NBA Trade Deadline Winners, Losers: It’s a good day to be LeBron

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The NBA Trade Deadline did not disappoint.

The stunners started when the Clippers traded Blake Griffin and continued through the Cavaliers blowing up their roster, and Memphis holding on to the one guy that everyone thought would be traded.

Trying to figure out who won and lost trades on the day they happen tends to be a fool’s errand — we often don’t see the wisdom, or we miss the flaws at first. That’s not going to stop us. Here are our Winners and losers from the wild 2018 NBA Trade Deadline.

Winner: LeBron James.
For the first two-and-a-half months of the NBA season, LeBron James played like an MVP and carried the Cavaliers as far as he could. And it wasn’t far enough. It was clear that the Cavaliers were not on the level of the Warriors or Rockets, and they may not be on the level of the Celtics or Raptors. LeBron became dispirited, his effort waned, particularly on defense, and there wasn’t enough on the team to lift the Cavs up without them — Isaiah Thomas returned and was a shell of his former self, Jae Crowder was a disappointment, and Cleveland just looked look old and slow, particularly on defense. They were not contenders and didn’t look like a team that could make the Eastern Conference Finals.

LeBron should be energized now — the Cavaliers will be younger, more athletic, better defenders and better shooters. How much better is an open question, but better. They also should play faster and be more entertaining. That should fire LeBron up — he’s got a chance again. This team could get him back to the NBA Finals. It could help him stay a Cavalier this summer. Maybe it can’t, it’s far too early to know, but we know for sure the previous iteration of the Cavs couldn’t. A chance is all LeBron can ask.

Losers: Boston Celtics/Toronto Raptors. While the Cavaliers found reinforcements and got better, the two top teams in the East stood pat. The gap closed, and that has them as losers.

Both teams tried to make moves. Boston was active making calls — they tried to move Marcus Smart in a trade, they made calls about Tyreke Evans and were close. However, in the end, the only move the Celtics made was to bring in Greg Monroe to add a little scoring punch off the bench and that is it. The Raptors picked up Malachi Richardson in a trade, but the former Syracuse shooter is a project who doesn’t help them now. Toronto contacted the Clippers about DeAndre Jordan, but there was no deal to be had.

The Eastern Conference Finals could still be Boston vs. Toronto, we don’t know how good these Cavaliers are going to be. But the gap narrowed, Cleveland still has LeBron, he can still dominate, he has some help now, and that should worry Boston and Toronto.

Winner: Koby Altman, Cavaliers GM. Within the 48 hours before the trade deadline, Altman was called a puppet of owner Dan Gilbert and a guy thrown in the deep end who couldn’t really swim. There were questions if he was up for the job.

Any more questions?

Altman pulled off what nobody saw coming — in two trades he revamped the problem areas of the roster on and off the court. Cleveland is now more athletic, should defend better, and has more shooting. Altman did all without giving up the Brooklyn Nets pick. Yes, the Cavaliers took on a lot of future money and had to give up their own first-round pick, but this was a bold stroke from the GM to give his team a chance this season. And a chance to retain LeBron James.

Loser: Isaiah Thomas. Think about where Thomas was one year ago. Around the All-Star Game in 2017 we were talking about how IT was carrying the Celtics to a surprisingly good season, he was one of the league’s leading scorers, and he was on the fringes of the MVP conversation. He ended up an All-NBA player.

What a fall it has been. He was traded to Cleveland in the Kyrie Irving deal — a trade the Cavaliers considered rescinding after they saw just how injured his hip was (not that they would have gone back on it, what the Cavs wanted most was the unprotected Brooklyn 2018 draft pick). Thomas missed the first couple months of this season, and since his return he has not been his vintage self — shooting 36.1 percent (but still gunning away) and being one of the worst defenders in the NBA. Despite all his flaws this season, he was happy to talk publicly about how everything else was wrong with the Cavaliers. So Cleveland sent him to the Lakers in a three-way trade, and now Thomas will soon be back to a sixth-man role behind Lonzo Ball (once Ball gets healthy), then IT heads into free agency with a lot of question marks. His stock is falling fast, and the Cavaliers pulled the ripcord.

