Hollinger: Gary Payton II trade thoughts; plus, the downside of going all-in

When I worked in the Memphis front office, this is the exact thing I always fretted about at the trade deadline: That another party in a trade of ours would flunk a player’s physical and leave us in the lurch with no alternate recourse because the deadline had passed. The worries grow as more teams get added to the deal, as each node in the trade becomes another potential trade-ruiner. (This worry also applies on draft night, by the way: You can’t really go back and re-do the draft if you traded a player for a pick.)

That’s what nearly happened to Golden State’s four-team deal with Portland, Atlanta and Detroit this past week. It ultimately went through on Sunday night after three days of hand-wringing over a core injury discovered during Gary Payton II’s physical, but needless to say, it was a hot topic of conversation around the league over the weekend.

For starters, it’s a reminder to teams that you don’t have to wait until the trade deadline to make a deal. It’s hilarious that everyone waits for the last day; NBA teams are that dude Christmas shopping at Circle K at midnight on Dec. 24. You could almost hear the league office cooing, “Oh, poor thing, did they not tell you it was coming?”

The problem with the deadline is that a trade’s terms can’t be changed once the deadline has passed, making it a strictly thumbs-up, thumbs-down decision on whether to pass the physical. It seemed like Golden State was hoping for some kind of exception to the rule on this point, which would have quickly created the most slippery of slopes for any future trades. There was no way the NBA could establish any kind of precedent here.

At other points in the season, the terms of the deal can be changed to resolve any issues. For instance, it would have been fairly simple to cut Portland out of the deal and re-work a three-way trade between Detroit, Atlanta and Golden State. But again, trades can’t be modified after the deadline, only rejected. So a team like the Hawks — who had basically nothing to do with the Portland-Golden State end of things — could have been left hanging had the Warriors nixed the deal.

(As for the late Sunday night timing for Golden State to approve the deal: Teams typically have 72 hours from the time of the trade call to complete and approve a physical, provided the player reports to his new club within 24 hours. That call timing is different from the deadline itself; the backlog of trade calls meant the Warriors’ four-team deal wasn’t executed with the league until late Thursday.)

As for the nuts and bolts of the dispute between Portland and Golden State, the Warriors have done a much better job in the PR battle, but it’s not clear to me that they’re sitting on an ironclad case to receive any further compensation.

The core issue here (sorry) is the NBA’s requirement on medical disclosures in trades and whether Portland followed the rules. In trades, teams are required to disclose any injuries a player may have or had. They are not, technically, required to disclose how those injuries have been treated; as a result, I’m not sure any complaints about Toradol pills will get much traction. At the time of the trade, teams are given access to the other team’s electronic medical records for a given player (everything is online now, or is supposed to be); if the Blazers failed to note a legitimate injury in here, that would be a more glaring issue, and the league could penalize them.


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Generally, if there is a major injury concern in trade talks, the two front offices are likely to have already discussed it ahead of time. The receiving team also probably looped in the performance staff for a chat. Again, some of these processes get short-circuited in the rush of the trade deadline, because the Circle K is closing in five minutes and we still don’t have a gift for Aunt Melba. Everyone’s in a hurry; who has time to see if the beef jerky is past the expiration date?

This, of course, is not the first time a trade was in question over a physical. Detroit sent Bol Bol back to Denver last year after flunking his physical. More famously, Oklahoma City rescinded a deadline trade for Tyson Chandler in 2009 over concerns on his physical and shipped him back to New Orleans. (Now THAT is a Sliding Doors moment in NBA history, huh?)

There also are an innumerable quantity of trades that almost went this way before some kind of resolution was reached, whether an amendment to a trade’s terms or some other scheme. Boston’s 2017 Kyrie Irving-Isaiah Thomas trade, for instance, was held up after Cleveland discovered Thomas’ hip was in worse shape than it thought and wasn’t resolved until the Celtics kicked in an additional second-rounder.

Such an amendment to official trade terms can’t be done at the deadline, but teams also can resolve a conflict over a physical by having the two owners reach an agreement under the table. Of course, this is illegal by league rules and therefore impossible, so I’m certain that’s never happened.

