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NBA traders and traitors

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Is the business of basketball breeding an era of mistrust and disloyalty?

Boston Celtics Introduce Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

When big trades happen or players leave their long-time teams for greener pastures, we hear, “It’s just a business.” When a team wants to win, we hear, “It’s more than a game.”

We’re told that loyalty in business doesn’t matter, but then we’re also told that commitment and dedication are integral to the game of basketball.

Every time a big move is made—whether by an organization or an individual player—questions about who screwed who come up and are debated ad nauseum.

Players that have stuck with their struggling franchises through thick and thin only to finally make the tortured decision to leave in the hopes of a better situation are lambasted by lifelong fans and torn down in the media as the worst type of turncoats.

Meanwhile teams that have done their best to make things work with one player or another eventually—after what is undoubtedly a lengthy period of weighing up options and likely sleepless nights—choose to part with a stalwart team member. Sometimes teams trade a player that has been so much a part of the franchise’s success that such a decision is unthinkable to the basketball world at large.

The thing is, basketball is both a business and a game. And in this game of business, no one is really trying to screw anyone. Everyone is just trying to win. But with everyone trying to win that means inevitably some people necessarily have to lose and that undoubtedly breeds a level of contempt.

As has already been mentioned by a few writers, the probable outcome of all these teams dealing their big names despite assurances otherwise is that lots of players going forward are going to demand a no-trade clause as a starting point in negotiations. But beyond the business side of things how does this affect all the other parts of basketball? How does this affect fans relationships with their stars? Or conversely stars relationships with their cities? How do teams go all-in on a player that could just as easily walk and leave the franchise floundering? How do players give 110% to an organization that is constantly shopping for better options?

Obviously trades, signings and all the hubbub around them is nothing new to the NBA. But some of the moves made by teams and players of late have brought up bigger questions about the way the business of basketball is handled.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

July 4, 2016: Kevin Durant announces he is signing with the Golden State Warriors

This one probably shouldn’t have been the big deal that it was. This was simply a player signing with another team that he (rightly) thought he would have a better chance of getting a championship with. But with KD being the only big-name free agent of the offseason that was even really investigating alternative destinations, Golden State’s transition from underdog heroes to unstoppable empire, and OKC’s dire-looking future without KD, this signing became a perfect storm of media and fan driven speculation. The repercussions of KD signing with Golden State are still reverberating even now.

It didn’t help that OKC had just lost an oh-so-close playoffs series against Golden State, marking the team from The Bay as the enemy in the minds of many an Oklahoman or that Kevin Durant’s free agent tour was covered in miniscule detail by every media outlet in sports, making the sinking feeling in the guts of OKC fans no doubt ever present and all-encompassing. But Durant’s actions here should hardly have been considered controversial and this was certainly handled better than LeBron’s conceited Decision to move to Miami. Besides, it paid off and Kevin Durant is a champion now and arguably the best player on the best team in the world, so it all worked out for KD even if he does argue with himself about it on social media every so often.

Emotion vs. business

This seems like a decision where both played a big part in different ways. No one really knows how frayed Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant’s relationship was at the end there but there has been enough to suggest that the two had problems and that probably drove KD’s original decision to look at his options.

The fact that Durant then went to a team stacked with talent proves this wasn’t about him being the solo star but rather about maximizing the best years of his career at a place where he thought he could succeed. Ultimately, Durant left OKC to chase a championship. Whether this decision was made because he felt an emotional need to be the best or whether it was a calculating business decision made to add accolades to his resume depends on how you view KD as a person.

Winners and losers

Golden State’s continued dominance seems likely. However an emotionally charged showdown in the playoffs (or better yet in the Western Conference Finals) between Golden State and the revamped OKC could also be on the cards and who knows which way the basketball will bounce once that series begins.

Another side-effect of Kevin Durant signing with the Warriors was that it reminded everyone that players have their own agency (if only for very brief points in their careers). I have no doubt in my mind that if Kevin Durant hadn’t signed with GSW then the two teams out of LA wouldn’t currently be clearing cap space in the hopes of wooing LeBron James away from the Land. Until Durant reminded the league that big-name players can choose to move the idea of LeBron abandoning Cleveland (again) seemed all-the-more unlikely but now anything seems possible.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Cleveland Cavaliers Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

August 22, 2017: Kyrie Irving is traded to the Boston Celtics for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and a future Brooklyn Nets pick

If the Kevin Durant signing reminded everyone that players aren’t required to be loyal then the Kyrie Irving-Isaiah Thomas centred trade showed that teams are capable of being even more disingenuous. Unlike Durant, Thomas hadn’t played for his team very long. But, playing with the Celtics, IT turned himself into an MVP candidate and led a team that was meant to be rebuilding further than anyone thought they could go. He had made mention of an expected big pay day in the future, but Isaiah had also made every indication that he intended to be a lifelong Celtic regardless.

