Pro Basketball Crosstalk: Rights, wrongs, and trade demands

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chris_paul.jpgLet’s face it: there are some topics in basketball that are best tackled by having two writers talk past each other at gradually increasing volumes. We’re not making any progress unless we’re yelling our way through the real issues, and that’s precisely what John Krolik and I hope to accomplish in these Pro Basketball Crosstalk sessions.

In each installment, we’ll talk around each other while discussing a choice NBA item. On the docket for today is…

Resolved: Players have the right to demand a trade if they are dissatisfied with the team that owns their rights.

Rob Mahoney: A team and its players are not always on the same wavelength, both
conceptually and directionally. Given that, when a player and their
team are not in sync in either regard (say, a player in an offense
crippling to their individual abilities, or a skilled veteran on a team
looking to rebuild), it only makes sense that the two look to part ways.

Teams conventionally hold the decision-making power on these
matters. GMs are able to theoretically deal any player on their roster
for whatever reason, in most cases without the player’s approval or
consent. With that in mind, doesn’t it make sense that players be given
at least some of the power to determine their own future via
trade? Free agency offers NBA players the option to choose from
numerous potential suitors, but why should each player surrender their
power for years just by signing a new contract?

Trade demands and requests are a necessary part of the player-team
dynamic. They keep teams honest. They give players some of the power I
believe they’re entitled. They allow each NBA player flexibility, the
same flexibility which teams strive to achieve.

There are, naturally, caveats. Opening the doors for more trade
demands is a horrifically slippery slope. While it may be acceptable
for a megastar to request a trade, I think it’s generally safe to say
that we don’t want an NBA in which the league’s bottom-tier talents are
trying to force their way onto other squads. That’s because not every
player in a crummy situation should force a trade. Yet if we
step away from the appropriateness of trade demands in a given
situation, it should be every player’s right. Players should calculate
the risks involved, consider all possible avenues, and issue a trade
demand, in either public or private, if they so choose. It’s their
prerogative, or at least, it should be.

The trade demand is not a decision for all seasons, nor is it for
NBA players of all walks. It is, however, an important part of
empowering players to control their own destinies, particularly when
stuck on bad teams, franchises spinning sideways, or those organizations looking to
move in a new direction without regard for the player’s future.

John Krolik: I think this summer has been really informative in establishing just
how powerful a trade demand can and should be. Like you said, there are
times when it simply doesn’t make sense for a team and a player to be
together anymore, and it often makes sense for the player and his agent
to expedite things in those situations. 

However, there are situations where a requested/demanded
trade would benefit the player in question much more than it would
benefit his team, and that’s where things can get tricky. Look at the
CP3 situation from earlier this summer. CP3 is young, he’s the best
point guard in basketball when healthy, he finished 2nd in MVP voting
in his 3rd year in the league, and he took the Spurs to a game 7 that
same season. 
There’s no doubt in my mind that Paul is a
spectacular, perhaps even transcendent, player, and fully capable of
being the best player on a championship team. The problem is that when
you compare Paul’s team to the ones LeBron, Kobe, Wade, Howard, and
even Durant play for, the man simply has no chance to enjoy the type of
team success that the other players on his level have and will. There’s
something unfair about that, and as a fan of the NBA in general I’d
certainly like to see Paul with teammates who can match his level of
play — watching the Hornets go 3-7 to start the season as Paul essentially broke PER was like watching Will Hunting solve impossible proofs with a janitor’s mop in his hand. 
So it made sense for Chris Paul to move. The
problem was that it didn’t make sense for New Orleans to move him. He’s
still playing at an incredibly high level, he’s under contract for
another two seasons, he makes the Hornets competitive, and there’s no
way New Orleans could possibly have gotten equal value for him. So
instead of living in fear of one of its employees, New Orleans calmed
him down, kept him, and traded his would-be successor for a wing player
who should work very well alongside of Paul. 
It was the rational thing to do, and a good
reminder that the post-“Decision” NBA doesn’t need to become an arms
race between five or six different teams, at the expense of the rest of
the teams in the NBA. I know I made the “Good Will Hunting” reference
earlier, but it doesn’t entirely fit as an overall metaphor — being
the franchise player on a team with a good chance to make the playoffs
in the West is not janitorial work, and Hornets fans deserve a
superstar just as much as Heat, Lakers, Magic, or Thunder fans do. I’m
all for players trying to put themselves in a good situation, but they
shouldn’t do so at the expense of their employers. 
(With Carmelo, we’re essentially seeing that a
trade demand isn’t a wave of a magic wand — Carmelo is a very, very,
very good player, but there are questions about how far he can lead a
team, and nobody is really willing to sell the farm for one year of
Carmelo.) 
I would imagine that we’re more or less simpatico
on this specific issue, so I’ll broaden things a little bit: the line
between superstar and GM is starting to blend a little bit. With free
agency being what it is, a lot of teams feel like having a superstar
player means they’re under the clock to build a championship contender
around that player as soon as possible or risk losing him. Sometimes
this agreement is implied (like it was with LeBron in Cleveland), and
sometimes the player makes it explicit, like CP3 did this summer or
Kobe did a few seasons back.
 
