Behind the NBA trade deadline (Part 5)

This is the last in a five-part behind-the-scenes look at how trades in the NBA come to pass.

The weeks before the NBA trade deadline are so chaotic that nobody could possibly know everything that’s being discussed — not players, not agents, not even general managers, and especially not reporters — even though they’re all constantly mining each other for information.

You will hear dozens of trade rumors between now and Feb. 8, the large majority of which will never come to fruition, and the few deals that do actually go down will probably surprise you. This week’s Blake Griffin trade was in the works for six days before leaking in its final stages.

So, I reached out to several NBA agents whose clients are currently on the trading block, asking if they could peel back the curtain on the craziness, and here’s what Parquet Post discovered.

Part 1: Isaiah Thomas and intelligence gathering
Part 2: Anthony Davis and rumor mongering
Part 3:
Marcus Smart and financial planning
Part 4: Kyle Lowry and demanding trades


The best deals are done in the dark. Teams aren’t leaking names, so agents aren’t putting out fires with players. Agents aren’t making players’ unhappiness public, so teams aren’t losing leverage. And neither side is negotiating terms through the media, so nobody is to blame when things fall apart, and everybody can work together again in the future. It’s less messy this way.

And it’s one reason the Celtics have been so successful of late. Unlike a lot of organizations, only three people are involved in basketball decisions, per agents: president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, director of player personnel Austin Ainge and director of scouting Dave Lewin.

“They are very simplistic,” said one agent. “Decisions there are done between the three of them. That does minimize leaks for sure. It also simplifies the decision-making process.”

[I should mention that assistant GM and team counsel Mike Zarren has input, too, especially when it comes to the machinations of trades and signings (i.e., salary cap implications and the value of picks) and the advanced statistical data that informs personnel and scouting decisions.]

That’s why you didn’t hear about the Kendrick Perkins trade, the Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce trade, the Rajon Rondo trade, the Jeff Green trade, the Isaiah Thomas trade, pretty much every trade from the past decade, until the final hour. And if you did, it didn’t come from the Celtics.

“I think Danny does a terrific job,” said another agent. “It doesn’t do you any good to have all kinds of rumors and speculation to be out there about what you’re trying to do, and I think the Celtics do a great job of keeping everything very much close to the vest and keeping their thoughts very confined. I think it’s much easier to do business that way.”

Trust works both ways. If a player’s agent is leaking info, a team might be less likely to want to continue working together. The reverse can be true if a team is leaking info. One agent said he knew a GM was sharing false info about their negotiations to a reporter, while his talented client remained silent, and the player walked from a good team in free agency the following summer.

“Don’t call me about trades,” Ainge told a room full of reporters a few years back, lamenting the number of rumors that were complete nonsense, “because I’m not going to tell you anything.”

The Celtics aren’t perfect. Their failed pursuit of a Ray Allen for O.J. Mayo trade in February 2012 fractured that relationship to the point that Allen left in free agency months later. But the number of deals that get discussed at the trade deadline are too many to count, and the closer you get to 3 p.m. on Thursday, those conversations are being had at a furious pace, and it’s hard to know which ones will find the light of day. That so few seem to in Boston is remarkable.

“The way that the trade deadline works, there are a thousand different proposals and concepts and conversations that go on every single day, so there’s no way they’re going to call you and tell you every single proposal,” an agent said. “Which of these things are going to gain legs and which are not is so hard to say, so it evolves every day, and that’s why I think everyone is talking to everyone to see where things are at, what’s hot and what’s not, but believe me if I shared every conversation I had, I would never get anything done. Same thing for the teams.”

This Marcus Smart situation is getting sloppy. Reports of his availability for the right return combined with our own reporting herethat his contract demands are far higher than what the Celtics will be willing to pay will make for some serious fence-mending if they’re to continue together. And the more chatter we hear over the next 48 hours, the worse things could get.

“Ainge is known as a grass-is-always-greener guy who doesn’t pay his own,” said one agent, citing Avery Bradley as an example of somebody who wasn’t going to get paid market value in Boston. “So, Marcus Smart needs to skedaddle out of there because they won’t pay him.”

Rondo, Thomas, Tony Allen, Kendrick Perkins, Big Baby, Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk — the list of guys the Celtics have moved on from before a big payday is long. Overpaying non-stars is how you end up with untradeable contracts (see: Cavaliers). It’s not how you maintain the cap flexibility to sign Al Horford and Gordon Hayward to max contracts in back-to-back summers.

Agents are well aware of a general manager’s reputation for overpaying players, and they’ll circle them like sharks on a surfer. Wizards GM Ernie Grunfeld has that reputation, one agent said, citing Ian Mahinmi’s cap-crippling four-year, $64 million deal as Exhibit A.

“That is what we do,” an agent said. “If you are smart, you analyze everything they have done before negotiating, but there are easy marks for sure, and I don’t necessarily mean Sean.”

The Spurs are known as underpayers. The Celtics, too. It doesn’t seem like coincidence that they are two of the best-run organizations in the league. They know the value of their players, and they don’t fall prey to sentimentality. They play it straight, and they work in relative silence. There is value in that, too, because everyone wants to do business with people they can trust.

There are thousands of trade discussions, and only a quarter of the ones we hear about are reality-based. And the Celtics let fewer of them out the door than most. It makes you wonder what Ainge is working on now, with two days to go before the deadline. We may never know.

If you liked this series, tell your Celtics fan friends to subscribe, so they don’t miss out on this Parquet Post goodness. New February subscription fees go to JDRF’s diabetes research. Thanks to everyone for reading.

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