NBA Trade Demands: Part One – The Selfless And The Selfish

  • By Alex Bab
  • March 1, 2021
  • 0
Alex Bab

After a recent game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Golden State Warriors’ forward Draymond Green was speaking to reporters. Unsurprisingly (this being Draymond Green and all), he had some things to say.

“To watch Andre Drummond, before the game, sit on the sidelines, then go to the back, and to come out in street clothes because a team is going to trade him, it’s bulls***, because when James Harden asks for a trade and essentially dogged it… no one is going to fight back that James was dogging it his last days in Houston – but he was castrated for wanting to go to a different team. And everybody destroyed that man.

“And yet a team can come and say, ‘Oh, we want to trade a guy.’ And then that guy is to go sit. And if he doesn’t stay professional, then he’s a cancer. And he’s not good in someone’s locker room, and he’s the issue.”

Green is referring to the Cleveland Cavaliers’ decision to not play center Andre Drummond while they attempt to find a trade partner for him. In Green’s calling out of the double-standard applied to NBA players versus NBA ownership, he brings up James Harden requesting a trade from the Houston Rockets earlier this season.

Much has already been written about whether Green is right or not. Is there a double-standard for teams and players when it comes to trades?

Absolutely. But the story doesn’t end there.

When viewed as a whole, the situation brings up some interesting questions regarding trade demands in the NBA. We’ve seen them before and we will see them again. With that understanding, do we view them as good or bad? And why do we view them as we do? Lastly, is there a way to change the current power structure?

So over the next three articles, I’ll try to answer all of that.


Are Trade Demands Inherently Good Or Bad For Basketball?

If you’ve read any of my previous work on this site, you’ll know I love a good, complicated, nuanced basketball question like this one.

I’ve mentioned before that I try to view everything through the lens of a simple quote: “In and of itself, nothing really matters. What matters is that nothing is ever in and of itself.” ­– Chuck Klostermann

Context always matters in everything. And when you accept that, it makes it hard to say anything is ever inherently anything. The answer is always; it depends.

To determine whether trade demands are inherently more often good or bad for basketball, we have to first look back at some previous trade demands and ask ourselves a few other questions.


Are Players Selfish For Demanding Trades?

That entirely depends on the situation (this will become a running theme). If you examine some trade demands of yesteryear, you can easily find examples of players behaving selfishly.

We’ll start with one that hits close to home for me: Carmelo Anthony’s trade demand in 2011 that eventually saw him dealt from the Denver Nuggets to the New York Knicks.

Full disclosure, I’m New York born and raised and have always been a Knick fan. This trade demand still makes me angry.

Why, because ultimately, Anthony’s time here was pointless. And at least some of that was his fault, starting with the demand to be traded from Denver.

At the start of the 2010-2011 season, Anthony made it clear he wanted out of Denver and that his preferred destination was New York. He was already on a competitive Denver team that had made the Western Conference Finals just two years prior. Still, Anthony wanted to head East.

By February of 2011, Anthony got what he wanted. He was traded to New York in exchange for Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Timofey Mozgov, Danilo Gallinari and a 2014 first round draft pick and two additional second round picks.  Along with Anthony, Denver also sent Chauncey Billups, Renaldo Balkman, Sheldon Williams and Anthony Carter to the Knicks.

That’s a lot of moving parts for one deal. But why was it selfish? Because Anthony’s contract with Denver was expiring just a few months later. He could have simply signed with the Knicks as a free agent over the summer.

However, by being traded to the Knicks, he was able to sign a more lucrative extension in New York than what he could have gotten as a free agent, as the NBA salary structure rewards players for remaining with their current team.

So Anthony wanted to go to New York for monetary reasons. Now, part of me doesn’t want to fault players for getting their money. But at the same time, when you make a strictly financial decision that actively hurts a franchise in a team sport, there’s no other word for that than selfish.

Of course, the Knicks and Nuggets bear blame here as well for acquiescing to the demand. But still, Anthony could have just waited.

Sure, he got his money. But it cost the Knicks a very talented player in Gallinari, plus solid role players in Felton and Chandler. And Mozgov was a prospect who went on to do some really good things for other franchises. Yes, the Knicks got Billups back in the deal, but he was past his prime at that point and not part of any long term plan.

Had Anthony just waited until the summer, the Knicks could have signed him without losing anything. If they could have figured out the salary cap to retain Gallinari, the frontcourt combination of Anthony, Gallinari and Amare Stoudemire would have given opposing defenses fits.

So Anthony made a selfish move to get his money and mired in mediocrity because of it. He left a contender for a bad team. So, yes, it was definitely self-serving but he also suffered the consequences.

This is also why I refused to feel bad for Anthony last year when he couldn’t find a team for a while. He had his chance to be on a contender in his prime and chose money instead.

But he isn’t the only example. Let’s look more recently at Paul George in 2019.

After spending one season with the Oklahoma City Thunder,George forced a trade to the Los Angeles Clippers. George had signed a four year extension with the Thunder just a year prior in 2018.

When George was a free agent in 2018, it was heavily speculated that he would go to Los Angeles (his hometown) to sign with either the Clippers or the Lakers. It took the NBA world by surprise when he decided instead to sign a max extension with Oklahoma City. The Thunder made a long term, highly expensive investment into George and one year later he forced his way out.

