Future prospects are great and all, but when do the Sixers actually start building something tangible? Mike Prada dives into Sam Hinkie’s latest maneuvers.
Almost 10 percent of the NBA was traded on Thursday in 11 deals ranging from a shocking point guard shuffle involving five different franchises to the sublime return of Kevin Garnett to Minnesota. Some deals were obvious and some were stunners that nearly broke Twitter.
The unexpected chaos that enveloped the final hectic minutes of the deadline left the league’s preeminent news breaker to simply type "good lord" at one point. (Bless ya, Woj.) More than half the teams in the league were involved in some kind of deal on deadline day and a half-dozen more made moves leading up to the grand finale.
But after all the posturing, maneuvering and deal breaking was over, we’re left with a simple question: Did anything really change?
The upper echelon of the NBA remained largely untouched by Thursday’s chaos. The Hawks and Warriors still sit comfortably atop their respective conferences with nary a minor move in sight. The defending champs have done nothing of consequence with their roster since winning it all last June. Chicago sat tight, as did Cleveland and Memphis. To be fair, the latter two franchises pulled off significant moves all the way back in January, as did Dallas and Houston, who also made smaller moves last week.
The action was taking place in the great middle of the league with teams like Oklahoma City and Miami trying to solidify their new roles as postseason spoilers and others trying to move up ever so slightly. Remarkably, only a small handful of teams operated as "sellers" including Denver, Utah and, of course, Philly. (The Nuggets made perhaps the wackiest deadline deal, shedding JaVale McGee’s salary and throwing in a first-round pick, an exchange Sam Hinkie was more than happy to make.)
We are left, then, with the same questions we had entering the All-Star break. Will the Hawks' team-first ethos fly in the postseason? Can the Bulls get healthy and refocused on the defensive end? Have the Cavs finally figured out their early-season struggles?
The only Western contender that helped itself at the deadline was Portland, which picked up much-needed wing help with Arron Afflalo. In the months leading up to the deadline, Memphis added Jeff Green. Dallas scored Rajon Rondo and scooped up Amar’e Stoudemire off the waiver wire. Houston took in Josh Smith and bought cheap on deep rotation players like Pablo Prigioni and K.J. McDaniels. It remains to be seen if any of those moves will qualify as legitimate game-changers.
The conference remains for now in the capable hands of the Warriors, who are no longer the "favorites" in quotes; they’re officially the team to beat. The Spurs are lurking as they always do, and it speaks to the quality of both teams’ rosters that neither has done anything beyond make cosmetic changes. Would anyone be surprised if the conference final went through those two cities?
Now that we’ve all had a chance to catch our breath, here are two more takeaways from a frantic trading season.
There’s an old adage in sports that goes something like this: Show me a team on a three-game winning streak and I’ll show you a happy locker room. Show me a team on a three-game losing streak and I’ll show you the opposite. Winning is always the best ingredient, but if chemistry is easy to spot, it’s incredibly hard to quantify and its components can change quickly.
Last year’s Phoenix Suns appeared to be happy-go-lucky ragtag bunch of overachievers who banded together playing an entertaining style of ball. This year’s version was faced with expectations and contract issues, a toxic mix that exploded at the deadline.
Everything changed when Goran Dragic forced his way out of town, leaving general manager Ryan McDonough to trade not one one, but two of his three rotation point guards. That set in motion a cataclysm of events that sent Dragic to Miami, Isaiah Thomas to Boston, last season’s Rookie of the Year, Michael-Carter Williams, to Milwaukee and ultimately Brandon Knight to Phoenix.
If McDonough overplayed his hand by signing Thomas to complement Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, he recovered nicely in grabbing Knight, an emerging player several years younger than both Dragic and Thomas. Their departures, and Knight’s arrival should help solidify the backcourt that is clearly going to be built around Bledsoe.
McDonough didn’t mince words in his post-mortem with the Phoenix press, essentially calling Dragic selfish and establishing that Bledsoe and Markieff Morris are the building blocks of a still-decent team. They are still not where they want to be, however.
McDonough took the job a year and a half ago with a barren roster and scant draft assets and quickly amassed both picks and prospects. The Suns were a surprise to everyone -- McDonough included -- and they are now a much different team than the one that emerged last season. Bledsoe has a handsome new contract and Morris has become as an all-around force. With newcomer Brandan Wright and second-year center Alex Len, they’re bigger and more athletic up front.
McDonough’s maneuvering came at a cost, namely a top-five protected from the Lakers that’s been sitting around collecting value since the team parted with Steve Nash. That pick is a potentially massive chip unless Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak can summon some vintage L.A. magic this offseason. McDonough picked up three more first-rounders for his troubles, netting two from Miami and another from Boston via Cleveland. So he’s still dealing in draft pick bulk. What’s not clear yet, and probably won’t be for some time, is whether the Suns are better-positioned to make that one big move to put them over the top.
Chemistry and contract issues also necessitated the moves Sam Presti made in Oklahoma City, when he traded Reggie Jackson to Detroit for a pair of rotation players. Presti doubled down, dealing beloved center Kendrick Perkins to Utah for the talented but enigmatic big man Enes Kanter.
The normally private Thunder have had their world turned upside down by injuries and internal conflicts. Presti’s moves should get them into the postseason and once they get there, the true referendum will begin. There isn’t a team in the West that wants to play them right now, but there’s a small window to get everyone back on the same page.
Point guards are the most moveable players
Trade season unofficially began back in late December when the Celtics dealt Rajon Rondo to the Mavericks. They essentially found his replacement at the deadline when the acquired Isaiah Thomas from the Suns. There were several reasons why the C’s ultimately moved on from Rondo, but one of the biggest was his impending free agency.
Did they like Rondo? Yes. Did they want to keep him? Sure. Did they like Rondo enough to want to keep him on a large long-term deal for a team that’s a few years away from seriously contending? Obviously not.
You’d be hard-pressed to find two more dissimilar players at their respective positions. Rondo is a pass-first point guard with the length and talent to be a disruptive defender. Thomas is a scoring machine whose diminutive size will always be a drawback defensively. Both players are effective in their way, but Thomas is under contract for the next three years at a fraction the cost it would have taken to re-sign Rondo.
That same dynamic played out in Milwaukee where the Bucks swapped impending restricted free agent Brandon Knight for Michael Carter-Williams, who is two and a half years from reaching that point. Knight’s next deal will likely be less than that of Goran Dragic, whom he is replacing in Phoenix, and he’s four years younger. It’s the cycle of life in this league.
Point guards are the engines that drive teams in today’s pick-and-roll heavy schemes. You need a good one to compete, but there are lots of good ones available. Unless you have a superior talent like a Chris Paul or a Russell Westbrook, they are roughly interchangeable. If you don’t have one you’ll end up paying a heavy price, as Miami did to acquire Dragic.
Point guards also take several years to develop, which has consequentially led several of them to sign some of the best deals in the sport. Stephen Curry and Jeff Teague, for example, needed all of their rookie contract to develop their skills and become All-Stars. By that point they were already locked in to team-friendly contract extensions. It’s that third contract that makes teams think twice.
We are living in a strange new world that is not only still catching up to the latest iteration of the collective bargaining agreement rules, but also bracing for a massive influx of television money that will change everything as we know it.
Several teams have already begun preparing for it, while others will be playing catch-up in the frantic days leading to the summer of 2016. Even with all that roster churn, the league as we know it still looks very much the same as it did last Wednesday. But it’s a good bet that it won’t stay that way for long.