NBA trade market is stalled: What it means for Knicks and rest of league

By | July 29, 2022
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That famous Timofey Mozgov contract from six years ago caught even Mozgov off guard.

For those who have not memorized long-ago markets for role players, here’s a refresher:

The Los Angeles Lakers commenced the 2016 offseason by handing Mozgov, a light-scoring big man, a four-year, $64 million pact. The contract immediately became the talk of the basketball world. Thanks to a lucrative, new television deal, the salary cap had risen by more than 30 percent that summer, the greatest single-season increase in NBA history. Everyone who was anyone had cap space. But $16 million a year for a soon-to-be second-stringer? That seemed like an outlier.

Salaries increase but no one anticipated … this. Not even Mozgov thought he would earn so much. He was so excited about more than tripling his income that he drove from Miami to Orlando that day just to take his agent to a celebratory dinner.

But outliers are only outliers if all sides acknowledge them as such. Otherwise, they can become the norm quickly. And that’s what happened in the summer of 2016.

Agents use the contracts of similar players to their clients as comparison points when they negotiate with teams, and because Mozgov signed so quickly — just after the 12:01 am start of free agency — his newly-minted contract became a baseline deal for many around the NBA. Sure, teams could shout about how a backup center shouldn’t make so much money, but the whole league had an influx of cap space and felt pressure to use it.

Meanwhile. the agents could point to the Lakers’ new center as justification for why their backup big man should get paid, too.

It didn’t take long for the Mozgov deal to become basic.

That offseason, Bismack Biyombo got $72 million over four years from the Orlando Magic. Dwight Howard, who was viewed a little more favorably at the time, signed for $71 million over three years with the Atlanta Hawks. Ian Mahinmi got a Mozgovian contract from the Washington Wizards: four years, $64 million. Later in the fall, Gorgui Dieng signed an extension with the Minnesota Timberwolves for — you guessed it — $64 million over four years.

Each team ended up regretting each signing. But that’s not the point. Mozgov’s contract was an outlier until it wasn’t.

So, what in the world does Timofey Mozgov, who hasn’t played an NBA game in four years, have to do with the New York Knicks or the NBA today?

The same dynamic that overcame the league following his signing is happening right now but in the trade market. A mammoth return for Rudy Gobert has reset the baseline for someone like Knicks fixation Donovan Mitchell, and now the NBA is at a standstill.

For years, teams were hesitant to trade unprotected first-rounders for players who weren’t transformational on their own, but times have changed.

The Atlanta Hawks gave the San Antonio Spurs two unprotected first-round picks for All-Star Dejounte Murray, which meant the Minnesota Timberwolves had to give the Utah Jazz three unprotected firsts for Gobert, which means the Jazz want even more for a three-time All-Star and offensive hub, Mitchell, which means the Brooklyn Nets want all your draft picks, all your good players, your Hulu login info and your first- born child for Kevin Durant.

The greatest sign of a lopsided transaction in any commerce — from the NBA to finance to anything else — is one that sets off such massive inflation that it stalls the entire market. That seems to be what’s going on in this post-Gobert era.

Eventually, there is a point of diminishing returns, a time when the package this ladder climbing dictates for a star is objectively nonsensical. That’s when the market collapses in on itself. The league may be at that point now. If not, it’s on the brink. Durant is arguably the greatest player in the world, but it’s not worth it to give up everything you have for him because you end up with Durant and nothing, and what does that get you?

Meanwhile, the Knicks are at the center of this. The Jazz want to strip them bare in a Mitchell trade. So far, New York isn’t down to dismantle its future.

In a normal offseason, maybe one unrestricted free agent lingers this late into the summer. This one has been anything but normal. And it’s affecting more than just the Knicks, Mitchell and the rest of his wooers.

Various teams are waiting on what could happen with Durant. They won’t make a move until they know they can no longer acquire him. Kyrie Irving’s future remains in limbo because of it.

An organization like the Indiana Pacers could be waiting out a Russell Westbrook move since they have reportedly discussed the possibility of acquiring him. But they may want the market to open up again before doing it since a Myles Turner deal could come and they may not want to send Turner to LA because, for all they know, a Durant suitor could offer more than what they could get today for Turner if that suitor knew it no longer had a chance at a former MVP.

Front-office leaders are people, too. Using the Gobert return as leverage doesn’t have to be only a negotiation tactic. Sometimes, strategies like that are also PR ones. Teams don’t exactly look forward to the public hollering about how a better player landed less in a trade than an inferior one.

Even Mozgov didn’t go into free agency six years ago thinking he’d make so much. And for all we know, the Jazz didn’t anticipate receiving three unprotected first-rounders, another top-five protected one, a 21-year-old who just went in the first round less than a month prior and a first-round swap along with various helpful rotation players for Gobert. But it happened. And now, Utah has set its Mitchell price as if the Gobert package is not an outlier. The Nets have done the same with Durant.

It doesn’t have to stay this way forever. The Mitchell situation could become untenable in Utah, which could mean the Jazz lowering their asking price. They could worry about Mitchell winning them a few too many autumn games, which could cost them come lottery night, and decide to deal him before the season starts no matter what. The Knicks could feel the pressure of a three-time All-Star staring them in the face and relent, too.

Eventually, somehow, some way, the transaction wire will chug along again. But for now, there’s been a Mozgovification of the trade market, and it’s a wonder how long these lasts.

(Top photo of Donovan Mitchell: Wendell Cruz / USA Today)

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