February in the Front Office – Behind the Scenes of the NBA Trade Deadline
Former NBA scout and current draft analyst for Babcock Hoops, Jeff Feld, gives an inside look at what goes on behind the scenes in an NBA front office leading up to the trade deadline.
February is right around the corner. Outside the basketball world, that typically doesn’t generate much excitement. The luster of the holiday season has worn off, despite your holiday weight sticking around as stubbornly as your neighbor’s Christmas lights and lawn reindeer. It’s the odd month that doesn’t have much to be excited for and most of us are thankful it’s the shortest one.
But in the NBA, February 7th is circled in red sharpie on the calendars of front office executives, media and fans alike. Outside of free agency, which takes place seven months earlier (or five months later, depending on how you look at it) it’s the most highly anticipated date on the NBA calendar – maybe even more so than the Finals for anyone not a Golden State Warriors fan.
For NBA front offices, the trade deadline is the last real opportunity to solidify or change the direction of their organization, for better or for worse. So much can happen between training camp and the deadline. Big money free agent signings made earlier in the year might fall flat, leaving teams trying to save face (and money) by moving in a different direction. Injuries to key players leave teams who planned on staying out of trade discussions suddenly the biggest buyers on the market. And teams whose seasons are all but statistically over are trying to cash in any valuable and expendable piece for draft and young assets from contending teams.
There’s really nothing like it – especially because it guarantees at least some level of drama and social media shenanigans which is just icing on the cake for fans and media constantly refreshing Twitter until 12:00 AM on February 8th. One of the most common assumptions by those outside the industry is ‘If it’s this exciting on the outside, I can’t imagine the adrenaline rush it is working in a front office around the deadline.’ But much to their surprise, they’d be wrong.
Wait – say again?
Despite the New York Stock Exchange frenzy most people imagine is going on in the ‘war rooms’ around the league, it’s actually quite… well, for lack of a better and more appropriate term, boring.
I was fortunate enough to spend the last six trade deadlines in an NBA front office and had the unique experience of working for teams that were buyers, sellers and sideline sitters all in different years. I spent 2012-2016 with the Cleveland Cavaliers and 2016-18 with the Chicago Bulls. Despite landing on ‘boring’ as the adjective of choice to describe the process as a whole, there were certainly some fascinating aspects of being on the inside during the weeks leading up to and day of the deadline that I’d love to take you through here on Babcock Hoops.
There’s nothing more unpredictable than the trade deadline for a front office. Even with the draft and free agency, there’s a pretty good sense of where players are going to end up thanks to agents and players leaking to media (and teams themselves). With the deadline, it’s like all 30 teams are dominos pieces, fragilely standing and waiting to see who drops first.
Although I can’t speak on behalf of 28 other teams, the two I worked for were relatively similar as far as our preparation for the deadline, and I assume most teams have some iteration of the process I experienced.
Each team has their goals for the deadline – from assets they are trying to acquire to salaries they are trying to dump and everything in between – written on a whiteboard John Nash-style like in A Beautiful Mind. Corresponding notes are drafted by a combination of the analytics and support staff such as an assistant GM or pro personnel director for the front office to reference like a briefing book. Some poor intern is tasked with scribing all other 29 teams’ assets and projected needs and expendables on another whiteboard. And last, any – and I mean any – offer, call or discussion with another team, no matter how unofficial is also kept track of in real time as texts and calls come in.
All of this normally starts about a week prior to the deadline. Scouts are grounded, regional staff and advisors are brought to town and everyone is hunkered down for the big day.
Yep. Pretty anticlimactic, isn’t it? The days are spent sitting with your staff spitballing rumors and ideas and we are just as glued to Twitter as fans are. You turn on the nightly NBA or college games while you eat lukewarm Outback Steakhouse carryout for the fourth day in a row, or something blandly similar. You try and sneak away to the practice facility gym to get a treadmill workout or lift in – but make damn sure you are within earshot of your bosses (and have your phone on you). And then… more waiting. The phone rings occasionally, texts bing regularly. But for the most part… nothing.
