But over the past month, several of the most high-profile NBA deals didn't feel like they had much art involved. They were more like blunt-force trauma. In retrospect, 2019 could be remembered as the league's summer of leverage.
In the span of just a couple of weeks, we saw some of the most expensive trades in the history of American sports, with players working teams and teams working each other. It's quite a study:
Scenario A: The Pelicans-Lakers dance
Anthony Davis moved first. He demanded a trade and ultimately gave only two destinations: the New York Knicks or the Los Angeles Lakers. This isn't a new scenario; this has happened before and will happen again. Typically, this leaves the team with the disgruntled star in a compromised position because it can't create a market.
But not in the summer of leverage.
First, the New Orleans Pelicans established a position in which they didn't prefer to do business with the Lakers, barely even acknowledging their initial trade offers last winter.
Then New Orleans got lucky in the lottery, not just in getting the No. 1 pick, but in the Knicks and Lakers both securing picks in the top four. This created prime assets to build a trade around that hadn't previously existed. It generated at least the appearance of a possible bidding war.
While no one knew for sure what would happen in free agency, both the Lakers and the Pelicans were aware that top free agents weren't targeting the Lakers as a top choice. Meanwhile, Los Angeles team president Magic Johnson had resigned and gone on national television and ripped general manager Rob Pelinka, launching a cascade of criticism. Pelinka and team owner Jeanie Buss were under intensifying pressure to deliver a star this summer.
Then the Pelicans manufactured a deadline, saying they needed to execute the deal a week before the draft to do proper preparations. This gave the appearance of increasing the heat on the Lakers to make their best possible offer to close, even if it seemed specious. The Pelicans made another deal on the day of the draft with the Atlanta Hawks, acquiring three more picks, and had no issues needing extra time to evaluate the players they selected in that transaction.
All this piled together was how new vice president David Griffin was able to pull three young players -- Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart -- plus three first-round picks and a pick swap out of the Lakers. Even with the Knicks, cognizant of their own stated plan of building through the draft, unwilling to go too deep into the bidding.
In the end, the Lakers got the star player, which in the NBA often is the most important thing. The premium price they paid considering the circumstance was totally stunning -- at least for a couple of weeks.
Scenario B: The Durant sign-and-trade
For the past three years, the Golden State Warriors have been teased about owner Joe Lacob's quote in the New York Times about the team being "light-years ahead" of its competition. In fairness, the Warriors generally have been ahead of the game, both on the floor and at the ticket office. However, not this time.
The Brooklyn Nets had enough cap space to sign Kevin Durant outright, and there was no specific advantage for Durant to take part in a sign-and-trade deal to help the Warriors out. Nor was it that great an advantage to Nets free agent D'Angelo Russell, who had other teams, including the Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves, vying for him, knowing that the Nets would have to make him an unrestricted free agent to complete the Durant signing.
As a result, there were a series of squeezes put on the Warriors, a position with which they are not at all familiar. First, Durant initially balked at being traded for Russell straight up, multiple sources said. He didn't think it was a fair deal, and in this case, the Warriors had to not just satisfy the Nets, but also Durant.
Leverage was applied by the player, and Golden State had to include a first-round pick before Durant would agree to sign off. The Warriors begrudgingly gave it up and did so with a heavy condition: If the pick falls within the top 20 next year, they don't have to send it, and instead will only give Brooklyn a second-round pick ... in six years. It's one of the most unusual pick protections the NBA has seen recently.
Also, the Warriors had to take on two players, Shabazz Napier and Treveon Graham to make the trade work. It helped the Nets clear extra space to sign DeAndre Jordan, who is friends with Durant and new teammate Kyrie Irving. Golden State had to turn around and pay Minnesota $3.6 million to take Napier and Graham off its books.
Then it was the Memphis Grizzlies' turn. Knowing the Warriors were salary-crunched because the sign-and-trade triggered a hard cap for them, the Grizzlies used leverage when the Warriors needed to move Andre Iguodala off their books.
Iguodala is still a desired player, and given time to flush out a market, Golden State might have been able to trade him and get back some value and save money. But with no time and few options, the Grizzlies treated Iguodala like he was a toxic asset and made the Warriors give up a lightly protected 2024 first-round pick -- when Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson might be out of their primes -- plus $2 million in cash to take on the last year of the contact.
When it was done, the Warriors had given up two first-round picks and $5.6 million in cash for the right to sign Russell -- a player they might or might not even end up keeping long term -- to a four-year, $117 million contract.
It was preferable to losing Durant for nothing, and it might help keep them a contender next season. But after doling out plenty of beatings over the past five years, the Warriors were on the lower ground for a change.
Scenario C: The Kawhi-Paul George partnership
Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar pioneered players leveraging themselves to destinations. LeBron James took it to a new level. Kawhi Leonard just earned a Ph.D.
In a 12-month span, Leonard forced his way out of San Antonio, persuaded Paul George to demand a trade off a team to which he had just made a long-term pledge and then cornered the LA Clippers into the most asset-heavy trade in league history to acquire them both.
Then in a cherry-on-top maneuver, Leonard agreed only to sign a three-year contract -- with a player option in Year 3 -- to help maximize his earnings while also retaining maximum influence on the franchise. George amplified his power position in the process because he too only has two seasons left on his deal.
But like with the other moves this summer, it was a multilayered leverage play. After being handed the unfortunate news that George wanted a trade, Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti turned the screws on the Clippers.
Presti, fairly or not, has been criticized for years for his return in trading future MVP James Harden to the Houston Rockets in 2012. In that scenario, it seemed, Presti wasn't able to maximize his leverage. This time around, he made sure that wouldn't be the case again and perhaps laid the groundwork to remove that blemish from his record.
The Thunder realized they weren't just trading the Clippers George, they were trading them the idea of George and Leonard. With the Lakers and Toronto Raptors there as viable alternatives for Leonard, the Clippers had no choice but to bid against themselves.
But there was one more issue at hand. The Clippers had been waiting for two years for this moment, aligning their cap space and assets to be in position. With the free-agent market much shallower in 2020 and all the other top free agents for 2019 off the board, team owner Steve Ballmer had no interest in waiting. Not to mention, the Clippers couldn't fathom letting their rivals in the same building create a superteam.
Just like when he blew his deep competition out of the water when he came over the top to write a $2 billion check to buy the Clippers in 2014, armed with a deep cache of assets, Ballmer came over the top to close this deal, as well. All in one moment, it was both a horrible and yet a once-in-a-generation position for the Thunder.
Presti pushed until he got the record five first-round picks, two pick swaps, plus Danilo Gallinari and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
Ballmer doesn't regret the incredible premium price he paid for the team, and he is hoping he won't regret the massive premium he paid to land Leonard and George.
The Clippers were doubly leveraged and came out of the deal with a smile. So too did their Western rivals Lakers and Warriors with the deals they made. Collectively, we've never seen anything like this.
It's hard to imagine this would be a new normal in the league because the circumstances of each were so unique. But there's definitely been a new baseline established for the NBA leverage play, and it was fascinating to watch.
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