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Revisiting the blockbuster NBA trades from well before the deadline

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The NBA trade deadline was a bore, but that's partly because three massive trades with heavy 2012-13 implications happened weeks or months before the big day. Paul Flannery revisits the trio.

Al Bello

The NBA trade deadline was a snooze. The luxury tax has killed our fun and all GMs have suddenly discovered religion on dealing first-round picks. When J.J. Redick is the biggest name to change teams you might as we be baseball. Also, we wasted all this time for that?

All of that is true, but it conveniently overlooks the fact that we had three blockbuster deals consummated during the NBA calendar year, which begins in July after the moratorium is lifted. Knowing what we know about the deadline it's worth going back in time and revisiting those trades.

THE DWIGHT HOWARD TRADE

Let's set the scene. Congratulations, Rob Hennigan, on your new job. Now consummate a trade that's taken the better part of a year to hash out and do it when everyone knows you have to make a deal. Let's start with the particulars.

Lakers

Howard, Chris Duhon and Earl Clark.
Initial Reaction: The NBA is unfair and the Lakers will win 60 games easy.
February Reflection: Thank god for Earl Clark.

Magic

Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington, Christian Eyenga, Josh McRoberts, Moe Harkless, Nic Vucevic and first-round picks from Denver, Los Angeles and Philly.
Initial Reaction: That's it?
February Reflection: Pretty damn good haul, but would Brook Lopez have been better?

76ers

Andrew Bynum and Jason Richardson.
Initial Reaction: A risk worth taking.
February Reflection: Still a risk worth taking but someone should have inserted a bowling clause somewhere in Bynum's deal.

Nuggets

Andre Iguodala.
Initial Reaction: Masai Ujiri, you sly dog, you.
February Reflection: Same.


The Lakers are a mess and the Bynum era never got off the ground in Philly, but here's an honest question: Does anyone really want a do-over on this?

Sure, Howard is hobbled, the Lakers are in luxury tax hell and he could walk away from this mess next year. But no one walks away from the Lakers and if Howard can come back healthy next year and recapture that which made him an elite center then this is a deal you do every day of the week.

The Magic got picks, prospects and a couple of decent role players with contracts that can be moved once Hennigan enters the next phase of the rebuilding process. Vucevic, by the way, is averaging 12 points and 11 rebounds with a PER of 17.9 and looks like a keeper. There's a case to be made that a package revolving around Lopez would have been better, but there was risk involved. Lopez was coming off an injury-plagued season and his production was on the decline even before he got hurt.

Ujiri did what Ujiri does, which is turn good players into better ones. He nailed the Carmelo trade and made out well in this exchange. No do-overs for Denver.

The Sixers, well, the Sixers have some soul-searching to do with Bynum this summer. Still, they had a team that had reached its ceiling and Bynum is a potential game-changer. Those are the risks you should take. See: Lopez, Brook for the corollary.

It's interesting that of the three 7-footers who figured prominently in this transaction only Lopez has emerged this season and he carried the biggest question marks. Vucevic is not a bad consolation prize at all.

THE JAMES HARDEN TRADE

This qualifies as a holy sh-t trade because even though the signs were everywhere no one really believed Sam Presti was going to deal Harden at this time. Of all the deals that were made, Presti received the most value in exchange for his star player, proving the advantage of working ahead of the endgame.

Let's examine the haul:

Thunder

Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, two first-round picks (one from Dallas and another from Toronto) and Charlotte's second-round pick.
Initial Reaction: Stunned silence, followed by thousands of words about what it all means.
February Reflection: As an intellectual exercise this deal was brilliant, but if the Thunder don't win in June ...

Rockets

Harden, Cole Aldrich, Daequan Cook and Lazar Hayward.
Initial Reaction: Darryl Morey's long-anticipated vision finally comes to fruition.
February Reflection: Harden is a top-10 player who gives the Rockets a foundation and an identity to build around.

This deal is harder to quantify because we're all waiting to see how the Thunder perform in the postseason. If trading Harden is the difference between winning a title or not then there's cause for reassessment, which of course is impossible because there's no way to prove it.

Apart from that, Presti received a major bounty and carved out future flexibility. Martin has replaced some of Harden's scoring with his best shooting since the halcyon days in Sacramento. Lamb is an intriguing prospect and those picks could pay off handsomely down the line. If you're talking about value for a superstar player this is basically the blueprint.

The problem is that superstar players rarely return equal value because they're so rare. So, the next step is trying to figure out what Presti could have done to keep Harden along with Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka as a dominant core for the next three years, while still remaining under the luxury tax. And that's when we talk about Kendrick Perkins.

Amnestying Perkins alone wouldn't get the Thunder under the tax if they re-signed Harden and even if Presti slashed to the bone that still would have left him precious little wiggle room to tinker at the margins. That flexibility is important for a team in OKC's position as Presti proved by adding Ronnie Brewer and gaining a trade exception at the deadline.

There's room under the new collective bargaining agreement for two great players and one very good one if you do everything right, but a third max player is stretching things too thin if you want to stay under the tax. You can lament the realities of the CBA all you want, but these are the new rules of the game and Presti and Morey leveraged them to get what they need.

As for the Rockets, I can't imagine they have any regrets because teams acquiring superstars in their prime rarely have any and Harden is a superstar. The cost in picks was high, but assets are only truly valuable when cashed in for something significant. Harden certainly qualifies.

THE RUDY GAY TRADE

This was the biggest deal of the deadline season. It just happened in late January.

Grizzlies

Tayshaun Prince, Ed Davis, Austin Daye and a future second-round pick.
Initial Reaction: Mixed, depending on whether you think Rudy Gay is an All-Star caliber player and whether the Grizzlies had a legitimate chance to win the championship.
February Reflection: Please play Ed Davis more.

Raptors

Rudy Gay, Hamed Haddadi
Initial Reaction: Was this really necessary?
February Reflection: Gay's propensity for making buzzer-beaters looks good in the short-term, but the Raps will be paying three players almost $33 million next season to play the wing between Gay, DeMar DeRozan and Landry Fields.

Pistons

Jose Calderon.
Initial Reaction: Smart, under-the-radar pickup that also saves money and reminds us why we all fell in love with Joe Dumars back in the day.
February Reflection: Don't go spending all that cap money in one place again this time.

At the time my reaction to this deal was tepid approval for everyone but Toronto. In retrospect it's worth asking if the Grizzlies could have expected to do better than find a veteran replacement for Gay, a good prospect in Davis and what amounts to an expiring flyer on Daye. In an environment where the Hawks couldn't make a deal for Josh Smith, it's hard to make that case.

The whole transaction has to be viewed through the filter of the one that came before it when the Grizzlies jettisoned Marreese Speights and Wayne Ellington in a classic salary dump that also cost them a first-round pick. That's the deal that needs to be evaluated. Gay isn't in Harden or Howard's class as a player, but in the months between the start of the season and the deadline, the dynamic shifted from receiving assets to giving them up to make a deal.

***

The lessons from this trade deadline are that everyone is trying to stay one step ahead of the tax man and teams value first-round picks for the cost-certainty those selections provide. Presti and Hennigan did well to grab picks and prospects when they made their deals. The Grizzlies paid a price for their flexibility, but were able to pull off a series of trades that made sense for their bottom line and didn't detonate their chances this spring.

It could be that NBA GMs are getting a little smarter, or at least a lot more cautious, when it comes to making trades. The rules have changed and the ones that can stay a step ahead of the game will continue to prosper.

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