The coda of the deal to end the 2011 NBA lockout was financial restraint. While owners didn't get the hard salary cap they dreamed of, they did pick up a number of restrictions on activity for high-payroll teams as well as harsher penalties for the most spendthrift franchises. Not all of the restrictions or penalties are in place yet, but they loom. General managers and owners know they are coming, and it just may be having a chilling effect on the 2013 trade deadline.
Soon, teams above the luxury tax line will not be allowed to execute sign-and-trade deals. The sign-and-trade was long one of the NBA's most gaping salary cap loopholes. Using it, a team that was capped out could flip an asset for a free agent, provided the free agent's last team was willing to comply. That asset sure helped deals get done. The Mavericks mastered this method, using it to make two NBA Finals series and win one championship. (Other teams used it too, of course. Dallas did it the best.) The most recent example of a major sign-and-trade deal that will be barred beginning in 2014 is the Lakers' acquisition of Steve Nash. L.A. was well over the luxury tax line but was still able to peddle a draft pick for Nash, a free agent the team signed to a $27 million, three-year deal.
Of course, that restriction is a year away and those don't happen at the deadline anyway. But increased restrictions make free trade less viable. Mark Cuban has said that the trade and free agent signing restrictions in the new collective bargaining agreement are more powerful than increased luxury tax penalties (one of which, the repeater tax, The Hook discussed on Wednesday). Some billionaire owners won't think twice about outlaying absurd cash on a player; that's all increased luxury tax penalties do, really. If you're over the tax, adding a $5 million player actually costs $10 million. For Cuban, the Buss family, Mikhail Prokhorov, Micky Arison, James Dolan: that's worth a shrug and little more. But when you start affecting the team's ability to make additional moves, you get their attention.
(Of course, it didn't slow down the Lakers in 2012, who pulled off the expensive Nash deal and traded Andrew Bynum for the more expensive Dwight Howard. But the Lakers have only a few years of Kobe Bryant left, and less than that when it comes to Pau Gasol. Once Bryant flies his chopper into the sun[set], the Lakers will be closer to financially responsible. Until then, leave the dam gates down and let the money flow.)
Those personnel restrictions in addition to the increased penalties just might be putting a damper on this and future trade deadlines. We won't know for sure until we're down the road and can do a full autopsy on the 2011 CBA, but the lower-level of movement this season is not encouraging. I say that as a fan of trade season -- don't lie, it's exciting, even if it often devolves into pure silliness and journalistic malfeasance -- and someone who thinks that fairly liberal trade rules allow smarter teams to excel and less smart teams to fail.
So much of the lockout deal was about giving lower-revenue teams a better chance against the moneybag owners in big markets. But we saw plenty of examples during the brief mega-money, low-restriction era -- mid-'90s through now -- of high-payroll teams foundering because of dumb moves and smaller-market teams excelling because of smart moves. Look at those Knicks: they spent gobs of cash on overrated or misused players, and they stunk ... because the front office made dumb moves. And the Spurs: they never blasted through the luxury tax threshold, but won four championships in nine years thanks to a brilliant front office. In that era, smart moves trumped big money. (Of course, money matters -- the Spurs were always above the cap and sometimes flirted with the tax threshold. But other teams were tens of millions above that line, something the San Antonio market and non-billionaire Spurs owner Peter Holt couldn't support.)
In my view, restricting trade doesn't just make the deadline less exciting. That's almost beside the point. Restricting trade damages an advantage smart teams have: knowing how to manage salary properly. Of course, that will still exist, and every team that lacks a "capologist" will suffer. In some ways, the inability of teams to buy their way out of mistakes will keep the worst-run franchises in the mire, which does follow a merit-based design. But the reward for being sane with your cap figure will be less notable, because everyone (except the Nets, apparently) will need to be sane with their cap figures. So much of the Spurs' excellence has been tied to the ability of R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich to properly manage the cap in order to keep the roster flexible. That flexibility is now being restricted, and other teams are being forced to prioritize cap management. A major advantage of smart, ahead-of-the-times thinking by San Antonio is diminished.
Again, we'll know the extent of the damage or the lack thereof down the line in 2016, 2017. But based on a lack of movement this winter due to widespread conservatism among GMs as the new rules roll out, we're getting an idea of what the future might hold. I'm not sure I like it.
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