What: NBA trade deadline for the 2020-21 season
Day: Thursday, March 25
Time: NOON AZ time
The Phoenix Suns are currently 28-14 with the league’s fourth-best record, and are one of only a half-dozen teams with any real shot at an NBA championship — if all goes perfectly. They would need a couple of other teams to play poorly or be missing key players at playoff time, while they themselves remain perfectly healthy and productive. And even then, a LOT has to go right for the Suns to get their first trophy in 54 years of existence.
To give themselves a better chance at this year’s title, the Suns would have to improve on the current roster in a significant way. Trouble is, that is not easy to do in the middle of a season. Rosters are set. Twenty out of thirty teams will make at least a play-in tourney. Right now, only about five teams are accepting their lottery fate. Because of that, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski says very few teams are interesting in trading their best players to the highest bidder.
But miracles can happen. Teams can make that one final mid-season trade to put them over the top. The Nets went all in by acquiring a dogging-it James Harden in December to give them three Hall of Fame players in their prime. Harden may be the first player ever to go from malcontent for one team to league MVP for another in the same season. The Nets now have the best odds to win a ring in 2021.
Has anyone TRULY made that big mid-season trade to put them over the top?
The Lakers did it in 2008 by getting Pau Gasol midseason, leading to three straight Finals and two championships (2009 and 2010).
The Pistons did it in 2004 by acquiring Rasheed Wallace midseason, leading to a championship that same year.
But that’s it. Twice in the last 20 years. Maybe three, after we see what the Nets do.
Oh sure, other mid-season trades have helped teams go deeper in the playoffs than they might have otherwise. But only the 2004 Pistons and 2008 Lakers in the last 20 years have gotten a ring after completing a big, team-shaping midseason trade.
Why? Because chemistry is a real thing. GMs are reluctant to shake up a team that’s rolling in the middle of a season. In fact, you could make the case that the bigger deals usually result in equal or lesser value in the current season.
The Suns have a conundrum. On one hand, this could possibly be Chris Paul’s last All-Star level hurrah so they should feel the urge to go “all in”. But on the other hand, aside from Chris Paul this team has the core of a very good long-term future that could be blown to bits in the name of proven veterans.
Will the Suns make a big mid-season trade to improve their team on paper and cross their fingers that chemistry won’t be ruined?
Or will they stand pat and see what happens with the current team? Or at best, work around the edges to improve the 10th man in the rotation?
We will find out by noon on Thursday.
In the meantime, while you rosterbate to your heart’s content, please review this primer on the league’s trade rules and how that impacts the Suns.
Salary matching is a real thing. If you want a big-money player without giving up one of the Suns most important rotation pieces, you need to understand the rules on this.
The Suns and just about every other team in the league are over the cap but under the ‘tax’, so these rules apply on both sides.
Clear as mud? The easiest way to check your math is to use one of those online trade machines because they have all the rules built in.
Note: What those machines do NOT guarantee is common sense. Just because you CAN match salaries doesn’t mean both teams will want to say yes to the deal.
Every team is allowed up 15 players at a time. Under no circumstances can this be ignored once the season starts. The Suns have 15 players right now, after acquiring Torrey Craig last week, just like almost every other team.
That means you need to do body-for-body trades, unless a team has (or creates) an open spot, like the Bucks just did in the Craig trade because all the Suns sent back was cash.
Sometimes cash is all you need, but the Suns used some of their cash to acquire Torrey Craig this week (just under $2 million). Teams cannot exceed $5.6 million in cash going out in trades, and can only be used to make the salary matching work.
First round draft picks
Oftentimes, a real pure sweetener to a lop-sided player trade is the inclusion of future draft picks. The Bucks got Jrue Holiday in the offseason for pocket lint players because they included a half-dozen future first round picks in the deal (three true firsts, and three swaps)!
There are some rules:
- you can trade a future pick, either unprotected or protected by certain conditions
- you can give the receiving team the right to “swap” picks with you, if yours ends up higher in the draft that future year
- you cannot trade a pick that’s more than seven years in the future (ie. beyond 2028)
- you cannot trade consecutive future picks (i.e. 2021 and 2022)
- you cannot trade a pick you’ve already traded, even if it’s only conditional
Because of that last rule, it will be hard for the Suns to trade any firsts for a while.
The Suns have committed a future first round pick to Oklahoma City, but the conditions on that ONE pick ties up all their picks from 2022-2025. In the Chris Paul trade, the Suns committed their first round pick to Oklahoma City protected for selections 1-12 in 2022, 1-10 in 2023 and 1-8 in 2024 and unprotected in 2025. Since it’s possible the Suns could finish poorly each year and keep all those protected picks, the pick might not convey to OKC until 2025 when it becomes unprotected.
And since you cannot trade picks two years in a row, their first unencumbered pick is 2027 and their next one is...not available since teams can only trade picks through 2028 this year.
Yes, the Suns can offer a “swap” of 2021 first round picks with a suitor as a sweetener in a trade, but their own 2021 first is projected to be one of the worst in the whole draft. What team wants to swap their (likely better) pick with the Suns this year.
Yes, the Suns could re-negotiate with OKC to remove or reduce protections to ensure that pick conveys to OKC earlier, but if you’re OKC why would you accept any offer to reduce? The further away from Chris Paul being good, the better the chance you get a really good pick from the Suns who have a recent history of misery. And since OKC already has a gobton of picks in the next three years, there’s little need to speed up the Suns pick. And if you’re the Suns, do you really want to remove pick protections 2+ years down the road for a 35-year old player?
And yes, the Suns could include language in a new trade that says ‘two years after the OKC pick conveys’, which could come as early as 2024, but the Suns cannot add a second first-rounder to the deal because teams are not allowed to commit future picks in trades more than seven years in the future (i.e. 2028 is the last one allowed to be traded right now, and the Suns cannot trade a second pick till the 2029 one). If you’re Orlando, for example, and you know the Suns picked inside the top-8 for YEARS before this, why would you assume the pick would come any earlier than 2027 anyway?
Technically the Suns can promise to trade an earlier pick than 2027 by Thursday afternoon, but I have a hard time seeing another team wanting to accommodate them, OKC, or otherwise.
Second round picks
The Suns have already committed their 2021 second round pick from an earlier trade, but they can trade any and all second round picks from 2022 on. These picks don’t hold a lot of value, but some value is better than no value at all.
Back to player-for-player trades. Take a look at the Suns cap sheet below. They cannot bring back a big-salary player unless they aggregate a lot of small salaries together or trade one or more of their big-time rotation players. Only their two All-Stars make more than $10.02 million, and all five of the players making more than $4.25 million are huge parts of the current rotation.
The Suns inability to send out good draft picks and their probable reluctance to send out current mid-level roster players leaves them with the bottom of the barrel on salary options.
The Suns probable best offer this week is Jevon Carter, Jalen Smith and a 2027 (or maayyyyybe earlier) first-round pick. That might get you a player that makes around $10 million this year, considering the required salary matching. And only if the receiving team either sends back a second player or releases one.
That’s your trade deadline primer, folks.
What’s your best deal?