing away first-round picks. Ken Berger of CBS Sports captured this best, via an anonymous GM:

“This is a pure CBA deadline,” one general manager said Thursday after the dust settled. “If you can’t get a first for J.J. Redick, this is a different world. That guy is a surefire lock to garner a first round pick in the past.”

The new CBA indeed carries scary penalties — a more punishing luxury tax that kicks in next season, catastrophic penalties for repeat payers, and roster-building restrictions for teams that even approach the tax threshold. Executives around the league agree those changes have teams clinging more tightly to first-round picks, a hoarding mentality that even extends to pseudo contenders with picks slated for the end of the first round — a place where the expected return is a borderline rotation player. That’s what the anonymous GM in Berger’s piece is getting at: How could a team that might view itself as “one player away” — the Pacers, perhaps — turn up its nose at surrendering the annual equivalent of Miles Plumlee for a shooter, such as Redick, who might be the missing piece? Only one future first-round pick changed hands around the trade deadline (a pick Memphis sent to Cleveland in a salary dump ahead of the Rudy Gay deal), after four or five changed hands on average over the last couple of trade deadlines.

Executives are divided over whether teams are overvaluing late first-rounders or finally valuing them properly. Even if the 25th pick has a 20 percent chance of turning into a useful NBA player (and that’s a very rough estimate), it has a 100 percent chance of turning into a cheap asset for the player’s first four years in the league. That affordability, plus the lure of of the unknown teenage player, has jacked up the league-wide value of future first-round picks. Even teams “one player away” view their picks not in a vacuum, but rather as ingredients in a collection of assets they might one day combine in a trade package for a really good NBA player.

In this sense, then, perhaps the strict new CBA has awoken teams to the fact that they shouldn’t be throwing around future first-round picks for Tyrus Thomas or Gerald Wallace.

On the flip side: Most of those picks in the mid-20s result in very little NBA productivity. And it’s clear the league is in the middle of a major adjustment in valuing first-round picks — an adjustment that saw buyers holding them like gold, while sellers, or teams with cap space and trade exceptions, were demanding first-round picks as if teams were still willing to give them up willy-nilly. Chicago, for instance, could easily have gotten under the tax line by dumping Richard Hamilton on one of those teams with space, but they were unwilling to give up a first-round pick as the price, per several league sources. The Warriors got under the tax by dealing both Charles Jenkins and Jeremy Tyler, but they might have been able to offload a bigger salary attached to Richard Jefferson or Andris Biedrins in multi-player deals had they been willing to surrender a first-rounder.

And some teams asking for draft picks pushed hard for the kind of “lottery guaranteed” picks Houston and Cleveland received in deals over the last year. (Those picks aren’t actually guaranteed to fall in the lottery, but the Rockets and Cavs convinced their trading partners — Toronto and Memphis — to attach rules dictating the picks not change hands if they fall outside the lottery in certain seasons.)

In other words: It might be that the CBA has caused a one-year disruption in the market for first-round picks. It may also be that there simply weren’t any teams that considered themselves “one player away,” and/or available guys who really represented that missing piece. Teams have a very healthy fear of Miami and Oklahoma City (and, in some corners, the Spurs), and a realistic understanding of how difficult it is to beat those teams four times in seven games. They seem to get how little a non-star player really affects those odds. Josh Smith is a star player when he wants to be, but he carries a very large salary that makes a trade more difficult than in the case of a mid-salary player like Redick. (Side note: It’s shocking how many people misspell Redick’s name as “Reddick.” He might be a first-team member of the All-Misspelled Team, which includes Arron Afflalo, Dwyane Wade, Brandan Wright, Antawn Jamison, and my personal MVP, Marreese Speights.)

Also, look around the league and it’s hard to find a “missing piece” guy who was readily available, on an easily moved salary, and had more than this season left on his contract. Redick may well have fetched the Magic a future first-round pick if his deal extended beyond this season. But it doesn’t. And if he helps the Bucks clinch a playoff spot and work as a feisty first-round team, he’s going to demand something in the $8 million–$10 million range as a free agent this summer as he approaches his 29th birthday. That’s a very high price to pay for a first-round pick, especially since roughly half the league’s teams could have significant cap space this summer with which to court Redick and his ilk.

