In this day and age, most NBA fans have executed a “trade” of some sort. Whether it’s in a fantasy league, video game or trade machine, modern fans can put their general-manager hat on and complete mock deals. For the most part, this has led to a better understanding about how trades work. For example, diehard fans are more informed when it comes to the Collective Bargaining Agreement, how salaries must line up in order for a trade to be completed, the value of certain assets and even how players deal with rumors since social media gives us a peek into their lives.
However, in talking to many general managers and other executives on the condition of anonymity, there are still many misconceptions about how deals get done in the NBA. We asked these individuals what it’s really like to be a front-office employee in today’s NBA and how trades actually get completed behind the scenes.
A lot of people work on every transaction
Every single executive that spoke to HoopsHype pointed out that the biggest misconception is that completing a trade is as simple as one general manager calling another general manager. That is sometimes the case, but teams have a lot of people working on most moves.
The general manager has help from the assistant GM, consultants, capologists, analytics experts, scouts and sometimes coaches. Ownership may also get involved, depending on the organization (and the significance of the deal). While the GM does wield a lot of power and is the figurehead for the front office, the other staffers are very important as well.
Capologists are always looking at other teams’ books and determining moves that could be made for salary reasons. For example, they’ll look around the league for expiring-contract players who may be available because their team is unlikely to pay them what they want this summer. They also monitor 10-day signings, open roster spots and teams that need to hit the salary floor so they can provide this crucial information to the GM and his staff. Sometimes, all of the specifics of a cap-inspired move will be worked out by the capologist, and the GM just makes the call and executes the trade. One GM said that his cap experts are constantly presenting him with potential moves that could free up cap space, open roster spots or add an ending contract, and he evaluates all of the different possibilities with his staff.
That staff also includes the analytics experts. The size (and clout) of the analytics team varies from organization to organization. However, in the modern NBA, most front offices value the opinion of their analytics team. These individuals are there to provide insight on potential acquisitions, while also scouring the league for “low-hanging fruit” – free agents or possible trade targets who may be undervalued, but could be a good fit with their team.
Scouts are also important, as they’re constantly gathering information about players and what other teams might do. Teams rarely want to show their hand, and GMs want as much information as they can get about other teams’ thinking and motivations. It’s not uncommon for a deal that gets completed to start with a lower-level executive getting some intel and passing it up the chain of command.
Even players who spent a long time on NBA rosters before taking a management position are typically surprised by the complexities of the front office. That’s because players rarely get a complete picture of what’s going on behind the scenes and it’s difficult for them to understand the value of certain things (like a trade exception or draft pick) until they’re on the other side.
Also, it’s important to remember that NBA players are people. Relationships behind the scenes can complicate a trade. When a fan is toying with the trade machine, they aren’t looking at each player as a human. Meanwhile, an executive may see someone who has a growing family, someone who has greatly helped team chemistry, someone who is an important leader in the locker room, someone who has more value to that organization than they would to another team in a trade, someone who has shown tremendous growth over the years or someone who may be just on the verge of breaking out and everyone around the organization sees it.
Some executives try to stay detached so that they can make the necessary moves and accurately value their players, but it’s important to remember that the biggest difference between this and, say, a fantasy-basketball trade is the real-world implications of the move.
Teams and agents leak information to the media for different reasons
Let’s make something clear: Nearly every executive would prefer if their trade talks didn’t leak to the media. Leaked discussions can upset a player (which teams go to great lengths to avoid) and affect the on-court product, while also devaluing assets and hurting a GM’s leverage.
Several general managers noted that there are some organizations that leak talks to the media almost immediately, so they will forgo discussing players with those teams unless it’s absolutely necessary. That means your favorite team may have missed out on moves just because they can’t keep quiet. Certain agents also have a reputation for leaking things, so they’re left in the dark when discussions involving their players are taking place.
Executives said that most trade conversations take place in-person or over the phone, since the information being discussed is too sensitive to text and that could lead to leaks. Several executives mentioned one team that is constantly sending text messages to ask about possible trades or gauge interest in their own players, but they made it clear that this organization is the exception and texting is rare.
So, why is information leaked to the press?
One general manager said that he has seen younger, lower-level executives leak things to the media because they hope it can help them down the road. They want to be GMs one day and they believe getting the media on their side can help them. Some executives will also trade information with the media, giving up intel in order to learn something else about a certain team or player.
However, most executives said that finding the source of the leak is usually as simple as looking at who benefits from the conversation being made public.
Every GM said that most leaks occur when a team is trying to generate a market for their own player or pick. One GM also noted that some teams will leak their own talks in hopes of souring a relationship between a player they’re pursuing and that individual’s club. The idea is to create distrust between the player and front office, which then increases the likelihood of a deal because the player is unhappy and may want out.
“For example, take the Boston Celtics,” said the GM. If he were the Celtics, he said he would be leaking that he had talks about Jimmy Butler, Blake Griffin, Paul George and other stars. Not only would this potentially increase the value of the Brooklyn Nets’ pick that Boston owns, it may help them land one of those stars if the player sees the rumor and is upset with his team.
“If this works, and I believe it has to some extent with Butler and Chicago’s front office, a guy who should be untradeable might actually get moved because there’s distrust,” the GM said.
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire
How often is the media accurate? Fans love rumors and reports, but how much of the stuff they’re consuming is correct?
Executives said that it depends on the source. For example, nearly every executive brought up Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical as being extremely accurate. If Woj reports something, he has it from strong sources and it’s rarely wrong. Zach Lowe of ESPN was also mentioned as being very reliable and having a good sense of what’s happening within a team he’s writing about. Several executives added that you can glean a lot of information about chemistry, a player’s mindset and what a front office is looking to do from the beat writers since they’re constantly around the team.