Thomas was classy on his way out the door,

Winner: Detroit Pistons. For now. Don’t forget about the other big deadline trade, just a week earlier. Detroit has won five straight games since Blake Griffin came over from the Clippers, and it’s not a coincidence. The Pistons are dramatically better when Griffin and Andre Drummond share the court (plus +22.4 points per 100 possessions, albeit in limited minutes so far). Detroit has a top-eight offense and defense since the trade. Griffin himself is averaging 21.5 points and 7.8 rebounds a game, plus he is assisting on 31.3 percent of teammates buckets when on the court. The Pistons look like a playoff team.

The short term — as long as Griffin stays healthy — was never the question. The negatives were long-haul — the Pistons are loaded with salary and all-in with this roster, considering how much Griffin, Drummond, and the injured Reggie Jackson make there’s not a lot of flexibility. The Pistons are what they are, and they have paid a lot of money for a guy with a long injury history in Griffin. A lot of us think the Pistons will come to regret this trade. Just not this season.

Winner: Dwyane Wade. He gets to go home. Wade had come to Cleveland to play with LeBron again, but as everything went wrong in Cleveland his people made it known he would eventually like to get back to Miami to finish his career there. Thursday, as they blew up the roster, the Cavaliers did Wade a solid and moved him where he wanted to go (for only a protected second-round pick). Wade got what his heart desired.

Loser: Memphis Grizzlies. If there was one thing that was supposed to happen on Thursday, it was Tyreke Evans getting traded. Memphis wanted a first-round pick, but nobody was offering one. The thought was they would eventually cave and take a couple of second-round picks, or a player and a second rounder, just because they had to do something. Evans is on a one-year deal and has played himself to a much bigger contract than the minimum one he was on, but the Grizzlies do not have his Bird rights and likely will not have the cap space to bring him back. Hence the idea was they would trade him.

Memphis was stubborn, they would not come off the first-round pick demand. So the Grizzlies get nothing.

Combine that with them not even considering a Marc Gasol trade, and you get the sense Memphis believes they are just a tweak or two away — plus a healthy Mike Conley — from making it all work and them being in the playoffs. I’m not sold, but they are playing it like they are.

Winner: Los Angeles Lakers’ dreams. With the Lakers getting off Jordan Clarkson‘s contract in the Cavaliers deal (and not bringing any long-term salary back, Channing Frye and Isaiah Thomas will not be with the Lakers next season), Los Angels can reach its goal of having enough cap space to bring in two max free agents. They have to waive and stretch Loul Deng, plus make a couple other small moves, but the dream is within reach.

What dream? To lure both LeBron James and Paul George to the Lakers next season.

That’s incredibly unlikely. LeBron wants to win now and even with himself and PG13 the Lakers are not ready to challenge the Warriors. Meanwhile, George has said he’s happy in Oklahoma City. The odds are against the Lakers. But it’s possible. The door is open. And in Los Angeles, that will fuel dreams of this summer (even though it’s more likely they make a big splash in the summer of 2019).

If nothing else, the Lakers picked up another first-round pick, something that was hard to come by on this deadline day. Just ask Memphis.

Lonzo Ball on college basketball: ‘Everybody knows everybody’s getting paid. Might as well make it legal’

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The logs of payment by Andy Miller’s former agency to high school and college basketball players leaked today.

That has sparked discussions about the entire system, and Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball has a thought.

Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times:

Simply, I don’t believe Ball about not getting extra compensation at UCLA. That sounds like he caught himself going further then he wanted and attempting to backtrack.

I can see why Ball wouldn’t want to admit getting extra benefits. He still knows people at UCLA, and an NCAA inquiry based on his comments could hurt them – and his reputation at UCLA.

But NBA players should be outspoken on this issue. They have the power to apply pressure on the NCAA’s cartel system, in which schools collude to limit compensation to athletes. As long as that system remains, college players lose out, getting only under-the-table scraps, while coaches and administrators hoard the major money.

Good for Ball for pointing out the farce. It’s easy to stop caring once players reach the NBA and gets rich, but NBA players are uniquely equipped to shine a light on the NCAA’s problems.

Michele Roberts: Cap smoothing was ‘disgraceful request’ by NBA

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In 2016, new national TV contracts pushed the NBA’s salary cap from $70 million to $94.143 million – a larger jump than over the entire previous decade. Free agents cashed in majorly that summer.

