Those who thought the All-Star Break would deliver a break from basketball were sorely mistaken. We knew that shooting out of ball racks, and travels that led to dunks, would happen. But we did not know Boogie would happen. Boogie did happen and Trade Machine dorks worldwide have now been empowered and invigorated by the idea that anything is possible.
We’ve gotten used to the phrase Video Game Numbers. Call it negligence on Sacramento’s part if you want, but the Cousins deal was a Video Game Trade. A trade you would only see in video games.
And damn, that’s exciting.
Even as a trade enthusiast, I was fairly content with the narrative that the Wolves probably were not going to make a trade before the Thursday deadline. But now I can not accept that. Boogie has inspired me to not go quietly into the good night of the trade deadline. Plus, hypothesizing potential trades is far more fun than trusting the process.
The Types of Players Who Typically Get Traded
In this day in age, the hype of the hoops deadline leads to speculation far beyond the reality of the market. If you look hard enough, nearly every player in the NBA is bantered about in potential trades. But only a few players get traded each deadline. So, how do we figure out who those players may be?
The players who actually get traded often have one commonality—impending free agency. During last season, 18 different teams were involved in 15 trades that saw 31 different players traded. Of the 31 players traded, 25 were entering free agency in the off-season. Why?
Teams find incentive to trade for impending free agents for a few reasons:
- To rent a player for the rest of the season— Trading for a player who is entering free agency in the off-season who won’t be re-signed by this new team.
- To obtain an impending free agent’s Bird Rights— Trading for a player who is entering free agency in the off-season so as to offer them a unique contract only they can offer.
- To clear salary cap space— Trading for a player who is entering free agency in the off-season with the incentive of that player’s contract expiring from his new team’s books.
The DeMarcus Cousins trade defied these traditional reasons of making a trade. Cousins is not a free agent this coming off-season and therefore the Pelicans-Kings move is the exception to the rule.
Two other recent trades were more typical: The Toronto Raptors acquired unrestricted free agent Serge Ibaka and the Denver Nuggets acquired restricted free agent Mason Plumlee in trades with the Orlando Magic and Portland Trailblazers. While these may not be video game trades, they are still important and likely more similar to potential trades coming this week.
The Incentive of Trading for a Restricted Free Agent
For the Raptors and Nuggets, both teams had some incentive to simply rent big men. It is well documented that the Raptors needed a worthy starting power forward, a job Ibaka fills in spades. The Nuggets, who are eager for a playoff birth, had been cratering at the backup big man position. Plumlee provides a second big option that can replicate some of Nikola Jokic’s production.
While both players will be free agents this off-season, an important distinction must be made between these two expiring contracts and the Bird Rights that come with the acquisitions.
Ibaka’s free agency will be fairly straight forward, he can choose any team to sign with at any dollar value up to his max this off-season. He’ll likely command near-max money starting at more than $20 million a year.
Plumlee’s free agency has an important restriction. Like Ibaka, the other 29 teams also have the freedom to offer Plumlee a four-year deal up to his max. Plumlee could potentially fetch offers in excess of $15 million per year. The restriction and incentive of trading for Plumlee is that his most recent team (now the Nuggets) will have the right to match any contract he is offered in the summer. The Nuggets can now guarantee Plumlee stays put by matching. They not only traded for Plumlee the player and his Bird Rights, they traded for his matching rights.
It’s not exactly slave labor, but it is hard to not compare restricted free agency to indentured servitude. The Nuggets do, quite literally, own Plumlee’s services. He is restricted from playing for any team other than the Nuggets, so long as Denver management decides to pay the price.
The Timberwolves have their own restricted players: Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Karl-Anthony Towns, Tyus Jones, Kris Dunn, Nemanja Bjelica, and Shabazz Muhammad are all on rookie contracts and will become restricted free agents when their deals expire.
Adreian Payne is also on a rookie contract but the Wolves declined his rookie option immediately after old ass David West dunked on him.
These rules essentially require a first-round draft pick to stay with the team they are drafted by for their first eight years in the NBA if their team wants to keep them. And therefore having a player on a rookie contract is extremely valuable in today’s NBA.
The Incentive of Trading for an Unrestricted Free Agent
Unrestricted free agents also have Bird Rights.
Beyond the obvious need to rent a power forward this season, the Raptors had some additional incentive with Ibaka. When a team has a free agent’s Bird Rights (even unrestricted) they have the freedom to offer that player a salary that pushes the team over the salary cap. Had the Raptors not traded for Ibaka, but wanted to sign him in the off-season, they would have needed to clear space beneath the salary cap.
The Raptors may not be certain of keeping Ibaka if they so choose, but they have an internal leg up. This is why trading a serviceable shooting guard (Terrence Ross) and a first round pick makes sense for Toronto. That would have been a hefty price to pay had they just wanted to rent Ibaka. The Raptors paid this price because acquiring Ibaka came with his Bird Rights.
While the Raptors clearly had an incentive in trading for this unrestricted free agent, the same can not be said for the Wolves and their pursuit of a deadline deal. The Wolves should not trade for an unrestricted free agent.
Yes, Holiday is an upgrade at point guard, Gibson would be a great power forward next to KAT, Redick is an elite shooter, and P.J. Tucker is better than the entire Wolves starting lineup (combined) at defense. But the Wolves do not have an incentive to trade for an unrestricted free agent. Those players Bird Rights are of negligible value to the Wolves.
This is because, next season, the Wolves will be miles beneath the salary cap. This removes the value of being able to exceed the cap with the Bird Rights provision. If the Wolves want those players or any other unrestricted free agent, they should wait until the off-season when they would not need to give away an asset to sign the same player. While it might give them some advantage to get the player in for part of the season, it’s not enough to part with real assets to get them now.
Wait Dane, I thought you said not making moves at the deadline was boring...?
The Type of Player the Wolves Should Trade For
It’s not that the Wolves should swear off the pursuit of trading for a player by Thursday, the Wolves should target restricted free agents. For Minnesota, the incentive comes in finding players they can shackle to Minnesota, a la Plumlee in Denver.
If the core going forward is Towns, Wiggins, and LaVine the Wolves are not making a Video Game Trade at the deadline. Sorry. I know these names are not as sexy but they are impending restricted free agents and have added value in the Wolves context. If traded for, these players would give the Wolves the rights to match any offer they receive in the off-season. The Wolves would control these players, without being committed to them.
The downside of trading for impending RFAs is having to immediately invest in them to keep them going forward. But the Wolves will have cap room this summer, perhaps for the last time in a while, and remain unlikely to attract prominent UFAs, so this could be a good use of those funds. Hopefully, given that such players are approaching significant paydays will drive down their price in trade.
On the current roster, only Shabazz Muhammad is a restricted free agent. This makes him at least a somewhat valuable asset. The Wolves are not the only team with salary cap space—there are other teams drooling over the idea of acquiring restricted free agents.
While the Wolves certainly do not have an embarrassment of riches in the win column this year, they still do have a treasure chest of rookie contracts. Let’s not be the team with the “very low asking price” for their restricted free agent. That includes Tyus Jones.
And don’t trade Rubio, because I love him.