When Kyrie Irving demanded a trade, very few expected him to end up in Boston. But Danny Ainge, ever the opportunist, made the type of move that has made him far more famous off the court than he ever was on it. Ainge is, of course, the epitome of the cunning businessman, always willing to do a deal if he sees a way to come out on top. He even traded his own son’s electoral success for a chance to sign Gordon Hayward (not entirely true).

When the deal was done almost everyone had to admit its overall wisdom but just as many questioned its callousness. The fact that the decision may have been influenced by Isaiah’s hip injury which itself may have been influenced by bad advice from Boston’s medical staff makes the move seem all-the-more ruthless and even a little underhanded.

Emotion vs. business

Obviously it was clear to see the reasoning behind this move; Kyrie is younger, on a contract for longer and likely to become a better player than Isaiah is capable of being. It was a total Ainge move, the type of move that awards praise down the road after the initial ire of fans has passed. It was an all-business play.

It hurts though because Isaiah had worked his way into the hearts of Celtics fans everywhere and shown time and again that if you didn’t believe in him he would burn you. Maybe Isaiah Thomas could have led the Celtics to an eventual championship. We’ll never know though because in the end Ainge crunched the numbers and calculated his options and decided he didn’t believe. Maybe he never did.

Winners and losers

Isaiah Thomas is a Cavalier now, and things are not going well for him. Kyrie on the other hand is flourishing as a Celtic. Again, this is a total Ainge move. Danny always seems to have the upper hand in a way that is almost precognitive. Ainge’s perennial success shames anyone who dared to question his decisions into silence.

But if we are moving to a world where all the big names in the league start to demand ‘no-trade’ clauses as a part of their contracts Danny Ainge will be one of the most culpable parties for creating an atmosphere of mistrust. Anyone playing for ‘Trader Danny’ has to be constantly aware that they could be moved at any moment, no matter what their old pal Danny says.

This type of thing has reverberations around the league also. Danny’s success encourages other owners to make splashy moves in the hopes of landing the next haul of Brooklyn picks to help jump-start a rebuild. While players who hear platitudes about loyalty and respect seem increasingly aware these are just words.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Los Angeles Clippers Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

January 29, 2018: Blake Griffin is traded to Detroit for Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic and a future first round pick

Proving that if you’re not paying attention the whole league will change while you’re not looking, Blake Griffin was just traded to the Detroit Pistons for a package including Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic and a future first round pick. It’s the type of move that doesn’t seem to make sense to anyone so ultimately it will probably turn out to be good for both teams.

Griffin was a big name free agent before this season began but he cancelled all his other meetings after the Clippers went all out to woo him into staying in LA. Reports stated that the organization had set up a Blake Griffin museum alongside a Blake-themed showcase made to appeal to Griffin’s ego including a choir and a mock jersey retirement. There was probably a KIA involved somehow too.

Then just six months after his grandiose signing ceremony a surprise Woj bomb confirmed that Griffin had been traded to Detroit, in the middle of winter no less.

Emotion vs. business

Admittedly as a Celtics fan I’m not particularly emotionally invested in this trade. From what I can tell, the fallout from Clippers fans has been relatively limited. Still though, this is a weird one. It might have been time for both Blake and the Clippers to move on. But if that’s how the organization felt they probably shouldn’t have signed him to a 5-year max contract, right? And to pull the trigger on a deal that moves their freshly-signed franchise centerpiece for pretty limited returns seems strange to say the least.

From a business perspective the move is questionable for both parties too. The Clippers are apparently not finished making moves so maybe their ultimate plan will become clearer in time but for now they seem to be clearing cap space for whatever reason, possibly to take a shot at signing LeBron but at this point that’s just speculation. Detroit on the other hand just committed a ton of cash on an experiment that might only work in Stan Van Gundy’s head, and they still don’t really have a backcourt.

Winners and losers

It’s still too early to see who are the real winners and losers in this trade. But right now it looks like the Clippers have a ways to go before they’ll be pushing for a playoff spot again, Detroit will have to make things work with a team makeup that is entirely reliant on the frontcourt in an era where the backcourt is dominant, and Blake Griffin will have to get some winter gear – from what I hear it’s cold in the D.