But now, the cap is leveling off. It went up to just $99.093 million last year and is projected to reach only $101 million this year and $108 million next year. With so many lucrative long-term 2016 contracts still on the books, free agents the following few years haven’t gotten and won’t get comparable compensation.

The problem was predictable, and the NBA proposed a solution at the time – cap smoothing.

Players get 49%-51% of Basketball Related Income (BRI) each year, the precise amount determined by formula. The salary cap is set so teams’ payrolls collectively reach that range. (There are procedures if teams fall short or pay too much.)

With cap smoothing, the NBA would have set an artificially lower cap for 2016-17. Players would have gotten less than 49%-51% of BRI in salary, but presumably, the league would have distributed the difference to players after-the-fact. That way, all players – not just 2016 free agents – would cash in.

But the players union rejected the plan.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver has looked back longingly, wishing the union approved. National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts, um, has not.

Roberts, in a Q&A with Paul Flannery of SB Nation:

When the salary explosion happened and you rejected the smoothing idea that the NBA proposed, has anything that has happened in the last few years caused you to reconsider that stance?

No, in fact it’s completely confirmed the correctness of that position. I delight and the players delight in reading about some of these contracts because they know they absolutely deserve it.

There was going to be no smoothing of the owners’ profits at all. They were going to enjoy real money that reflected where we were financially as a game. Why in the world would players pretend that the game was not making as much money and therefore have smaller contracts?

It was an absurd suggestion, I thought personally. But what we did to make sure it wasn’t just Michele’s instinct was hire two separate economists to tell us whether this was something that was going to be of value to our players in the long run.

Independent of each other and not knowing what either of us felt, they both came almost saying, “Are you kidding? Why would you do this?”

I don’t have any regrets at all. I don’t think a single player does either.

Not a single owner came up to me and suggested that they thought we should do this. The league did. But I didn’t see any chorus of support from any of the owners. I thought it was a disgraceful request.

It’s impossible to evaluate whether Roberts was right without knowing the particulars of the NBA’s smoothing plan. That has not leaked.

She implies the league proposed artificially lowering the cap (which, again, is determined by formula based on revenue) for the first year or two of the new national TV deals without offering the players something in return. I find that hard to believe. At minimum, it seems likely the NBA would have distributed the rest of the 49%-51% of BRI to players not earned in traditional salary.

Not that that would have been enough for the players to favor cap smoothing.

Players’ salaries are sometimes based on their previous salaries under cap rules. If only a portion of players’ NBA-provided income was considered official salary, that could have debilitating long-term effects.

Perhaps, the NBA could have accounted for that. But it seems there was little negotiating here. The league made a proposal, and the union rejected it.

I’m not sure which side benefited, and evaluating that becomes even more difficult when dividing the sides into competing interests.

For argument’s sake, let’s say rejecting cap smoothing led to more money for players. That largely went to 2016 free agents. What about all the players still under contract that summer? They didn’t get to reap the rewards.

What’s a better measure – the amount of money players collectively gained by rejecting cap smoothing or the percentage of players who earned more money by rejecting cap smoothing? There’s no easy answer.

And there’s more than just money at stake. Most significantly, a lack of cap smoothing allowed the Warriors to sign Kevin Durant. How many players prefer that never would have been possible?

I’m just not as convinced as Roberts rejecting cap smoothing was the right call. At minimum, negotiating a cap-smoothing compromise could have worked.

Many players already under contract in the summer of 2016 have been waiting their turn for a huge payday. But wait until many of them find out their windfall wasn’t just delayed. It’s not coming. Then, some of Roberts’ constituents might question her insistence that rejecting cap smoothing was correct.

Paul George says he wants to sign with team for long haul

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Paul George is enjoying his time with the Thunder. He also likes the idea of playing near his hometown in Los Angeles.

How will George pick between the two in free agency?

One idea: Sign a short-term contract with Oklahoma City.

He’ll be eligible for a higher max-salary tier in two years (35% of the cap, up from 30%). He’d also get to play more with a prime Russell Westbrook while still having an out if the 29-year-old point guard drops off. George would likely remain with Carmelo Anthony next season, too, as Anthony likely opts in. That’d give the Thunder more time to jell and show what they can do.