Contracts in general will be shorter under the new CBA, which means more teams will be able to see cap flexibility in the near-ish future — and thus perhaps be less willing to surrender a pick to dump a bad contract and reach that flexibility sooner. (Note: That’s exactly what Detroit did in swapping Ben Gordon and a first-round pick to Charlotte for Corey Maggette’s expiring deal. Which team “won” that deal is a hot topic among league executives.)

But if those shorter contracts might dampen future trade deadlines, they could invigorate the annual July free-agency period. That period might feature more trades, or sign-and-trades, and we also have to see how the new CBA affects the picks-for-cash market that crops up just ahead of each draft. And if the CBA eventually pushes down the salaries for non-star veterans, perhaps the trading market will become more liquid, since future first-rounders won’t be quite as cheap relative to those veterans.

People seem to forget this, but we also had three massive deals between August and late January, two of which — for Rudy Gay and James Harden, respectively — were motivated at least in part by the new CBA. (The third was the Dwight Howard deal, motivated by candy and whatever else motivates Howard’s “camp.”)

There have also been several deadlines deader than this one, as Yahoo’s Eric Freeman noted last week. The new CBA has clearly changed the way teams think, and it probably helped depress activity at this particular deadline. But it’s unclear whether that was a random blip or the sign of a long-term trend.

DeMarcus Cousins and Jason Thompson

The Kings are behaving as if Cousins is a franchise player; Patrick Patterson’s ability to space the floor around Cousins has been floated as an alleged reason for the Patterson–Thomas Robinson deal, even though Keith Smart has Cousins playing more on the perimeter this season. Regardless, we’re at the end of Year 3. It’s time for Cousins to start acting the part of the franchise player, which means hitting better than 45 percent of his shots, cutting out the insidious moping, and actually playing hard on defense. All the time.

Thompson’s fifth season has been a mild disappointment. He went through a horrific midseason slump and saw his minutes dwindle. Now he has some serious competition in Patterson.

Monta Ellis and the Rest of the Bucks’ Wings and Guards

The Bucks have actually been better on offense when Ellis is on the floor, but “better” still amounts to below league average, and you’ll be shocked to know they’ve been worse defensively — and borderline Kings-like when LARRY SANDERS! isn’t on the floor to cover up everyone’s mistakes — when Ellis plays, per NBA.com’s stats database. Ellis took on more of a distributor role in Redick’s first game as a Buck on Saturday, and it’s clear Jim Boylan will play Ellis, Brandon Jennings, and Redick together. That will result in a minutes squeeze for Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Mike Dunleavy Jr. on some nights.

But Ellis is the guy to watch. He has an $11 million player option for next season, and the league is assuming he’ll opt out to secure a long-term deal in the four-year/$32 million range. If he does, the Bucks can work their way to serious cap room — Josh Smith–level cap room — by using the amnesty provision on Drew Gooden. It’s unclear if they’ll pay Gooden to go away, but bottom line: Ellis has to prove he still can actually help teams win over the long haul, and he has stiffer competition now in doing so.

Jordan Crawford

The Wiz basically traded Crawford for nothing — not even a token second-rounder or a trade exception — which is both short-sighted and indicative of how Crawford’s value has fallen around the league. In the past, Boston, always desperate for offense, has been willing to gamble on the league’s score-first black sheep, including Stephon Marbury and Nate Robinson. Crawford will get a chance to play, and he is a very creative player with useful passing skills as a secondary ball handler — key on a team now full of secondary ball handlers. But he’s running out of chances to find the appropriate balance in his game.

Iman Shumpert, Jason Kidd, J.R. Smith, and Mike Woodson

Ronnie Brewer’s fall from grace in New York remains one of the season’s puzzling little stories, even if his defensive focus fell off a bit after the Knicks’ red-hot start. His departure for nothing of any current on-court value means the Knicks will mostly have to play two of the above-mentioned trio if they want to go heavy minutes with Carmelo Anthony at power forward. Kidd is 7-of-44 from 3-point range in his last 12 games and has looked reluctant to shoot at times in that stretch. Shumpert is shooting 31 percent in his return from knee surgery and has been inconsistent defensively. Smith’s Twitter and text-message game has been disgusting, but he’s mostly been attentive on defense for Woodson, and has shot just well enough from deep to justify the usual unbridled chucking.

Amar’e Stoudemire’s strong offensive play has Woodson rebalancing the big-to-small minutes ratio, though Stoudemire’s defense has been so bad that Woodson has recently ditched lineups with Stoudemire playing center at the start of the second and fourth quarters. New York is in a malaise. Can they snap out of it?

