Like Freddy Krueger, there’s something scary haunting NBA executives these days. It’s the punitive new aspects of the league’s new collective bargaining agreement and it’s putting a deep freeze on the willingness of teams to spend money and make deals.
You could see it on Thursday, the NBA’s trade deadline, which was as dull as we can remember in large part because of what’s coming down the line for teams who let their payroll get too out of whack.
Many of the deals we saw at this time last year or in the summer won’t be allowed once the new rules kick in this off-season (for example, teams that spend over certain tax lines becoming second apron teams, will be restricted in bundling players in deals, in being able to sign those on the buyout market, in being allowed to use the mid-level exception on free agents, being forbidden from taking back more salaries than they send out in a trade and more). That’s partly why there were no blockbusters on Thursday, despite a pretty open road to the NBA title, and many organizations were as eager to shed salary as they were to add good players.
Philadelphia avoided stiff penalties by moves in recent days to dump salary following the news that reigning MVP Joel Embiid is out for weeks, minimum, and possibly for the rest of the season. Golden State saved a bundle even just by moving Canadian Cory Joseph. Teams with a shot at the title normally would be active on this day, but league-leading Boston, West-leading Oklahoma City and other teams near the top only made minor transactions.
A bunch of teams strengthened their benches, but that’s not exciting at all. Again, blame what’s coming.
Raptors general manager Bobby Webster indicated as much when he held court with the media shortly after the deadline had passed. In many years that availability comes far later in the day, but the Raptors got to work early, getting Canadian veteran big man Kelly Olynyk and intriguing prospect Ochai Agbaji from the Utah Jazz for a late first-round pick this season, Otto Porter Jr. and Kira Lewis and then getting off the $13.025 million owed to Dennis Schroder next season by bundling him and Thad Young for Spencer Dinwiddie, who was promptly waived.
“We did our heavy lifting about a month ago (in trading Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby) so I feel like this trade deadline we cleaned up a lot of things and we addressed some of the things we talked about after the OG and Pascal trades,” Webster said. “We were able to turn one of the picks into a good young player in Ochai and we got a steadying presence in Kelly. Financially, we were able to gain some more flexibility this summer with the Dennis trade.”
The team had been hoping a bidding war would develop for Bruce Brown, acquired in the Siakam move with Indiana, and that probably would have been the case in the past, but, again, not in this new NBA climate.
Instead, the Raptors will have to adapt. They can pick up Brown’s contract option before June 29 and deal him, trade him at next year’s deadline, or keep him around since he’s a solid player.
“Had we gotten the offers we wanted for Bruce, if it hit our threshold, we would have done something. At the same time, I think Bruce is 27, he has a really interesting contract, he provides a professionalism and toughness that I think we’ve all seen on the court, so we value that,” Webster said. “There’s options with Bruce this summer. I also think if you look around the league today, there weren’t a ton of major moves. There may be some larger macro elements in the NBA contributing to teams going for it and making big deals. We’re happy with Bruce, we’re happy to continue on with him.”
The Raptors sound like they’ll keep Olynyk around, if he wants to stay (and by all accounts he’s thrilled to come home to where he spent much of his youth, before moving to Kamloops, B.C.). They can either extend him now or will have his Bird Rights this season, making it easier to bring him back. “I think the way we view him specifically is he’s kind of like a steady hand and I think we’ve seen it with the bench units, especially with the bigs he’s going to provide a skill set of veteran presence, a voice that, you know, we think that that unit could use some help with and so we’re excited to have Kelly the conversations have been great. I think he really wants to be here,” Webster said.
The GM warned that this will be a multi-year project, centred around all-star Scottie Barnes. Toronto is trying to find the right mix of young talent (like the 24-year-old Agbaji, recently acquired Jordan Nwora, Immanuel Quickley and RJ Barrett) and veterans to speed up this retool.
“The young guys need leadership, right? And I think we lost a bit of that veteran presence when we made earlier deals. And so you’re trying to find that right chemistry of who can kind of guide these players.”
Giving up a first-round pick wasn’t a big deal to the Raptors because even if they surrender their own first (protected top 6) to San Antonio, they got another 2024 selection from Indiana (projected to go just outside of the lottery) and have a pick that should land between 30-32 from that deal via Detroit. So losing the 26th-28th selection (it will come from one of the West leaders, OKC or the Los Angeles Clippers, most likely), made sense in order to get Agbaji, who went 14th just two years ago, and Olynyk, who will provide floor spacing, rebounding and passing from the middle, in addition to his high hoops IQ.
“I think Ochai will develop in a competitive environment. I think he’ll develop with guys in his age group. One of our big focuses is getting guys in that sort of 22-28 age group (and complementing them with veterans),” Webster said.
“And then you want guys that want to be here, want to run. I think Ochai’s energy will invigorate Scottie. So you’re trying to hit on all those points — age, culture, social, skill set — and that’s what we’ll continue to do.”