Three of the biggest names dealt at last year's NBA trade deadline (Brandon Knight, Reggie Jackson, Enes Kanter) had something in common: they were fourth-year players on the verge of getting paid in free agency. None of the three were top-level stars, and their incumbent teams didn't see the value in signing them to the contracts they would command. So, all three of them got traded at the deadline, and the teams that acquired them paid those big bucks in July.
This is looking something like a trend. The "Restricted Free Agent Trade Bait" is a thing. Here's why.
1. Interested teams know they can retain the players in free agency
The problem with trading for expiring contracts -- the colloquial term for players who can become free agents when July 1 next strikes -- is that you're giving up assets with no guarantee you'll retain the acquired target. That's not the case with pending restricted free agents. First-round picks become restricted free agents after their fourth seasons, barring an early extension.
Restricted free agency is one of the strongest retention tools teams have. When a player is restricted, he can sign an offer sheet with any team that has salary cap space. But once he does, the incumbent team has three days to match. The threat of matching discourages a lot of teams from even chasing restricted free agents early in July; tying up your space for three days is problematic when things move so quickly. The market is naturally much tighter for restricted free agents than for those who have unrestricted status. Ask Tristan Thompson.
As such, few restricted free agents actually switch teams. Whereas trading for a veteran like Al Horford runs the risk of giving up assets for a player who can sign with a different club in July, that's not the case trading for a pending restricted free agent. The team that has the RFA's rights exerts a lot of control over the process. Chances are, if you're trading for a pending RFA, you're already willing to pay market price on the contract to come.
And sure enough, each of Knight, Kanter and Jackson ended up signing huge contracts with the teams that traded for them (though Kanter's happened via an offer sheet match).
2. Teams trading the pending RFAs know the players' contract demands
Most teams complete at least cursory early extension negotiations with good players. First-round picks can sign those early extensions after their third season, and many do. The ones who don't either haven't proved their value to their teams or are asking for way more than what the team is willing to pay. This is why the Thunder traded James Harden a year prior to his restricted free agency: they knew his asking price and felt it was incompatible with their cap sheet. Information is a huge value!
3. It's easy to match salaries for players on rookie contracts
Just about every pending RFA is making less than $5 million per season, so the financial gymnastics to deal one for a pick or other sub-star assets are minimal. The Knight deal involving Michael Carter-Williams (another rookie deal player) and a draft pick was pretty basic. Kanter and Jackson were actually traded for each other, with Detroit kicking in some assets as the third team.
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With that long explanation in hand, let's look at the top 2016 candidates to be restricted free agent trade bait. These players all appear in our Top 100 NBA Free Agents rankings.
The Wizards are in an extraordinarily precarious place. The odds of Washington welcoming Kevin Durant home in free agency seem as slim as ever after some early season weirdness, and there really aren't many other high-profile targets for the Wizards to spend their salary cap bounty. Meanwhile, Beal has lived up to his reputation as physiologically fragile -- whether that's fair or not, it's his rep -- and the Wizards could be concerned about locking him up to a massive contract.
If they can get something really good for him on the trade market, why wouldn't they take a look? Desperate times call for desperate measures.
The Magic have Elfrid Payton, Victor Oladipo and Mario Hezonja in the backcourt. Fournier might be the most or second-most productive of the crew right now, and he is young. But he would seem to be the odd man out, perhaps because everyone else has a higher ceiling. That said, being productive now should help Orlando get something useful for him should the Magic decide to shop him at the deadline.
Sullinger might be the player on this list most likely to be a throw-in within a larger trade simply because Boston has assets and motivation to swing hard. But even if Danny Ainge keeps his powder dry, Sullinger looks like RFA trade bait. He's productive on a per-minute basis and is a phenomenal rebounder in particular. But he's playing just 23 minutes per game for a team that really needs what he offers, and he's come into camp out of shape seemingly every season. With such high expectations for the deadline and free agency, it's hard to imagine Boston committing a bunch of cap space to Sullinger.
As such, he's trade bait right now.
The one thing holding Dion Waiters back from being a pure example of RFA trade bait is that I'm not sure what team trades for him. Like, which GM is chomping at the bit to negotiate a Dion Waiters contract in July? Surely there's someone ... but I can't find it. (It's Vlade Divac, isn't it? Dammit.)
Donatas Motiejunas and/or Terrence Jones
The Rockets' power forward duo has seen its value plummet over the past year due to injury and rotational tumult. Houston has to have bigger plans than these two, and GM Daryl Morey is always active at the deadline, so a swap of at least one of them seems likely. Perhaps one of them is a piece that makes Phoenix part with Markieff Morris? Then, the Suns get to decide whether to pay the mystery Rocket in free agency.
As I wrote in the free agent rankings, Leonard's value comes from being a center who can shoot threes ... yet he's at 35 percent on the season. He's one of the worst 7-footer rebounders in the NBA (like Bargnani-level bad) and he doesn't have the passing chops of Spencer Hawes (an otherwise fair comp). Portland has plenty of intriguing young big men. If the Blazers know Leonard's asking price is out of whack with his production and potential, flipping him for a different prospect or a pick (or a defense-first guard!) might be in order.
Nicholson has long looked like a decent player in the wrong situation. Like Fournier, he doesn't seem to fit in Orlando and will almost assuredly find himself on a different team next season. The problem with Nicholson as RFA trade bait (similar to Waiters and to a certain extent Leonard) is that it's highly unlikely you can get much value in return for him. If the market for him is poor in February, you might as well hang on, ride out the season and keep sign-and-trade possibilities in July alive. The cap hold won't kill you.