Evan Turner

Philly stood pat at the deadline, but the organization is still trying to suss out what Turner can be exactly in the NBA, and whether Turner and Andrew Bynum are worth sacrificing future flexibility. Turner has a tantalizing skill set, but he’s been uneven defensively, and can get both shot-happy from the midrange and turnover-prone when he takes the controls from Jrue Holiday.

Brandon Knight

This is the next big question for the Pistons, flush with cap room this summer and going forward. The acquisition of Jose Calderon turned Knight into something like a shooting guard, and it wasn’t going all that well before Knight’s knee injury last week; Knight has shot just 37 percent with Calderon on the floor, per NBA.com, and he has generally been shaky so far as a lead NBA guard. He’s a little small to play 2-guard full time, though it’s handy in the 2013 NBA to have point-guard types capable of running a side pick-and-roll in a pinch. Knight still projects as a good defender, and his 3-point shot has been solid from day one.

And this is only his second year. But the Pistons have to start thinking about his future, and his future salary, right now.

Udonis Haslem, Rashard Lewis, Chris Andersen, and Joel Anthony

Miami sniffed around a few of the available big men, and they did open up a roster spot for buyout candidates by dealing Dexter Pittman to Memphis. But at least for now, this is the crew of supplementary bigs Miami will roll with in May and June. They don’t need much out of these guys, since the Heat will play heavy minutes with LeBron James and Shane Battier working as power forwards, but they’ll need some productive minutes out of this group at some point — especially if they keep starting Haslem.

The Utah Jazz

The trade deadline villains, roundly chastised for holding onto Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson, both impending free agents, despite zero evidence Utah could have nabbed much in the way of useful long-term assets for either one. Nobody was willing to deal a future first-round pick for a rental player, and it’s unclear how serious the Eric Bledsoe–Millsap talks actually got at the highest levels. And Utah’s inaction doesn’t necessarily mean they didn’t try some things; remember, this is the front office that caught even the most inside of league insiders by surprise with the Deron Williams deal. People must take some kind of loyalty oath before joining the Jazz front office.

Look, it’s true Utah can be difficult to deal with; it’s hard to find even a single executive who would say Utah was really interested in talking turkey over the last month. The Jazz do not appear to have been proactive or all that interested in incoming calls.

But they’re so flush with cap room this summer that even the mammoth cap holds attached to Jefferson and Millsap don’t soak up all their open space. (They have other cap holds that could take them over the cap, depending on how they want to navigate July.) That will give Utah enormous flexibility, even if they lose one of these guys without compensation in a market crowded with cap-space teams. They could re-sign one and sign-and-trade the other for a trade exception and other assets, which would allow them to take on someone else’s long-term salary later; this is basically how the Jazz acquired Jefferson from Minnesota. The number of teams with space, plus new prohibitions on sign-and-trades for tax teams, will hurt the sign-and-trade market a bit, but it will be there, especially for Millsap.

And losing Jefferson for nothing, or almost nothing, wouldn’t be a disaster. The Hawks may well have been better off in the long run taking exactly that course with Joe Johnson instead of re-signing him to a ludicrous super-max contract in 2010 — a contract that paralyzed their franchise until they off-loaded him to the Nets. Jefferson is a nice offensive player, but he’s a huge liability on defense in a pick-and-roll league, and he’s about to hit the wrong side of the aging curve. No team should be in a rush to pay him $12 million per year, though someone probably will. Millsap is a better all-around player, and the Jazz have to nail this decision if they indeed intend to keep one of their starting bigs, even with Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter requiring more minutes.

Favors, by the way, is shooting a career-worst 47.8 percent and hasn’t quite looked up to assuming a larger offensive role. But he’s not even 22 yet, and he should be an impact player for a long, long time.

Utah may well have misplayed its hand here, but if they did so, it was likely by waiting too long to face a big organizational decision to maintain a “blah” playoff team with no chance of doing real damage; the right move might have been to deal one of these guys a year earlier, when they weren’t the short-term rentals they are today.

But what we don’t know outweighs what we know, by a considerable margin, and Utah will be ultra-flexible in July. Let’s see what they do.

Filed Under: Milwaukee Bucks, NBA, New York Knicks, Utah Jazz, Zach Lowe

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

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