As if an escalating luxury tax and a heightened interest in building through the draft weren’t enough to dampen enthusiasm for making a deal before Thursday’s NBA trade deadline, there’s apparently a third odd cog causing the deal-making machine to seize:
A generation gap.
The recent wave of new owners taking a hands-on approach to their franchises has inspired a second wave of general managers being hired who speak the new owners’ language. It’s not roundball. It’s spreadsheet. In the last two years, more than one-third of the league’s 30 teams hired new faces, and among them, only two actually played in the league; eight never played at any significant level at all. Their strength, by and large, is working in numbers, equating on-the-floor statistics with contractual value.
It’s not that the old-school GMs aren’t business-savvy along the same lines, as that is now a prerequisite for anyone who holds the job. It’s that they literally don’t know with whom they’re dealing. As progressive as the league may be on all fronts, business transactions still rely on an age-old denominator: relationships, and the trust borne of long-standing ones.
It’s not by accident that the biggest deal first-year Sacramento Kings GM Pete D’Alessandro has done—acquiring Rudy Gay—was with new Toronto Raptors GM Masai Ujiri, his former boss in Denver. (Or that D’Alessandro’s other deal was with another front-office first-timer, Flip Saunders.)
The Philadelphia 76ers’ first-year GM, Sam Hinkie, is in a similar predicament. He’s open to making deals, league sources say, but peers deeply familiar with him don’t go much beyond his former boss, Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey. Hinkie assuredly had conversations with other teams during his time with the Rockets, but not as the one pulling the trigger. Nuggets GM Tim Connelly has spent time in both the Wizards and Pelicans organizations, but he faces the same challenge as not only a first-time major domo, but a young one.
“It’s unsettling to a lot of people,” said one Eastern Conference executive, speaking about the new commanders-in-chief in general. “There are a lot of old-school GMs dealing with new-school GMs and there’s more suspicion than there needs to be. A deal you would normally do without hesitation is being held up because you don’t know who you’re dealing with. Are they going to leak the deal? Use it to leverage another one? Deals that would be getting done aren’t, at least not right now.”
Trace the bloodlines of most major deals and you’ll find that somewhere in the past the decision-makers developed some sort of bond. Sometimes that bond is created by the two sides merely talking about a particular trade over the course of a year, but that’s rare—and even that route is one the newest GMs haven’t had a chance to pave.
All that said, a few trades are almost sure to be made this week and perhaps even some significant ones. For those who feast on the deadline rumor mill, be thankful for the relentlessly restless Boston Celtics GM Danny Ainge. The Celtics, league sources say, are mining interest in both Jeff Green and Rajon Rondo, looking for an up-and-coming player and a first-round pick for starters on each. (The hope is to unload Kris Humphries and his $12 million salary in the process.)
Ainge is also unique, other league executives say, in that he won’t allow old-standing grudges to stop him from making a deal. If a Green-for-Pau Gasol-based deal made sense, he wouldn’t allow the Lakers-Celtics rivalry to block it. (The two teams have only made two deals in the last 35 years—Travis Knight for Tony Battie in ’99, and a five-player trade in ’04 that landed the Celtics Rick Fox and the future pick that turned into Rondo.)
In fact, Ainge already proved it, making a three-team deal with the Miami Heat (and former Lakers head coach Pat Riley) and the Golden State Warriors (and former Celtics minority owner Joe Lacob). Most executives can’t imagine Celtics legend Larry Bird, even in his advisory role with the Indiana Pacers, ever stomaching a deal with Riley, much less the Lakers proper.
Ainge, on the other hand, “doesn’t care,” said one team VP.
League sources also have indicated the following:
• The Warriors are still looking to see if they can upgrade their core without laying complete waste to what they’ve already built. Don’t close the door on a possible return of Jarrett Jack, one source said, suggesting that the Cavs would help their campaign to retain Kyrie Irving by acquiring Harrison Barnes, who Irving stumped for before the draft. Knowing the familiarity between Lacob and Ainge, I’d be surprised if a Green-for-Barnes-centered swap wasn’t at least broached as well.
• The Orlando Magic are taking and making calls on shooting guard Arron Afflalo and point guard Jameer Nelson.
• The Denver Nuggets suggesting they’d bring Andre Miller back in the fold is code for, “We haven’t received an offer we like,” but league sources say there are several teams interested, including the Kings and Warriors.
• The odds are greater that Pau Gasol finishes the season in a Lakers uniform than winds up elsewhere, even though both sides know his run in L.A. is over and he intends to keep playing beyond this season somewhere.
• The Charlotte Bobcats, Cavaliers, Los Angeles Clippers, Washington Wizards, Memphis Grizzlies, New York Knicks and Rockets are all open for business, looking to bolster their playoff chances right now.
• “Somebody significant will be traded,” predicted one VP of basketball operations. Across the generational, and perhaps philosophical, divide? For now, no one’s predicting that.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.