Then the deadline days rolls around. And just like the previous four or five days, it’s more of the same – waiting.
For some reason, teams like to wait until the last moment to decide to pull the trigger on a trade. Deals can be days in the making – but nothing is done until the final hours of the deadline. Like I referenced earlier, the teams are like dominos, waiting for just one to fall. All it takes is one – and then it’s madness. Even if your organization is planning on sitting the deadline out, you can all of a sudden by sucked into a multi-team deal for teams who need another partner to make a trade work.
Enter New York Stock Exchange frenzy.
Just like that, the to-go boxes are cleared off the table and everyone is ready with their notes, computers and phones in hand. Everyone has their job – college personnel directors and scouts are armed with valuations for draft picks. Pro personnel staff have their depth charts and league rankings. Cap gurus and analytics have their trade machines and modules up and running. Team counsel is at the ready to comb through contracts. Even medical personnel, such as team doctors if the team is on the road and trainers are unavailable, are standing by to check out medical records and give their blessing.
One of the most important elements during any transaction – trade deadline, free agency, draft – is the use of intel. My colleague Matt McKay wrote a great piece on the importance and process of gathering intel and he hits the nail on the head when it comes to how front offices value it. Any name that is brought up in a trade typically has a library of any media or private intel that has been gathered, be it good or bad, to try and understand a potential asset you are taking on.
Contract intricacies and the tiniest dollar discrepancies can throw off entire trades, even if the substantial assets of the trade are agreed upon. That leaves everyone nervously pacing, calling, checking and double checking their specifics to make sure things are good to go. It’s always frantic getting your trades in to the league office prior to midnight eastern. Once the trades are in, official trade calls are scheduled, and you can finally exhale…
Buyers, sellers and sideline sitters
While in Cleveland, we sat out the deadline in 2013 as we were rebuilding and lottery-bound. We were at a crossroads in 2014 as a struggling young team that wanted an opportunity to compete for a playoff spot in a weak Eastern Conference. That year, we traded Earl Clark (a free agent signing that didn’t pan out), Henry Sims and two second-round picks for Spencer Hawes. Hawes had an up and down rest of the season in Cleveland but eventually left in free agency the ensuing summer.
Things were completely different in 2016. Despite being 39-14 entering deadline night, we knew we had to bolster our shooting if we wanted a real chance to compete that year. Griff (GM David Griffin) did a phenomenal job swooping Channing Frye from Orlando for Jared Cunningham (our 15th man) and future assets that we weren’t terribly concerned about as we were in ‘win now’ mode. However, we had to clear room for Frye by trading one of my all-time favorites and a Cleveland legend, Anderson Varejao. They say it’s a business, but I can speak on behalf of the entire organization when I say making the move with Andy was absolutely gut-wrenching. He handled it with tremendous class and although it was the right move, it certainly was not easy.
My first year in Chicago, we made another tough decision, moving the Bulls’ version of Varejao, Taj Gibson, and Doug McDermott for Cam Payne and two expiring contracts in Anthony Morrow and Joffrey Lauvergne. At the time, Payne was on his rookie deal and was an appealing, young prospect for us. Although it didn’t end up working out, the deal, at the time, was worth it for Chicago to kick the tires on a young player while giving McDermott a change of scenery that he needed. Although we could have used Gibson in the playoffs later that year, he was expiring that summer and was not going to be re-signed.
My last year in Chicago was a rebuilding year as we overhauled the roster during the 2017 draft. While we weren’t looking to do anything specific, we had an opportunity to get Noah Vonleh, a lottery pick in 2014, essentially for free by sending the rights to Milovan Rakovic and cash to Portland. We also took on the contracts of Jameer Nelson and Willie Reed for a TPE and second-round pick swap – a typical move of a team not active in the trade market.
Despite the excitement the deadline carries around the league and for its followers, most blockbuster deals take place well before. But any time there’s a hard deadline instituted by the league, teams will ramp up their offers and deals to one another in a concentrated window which makes it an exciting time to be a part of a team. There’s always an opportunity to improve your roster – and that’s something that’s never boring.