It’d also give the Lakers’ young core time to develop. If a prolonged test run in Oklahoma City fizzles, the Lakers would probably look even more appealing in a couple years (provided they keep open or can create cap space).

But George doesn’t sound interested in such a plan.

George, via Fred Katz of The Norman Transcript:

“I’m not looking to bounce around and play for multiple teams throughout my career. The decision I make will ultimately be to build something,” he said. “The only way it’s going to be done. So, this next decision, whatever it is, is to make sure I’m there for a duration.”

George can always change his mind, and he isn’t bound to follow his public statements. But he’s quite open about revealing his thought process. I respect that.

This statement doesn’t hint at any particular team. He could sign long-term anywhere.

But it speaks to the stakes of his upcoming free agency. Any team that wants George better sign him this summer. He probably won’t be available again.

Clippers executive Jerry West raves about Warriors’ Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green

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A former great player who’s now an executive for a Los Angeles NBA team praised an opposing player.

The last time this happened, Lakers president Magic Johnson got fined for tampering with the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo.

How will Jerry West fare with these comments about Warriors stars Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green?

West, via the TK Show:

Kevin Durant, I don’t know. Obviously, he’s one of my favorite players I’ve ever watched play. His size, the efficiency that he plays the game is scary. And then you have Steph over there, your little, your next-door-neighbor kid. Let’s go play with him. And then you get out there, and then you find out, oh my god, this guy’s a killer. But pretty unique with that. And the complementary players, in their own right, they’re great. There’s Klay Thompson. He just goes and plays and never seeks any credit. He just plays and really competitive. Draymond, the guy that drives the horse. They’ve got some really unique players up there, and it’s still fun for me to watch. I watch them play. I root for them, because I know some of the players.

As a reminder, here’s what Johnson said about Antetokounmpo. Nick Friedell of ESPN:

As Johnson watches from afar, he can’t help but see and enjoy the parallels between his game and that of the Bucks big man.

“Oh yeah,” Johnson told ESPN recently. “With his ball-handling skills and his passing ability. He plays above the rim I never could do that. But in his understanding of the game, his basketball IQ, his creativity of shots for his teammates. That’s where we [have the] same thing. Can bring it down, make a pass, make a play. I’m just happy he’s starting in the All-Star game because he deserves that. And he’s going to be like an MVP, a champion, this dude he’s going to put Milwaukee on the map. And I think he’s going to bring them a championship one day.”

Two key differences between West and Johnson:

West didn’t help get his team fined for tampering last summer. NBA commissioner Adam Silver said there’s no clear line for tampering, but that the Lakers face a higher bar due their previous violations.

Johnson didn’t previously work for Milwaukee. West worked in Golden State’s front office while those players were there and knows them personally.

But Silver also provided a rough outline of when tampering will be enforced when addressing Johnson’s latest fine:

“It’s one thing when you’re asking a coach a question about an opposing team right after a game. It’s another issue when a general manager or president of basketball sort of gratuitously issues a statement that is complimentary of a star player on another team.

“In essence, what we’ve said to him, and it’s a clear message to other team executives, is that stop talking about star players on other teams. There are plenty of other issues they can address. And there is sensitivity around it throughout the league.”

Given that line, I don’t know how West avoid a fine – which is a shame.

What he said is harmless. No player is going to join another team due to benign compliments from an opposing executive.

It’s also a disservice to fans and West himself if he’s discouraged from speaking publicly about current players. The all-time great has valuable perspective, and he shouldn’t be silenced just because he works for an NBA team. His entire interview with Tim Kawakami of The Athletic is interesting. Everybody would lose if West turns down interviews in fear of a fine.

Meanwhile, more meaningful tampering – making plans on future contracts – is rampant. But that’s difficult to curb. So, the NBA enforces silly stuff like this.

The NBA never should have fined Johnson for the Antetokounmpo comments. It just opens too many cans of worms in a fight not worth fighting. Seriously, what’s the point?

If I were the Lakers, I’d be bothered if West skates free on this. But if I were West, I’d also resent a fine.

The league has backed itself into a dumb corner.