Precedent-wise, the last time a team was penalized for disclosure failure related to a physical was the dispute between Boston and Oklahoma City over the Jeff Green situation. That involved a case that ended in season-ending and career-threatening heart surgery, and the Celtics were awarded a second-round pick from the Thunder. If Warriors fans think they’re going to get some giant booby prize out of this, forget it. They might get one of the five second-round picks back that went to Portland — maybe.

Again, the best way to handle with this would have been to make the trade before the deadline. But that’s not how the league operates right now, and it opens the door for issues like this.

The new cost of business

What happens after you push your chips in and you lose the hand?

That’s the difficult question Brooklyn is dealing with now, and it’s one we’re going to see other NBA teams come face-to-face with in the coming years. The recent trend of teams piling in with all their available draft capital to secure an elite player has an ugly downside in the out years, and the Nets are going to be the first team to pay the piper. Soon, though, they will have a lot of company.

That’s where the poker analogy for this move falls short. You don’t just get to shrug your shoulders, say, “Oh, well” and walk away from the table; instead, you have to spend half a decade losing 137-93. It’s more like a vicious, multiyear hangover from a legendary all-night bender. Sure, it’s all fun and games when you’re trading unprotected firsts and pick swaps to get a star, but — at some point — you wake up in jail with an empty wallet, three new tattoos and a splitting headache.


Even after the Nets’ implosion, don’t expect the NBA to shy away from super teams

Unlike a hangover, however, this will happen in slow motion. In some of these cases, the harshest impacts won’t be felt for a decade — an unprotected 2029 first-round pick will likely have its peak value, relative to the cap, in 2033.

The Clippers were the first ones to forge down this road, going all-in to get Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in 2019. In recent years, we’ve seen the same from Minnesota, Cleveland, Milwaukee and now Phoenix, not to mention slightly less onerous versions from the Lakers, Hawks and Bulls.

Of course, the original version of this was Brooklyn’s own disastrous deal for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce back in 2013. That deal essentially gifted the Celtics Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the core of a likely Celtics juggernaut for the next decade or so … and essentially chilled the market on any future such deals for six years until the Clippers’ deal.

That the Nets miraculously recovered from that disaster to the point that they had Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden on their team just seven years later is one of the great rebuilding jobs in the history of sports. Alas, the Nets pushed in with all their draft capital a second time and now are left in the lurch again.

In the wake of last week’s trades of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn is the first team in this era to reach the other side of that hill. Remember, the odd logic of trading unprotected firsts is that it takes tanking incentives more or less off the table. So, what do they do now? The Nets owe unprotected firsts to Houston in 2024 and 2026 from the Harden trade, as well as unprotected swaps in 2025 and 2027, so they aren’t going to Brick for Vic this year or be a Loser for Boozer or Sag for Flagg in future ones.

Alas, that scenario can also leave a team floating in the middle, neither here nor there. Yes, the Nets have unprotected firsts from the Durant and Irving trades to balance out the lack of their own draft capital, but the good stuff doesn’t arrive for years — Phoenix’s unprotected picks don’t get fun until 2027, and the 2029 draft, with unprotected picks from both Dallas and Phoenix, could be an absolute bounty. But that’s six years from now! (It doesn’t help that they got rolled on the Harden trade, trading an All-Star for Ben Simmons’ toxic contract and just two firsts, one of which is protected.)

The best year for Brooklyn to tank would have been this current one, since the Rockets’ badness likely makes the pick swap the Nets traded to Houston irrelevant, but Durant and Irving already banked too many wins for that to happen. Instead, Brooklyn is looking at going forward with a team that’s just kind of mid. The Nets have multiple good wings, ample cap room in 2024 and possibly max-ish room again in 2025, when Simmons’ deal finally expires, so it might not be awful. Ironically, their best way back to more immediate relevance is probably to trade their own firsts in 2028 and 2030, leaving the Nets to count on the picks from Phoenix and Dallas to buffet them forward.


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But the Nets aren’t the only team staring this issue in the face. And they’re likely in better shape than most of the others, at least having some young-ish talent and future firsts from other teams to offset the ones going out. The Clippers traded a future All-Star and five firsts to team up George and Leonard. I don’t think they regret that — this is the best era in franchise history — but you can see the handwriting on the wall as those two hit their 30s. The Clippers right now are expensive without being excellent and don’t control their own first-round pick until 2027. Getting through these next four years might be a real slog.

