The Taboo of Lateral Exchange

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Updated: March 19, 2022
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For all the hype that’s attached to the trade deadline, most of the marquee names that flood the rumor reels usually remain with their current franchises as the exchanges buffer until the summer. Rarely are stars shipped out midseason. Due to bureaucratic barriers with roster regulations or in the hopes that another disgruntled supernova will become available, the offseason tends to be the place where star trades are made. This year was different though. The NBA fanatics got the blockbuster exchange we had all been waiting for in a James Harden for Ben Simmons trade and even a nice side dish of a Sabonis for Haliburton Pacers/Sacramento reshuffle. For weeks after, the fixation around Harden and Simmons in Philly and Brooklyn has been the talk of the town.

Rightfully so, right? This is a star-driven league, defined by the faces of 20 or so freaks of nature who defy the laws of physics and leave their audiences in awe questioning their own eyes of what they have witnessed. These brands tend to be excluded from midseason moves and instead, franchises focus on peripheral players and work around the fringes. It is the exchange of non-blue-chip commodities, trades between teams for rotation pieces who are not even in the discussion of all-star selections. It is understandable for the laymen who casually follow the NBA for entertainment value to discredit the impact of trades that do not include the faces that define the league. 

However, for those of us who pour hours of our days into postulating and hypnotizing about theoretical moves and the impact of exchanges when they actually occur, there appears to be an intellectual taboo around lateral non-blockbuster moves and their possible impact. Roughly defined, a lateral exchange is when two franchises trade lukewarm commodities that neither franchise is desperate to attain or devastated to lose. Now a blockbuster trade could be a lateral exchange, meaning neither team gets particularly better despite the names involved in the trade, but in this context, these are perceptually balanced exchanges that do not include top-tier talent or top-tier assets.

Ironically though, from a strategical standpoint by general managers, these are the type of chess tactics that should be most impactful in a midseason move. These lateral exchanges in the offseason are difficult to assess, as there are too many moving parts and unknown variables attached to a developing roster. By the trade deadline though, front offices and coaching staffs should have a better understanding of the things they are missing or the current piece in their puzzle that is hindering the optimization of their rosters’ potential.

In both conferences, we have two glaring examples of what peripheral roster changes can do to a franchise and the overall impact that can be made in polishing a rotation, rather than completely altering it. The first is the revolution that has occurred in the East and the now true-contending Boston Celtics. With the new hire of ex-head coach Brad Stevens, a cascade of questions surrounded what exactly this out-of-bounce tactician could bring to Boston’s front office. He definitely wouldn’t have the behind-the-scenes connections of a high-class ex-agent or the experienced know-how of a seasoned general manager. The thing he does appear to have in spades though is a level of understanding of what this roster was and what it was lacking. 

Prior to the deadline, it was nearly unanimously assumed that the Celtics roster as it was constructed was nothing but a middle-of-the-back flounder, as everyone with internet access tested the waters of a Jalen Brown trade. What if back in January, I told you the answer to all their problems was a reintegration of ex-Celtic Daniel Theis and parting ways with a 1st and Romeo Langford for San Antonio’s Derrick White? Considering Theis was having his worst season in years and White’s value for a 1st round pick was questionable, the acquisitions in a vacuum would be controversial amongst Celtics fans…let alone the proposition that it would transform their season. But it was the insights of understanding of not only what was missing but what didn’t fit in their on-court equation that has transformed this disappointment into a contender. Josh Richardson and Dennis Schröder simply didn’t fit in next to their two premium wings as they had hoped. 

Now, the talk around the Celtics is as if they simply turned a corner after the All-Star Break and came out firing, but there is something fundamentally different about what was subtracted from the roster and what they were replaced with. The same can be said about the currently ascending Mavericks in the West. If a macro-timeline illustrated the assets sent out to New York for Porzingis and what he was recently sold for to Washington, it would look on paper as a loss. It is a lesson that most of us should take to heart, in that value and impact are not synonymous, as Luka and the Mavs are lowkey the most dangerous Blackhorse contender in the West…something no one saw possible less than 60 days back. With a front office tightly wound with ex-Mavs player and newly crowned head coach Jason Kidd, they were able to identify the subtractions and additions needed to maximize the potential of their top-tier star.

With such a top-heavy league, not only in the distribution of annual salaries but in the ideology behind franchises’ roster construction, the holes in a team’s rotation are often undervalued by the asset tacticians who sit high in the heavens of the luxury box-seats. In a previous article after the deadline, I proposed the idea that Brooklyn may have won the trade even if Ben Simmons remains exactly the player he was in his flameout playoff performance in Atlanta (SethCurry&theBeard). In a recent ESPN Hoop Collective pod this week, it was made public that the inclusion of Andre Drummond in the exchange was a last-minute addition in the trade. It is an interesting tactic that across conferences would’ve been less impactful, but for two teams that likely will meet in the playoffs if either plans to get to Finals, the Drummond variable in the trade created a hole in the big-man rotation for Philly. Something that was a strength for the Sixers became a glaring weakness. 

In the regular season, firepower like James Harden will prove to be enough to annihilate opponents on any given night, and the star-power scoring will synthetically fill the voids in a roster. However, in a 7-game series, the non-Joel minutes for Philly will prove to be a problem that should have never been created.

Regardless, putting Philly’s playoff problems aside, this trade deadline appears to be a cautionary tale to those of us who fixate too much on the concepts of value and less about the on-court knowledge available from the bench. Ten months from now, when the trade deadline is approaching and big-ticket trades flood the airwaves, it would be wise to remember sometimes less is more. 

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