If you got dizzy this week keeping track of all the NBA player movement ahead of Thursday’s trade deadline, you’re not alone. Even Twitter experienced some hiccups (#TwitterDown), but luckily, the platform recovered just in time for Adrian Wojnarowski to avoid having to drop his eponymous bombs over LinkedIn.
A Record-Setting Day of Deals
Twelve trades were made on Thursday, involving 50 players. Twenty-four of the league’s 30 teams made a deal, narrowly surpassing the all-time high from two years ago. If you include the several preceding days, only the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers failed to make a move.
The frequency of deadline deals has gradually increased over the years. There have now been double-digit transactions in the days before the deadline in each of the last six seasons, after that happened just three times between 1987 and 2017. This season, however, unusual parity created a perfect storm for high activity. Many teams simultaneously believed to be one addition away from contending or one subtraction away from improving their draft lottery odds. Generational prospect Victor Wembanyama, who is widely expected to be the first pick of this year's draft, provided a strong incentive for mediocre teams such as the Utah Jazz to sell.
Notably, teams in the middle of the Eastern Conference were the least active. The spread in the standings between the fourth seed and 13th seed in the East is 11.5 games, as opposed to just five in the West. Perhaps the Cavaliers, as well as the Miami Heat and Atlanta Hawks, didn’t see enough upside in competing with the likes of the Boston Celtics for the conference title, but also realized they couldn’t out-tank the Charlotte Hornets.
What’s With All the Second-Round Picks?
The strangest trend of the deadline was the second-round draft pick becoming the NBA’s cryptocurrency—all of a sudden you can buy things with it and nobody’s quite sure why. Never before had more than 15 second-round picks been traded on deadline day, and yet 37 of them were traded on Thursday.
The simplest explanation is that many teams were significantly hampered in their ability to trade first-round picks. The Stepien Rule forces teams to keep at least one first-round pick in every other future draft over the next seven years (teams can’t trade picks more than seven years out). To make matters more difficult, many traded picks have protections that conditionally cause them to roll over, meaning that one traded first-rounder could block off several years.
The Milwaukee Bucks, for example, traded their 2023 first-round pick for P.J. Tucker and their 2025 and 2027 picks for Jrue Holiday a few years ago. They may simply not have wanted to trade their 2029 pick in order to maintain flexibility, so they paid the Brooklyn Nets five second-rounders to get wing Jae Crowder. The Denver Nuggets, similarly, dealt three second-rounders for backup center Thomas Bryant because they had no first-rounders to trade.
Since superstars have gotten more expensive in recent seasons, a large handful of teams have cashed in most or all of their chips already, such as the Minnesota Timberwolves (for Rudy Gobert) and Philadelphia 76ers (for James Harden). Once the market for second-rounders was set by those teams, others followed suit. Why give away a first-round pick when you don’t have to?
Second-round picks are low percentage—about a quarter of selections from the 2017, 2018 and 2019 drafts are still in rotations this season—but you can also find a Jalen Brunson, a Draymond Green, or even an MVP in Nikola Jokic there. With the pool of talent entering the league as deep as ever, teams were more than willing to dump salary and buy a few scratch-offs in return.
The Biggest Mid-Season Trade in Recent Memory
Since 2012, only three players (including James Harden twice) had been traded in the middle of an All-Star year. The Phoenix Suns added Kevin Durant during the middle of a potential All-NBA first team season.
It is also rare, however, that a big mid-season shake-up leads to an immediate ring. Of the 33 NBA champions since 1990, only five have even acquired significant rotation players during the season, and none added a then-All-Star during the campaign. But if there’s any star who can seamlessly fit in and put a team over the top despite a lack of continuity, it’s Durant.
With Durant, one thing is for sure: The Suns are going to shoot a lot of long twos. By teaming Durant with Chris Paul and Devin Booker, they now employ three of the four NBA players with the most long mid-range makes since the 2018-19 season, per PBP Stats. Curmudgeonly anti-analytics folks would see a Suns title as a victory, despite not understanding that mid-range shot attempts are actually supported by analytics when a player of Durant’s caliber is shooting them.
Initially, the Suns added $8.8 million of salary, which would have bumped their projected 2022-23 luxury tax bill up from $35.5 million to $67.6 million. Later, however, they moved Dario Saric to shed salary, and ended the day at $48.8 million, outside of the top five teams, per Spotrac.
The Golden State Warriors joined the last-ditch cost-saving effort and got their bill down from $170.2 million to $162 million (which is still more than any other franchise has ever paid). The Los Angeles Clippers shuffled pieces around to reduce theirs, while the Philadelphia 76ers avoided the tax altogether.
The Brooklyn Nets were the biggest financial winners, miraculously cutting their bill from roughly $108 million all the way down to $12.4 million through the combination of the Durant deal, excising Kyrie Irving and a few smaller transactions.
Overall, though, teams are still projected to spend more than $600 million on the luxury tax this year, the most in NBA history. Seven of the nine teams with 16-to-1 odds or better to win the title, according to DraftKings, are over the tax threshold. There’s a price to winning, and more teams are paying it than ever.