Well that was a more interesting and frenetic trade deadline than expected. Here’s our quick take on the more significant deals:
Magic trade Elfrid Payton to the Suns for a 2018 second-round pick
The Magic have had a rough season and, after four years, they clearly wanted no part of the tough decision as to whether to give Payton a big free agent deal in the summer of 2018. I can’t help but think the Magic cut bait too early. It is understandable that Orlando is frustrated. The team has been bad all four years that Payton has been a starting point guard and it is true that Payton’s offensive game was initially pretty terrible. But Orlando’s current problems are not on offense. Rather, they are among the worst defensive teams in the NBA and DPM points the finger at Evan Fournier, D.J. Augustin, and Jonathon Simmons and not Payton.
On top of that, Payton’s offensive game has improved to slightly above average (to go with solid defense). We have seen plenty of taller point guards steadily improve over a long period before going from disappointing-to-adequate-to-star (notably, Chauncey Billups and Gary Payton). Payton may not end up being a star but he is only 23 and the risk on a three or four-year contract would not be high. It just seems Orlando wanted change for changes sake. Payton might not turn out to be a star but, unless there is something we are not privy to, the Magic traded him to symbolically part ways without regard to what the team’s real problems are.
In a three-team trade, Knicks acquire Emmanuel Mudiay, the Nuggets acquire Devin Harris and a second-round pick, and the Mavericks acquire Doug McDermott and a second-round pick
Speaking of cutting the cord on slow developing point guards….Mudiay is also big young point with some issues. Mudiay has actually improved his initial bad shooting but he is not a great defender or passer and, as noted by Denver’s own scouts, he finishes very poorly at the rim. The Knicks are an appropriate team to take a flier on Mudiay. The caveat is that they have to balance trying to develop Mudiay and Frank Ntilikina, without both of them developmentally. Ntilikina is so young and raw offensively (even compared to Mudiay) that Mudiay should be getting a few more minutes this year but who really knows how well an organization like the Knicks will handle this?
As for Denver, getting a reliably adequate backup point guard for a playoff run is not a terrible idea. The value for Mudiay is weak but Denver seems to acknowledge that the situation he devolved and it was better for all parties to just walk away. So, the trade wasn’t bad for the moment but looming in the background is the irrefutable fact the Denver either made a bad pick in taking Mudiay to begin with or they handled him poorly.
Cavaliers press CTL-ALT-DLT
The Cavs trade run was based upon the obvious realization that: (a) LeBron James is likely gone after this season and (b) the current team was totally uncompetitive. The Cavs went into the season with a sound enough plan. Yes, they had too many older players but they made a fair assumption that Jae Crowder, Tristan Thompson, and, eventually, Isaiah Thomas, would be good enough to offset that weakness. Alas, Crowder has been unexpectedly poor and Thomas has not come close to recovering from his hip injury. In addition, J.R. Smith totally cratered and no one (other than LeBron) is defending at all. Something had to be done. The question is whether the individual deals were good. Let’s dive in:
-Trade Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye, and a first-round pick to Lakers for Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr.
Thomas was such a negative on the court that he was not playable. The Cavs had no reason to re-sign him after the season and getting anything useful for him makes a lot of sense. The return is mixed. Nance is a great addition and can really help the Cavs defensively. Clarkson appears to be the ballast on a Nance acquisition. Clarkson is a below-average three-point shooter, a bit pricey (two years and $24 million), and isn’t an ideal fit with the current Cavs (and superfluous on the Lakers with Lonzo Ball). Still, Clarkson isn’t total dead weight. He is active offensively and that will help a stale backcourt. At the very least, he couldn’t be worse than Smith has been this season.
-Trade Derrick Rose and Jae Crowder to the Jazz and Iman Shumpert to the Kings and received Rodney Hood and George Hill
As noted above, it was not clear why Crowder played so poorly both offensively and defensively but he did and dealing him is all they could do to change the situation. The fact that the Cavs expected Rose to play well, however, was really an indefensible decision. Watching Rose with the Knicks last season showed that he was barely passable as a starter and an offensive spacing nightmare. It was clear that the old MVP Rose was left on the surgery table. He certainly tries hard, but Rose is no longer a good NBA player and, at best, a backup. Shumpert has also fallen apart health wise and isn’t likely to recover this season, if ever.
To trade this group and get an ambulatory point guard in George Hill and Rodney Hood is quite a coup. Hood hasn’t developed as much as expected but is useful, while the group they dealt has been way below replacement. It is true that Hill hasn’t been great this season and, like Clarkson, has two more years at a bigger number than he deserves (about $40 million). The hope is that Hill’s down season is a blip (he has had a few of these before). Even if Hill does not improve from his current level, he is light years better than the Isaiah/Rose/Jose Calderon abomination the Cavs have tried and well worth the cost to give the Cavs a much better chance to get back to the Finals this season.