Like Anthony before him, this was a selfish move. George took the higher money deal with the Thunder but his sights were always set on Los Angeles. Unlike Anthony, George didn’t just get his money but he got himself onto a contender as well. The Thunder were just collateral damage.

Not all selfish moves are created equal. George’s move was selfish but it was also clever.

Based on those examples, one would assume that trade demands are inherently bad but there’s proof of the opposite as well.


 Can Trade Demands Be Unselfish?

Simply put, yes.

There’s examples of this throughout NBA history but to keep it contemporary, let’s take a look at the cases of Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard.

In January 2019, Anthony Davis informed the New Orleans Pelicans he would not sign a contract extension the following summer and requested that they trade him. He made the request public and the NBA subsequently fined him $50,000 for it (more on this in part three). He did finish out the season with the Pelicans and was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers the following July.

So what makes Davis’ request unselfish when compared to those of Carmelo Anthony or Paul George?

For one, the Pelicans failed Davis. Since coming into the league in 2012, Davis had been nothing short of phenomenal. He played at a near MVP level almost every season. But the Pelicans failed to surround him with the right supporting pieces for true title contention.

Sound familiar? This is the same reason LeBron James infamously took his “talents to south beach” in 2010. However, James left in free agency, meaning the Cleveland Cavaliers got nothing in return for him. Davis notified the Pelicans of his intention to leave, giving them the opportunity to get assets back in return.

And the Pelicans got an outright haul. The Lakers sent Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart and three first round draft picks to the Pelicans for Davis. So the Pelicans got the pieces to start a rebuild and the Lakers got a running-mate for LeBron James. Everyone won.

Davis didn’t make a promise and quickly try to find out a way out, like George did with the Thunder. He wasn’t on a contending team like Anthony was in Denver. The situation wasn’t benefiting either team or player at that point. George and Anthony shafted their teams, Davis helped his while also helping himself.

Now let’s look at Kawhi Leonard.

Leonard was originally drafted by the San Antonio Spurs. Not a household name on draft night, he quickly developed into a two-way force. One championship, one Finals MVP and two Defensive Player of the Year awards later, he appeared to be the heir to Tim Duncan.

In December 2017 Leonard suffered a quadriceps injury that lingered on and off throughout the season. In March 2018 the Spurs’ medical staff cleared him to play but Leonard wanted a second opinion. This led to tension between Leonard and the organization. He did not play again in 2018.

The following June it was reported that Leonard requested a trade. The next month it was granted, as he and teammate Danny Green were sent to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poltl and a first round draft pick.

So was that selfish?

Imagine in your own job you were injured. Your job sends you to a doctor that works for your employers. That doctor tells you that you’re fine to return to work but you don’t feel that you are physically ready to do so. You try to seek a second, independent opinion and your job still gives you a hard time, telling you they know your body better than you do.

Wouldn’t you look for a new place of employment?

I know I would, and for that reason, I can’t view Leonard’s trade request as selfish. He felt the Spurs’ organization did not have his best interests at heart and sought employment elsewhere. There’s a way to paint that as selfish, there’s also a way to paint that as dismissive and heartless by the Spurs.

Which leads to our ultimate question for part one…


Are Trade Demands Good Or Bad For The NBA?

Guess what? It depends!

When Carmelo Anthony demanded his trade, that didn’t work out for the NBA. A competitive Denver Nugget team lost an elite star and what they got in return didn’t equal what they lost. They were a middle of the pack team for years and became not a significant draw for fans.

The Knicks become marginally more relevant because Anthony was worth covering but still were an overall below average team. The league was not better for this trade.

When Paul George demanded his trade from Oklahoma City, the NBA broke about even. His trade had a domino effect in that the Thunder went to a full rebuild and quickly traded franchise cornerstone Russell Westbrook to the Houston Rockets. The Thunder’s relevancy would dwindle over the next two seasons.

However, the Clippers became a major story as they were fast tracked to title contention. And if you ask NBA officials off the record, they’d rather have the contending team in Los Angeles than Oklahoma City. So overall, this one benefitted the league.

Kawhi Leonard’s did as well. In his one and only season in Toronto, he lead them to an NBA title and dethroned the Golden State Warriors’ dynasty in the process. It gave the league one of its best stories and greatly increased the NBA profile in Canada.

In Anthony Davis’ case, the league improved greatly. Certain franchises being competitive is always good for the league and maybe none more so than the Lakers. Davis and James delivered a title to Los Angeles in their first season together. The fact that this occurred in the same season as the tragic passing of Kobe Bryant only made the story that much more compelling.

Additionally, Brandon Ingram flourished in New Orleans, becoming an All-Star. Lonzo Ball became a key rotational piece and the Pelicans landed Zion Williamson in the draft. They became a team even casual fans want to watch, which is a better place than they were in at any point during Davis’ tenure. Everything about this trade demand was good for the NBA.

Overall, trade demands are probably more helpful than harmful to the NBA. Part of the NBA is a soap-opera, even if some don’t want to admit it. Players demanding trades, getting moved from place to place is all part of the fun. And in a lot of cases, the end result is more teams that can be legitimately competitive.

Regardless of that truth, any time a player requests a trade, there will be those who go to the same old argument. Some iteration of “you signed a contract, you honor it.” There are many willing to die on that hill even though we all know life is more complex than that.

We’ll get into why that mentality still persists (and how it’s changing) in part two.

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