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Paul Flannery | February 21, 2016

Sunday Shootaround: Why nothing big happened at the NBA trade deadline

Why nothing big happened at the NBA trade deadline

For weeks, people have been speculating that this NBA trade deadline would be much ado about nothing and for the most part that was true. There were 27 players traded during the week of the trade deadline, the same number as in 2014 and one fewer than 2013. From that perspective this deadline season wasn’t an anomaly at all. It’s the crazed whirlwind of 2015 that served as an outlier.

Fueling the perception that this deadline was a dud was the lack of blockbusters to be had among the maneuvers. Tobias Harris was the most prominent player dealt and while he has potential and fits in nicely with Stan Van Gundy’s grand vision in Detroit, he doesn’t appear destined for stardom. Given the nature of the the trades that were made, the 2016 deadline was little more than teams exchanging role players, shuffling rotation spots and saving a little money here and there.

To that end, veteran journeyman Channing Frye may have been the most significant addition. His shooting ability adds another dimension to the Cleveland frontline in a potential Finals rematch with the Warriors. Getting Frye was a nice move for Cavs GM David Griffin and adds to his impressive list of complementary maneuvers he’s made since LeBron James agreed to return.

That’s usually the way trade deadlines operate. Last year’s big moves revolved around the Philly/Milwaukee/Phoenix/Boston point guard shuffle and with apologies to Isaiah Thomas, that wasn’t the stuff of a true Blockbuster. Most of those types of deals happen around the draft or into the free agency period in July when teams have a truer sense of where they stand.

The reasons for the relatively placid deadline have been plain for most of the season. Thanks to mid-level parity, there are up to two dozen teams who can convince themselves that they have a shot at making the playoffs, thus reducing the number of motivated sellers. Given the strength of the top-level teams like the Warriors, Spurs, Thunder and Cavaliers there’s little incentive for the next tier of wannabe contenders to reach for the diamond-encrusted championship ring.

Those factors alone were enough to induce transactional stasis. Then there’s the looming salary cap explosion this summer, which had the twin effect of increasing the value of star players already under contract and also limiting the appeal of players at the end of their deals. What good are Bird Rights when all they offer is the chance to wildly overpay a player at the end of their prime? (See: Howard, Dwight and Horford, Al for obvious examples.)

"We’re not in the business of making a 27-game gain for a long-term price to pay," Celtics president Danny Ainge said after his team didn’t make any moves. After what transpired on Thursday, he may as well have been speaking for 20 other GMs.

The Celtics are perhaps the most interesting non-actor at the deadline, given the upward trajectory of their roster, their general lack of a "star" and the treasure trove of draft assets that Ainge has at his disposal. On the one hand, Ainge didn’t have to do anything. His team is good, young and will have a high lottery pick in June thanks to the Nets. The Celtics also have one of the more harmonious work environments in the league and that’s not something he or his staff take lightly.

As Jae Crowder put it to Boston beat reporters in Utah a day before the deadline, "There’s a lot of talk about we need a superstar and stuff like that. But all five guys on the court are so locked in and so engaged that we’re one superstar. We all play together. It’s a scary thing when a team don’t know who to match up to, whose night it’s going to be on the offensive end. And, defensively, we all fight together and play together. It’s a scary approach."

Crowder’s not wrong. The Celtics won 13 of their last 17 games heading into the All-Star break before losing to Utah on Friday night. They have settled on a stable 9-10 player rotation that has reduced the offensive burden on Thomas, while also maintaining their defensive edge. The schedule has certainly helped with eight of those wins coming against teams who are not in the playoff mix. But the C’s have also registered dramatic victories over Cleveland and the Clippers during that span and risen to third in the Eastern Conference standings. Interestingly, Ainge suggested that their success made him more motivated to make something happen.

"I would say that the success of our team this season might have made it more tempting to do something that wasn’t strictly long-term thinking and short-term thinking to help us get better came into play," Ainge said. "We had a lot of conversations in that regard but there was nothing we were willing to do."

There was one thing they were apparently willing to do, however. Ainge hinted at a hush-hush deal that would have surprised the rest of the league had it not dissolved at the deadline. Speculation swung to established star players like Jimmy Butler, Gordon Hayward, Paul George et. al. but the Boston Herald’s Steve Bulpett reported on Friday that 76ers rookie Jahlil Okfaor was the target. That deal never happened, thus saving the world another round of Sam Hinkie thinkpieces. Perhaps we’re all the better for it.

This is the other side of the Celtics’ equation. Their asset base is ready to burst and with as many as three more first-rounders at their disposal this June, something will have to give. They have nine players under contract for next season and have until July 3 to guarantee the remaining year for both Jonas Jerebko’s and Amir Johnson’s deals. Jared Sullinger and Tyler Zeller will also be restricted free agents. That leaves only Evan Turner as an unrestricted free agent after David Lee was waived.

Of course, all those remaining contracts are very tradeable, which leads to another interesting dilemma. Adding a legit star to their current cast could be enough to vault the Celtics into the upper tier of contending teams, but subtracting some of their standout role players would significantly weaken their overall strength. That’s where the draft picks enter the picture and they take on added weight when there are actual prospects to be had, rather than hypothetical draft slots.

That too has been an issue. Try as they might, Ainge hasn’t been able to cash in on his enviable horde of treasures to this point. They went after Kevin Love in 2014, but were trumped by Cleveland’s good fortune. They made a run at moving up to take Justise Winslow in last year’s draft but were rebuffed until Winslow slid all the way down to the 10th spot in the draft.

"We’re in that stage now and even the last draft of trying to do something, but we’re trying to make good decisions," Ainge said. "I think we made good decisions at this time this year. It would be nice to cash in on some of the assets that we have and it might be that we draft our three first round draft picks. That might be the best assets that are available to us."

