When to swing the Wrecking Ball

The toughest question a General Manager for a middle of the pack NBA team has to answer is whether it’s time to take a wrecking ball to their roster and begin a rebuild. There are some NBA teams that have struggled to put talent around their best players and take the leap forward. Teams have a tendency to hold onto their star player too long to stay relevant and competitive while hoping to lure a top talent. The Sacramento Kings are a great example of a team that held onto DeMarcus Cousins for far too long and got little in return when they moved him. During the trade deadline that just passed two teams; the Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls; were faced with the question of whether it was time to move on.

The first thing to examine when it comes to deciding on breaking up with your Superstar starts with looking to see if you can keep them for the long haul. Teams like the Bulls do not have to be in a rush to trade Jimmy Butler, as were rumored because they have him under contract until 2019. Unless he begins to demand a trade, they do not have any real urgency.

Also, thanks to the Collective Bargaining Agreement teams are armed with a new rule that allows a team to retain their talent. There are a few stipulations to qualify for the Designated Player Exception, reported by Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post. Players qualify for the DPE:

  1. Won either MVP or Defensive player of the year, or made an All-NBA team in the previous year or made an All-NBA team or won Defensive player of the year two out of the last three seasons
  2. Still are on the team that drafted them or were traded while on their Rookie contract
  3. It can be given as either an extension or as a free agent deal to resign a player.

So qualifying for the DPE allows teams to extend or resign its players by allowing those teams an opportunity to offer a contract with 35% salary increases year to year versus what other teams can offer. In terms of real dollar figures, Cousins was looking at a five-year extension for $209 million dollars by staying with the Kings. After the trade, he is eligible to sign with the New Orleans Pelicans for  $179 million dollars over a five-year deal once his contract is up. So Cousins lost $30 million dollars in the trade and that was why his agent was trying to scare teams away.

Although in the Cousins’ example it worked against the Kings since they seemed reluctant to commit to Cousins at such a large dollar figure. For most teams, it will put them in the driver seat with players. According to many reports out there, Indiana was engaged with teams on possibly trading Paul George but did not pull the trigger. There are several rumors out there that say George prefers to stay in Indiana or return home to LA to play for the Lakers. He will probably want to stay with the Pacers if he makes an All-NBA team and qualifies for the DPE. If he doesn’t, expect the Pacers to explore the George market again come draft day with a little more urgency.

The other thing an organization has to do is evaluate how they will build around their star, do they have assets that can bring in players that will compliment their star and/or are they are a free agent destination where players will want to sign there for a variety of reasons beyond basketball. The free agent destination narrative has not been as a big a factor as in the past but it still is a factor nonetheless.

Sometimes the only way for a team to really move forward is by taking a few steps back. It’s never an easy decision to make and it does not always work. The New York Knicks went out of their way to tank for years with the thought they could sign LeBron James, which they didn’t.

In 2011 there were two trades that were made by teams that were struggling, they broke up with their superstars and sold high. The Denver Nuggets were in a situation where Carmelo Anthony was going to be a free agent in the offseason and he was pushing to get traded. Although it is very difficult for teams ever to get a great return once a player begins to demand a trade, the Nuggets received quite a haul from the Knicks. Their deal netted them Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, and Raymond Felton. In addition to the players, they also received an assortment of picks that eventually were used in the Dwight Howard four-team trade, which landed them Andre Iguodala. The Nuggets would make the playoffs two years in a row after making that trade.

The Utah Jazz also surprised many around the league when they shipped a disgruntle Deron Williams to the Brooklyn Nets for Derrick Favors, Devin Harris and two first-round draft picks. One of those picks would turn into Enes Kanter in the 2011 Draft, and the other would be used in another trade for Alec Burks. They would make the playoffs the following year. Both Denver and Utah are not known as a free agent destination and have to build through the draft. This is more pertinent for Indiana than Chicago as the Bulls can be considered a free agent destination despite their front office’s inept ability to build a competitive team in recent years.

Choosing to rebuild is a very difficult decision, the truth is it takes an honest evaluation by front office officials. Will we be able to resign our star player? How will we build around them? Are we a place where free agents want to come to? What can we get for our best player? It also leads to this question, what are we looking to do? Are we trying to build a true championship contender or are we content with being a pretender? The Kings waited too long before they decided to move Cousins and killed their value. The Pacers and Bulls are looking at the right time, especially with teams like Boston and Denver can put several enticing trade packages together. Wait too long and the value of their assets may go down. The question of swinging the wrecking ball is truly the toughest decision for an NBA General Manager but the smart ones know when to reach for their construction hat.

NBA Notes:

  • Past Trade Rabbit Holes – While researching for this article, I found it fascinating digging up old trades and seeing what those picks turned out to be. A great example was being reminded that the Bulls traded two 1st round picks to Denver for Doug McDermott and Anthony Randolph. Those picks were Jusuf Nurkic (was just traded to Portland) and Gary Harris. The Bulls have traded McDermott this trade deadline for Cameron Payne, not a ton of value when you think about what they gave up for him.
  • Pre-Deadline Moves – Although the actual trade deadline did not have a crazy blockbuster trade, teams have made several moves leading up to the deadline, Korver to Cleveland, Ibaka to Toronto, and Cousins to New Orleans being the biggest ones. I think it might become more common for teams to make moves a little before the deadline so they can make whatever smaller moves they need to at the deadline.
  • Mavericks Reboot – The Mavericks are beginning to put together a young good core, Harrison Barnes this past offseason, then finding gems in Seth Curry and Yogi Ferrell. Now trading for Nerlens Noel who debuted with a 9 point 10 rebound night. Things will get interesting if Dirk chooses to retire after this season. Curry has been on fire in 2017….no, the other Curry
  • Post-Trade Podcast – Check out the post trade deadline podcast I did with Mike Prada of SB Nation for my trade thoughts.The Jump Ball Podcast Ep 15 with SB Nation’s Mike Prada

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