As the hours, and then minutes slipped away before Thursday's NBA trade deadline, the reality of a new world bore down on the people who build the teams and make the trades. They were far from the boardrooms and marble lobbies and fine china of the 2011 NBA lockout, but now they were dealing with the consequences. Nowhere was that pressure pushing down harder than on the shoulders of Hawks general manager Danny Ferry, the latest NBA executive to find himself in a stare down with a star looking to leave town. Ferry's been here before, of course, and lost the most crushing defeat in the history of free agency when LeBron James left Cleveland for Miami in 2010.
As the old joke goes, I've met Josh Smith, and he's no LeBron James. Whether Ferry will be the loser in this stare down won't be known until July, when Smith almost assuredly will walk away from the only team he's ever known to sign with one of the many teams with cap space. It won't be known until well beyond that, when we see what Ferry does with the league-high $36 million in cap room he'll have this summer after Smith walks away.
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Look at the Cavs now, nearly three years after LeBron left, as they rise from the ashes with the next megastar of the league, 20-year-old Kyrie Irving. There are no guarantees in basketball free agency, on either side of it. There are only unknowns, and a lot more of them now than ever before.
There has been a cosmic shift among the parties who negotiated the new labor deal that ruined Thursday's trade deadline. David Stern is retiring next February, long before the next deal will be negotiated in 2017, long before the next inevitable work stoppage. His bargaining adversary, Billy Hunter, has been ousted by the players and finds himself ensnared in a serious criminal investigation on three fronts.
In their wake, they left a completely different model for how players will change teams in the NBA, one that shrewd owners like Mark Cuban and general managers like Sam Presti anticipated months or even years ago. Everyone laughed when Cuban broke up a championship team by letting Tyson Chandler go to the Knicks. Everyone's jaw dropped when Presti traded James Harden to the Rockets. But now Cuban's team is one of a handful in the catbird's seat, unconstrained by the tax penalties and other restrictions that will mercilessly be placed on teams who continue to do it the old way. Presti keeps gaming the system, like he did Thursday in acquiring a trade exception from Portland for Eric Maynor -- a $2.4 million placeholder that effectively extends Maynor's usefulness to the team long beyond his days in a Thunder uniform.
This is how business is done now in the NBA. No blockbuster trades in February. Few, if any teams are willing to absorb future salary, which would clog up their books and restrict access to tools needed to improve their rosters. Nobody is willing to give up draft picks as incentive to move a contract or rent a player for the stretch run. No more Monopoly money.
What Stern, Hunter, Adam Silver and the rest accomplished two summers ago became as clear as daylight Thursday. They turned the NBA into the NFL -- the No Fun League -- when it comes to the trades and in-season player movement. No more stars forcing trades to the markets of their choosing with the reward of max dollars forming the cherry on top.
"This is a pure CBA deadline," one general manager said Thursday after the dust settled. "If you can't get a first for J.J. Redick, this is a different world. That guy is a surefire lock to garner a first round pick in the past."
Maybe this is part of the reason so many agents and players have turned on Hunter, who presided over this erosion of their free-agent and trade-deadline Romper Room. Who your agent is and where you insist on being traded won't matter as much anymore. What will matter is the draft -- picks are more coveted than ever -- not to mention smart, long-term planning, player development and scouting. There's no more running up the credit card bill and then dumping it on the next guy, who will in turn dump it on somebody else. Everyone, every team, has to do the work now -- has to scout well, draft well, develop players and build.
Like the NFL. Like the model that Silver, the NBA's lead negotiator, so admired.
"That's an astute observation," another executive said Thursday when I told him that the CBA had killed the trade deadline. And it had. Twelve trades over the past two days, and none of them relevant in the traditional way trades have been evaluated.
The smartest ones of the day? In no particular order, the Bucks acquiring Redick for three role players instead of a first-round pick and the Thunder turning Maynor -- a solid backup who was essentially out of the rotation -- into a future asset that can be used to add a player without giving up any of their own and without triggering the dreaded consequences of the new luxury-tax rules. If the Thunder had kept Maynor beyond the deadline, they would've lost him for nothing because they couldn't afford to pay him. This way, the life of the asset is extended and can be parlayed into another asset when the time is right.
The best deal that wasn't made? A tie among the Bucks, Rockets and Mavericks for not surrendering significant assets for Smith, who can simply walk to any of those cities this summer as an unrestricted free agent.
According to someone who spoke with him Thursday, Smith wasn't surprised or disappointed he wasn't traded, but simply "relieved it was over." The chance of him re-signing with Atlanta this summer isn't zero -- we don't know who the coach will be, whether Jeff Teague will be back, what other upgrades Ferry can make to the roster -- but it's close.
"That's the conversation that will be had," the person said. "That's what it's going to boil down to. Josh is motivated by winning, not just by money."
Whether he has a better chance of winning in Houston, Dallas, Philadelphia or Utah, or whether the Hawks have a better chance of winning without him, we shall see. But as the deadline bore down on Ferry Thursday, the decision not to trade Smith ended up being a pretty easy one.
There was no haul of multiple first-round picks or a wealth of young players ready to land in Ferry's lap. Actually, sources said the Bucks' offer for Smith wasn't much different from the offer that landed them Redick from Orlando. Milwaukee was willing to sweeten the deal with Ekpe Udoh and a first-round pick, but none of the Bucks' key players was included, according to a person briefed on the talks.
Now, Smith will be a test case for something that has not happened in the recent free-agent exodus, from LeBron to Carmelo Anthony to Dwight Howard: Will someone finally take a shorter deal and less money to go play where he wants? LeBron and Carmelo didn't, and Howard is set up to get his five-year max deal from the Lakers this summer.
Smith isn't in that category, but he's an important player who will find a home – a guinea pig of sorts for this new world order in the NBA. Times have changed and the trade deadline might be dead, but the product has a chance to be better for it in the long run.