I think we both agree that players have a right to
look for a better situation. But when a player had a significant role
in creating his current situation by using the leverage free agency
gives him to “play GM”, does he accept the responsibility to see things
through? If, for example, Joe Johnson demands a trade in two because
the Hawks are too capped out to build a roster that can compete with
the best teams in the East, would he be within his “rights” to do so?
(That’s purely a hypothetical, by the way, and I doubt JJ would ever
demand a trade.)

RM: Another important point we’re touching on here is that ultimately, no
matter how much power you entrust with a player to either demand or
request a trade in any capacity, the teams will still hold the cards.
Players can put pressure on their teams to make a move, but if — and
the Hornets are an excellent example of this — the franchise really
doesn’t want to part ways with the player, they don’t have to until the
contract says otherwise. For the most part, players aren’t going to sit
out games, or even sulk their way through them. The trade demands with
the most merit come from the players with the most sway, and those
players are also the same ones that will play out their terms, even if
they have to do so reluctantly.

Chris Paul isn’t going to sit out games because he didn’t get his
way. Kobe Bryant wasn’t about to do so. Carmelo Anthony won’t.

In
that way, trade demands have so much less to do with trades and so much
more with putting pressure on the player’s current team to improve. Players like Paul
are voicing their displeasure with their current situation, and while a
trade is one response, peripheral moves are another. We’ll have to see
how that strategy works out for New Orleans in the long-term, but I’m a
firm believer in the fact that dealing a player who has demanded a
trade isn’t the only option, even if that belief makes me naive in an
age of super-agents.

The Johnson hypothetical is also an interesting one, and probably
falls somewhere in the should vs. could discussion. Given the truly
exorbitant amount of money that’s been tossed in Johnson’s direction,
he probably shouldn’t be the one to potentially request a
trade. That said (unless this is just some fairy tale I’ve been told by
reactionaries in a post-Guantanamo world): aren’t “rights” something that
individuals are supposed to be able to have, to hold, and to put under
their pillows at night? Shouldn’t Johnson, even if the Hawks’ future
salary cap hell is mostly his fault, be able to request a trade just
like any other player?

It probably wouldn’t be the correct move, and who knows what would
possibly come of it, but I’d say Johnson should have the same right to
request a trade as any other baller. He should be responsible for the situation he created, but he doesn’t have to be.

JK: I think there’s an important distinction to be made here between big-r
Rights and small-r rights. The rights in question are of the latter
variety; theoretical Joe can still own guns and get a jury of his peers
and speak out against the government, as long as he doesn’t tweet it
during a game. What he can’t do is play for another team, because the
Hawks own his contractual rights. I suppose he can ask for a trade, but
the Hawks would have zero obligation to oblige or even consider his
request. Just wanted to clear that one up. 

I think one thing that comes into play when high-profile
players request a trade or some immediate upgrades around them is the
notion of job security. Barring catastrophic injury, really good
players will always have a team willing to pay them very handsomely for
their services; no matter what trades do or don’t occur, the superstar
will be paid many millions of guaranteed dollars every year for the
next 5-10 years. The worst-case scenario is that they collect that
money while playing for a subpar team, which isn’t horrible. 
General managers, on the other hand, are always one bad season
away from getting fired, and fans don’t get any money if their team is
perpetually terrible. Players want teams to take risks in order to
build a championship-caliber roster, but they don’t have to live with
the results if things don’t work out. Some people (Dan Gilbert comes to
mind) might not think that’s right, but it’s the current reality.
Players can make demands, and often it will benefit franchises to hear
what their players have to say; teams just have to remember that giving
a player what he wants doesn’t mean the player will do what the team
wants when the time comes, and adjust how they do business accordingly.

Only high schoolers who would’ve been consensus draft candidates to receive $125,000 minor-league offer

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The NBA’s minor league’s plan to offer players $125,000 salaries straight out of high school sparked two major questions:

  • Who will receive that offer?
  • Who will take it?