-Trade Dwyane Wade to the Heat for a second-round pick
It was pretty clear going into the season that older Wade was a poor fit for the Cavs. He could never shoot the three and, at this point in his career, was not enough of a threat off the dribble to provide the spacing necessary to play with LBJ. The sides have mutually agreed to an amicable break up and remain friends (a conscious uncoupling?). Wade’s return to the Heat might even be more than a goodwill gesture, as Miami’s offense has struggled terrible and Wade could slot into Dion Waiters’ role in the short term.
The more interesting aspect of the Wade trade is the return of the prodigal son angle. It got me wondering how many times a future Hall of Famer has left his peak team under angry circumstancs and returned later and all was forgiven and forgotten. Obviously, LeBron comes to mind first but that tale isn’t over yet. Let’s examine a few other forgotten instances of Hall of Fame returns and how they turned out:
Moses Malone: Moses went from star in Houston and Philly in the early 1980s to basketball vagabond. After being traded from the 76ers in the summer of 1986 at age-30 in the legendary dud of a trade for Jeff Ruland (in retrospect, Malone had already declined from his peak but the deal was still not good). Malone played for the Bullets, Hawks, and Bucks before returning to the 76ers in 1993-94 at age-38. Malone was pretty good in most of his roles between his gigs in Philly but was on mostly non-playoff teams. By the time Philly re-signed Malone, the Sixers were bad and Moses was just an old backup center coming off of a major injury. Malone played about 11 mpg and put up a solid 17.7 PER but was too ponderously slow to defend for long periods of time. He did have some flashback nights (he grabbed 12 or more boards five times in 1993-94). Malone didn’t retire after his return. Instead, he played one more season with the Spurs before finally calling it quits.
Billy Cunningham: The Kangaroo Kid jumped to the ABA at age-29 and coming off of an All-Star season in 1971-72 for the Sixers. Cunningham spent two years in the ABA and returned to Philly for the 1974-75 season. Unlike Wade, who left Miami in a huff in free agency, it took a court order to get Cunningham to the ABA. In May/June 1969, Cunningham signed a contract with the Carolina Cougars of the ABA for a three years, starting in the 1971-72 season. The contract provided that Cunningham was entitled to a bonus in 1970 as a condition of jumping to the ABA. Cunningham returned his signing bonus (which Carolina rejected) and tried to declare the contract void.
Carolina sued to try to enforce the contract terms. A trial court voided the contract and found that Carolina had unclean hands because the Cougars tried to make contact with Cunningham via his college coach Dean Smith and to use Smith convince Cunningham to come to town while he had an existing Philly contract. The judge clearly was put off by all behavior but was most offended by Carolina’s attempts to induce Cunningham to breach his Philly contract ruling that: “it is irrelevant that the conduct of the 76ers or Cunningham may have been as reprehensible as that of the Cougars since it was the devious conduct of the Cougars that created the problems presented by this litigation.”
The Court of Appeals disagreed with the finding that Carolina interfered with Cunningham’s contract with Philly because the written contract dealt with future services after a written contract with Philly expired. On top of that, the Court of Appeals implied that Cunningham’s behavior was most unreasonable: “[f]rom the undisputed facts we know that on July 15, 1970, Cunningham made a contract for the option year at a salary in excess of $100,000.00, the largest amount that any witness stated was the sum which would effect cancellation of the note. When it became public knowledge that Cunningham and the 76ers had reached substantial agreement on a $225,000.00 contract, the Cougars knew that payment of the note either would be obviated, or, if made, refunded. Indeed, in the light of what actually occurred, Cunningham in his testimony freely conceded that even if the Cougars had paid the note on May 15, 1970, he would have been obliged to refund that sum after July 15, 1970. We do not think that the Cougars should be penalized for acting in response to reality. Equity does not require the doing of a futile act as a condition to the granting of equitable relief.”
Given the strong accusations the sides made in litigation, you would expect more reportage on the incident at the time. I couldn’t find much in the way of contemporaneous quotes from the sides. The best available interviews came from Cunningham in 1990 in Terry Pluto’s “Loose Balls.” Cunningham said that he felt that the Cougars had failed to make requisite payments in breach of his contract. When Cunningham lost the court case, Carolina GM Carl Scheer (also in Loose Balls) said that he feared there would be problems: “especially in light of the lawsuit, we were concerned that he might have an ‘NBA attitude,’ acting as if he was too good for us and the league….[but] He acted like a Cougar, had nothing but nice things to say about the ABA and didn’t talk about his days in the NBA.”
Cunningham had two strong years in the ABA but decided come back to Philly at age 31. His return, though, was not a “coming home” emotional moment like Wade’s has been billed. Rather, Cunningham said he “had two of the most enjoyable years of my pro career [in the ABA]. The ABA people were so much closer than the guys in the NBA….I would have finished my career in the ABA, despite the crummy travel, if I had thought the league had a chance to survive.”
Cunningham was good in 1974-75 with Philly (if not quite as good as his peak) but his career was ended by a devastating knee injury in 1975-76. Cunningham would go on to coach the 76ers and win a title in 1982-83 (with Moses figuring prominently).
