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Around the league: Thoughts surrounding the trade deadline

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Cleveland’s real motivation, team-building, and more.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Cleveland Cavaliers
Isaiah is on the move ... again.
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The 2018 NBA Trade Deadline was one of the most impactful in recent memory, with a large number of deals (and non-deals) which could reverberate well past this postseason. Nevertheless, despite reams of analysis across the league, a couple of storylines have been missed.

Cleveland

The Cavaliers are obviously the trade deadline’s big winners, not the least because they were a completely broken team and now they might not be. They were a team that was running a very real risk of missing the playoffs entirely, and now they might be favorites to win the East again.

And they did that without getting much better. Yes, they got younger, and more athletic, and they found pieces who fit better around LeBron James.

On paper, players like Rodney Hood and George Hill aren’t a massive upgrade. The difference is that maybe, just maybe, they’ll revitalize LeBron James enough to turn him back into MVP-caliber form. Contrary to what has become the conventional wisdom on multiple podcasts that this isn’t about LeBron James at all, it’s actually 100% about him.

No amount of tinkering around the edges of the roster is going to make this a better team on paper than Houston or Golden State. However, Cleveland’s plan has never been to be a better team on paper than Houston or Golden State. It’s always been to be good enough.

Good enough for LeBron James to put them on his back and carry them to the finals. Good enough to take advantage of an injury or a suspension and steal a win against a better team.

But that only happens if the King is motivated and engaged. He hasn’t been, but now he might be.

On paper, the Cavaliers traded a bunch of spare parts for a bunch of younger spare parts. In reality, they hopefully traded a disengaged and unmotivated LeBron James for the guy who is no worse than the second greatest player of all time.

If that trade works out, the Cavs won the trade deadline in a landslide.

The Clippers, Charlotte, Memphis, and Bottoming Out

Several teams have come under criticism for not making deals. These include the Clippers for not moving DeAndre Jordan (and for extending Lou Williams), Memphis for not moving Tyreke Evans, and Charlotte for not moving Kemba Walker.

Listen to podcasts from The Ringer, ESPN and elsewhere, and you’ll hear commentator after commentator saying these teams should have bottomed out, that they’re stuck on the treadmill of mediocrity, and that they have no plan.

All of these commentators are wrong. They’re offering state-of-the-art thinking, circa 2013, but the league has changed.

There are two reasons why this thinking is wrong.

The first is that bottoming out isn’t as easy as it looks, and isn’t the panacea it is rumored to be. Look at the standings: there are eight teams with 19 or fewer wins. You could tank your tail off, trade all your good players, and end up with the 8th pick, where players like Marquisse Chriss, Stanley Johnson, Nik Stauskas, Terrence Ross, and Al-Faour Aminu are taken.

Even if you do successfully bottom out, you still need to get lucky. Philly tanked for four years, and find themselves the proud owners of broken players, a point-forward who can’t shoot and a player who is unlikely to ever play 70 games in a season. Right now they’re barely clinging onto the 8th playoff spot and seem on pace to lose it to the Pistons.

So if tanking to draft doesn’t offer much in the way of guaranteed return, what’s the option?

Free agency and trades. Elite players move teams. What’s become incredibly clear, however, is that money is no longer the prime motivating factor - salaries have gotten so high that players will prioritize winning and teammate quality over a few million bucks.

So top players aren’t going to sign with dregs teams. The Warriors, remember, couldn’t even get a meeting with Dwight Howard. But then they became a pretty good team, and that got Iguodala. The new core, including Iguodala, got Kevin Durant.

LeBron James, when he switched teams, either went to a team with two other hall-of-fame-level players or a team that had gotten the top pick in the draft three times in the prior four years. Talent attracts talent.

So if you’re the Clippers, what’s more valuable? A mid first round pick, who will probably not become DeAndre Jordan, or DeAndre Jordan, continuity, a great complementary piece (and, incidentally, probably the exact type of center someone like LeBron James would want to play next to). Lou Williams isn’t anybody’s future, but he helps make the team effective and entertaining - good enough that maybe, combined with L.A.’s glitz, Paul George might want to consider them.

Ditto Kemba in Charlotte. Trade him for a pick, and then what? Hope you get a player as good as Kemba?

No, the formula for getting good is simple, and it doesn’t involve bottoming out.

Get better players. Repeat.

This is how Golden State became a powerhouse. This is how Houston added Chris Paul. This is how Cleveland got LeBron James back. This is how OKC became dangerous post-KD. This is how Boston and Toronto inched closer to the NBA finals.

Those teams and San Antonio are all of the legitimate contenders this season - and none of them got where they are by deliberately tanking for multiple seasons.

While there is still a time and a place for tanking - hello, New York Knicks! - more teams are recognizing the value of continuity, culture, and putting a quality product on the floor. If Minnesota can turn itself into a team where Jimmy Butler is happy to play, then any team can - but you can’t do it by being intentionally terrible.

In that context, even Memphis valuing Tyreke Evans (solid play, entertainment, and effort) over a second-round pick (which is unlikely to ever turn into a rotation player) is totally justifiable.

The “treadmill of mediocrity” was an interesting idea which has empirically shown that it shouldn’t guide anybody’s thinking about how to build an NBA team. Several GMs have figured that out. It’s time for the press to catch up.

Isaiah Thomas

It’s easy to feel for IT. The guy played his heart of for Boston, and then they took him out back and shot him. Isaiah Thomas was wonderful with the ball in his hands, taking advantage of the spacing of the modern NBA (and maybe the league’s reluctance to call carrying violations.)

On the other hand, I’m also tired of hearing people talk about him like he was a great player last year.

An MVP candidate.

A top ten player.

No. Just stop. Lest we forget, IT was arguably the second-worst-defensive player in the league last season, and that was despite Boston surrounding him with defenders and scheming like mad to protect him.

One interesting thing about his tenure in Cleveland is that it forces us to re-evaluate some of his history. For example, before this year, the story was that DeMarcus Cousins ran him out of town on a rail because Cousins was a selfish player. But after Isaiah Thomas’ pot-shots in Cleveland, his agent’s insistence that he’s not coming off the bench in Los Angeles (despite being, let’s admit it, awful), as well as his lack of willingness to play off of the greatest player of the last 15 years, maybe we have to re-evalute.

Maybe Boogie wasn’t the problem. Maybe it was Thomas all along.

The buyout market

The league has a problem.

Maybe it’s not that big a deal when it’s only about-to-retire vets who look for buyouts, hoping for one last run at glory. But sometime in the last few years, something has shifted. Now it’s become understood that players of a certain caliber can pout their way to a buyout, receive most of what they’re owed, and land on whatever team they like.

One example of this is Dwayne Wade, forcing his way off a Chicago team he never played a game for, and yet still collecting $15m; Cleveland, and now Miami, had a (theoretically) $15m+ player for the veteran minimum, despite Wade signing for the biggest bidder in the offseason. At least Wade had to give up guaranteed money, though - Phoenix didn’t want Greg Monroe, and he’s somehow making even more money because of it. If Monroe ends up being the difference that pushes Boston over, say, Toronto into the NBA finals, there will be fans who are right to be pissed.

It wouldn’t be an issue if players had to make real sacrifices to be bought out, but the league’s balance of power shouldn’t shift because a player can force himself off a bad team and come out financially ahead in the bargain.

Adam Silver and the players’ union need to figure something out lest it make a mockery of the salary cap and further heighten the imbalance between desirable destinations and mediocre ones.