Former NBA player Rod Strickland and former WNBA player Allison Feaster will run the program, and they’re answering the first question.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The NBA is limiting eligibility for the professional path program to prep players who would be considered consensus candidates for the draft if there were no early entry rule to prohibit them. Feaster will work with a group that includes Strickland and the NBA’s basketball operations and player development staffs to evaluate the potential players.

“It will be elite prospects with a readiness for a professional league,” Feaster told ESPN. “We want to target players who would not be going to a university if it weren’t for the NBA eligibility rule. That’s more or less what’s going to dictate this.”

Feaster expects a “handful” of players to be part of the initial group in the professional path. Feaster and Strickland emphasized that the program will be judicious in choosing those eligible for the pro path opportunity.

For reference, 17 high schoolers were picked in the final two drafts (2004 and 2005) before the NBA implemented its one-and-done rule. So, that suggests about 8-9 players annually will get offered the $125,000 deal.

That still leaves the other question: Who will take it?

Kevin Durant said he wouldn’t have. Shoe companies are still spending the most money, and they’re heavily invested in the visibility of college basketball.

But every prospect’s situation is unique. With Strickland and Feaster in place, we’ll soon see how players receive this new path.

76ers sound caught off guard about Markelle Fultz stepping away

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Markelle Fultz has played in all 17 of the 76ers’ games this season, starting until they traded for Jimmy Butler. A couple weeks ago, Fultz called himself generally healthy.

Then, Fultz’s agent, Raymond Brothers, informed the 76ers the guard wouldn’t play or practice until visiting a specialist Monday. Fultz will miss at least three games – against the Pelicans, Cavaliers and Nets.

76ers coach Brett Brown:

It’s kind of the first real sort of red-flag-type news.

This news about his shoulder, it did catch me off guard. But if it’s that real that he needs to go seek further consultation, then we support him. In my eyes, it’s not complicated. If that’s what it is, then we’ll support him.

76ers general manager Elton Brand:

We thought it was the regular bumps and bruises.

There’s nothing that we saw medically that didn’t allow him to play.

This yet another odd turn in a saga that already included plenty of contentiousness, animosity, rumors and cringe-worthy moments. At this point, it’s hard to be shocked by anything with Fultz.

It’s also hard to take the 76ers seriously when they suggest it seemed like business as usual. Fultz’s shot is disturbingly broken. There is clearly a problem. Maybe letting Fultz play without fretting over the issue was the right course, but how surprised can Philadelphia be that he took a more drastic measure?

Hopefully, the specialist helps Fultz identify and fix this issue.

Bulls’ Denzel Valentine likely to miss entire season

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Bulls wing Denzel Valentine has had a rough go of it.

A lottery pick two years ago, battled ankle injuries during his rookie year and underwent ankle surgery after the season. He stayed mostly healthy last year, but his season still ended early for knee surgery. Then, over the summer, he got torched in the Drew League by Frank “Nitty” Session, who questioned how Valentine was in the NBA:

And now…

Mark Strotman of NBC Sports Chicago:

Denzel Valentine was originally expected to miss one to two weeks after suffering a sprained ankle on the second day of training camp. One setback led to another, and on Monday the Bulls announced that the third year guard will undergo surgical reconstruction on that left ankle. He’ll miss four to six months, the team announced, effectively ending his season.

The long end of that timeline will keep Valentine sidelined the entire season. The short end would allow him to return late in the year, but with Chicago so dismal, there’s little incentive to rush him back.

Valentine is under contract next season, the final year of his rookie-scale deal. He might need to prove himself to make Nitty’s question still relevant.

Report: J.R. Smith and Cavaliers separating as they seek trade

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DETROIT – Yesterday – yesterday! – J.R. Smith explained why he didn’t leave the Cavaliers when, a few weeks ago, they pulled him from the rotation and gave him the offer to step away.

“I can’t do that to the city and the fans,” Smith said. “A lot of people have been backing me since I’ve been here. I feel like it’s been a new start since I came here. The way the fans embraced me, the way that I’ve embraced the city, my teammates, I can’t do that to them.”

But Smith also said Cleveland is tanking and reaffirmed his desire to be traded. That probably set wheels in motion.

Joe Vardon of The Athletic:

Smith – who’s guaranteed $18.59 million on a contract that will surely end after this season – carries negative trade value. The Cavs shouldn’t attach the sweetener necessary to dump him. They’re better off just paying him for now.

Because just $3.87 million of his $15.68 million salary for next season is guaranteed, Smith’s contract could prove useful in a trade.

If Smith would reduce his guarantee with a buyout, let him go. But Smith probably shouldn’t do that without a new job lined up.

So, the stalemate continues.

If everyone is happier apart, all the better. Smith wasn’t making a difference on the court for a team he correctly identified as tanking.