Rick Barry: Like Cunningham, Barry starred in the NBA for the Warriors (from 1965 to 1967) and jumped to the ABA by court order, and then returned to the Warriors in 1972-73 at age-28. Unlike Cunningham, Barry was able to remain great for several in the NBA when he came back. We won’t go through Barry’s litigation history but his return to the Warriors after a long odyssey worked out for both sides quite well.
Elvin Hayes: The Big E started out with the old San Diego Rockets for three years and a played his fourth year with the Houston Rockets (where Hayes played in college) in 1971-72. The Rockets then traded him to the Bullets for Jack Marin. Hayes was a controversial figure and viewed as a bit moody and selfish but he spent his best years with the Bullets, going to the Finals several times. In 1981, at age 36, Hayes was traded back to the Rockets for a couple of second rounders. At the time, Bullets GM Bob Ferry said “[w]e didn’t really make this move because we got value…He said he want to go, and we said let’s let him do it…anything we can get out of it is not important.” The sentiment was nice but Hayes’ value wasn’t that high at the time anyway, as an older player on a declining Bullets team. Hayes spent three years inefficiently scoring for a weak Rocket team and was viewed more as tool to help the Rockets tank for a higher draft pick. Fran Blinebury told Jonathan Abrams of Grantland in 2012 that: “If you look at some of the box scores and lineups and conclude [the 1983-84 Rockets were] doing anything but tanking, then you’re far different than me. There was one game in Houston where Elvin Hayes, who was about a thousand years old, ended up playing in an overtime game about 50 minutes.”
Scottie Pippen: Pippen left the Bulls with very hard feeling about management in 1998-99. He had spent years criticizing Jerry Krause and demanding trades and/or new contracts. Pippen signed with the Rockets in 1998-99 at age-33 but when the other core players aged too quickly to compete (Hakeem and Barkley), the Rockets traded Pippen to more of a real title threat in the Blazers. He played on one really good Portland team (1999-00) and several decent ones). When Pipp’s contract expired in 2003, the Bulls brought him back for a final season as a Bulls Emeritus. Pippen was 38 and the Bulls were willing to bring him in as a token vet for a bad Bulls team. His knees were so bad he barely played but his last memories of the Bulls were positive from a financial perspective.
Chris Mullin: While a contemporary of Pippen, Mullin didn’t leave his peak team with acrimony. Instead, the perpetually terrible Warriors dealt him to the Pacers at age-34 in 1997-98 to give him a chance to play for a contender. After three years with the Reggie Miller Pacers, Mullin signed with the Warriors for 2000-01 for a final season. Like Pippen, he was injured and barely played that final season before retiring.
Alonzo Mourning: Zo’s best years were spent with Miami from 1995-96 to 2001-02. Kidney illness knocked him out for 2002-03. He decided to make a comeback in 2003-04 but wanted to play on a competitive team (the Heat were in full rebuild) and signed a big deal with the Jason Kidd Nets. Mourning had problems staying healthy in Jersey and had disputed with teammates and was generally unhappy that the Nets were no longer serious contenders by 2004-05. The Nets dealt him to the Raptors early in 2004-05 as part of the Vince Carter trade. Mourning forced a buyout and re-signed with Miami, which had improved quickly after he left because of a young star named Dwyane Wade. Mourning remained a solid backup center for three more seasons (behind Shaq) and winning a ring in 2005-06 before retiring.
Allen Iverson: After AI was traded from Philly in mid 2006-07 his game deteriorated rapidly. With the exception of a short burst with the Nuggets, Iverson had slowed down and teams could no longer tolerate his mercurial personality. He bounced quickly from Denver to Detroit. The Pistons declined to re-sign him after 2008-09 and the Grizz took a chance on Iverson hoping that, at age-34, there was some magic left. Iverson lasted three games before asking out of Memphis. Near the end of that season, the Sixers signed Iverson for a 25-game. He left in February 2010 because of family issues and did not return. By 2009-10, Iverson had finally turned into a negative offensive player when he did play and his career ended abruptly with his departure from the Sixers. In retrospect, it looks like the final Philly stint served as a nice bookend to his career. In reality, it was really just another bad ending for post-peak Iverson.
George McGinnis: McGinnis makes the list because he just made the Hall of Fame. His entry in the Hall is a bit questionable but we’ll deal with his case anyway. McGinnis was a star with ABA Pacers but was moved to the 76ers in 1975-76 (at age-25) as part of a merger concession. Like Iverson, McGinnis was viewed as a talented and moody player who aged a bit too quickly to be worth the hassle. He put up nice numbers in Philadelphia but his game did not mesh well with Julius Erving and the Sixers dealt him to Denver for Bobby Jones in 1977. McGinnis’s game fell apart in 1979-80 when he was only 29 and his coach in Denver, Larry Brown, famously despised him. The Nuggets then traded him in the middle of that season back to the Pacers for young Alex English and a first-rounder. McGinnis played even worse in two years on the Pacers and English went on to become a Hall of Famer. McGinnis retired under a cloud of theories as to why he couldn’t play effectively anymore even though he was only 31. We’ll look at that part of his story another today (the junk psychology espoused at the time really was silly) but the short answer was that he had a ton of injuries and the second stint in Indy ended badly.