What the Celtics, and everyone else, are left with over the last few weeks of the regular season is the status quo. The Cavs remain the prohibitive favorites in the East, while the West braces for a massive showdown between the Warriors, Spurs, Thunder and Clippers. It’s in the margins of the playoff chase where the real action is taking place down the stretch and it’s within the margins where this trade deadline made its impact, or lack thereof.

The ListConsumable NBA thoughts

There were deals to be had at the deadline. Many in fact. Here are some of the teams that did well for themselves and a few who left us scratching our head.

Detroit: The Pistons traded a protected first round pick to Houston that’s likely to be conveyed this year for a restricted free agent with back issues and a journeyman gunner on his sixth team in three years. They also acquired a young forward with potential on a favorable contract for a stopgap veteran and a backup guard they weren’t going to re-sign. In the aggregate, getting Tobias Harris, Donatas Motiejunas and Marcus Thornton for what they gave up is a nice haul for a Detroit team that is taking shape quickly. Stan Van Gundy is not a patient man, but he’s become pretty good at the trading game.

Cleveland: Channing Frye was not the biggest name to change teams but he may be the most important. That GM David Griffin was able to get the floor spacing big man for Anderson Varejao and a first round pick in a deal that cuts substantial money from the Cavs massive luxury tax bill stands as a nice coup. That he was able to swipe him away from the Clippers is even better. That none of the other top teams in the East did much of consequence made for an even better trade deadline day for Griffin and the Cavs.

Phoenix: The Suns could have three first-round draft picks if the top-9 protected choice from the Wizards for Markieff Morris comes through this year. Even if it doesn’t, the Suns will have that pick plus a future unprotected first from Miami to add to its war chest. That’s a decent starting place for GM Ryan McDonough to begin rebuilding a team that was caught between a full-on youth movement and unexpected success. McDonough has drafted well during his tenure and with two potential lottery picks at his disposal, he’ll need to nail these choices to get the franchise back on track.

Clippers: Would you trade Lance Stephenson for Jeff Green? Probably. Would you throw in a first-round pick for the pleasure? Eh, probably not, especially since Green will be a free agent this summer. This deal represents the two hallmarks of GM Doc’s tenure: modest short-term gain over long-term value and an over-reliance on familiar faces from Coach Doc’s past. That’s going to catch up with them eventually.

Orlando: Clearing cap space to make a run at free agents is a move straight out of 2010, and for a team that’s taken the long view toward rebuilding, this was a very curious trade deadline tactic. It may be that Tobias Harris simply doesn’t fit the Magic’s long-term plan and it’s not like Channing Frye was a difference-maker either, but not securing a first rounder for Harris stands out as a major omission.

ICYMIor In Case You Missed It

Say WhatRamblings of NBA players, coaches and GMs

"We’ve done enough talking and had enough little meetings and conversations that we all know what is expected of us. It’s time for us to go out there and do it. Quit talking about it. Quit expecting it to just happen. Go out there and make it happen." -- Atlanta forward Kyle Korver.

Reaction: The Hawks are in such a strange position. They overachieved so much last year that this season feels like a major step back. At the same time, they’re still one of the top four teams in the conference and just as solid as the two teams immediately in front of them in Boston and Toronto. Not sure where they go from here, but above-average team with little outside expectations isn’t a bad place to be at the moment.

"Yeah, you play with that in your mind a little bit, but I just don’t think we’re there yet, as a team, as a ball club. We’ve got some good momentum coming in here, but we’re a good team in the East, and we want to keep plugging along and figure out the playoffs. But if you want to make that big jump it means that you’re going to have to give up something. And one, there was no deal that came to us in that category. And secondly, it would be tough to mortgage our future." -- Toronto GM Masai Ujiri.

Reaction: The Raptors are in essentially the same position as Boston and Atlanta. They have a good team, objectively better than Boston and Atlanta, but not a great team. If there was a deal that really moved the needle, one can bet that Ujiri would have tried to make it. But if there wasn’t one to be had, then no deal is much better than a bad one.

"Look at what everybody else had to give up to get a first-round pick. Go back and look at the transaction record of other teams and look at what level of player they had to give up to acquire a first round pick. We gave up cap room. I think it's really sexy." -- Blazers GM Neil Olshey.

Reaction: Saucy, Neil. But he’s right. The Blazers didn’t give up anything and wound up with a first-round pick. Cap space isn’t that valuable in this market, but the Blazers were in the right place at the right time. Olshey’s rebuild has been steady and smart.

"We still have enough money to get a max player if that’s what we’re looking to do. And if we don’t, we’ll still have plenty of money to split that up or maybe give it to three different players. We still have plenty of cap room but with this we have a definitely player at a position that we had a need at." -- Wizards GM Ernie Grunfeld after acquiring Markieff Morris.

Reaction: I’ve talked myself into this one. First-round picks are nice, but so are 26-year-old forwards with talent and good contracts. This is boom-or-bust, but then, so are the Wizards.

"It never needed to happen. We were headed in the right direction, and you always wonder, ‘What if?’ Such is life in the NBA." -- Denver coach Michael Malone to USA Today’s Sam Amick on his Sacramento tenure.

Reaction: The Kings remain the most mystifying franchise in the league and firing Malone 20 games into last season may very well be the most baffling decision the franchise has made during that time.

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About the Author

After covering everything from 8-man football in Idaho to city politics in Boston, Paul came to SB Nation in 2013 to write about the NBA. He developed the Sunday Shootaround column and profiled players such as Damian Lillard, Draymond Green, and Isaiah Thomas. When not in arenas, he can usually be found running somewhere.