The impact of a trade that has perhaps altered the way star-levels trades are done in the NBA
There are moments in sports where a moment happens that changes things for the rest of a league. This could be revolutionary, like the three-point shot in basketball or the forward pass in football. But off the field, there are other game changers, which many people call “setting the market”. Recently, in the NFL, the Cleveland Browns traded for controversial quarterback DeShaun Watson. But it wasn’t the numerous legal issues that surround the quarterback that has been the issue, but rather the contract that Cleveland signed him to upon making the trade. The Browns signed him to a 5 year $230M deal that is fully guaranteed, a first in the NFL. This deal changed the QB market with an assurance that almost all upcoming extension-eligible quarterbacks will demand the same thing. In the NBA, there has been a similar dynamic in the trade market. When the Utah Jazz traded center Rudy Gobert to the Minnesota Timberwolves the framework for a high-profile trade changed for the foreseeable future, perhaps making it even harder to acquire high-level talent via trade.
The writing has been on the wall for the Utah Jazz for a couple of years now. The team had reached its ceiling with its dup of Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert. It became clear that this team was not going to get past the second round. On top of that, there were countless reports of animosity between Mitchell and Gobert dating back to Gobert’s now infamous mic-touching incident in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was inevitable that one of the two had to leave, if not both of them. The domino to fall was Gobert as he was traded to the Timberwolves on July 6th for an incredible haul.
In the trade, Minnesota sent Utah five players (Malik Beasley, Patrick Beverly, Leandro Balmero, Walker Kessler, and Jarred Vanderbilt), four first-round picks (three of which are unprotected), and a pick swap in 2026 for good measure. This return was unexpected, to say the least, with many people suggesting that this might be the worst trade a team has done in NBA history. The fact that Minnesota decided to put all their eggs in this particular basket was interesting, to say the least as Gobert is viewed as somewhat of a liability on offense with a massive contract (which includes him making $46M in his age 33 season).
But the Timberwolves are also under new ownership and wanted to make a splash and go all in on winning now. They view Gobert as the ideal pairing with Karl-Anthony Towns, allowing Towns to play the power forward position to allow his offensive game to shine while Gobert anchors the defense in the middle. It is undoubtedly a risk considering the cost of Gobert and Towns (who just signed a supermax extension this summer) and the age and probable decline of Gobert. The team has also decided to mortgage its future by giving Utah so many picks without protections. There is a high likelihood that the Wolves will regret this in the future, but many teams around the league are regretting it now as it has forever changed the way that deals are going to be made moving forward.
Economies of Scale
When Minnesota paid the price that they did for Gobert, people around the league had to be wondering “if that’s the price for Rudy Gobert, then what is the price for Donovan Mitchell or Kevin Durant?”. Gobert while an excellent defensive player, has never really been considered a top ten player in this league. It can be argued that he might not be in the top 3 of his position with the likes of Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid to contend with. If that sort of player commanded 5 players and essentially 5 draft picks then what would a bonafide superstar like Kevin Durant command?
And this is where the disconnect lies. No one in basketball is currently of the mind that Durant is inferior to Gobert, but most teams are not willing to give up a Gobert-esque package for Durant. This leads to a standstill when it comes to the trade market because the team trading away the star feels that the market has shifted, whereas the team that is looking to acquire the star sees the price as being too much. Another element at play here is the depth of talent that is in the league at the moment.
The New York Knicks are currently in discussions with the Utah Jazz to acquire Gobert’s former teammate Donovan Mitchell. The reported asking price was 4 young players (Obi Toppin, Quentin Grimes, Immanuel Quickely, and Miles McBride) and 6 first-round picks. Reportedly, the Knicks have decided that this asking price was too hard to swallow. The Brooklyn Nets, in their pursuit of a trade partner in a Kevin Durant trade, have asked for 1-2 All-Star level talent plus draft compensation, and teams have not been willing to make that deal happen regardless of how good Durant is. The Rudy Gobert trade has forced teams to reconsider, how badly do I want this player? Am I willing to gut my entire roster for one superstar in a league that is getting increasingly deep, is the price even worth it at this point? The trade for Gobert has shifted the narrative where a team like the Atlanta Hawks now looks like somewhat shrewd operators having only sacrificed 3 draft picks when they acquired Dejounte Murray a few weeks ago.
Stars in Limbo
This series of events now leaves the players that were looking to move this summer in a bit of a bind. Will they remain with their teams now, or perhaps will they be tempted to sit out games due to their trade requests not being met? Will teams like the Knicks that are desperate to get a superstar player, be forced to rethink their approach? All of these thoughts are now a reality that teams need to consider. Perhaps these elevated prices were the reason that the Phoenix Suns decided to bring back DeAndre Ayton instead of using his extension as a piece to acquire Durant, that the team simply assessed the situation and decided that the price was simply too high.
The NBA has always been a players league, so the conventional wisdom is that these players will be traded eventually, but perhaps the future is not as guaranteed. While it can be looked at as a one-off foolish move from a Timberwolves team hungry for relevance, it has also set a precedent. The cost of a high-value NBA star player is now multiple young players and 3 unprotected first-round picks minimum. This could mean that Durant and Mitchell enter the year on the same team and the drama of the NBA will enter full swing.
In many ways, superstar trades are the lifeblood of the conversation about basketball. Maybe even more so than the games themselves. There are storylines and dream lineups with countless people loading up scenarios in the NBA trade machine. But trades like the Gobert trade take some of the reality out of the fantasy. It is hard to envision many teams willingly parting ways with first-round picks spanning the next decade regardless of the player they are getting back. There will eventually need to be an adjustment in the way these packages are structured, but it remains to be seen if we will look back at this trade as the one that changed everything forever or just another dumb trade by a franchise blinded by its historical ineptitude. Only time will tell.