Minnesota has no real tanking incentive until at least 2030, although the Timberwolves at least have a young star (Anthony Edwards) to soften some of the pain. (Minnesota does control its own firsts in 2024 and 2028, which could offer a slim window to nab a high pick.) A max extension for Edwards after this season should keep him in Minnesota through 2029, although the question of what Minnesota might put around him in those late-20s years is a vexing one. The Wolves are committed to Rudy Gobert through 2026 and Karl-Anthony Towns through 2028 (when he makes $60 million!), and the team won’t have much in the way of cap room or picks to supplement this group.

Milwaukee has done everything it could to put a winner around Giannis Antetokounmpo, and bravo to the Bucks for doing so. The strategy won them a championship; I don’t think anyone has anyone regrets. Even here, however, that hangover could be a rough one if Antetokoumpo gets a wandering eye, as he can hit free agency in 2025. The Bucks owe unprotected firsts or swaps every year through 2027 and already are in a situation where they’re an old, expensive team. Antetokounmpo will be 33 in the last of those years; can he still lift a team to 50 wins by himself at that point?

The age of Cleveland’s core likely protects it from the worst downsides of owing unprotected picks, but the Cavs owe Utah though 2029 as a result of the Donovan Mitchell deal. By that point, Mitchell will be 32, the oldest of the Cavs’ four-man core, but Cleveland’s three other stars will still be in their respective primes.

And then, of course, there’s Phoenix, which is out four firsts and features a 34-year-old Durant and a 37-year-old Chris Paul. The Suns likely hope that a relatively young Devin Booker–Deandre Ayton combo can save them from the worst downsides of owing unprotected picks in 2027 and 2029 and an unprotected swap in 2028, but there is no guarantee either of them will be Suns through that point; Booker would be 32 and Ayton 30 by 2029.

Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton. (Mark J. Rebilas / USA Today)

The list goes on: Atlanta owes an unprotected first to the Spurs in 2027; Boston owes a top-one protected swap to the Spurs in 2028; Dallas is out an unprotected first to Brooklyn in 2029; Houston owes top-four protected firsts to the Thunder in 2024 and 2026 and a swap in 2025; the Lakers owe a pick swap to New Orleans this year that likely prevented them from tanking and an unprotected pick to the Pels in either 2024 or 2025.

This is the trend now, and it’s the cost of doing business to acquire All-Star-caliber players. But nobody has had to face the downside of those moves yet; thus far we’ve only seen the midnight martinis phase, with puffed chests, news conferences and All-Stars on the court. There might be not enough V-8 juice in the world for the hangover, though. Some very juicy picks will change hands over the next half decade, and it’s going to be really interesting to look back and see how the franchises that went “all-in” with unprotected future firsts feel about those decisions in 2030.

Rookie of the Week: Jeremy Sochan, PF, San Antonio

I went to State Farm Arena on Saturday to see an already tanktacular Spurs team that was also missing Devin Vassell, Doug McDermott and the recently traded Jakob Poeltl visit Atlanta. Predictably, they got pounded 125-106.

However, it was a great chance to get an up-close look at San Antonio’s emerging rookie from Baylor, Jeremy Sochan. In his return after missing 10 days with back soreness, Sochan had 18 points, nine rebounds and five assists in just 21 minutes, fairly oozing talent at some points even while showing clear areas for improvement.

One of the most intriguing parts is where he can go as an on-ball catalyst; he had five assists on Saturday and matched that in his two previous full outings. The Spurs have used him almost as a point guard at times, especially when he can bring up his own rebound. Watch here, for instance, as he takes his own board up the floor, smartly pulls back on his initial drive and then hits Keldon Johnson on a backdoor cut to draw a foul. (Side note: Is it me or does Johnson look like he’s added some weight since the start of the season? Is swole forward a position?)

