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The Death of the NBA’s Middle Class?

Glen Davis and Brandon Bass are two productive players that were offered at the trade deadline.  So why didn't either of them get snapped up?  (Photo by John Raoux/AP)

Glen Davis and Brandon Bass are two productive players that were shopped around at the trade deadline. So why didn’t either of them get snapped up? (Photo by John Raoux/AP)

After a second straight season with few game-changing trades at the deadline, the question has to be asked: is the NBA trade deadline going the way of the dinosaur? Have front offices become so risk-averse that they are unwilling to part with any real assets to acquire help for a championship push? The movement of first round picks in February over the last two seasons has amounced to a grand total of one, and while second round picks were moved en masse this year (seriously, the second round should be sponsored by the Philadelphia 76ers this June), a number of them have long-term protections that might make it difficult for the acquiring franchise to ever see the pick.

What may be more disconcerting to fans who enjoy mid-season trades, as well as players seeking a new chance, is the dearth of longer contracts being moved – particularly those that could be called “mid-size” contracts. In the past few days following the trade deadline, we’ve seen a number of players on this type of deal either bought out or waived: Caron Butler, Glen Davis, and Metta World Peace come immediately to mind. While each of these offer varying degrees of basketball talent at this point in time, these players would have been dealt at the deadline rather than released to go chase a ring in seasons past. Meanwhile, players like Raymond Felton and Thaddeus Young, both solid, rotation-caliber players (though Felton’s play this season and recent arrest certainly make him less valuable), are left on losing squads.

(From Danny Moloshok/AP) Glen Davis’s abilities weren’t coveted during the trade deadline because of his contract…

These players clearly could have helped most any contender, but no one bit until the offer became a cash-only deal. What gives?  Per Zach Lowe of Grantland, front offices around the league consider these kinds of contracts overinflated:

“A phrase I’ve heard constantly over the last six months: ‘Player X is just a guy.’…

…The implication is that you can get 80 percent of that player’s production on something close to a minimum salary, making it silly to give up anything of real value — gobs of money, a single first-round pick — for such a player. This was what frightened the players’ union during the lockout — the marginalization of the midlevel guy. It hasn’t yet happened on a massive scale in free agency, where the sheer number of teams with at least $10 million in cap room means plenty of “pretty good” veterans will still get fatty contracts.”

Lowe essentially argues that the “middle class” of NBA players (that is, the sort of solid rotation types that aren’t quite stars but are necessary to win titles) aren’t being marginalized in free agency—and for the most part, Lowe is spot-on in that regard. But small changes have begun to occur. A year less here or there on a contract. A little bit less money. And during the season, an aversion to being acquired

Indeed, the majority of contracts that were moved during the 2013-14 season were expiring contracts of some sort. Teams are coveting cap space more than players, but as teams like Philadelphia (who own relatively clean cap sheets both in the offseason) have found out, cap space is becoming a decreasingly valuable asset. Fewer rebuilding teams are able to negotiate for lucrative future draft picks as the cost of absorbing a poor contract from a team; as mentioned earlier, first round picks are being hoarded as of late, and the new CBA has allowed roster rebuilding and turnover to happen at a much faster rate than before. Franchises can simply bite the bullet and hold on to players, so these “albatross” deals are becoming few and far between.

…but Glen Davis became a hot commodity once Orlando agreed to buy him out and take on $13 million in dead salary going forward. (Photo by Kevin Kuo/USA Today Sports)

However, with the decline of the out-and-out bad contracts for “star” players like Gilbert Arenas, Joe Johnson, Rashard Lewis, and Amar’e Stoudemire, it has brought attention to contracts for players like Brandon Bass (2 years/$13.3 million), Glen Davis (2 years/$13 million), Jarrett Jack (4 years/$25.2 million),  Tiago Splitter (4 years/$36 million), and Thaddeus Young (3 years/$28.2 million). These are the new bad contracts in the NBA—deals that include length and salaries at mid-range value (or slightly above) for starters or productive rotation players. None of these players are necessarily bad, but general managers (outside of those who offered the deals) want nothing to do with handing a non-star a long-term deal, or much more than the mid-level exception. The message hasn’t yet been said loud and clear, but it’s becoming noticeable: if you aren’t a franchise cornerstone or superstar, there’s someone cheaper and just as productive can be found.

There’s a problem in this logic, though – players that can produce and are willing to play at such low salaries are not easy to come by. Many of these high productivity, low salary players are recent draft picks, locked into potentially long-term deals before looking for financial and job security. And the veterans who do play for low salaries are rarer still, as a Chris Andersen, Marco Belinelli, or Andrei Kirilenko type cannot be found everywhere. Teams eventually have to spend for production if they care about winning. There cannot be a hard stratification of salaries in the NBA, as there simply aren’t enough superstars, nor are productive and successful players willing to accept salaries comparable to rookies. Teams will have to pay for production.

But the most recent collective bargaining agreement has had an impact, as the past twelve months have demonstrated. If these trends continue, talented rotation pieces and role players may have to accept the fact that there will be no more long-term financial security with any team.

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