When it comes to reports from the top individuals who typically break news (such as Marc Stein, Sam Amick, Brian Windhorst, David Aldridge, Ramona Shelburne and Marc Spears among others), most GMs said some version of, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” Even if the report isn’t 100 percent right, there’s typically truth there. They’ve talked to someone in the know who told them the information. Maybe the conversation being referenced is outdated or the reported talks are blown out of proportion or the article is missing some context, but reports from legitimate sources are rarely completely off.
With that said, that missing context can make an “accurate” report seemingly inaccurate. Several executives expressed frustration about reports that indicate a team has “had internal discussions about a player” or that two teams had a “conversation” about a specific player. Those reports typically don’t tell the entire story. A team may have called about a player and got immediately shut down, but they technically had “a discussion.” And internal discussions about players happen all the time, with everyone from the GM to the cap experts to the analytics staff bringing up possible moves that could be made (as previously mentioned).
“You can say that about almost every player and while it’s technically true, it doesn’t mean anything,” said one frustrated executive “And teams won’t comment on these reports or shoot them down because it’s not worth it. If anything, that would just legitimize the rumor. So it just ends up being out there on Twitter.”
Social media has made the job tougher
That brings us to this next point: While Twitter provides information in real-time and has made every transactional period in the NBA more exciting for the media and fans, it has created a headache for most front-office staffers.
The main reason executives are bothered by Twitter is that it has made it harder and harder for players to ignore the constant barrage of rumors. Back in the day, they could remove themselves from the rumors by turning off the television or not reading the newspaper. Now, players (as well as their families and friends) may see their name mentioned in a report when they pick up their phone or tablet.
One GM said that social media has led to way more questions from players, agents and coaches about what conversations are actually taking place and which rumors are true.
And as we recently saw on social media, sometimes a simple tweet or a player following another player can become a story that the front office now has to deal with.
Take Isaiah Thomas’ above tweet from Monday. Local reporters pointed out that the last time Thomas had tweeted that emoji and nothing else was just before Al Horford agreed to join the Celtics. Did Thomas know something? Mike Zarren, Boston’s assistant general manager, summed up this craziness with his own tweet:
Executives said that this kind of thing happens very often – with players, agents and reporters reading into every little thing that occurs on social media. A leak that is tweeted out can also spread further than ever before and become a story. It’s also tougher to decide what they should shoot down or comment on, since there’s so much out there. Most front-office members look at Twitter as an annoyance that makes their job harder.
The trade deadline is the culmination of a lot of work
Front offices work year-round to gather information and find ways to improve their team. While each trade is often graded or judged in a vacuum, executives must have a long-term outlook and they are constantly making moves to set up other transactions down the road.
For example, one general manager pointed to a trade that his team made at a past deadline. He had been targeting the player he acquired for quite some time, and the deal was set up by many smaller transactions his team made in the year leading up the deadline.
Teams start gathering info on players during the pre-draft process when they interview prospects. Every year at the draft combine, there are a lot of reports about the teams that each prospect will meet with while in Chicago.
Well, there’s a few things to understand about this. First of all, teams won’t meet with a player who is going to come to their city for a workout and interview. When a team is meeting with a bunch of players seemingly out of their range, it’s because that’s the only time they’ll get a chance to talk to these players since they’ll have a hard time getting those guys into their facility. Many teams use their pre-draft interviews to start building a file on each player. This file is continually updated. For example, if a player changes teams in free agency, executives will call the team they departed to ask about the individual and learn more about what occurred behind closed doors. This is done so that, should the opportunity to add this player ever present itself, the team is prepared and understand who they’re bringing in.
Teams are talking year-round. One executive walked through the different stages of “talks.” Early in the season, nobody wants to show their hand and executives want to see how their team will perform. Then, as the season progresses, conversations become more frequent and an executive will get a better idea of which players can be had and which teams are interested in their players. When the trade deadline comes around, teams are often picking up a previous conversation rather than starting a new one altogether.
Also, when a team is shopping a player, they are selective about the teams they’ll call. Not only is this done to prevent leaks, but a general manager pointed out that calling every team can devalue your asset and hurt your leverage since it’s clear that you’re moving the player.
That’s why there are instances where you’ll hear executives get frustrated that they weren’t called before a trade is completed. This most recently occurred when the Sacramento Kings traded DeMarcus Cousins to the New Orleans Pelicans. Several teams that were interested in Cousins weren’t contacted because owner Vivek Ranadive felt that New Orleans’ offer was the best available and it would get worse if they waited and talked to other teams. (Rival executives disagree, with the general consensus being that the Kings took a relatively weak offer and that the Pelicans’ offer would’ve still been on the table if Sacramento had weighed other options, but that’s another article for another day).
This is also why relationships between specific executives is important. It’s no coincidence that we often see the same teams trade with one another. Executives talk to their friends more often, which means there are more trade conversations as well. There’s also the trust that things won’t be leaked to the media and, as one executive said, “there won’t be any foul play.”
One example of so-called “foul play” is rather humorous and well-known among league circles. Years ago, an executive believed that he had the necessary pieces to acquire Amar’e Stoudemire from the Phoenix Suns. He wanted to trade for Stoudemire and then flip him to another team because he felt he could get more in return for Stoudemire than Phoenix could. He started calling teams to ask what they’d be willing to trade him if he could get Stoudemire. Well, he accidentally called the Suns and asked what they’d be willing to give up if he could acquire Stoudemire… from the Suns. He offered Phoenix their own player. Needless to say, that executive did not acquire Stoudemire.
Relationships matter. There’s usually an agenda (but some truth) when something is reported. Trades are more complex than they seem. Leaks can be deployed as a weapon, but they may hurt that team in the long run. As Thursday’s NBA trade deadline approaches, these are some things to keep in mind.
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