Here’s a nice crosscourt read as the de facto point guard to hit Devonte’ Graham for a 3:

Sochan also demonstrates high-wire athleticism at times. In his pregame warm-up, he had an alley-oop from an assistant coach where he had to get to the top of the square (at least) to reach it and slam it down; I though it was a terrible pass at first and didn’t think there was any chance he’d get it.

Warm-up, schwarm-up, though. Once the game started, he did this to Bogdan Bogdanović in transition.

(Sure, maybe he should have dropped it off for KBD. Whatever, square).

You’d like to feel Sochan’s athleticism more often, actually, especially in the air. He’s 6-foot-9 and bouncy, but for the season, his rebound rate is only 10.7 percent, and he blocks just 0.8 shots per 100 possessions. His college numbers were underwhelming here, too. Defensive boards, especially, are an area to work on, since he’s so dangerous on grab-and-goes.

Nonetheless, the make-or-break aspect of his game is likely to be his shooting. Sochan switched to shooting one-handed free throws early in the season and has quickly mastered it; he’s made 40 of his last 48 tries from the line. It’s an unorthodox style — no dribble; just take it one hand and put it up — but if a guy who made 58.9 percent from the stripe in college can become an 80 percent proposition this fast, it’s obviously working.

Alas, shooting in the flow of the game is a different story. It’s a herky-jerky release resulting in a flat shot that sprays unpredictably like a fumbled shower attachment. Sochan made two of his seven 3-point attempts against the Hawks, but the misses weren’t even close. He’s at 26.9 percent from distance on the season, and it’s a shot opponents happily concede to him right now.

I mean … yeah.

Overall, Sochan’s numbers on the season seem pedestrian (11.1 PER, 51.6 percent true shooting), but that masks a lot of the good news in his splits. His usage rate has climbed sharply since the start of the season as he’s become more comfortable playing on the ball, while his rebound rate has also seen a steady uptick. He’s also one of the youngest players in the league, not turning 20 until May, and seems to figure out a new trick every week.

As the Spurs take their lumps over the final two months of the season, Sochan is the one compelling reason to keep watching them. The shooting is obviously a giant question mark, but the outlines of a future star are here.

Prospect of the Week: Cason Wallace, 6-4 freshman PG/SG, Kentucky

I went to Athens this weekend to see Cason Wallace’s Kentucky team take on Georgia and watched him have one of his worst games of the season.

Wallace finished with just five points in a disappointing loss to a meh Georgia team, failing to scratch until the last two minutes, when the game was already over.

Despite that performance, Wallace’s overall body of work is strongly suggestive of a first-round résumé. He’s arguably been Kentucky’s best all-around player as a freshman, even if he’s just fifth on the team in scoring rate.

In particular, Wallace’s feel for the game at the defensive end stands out. He’s averaged a phenomenal 3.8 steals per 100 possessions, and even on plays where he doesn’t nab the ball, he’s shown the knack for being a possession-wrecker. At either guard spot, his ability to defend should translate, and that gives him some floor as a prospect.

The issue for Wallace is going to be how much he can contribute at the offensive end. He played point guard for nearly the entire game against Georgia and made some nice passes out of pick-and-roll and a couple of sweet post entries, but if he got a foot in the paint, I don’t remember it.

Wallace has just 44 free-throw attempts in 24 games this season; while Kentucky’s focus on posting up Oscar Tshiebwe on every play limits the openings for everyone else, his 3.5 free-throw attempts per 100 possessions is nearly the lowest rate on the team.

Wallace is shooting 39.2 percent from 3 this season, but I’m not sure teams will buy him as that level of shooter. Watching him warm up, his ball comes out straight, but his arc tends to vary, and he has a pronounced ball dip on his catch. It’s hardly broken, and he’ll probably be decent enough from the perimeter as a pro, but there is some clean-up work left to do. He actually looked better rolling into short jumpers on the move when I watched him before the game.

The good news is that the “feel factors” — assists, steals, rebounds — tend to be more indicative of pro success than raw bucket-getting, and Wallace has those in his favor. I’d be mildly surprised if Wallace got into the lottery at this point because there are too many questions about his offensive ceiling. However, his defense alone should make him a top-20 pick, and he’s young enough to still get considerably better on offense.


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(Top photo of Gary Payton II: Alika Jenner / Getty Images)

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