The allure of the franchise-altering trade is what drives the excitement behind the deadline, but the reality of most deadlines is that standing pat is often a wise choice for the vast majority of quasi-contenders. Two of those teams, the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors, did exactly that despite a treasure trove of assets and young prospects that could have been used to make a splash. Both teams remained quiet as Thursday afternoon’s deadline passed, something that looking back on things years from now, could prove to be a very wise decision for each franchise.
Of course today, it might be a tough pill to swallow for Raptors fans given the current state of their franchise. All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry is probably closer to the end of his prime than the beginning of it. Demar DeRozan is set to enter a wild free agent market this summer. On top of that, there is an intense desire for the franchise to get past the first round of the playoffs. Clearly there will be a lot hand-wringing over Masai Ujiri's passiveness if the second half of the season and the playoffs turn out to be a nightmare on par with last year.
But a frank assessment of the situation probably leads to the conclusion that the player Toronto would have needed to acquire this week in order get near the same level as the league’s top four teams -- Golden State, San Antonio, Cleveland and Oklahoma City -- just wasn’t realistically available. Power forward upgrades like Thad Young, Markieff Morris, Ryan Anderson and the rest of the rumor mill occupants are all nice pieces (in certain contexts) and you could certainly make arguments for how they’d be an improvement over the status quo. Yet none of those guys are true game-changers and each carries with them at least one fatal flaw (at least in concert with the current Raps personnel) that will rear it’s ugly head come playoff time.
With that being the case, no move was better for Toronto than sacrificing some potential future assets just for the appearance of improvement. The same can be said for Boston’s deadline day inactivity.
Unlike the Raptors, the Celtics are out star shopping, not looking for complementary pieces. Kevin Love was a name floated around in the trade rumor winds this week and Boston was almost certainly burning up the phone lines seeking an impact player. Yet the impact player that the C’s are looking for may already be in town, he just doesn’t wear a uniform.
Brad Stevens molded an eclectic collection of young talent into the East’s third (maybe second?) best team. The common refrain around NBA circles is “Just wait until Stevens gets a star.” But with the momentum the franchise has going for it now, is it prudent to tear out part of the foundation in an attempt to get flawed or mercurial stars like Love or DeMarcus Cousins -- another rumored target?
Instead, it seems like Boston may benefits from moving forward into the summer in position to slowly add to this core of youngsters being molded by Stevens. And make no mistake about it, this Boston team is on the right side of the age bracket. Most of the Celtics most prized performers -- Jae Crowder, Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley -- are all under the age of 27. That’s incredible in itself, given that Stevens has this team on pace for nearly 50 wins without even knowing what they have yet when it comes to recent draft picks Marcus Smart, RJ Hunter, Jordan Mickey, James Young and Terry Rozier. While it’s unlikely that any of the players approximates the stature or individual success of someone like Love, they could turn out to still be very impactful players for a team that isn’t contending on a timeline.
That Brooklyn pick Boston owns, and would have most certainly had to part with had they been involved in a deadline day blockbuster, is a different story. That pick could very well produce a player like Love, much to Nets fans’ chagrin. Using it to add to a rebuild that’s organically grown thanks to good drafts and savvy trades -- like the ones that brought in Thomas and Crowder -- seems like an acceptable path, even if it means Boston still lacks a traditional superstar.
The other reason that both the Raptors and Celtics may look smart for sitting out this year’s deadline is because it puts them in the same philosophical state as the NBA’s model franchise: the Spurs. As much as San Antonio gets lauded for their sustained success, one of the key ingredients for their extended run has often been overlooked. Especially in this most recent decade, the Spurs a commitment to building the back half of their roster, particularly through the development of young, sometimes discarded, prospects, has been essential to extending the team’s championship window.
Having youth, depth and production in roster spots 4-12 won’t win a championship by itself, but it’s hugely important for team trying to contend. Having that approach also stops franchises from falling off a cliff when their core contributors depart, decline or miss time with injuries -- just look at how the Lakers, whose top heavy, star-centric approach, have fared in Kobe Bryant’s twilight. In order to do build those spots, teams should probably avoid things like selling off assets near the trade deadline for pseudo stars or players that barely move the needle in the short term.
Had Toronto made a deal for a power forward, still flamed out in this upcoming postseason and lost DeRozan in free agency because of it, they wouldn’t be in dire straights. But there’s no denying that by holding onto their assets, particularly the Knicks pick they own, and young players at this deadline, the Raptors are in a much better position to move forward should such a scenario unfold. For the Celtics, their patience buys them time to assess both how potential targets like Love and their own young players fare over the coming months, something a team with so much youth on their roster can afford given the luxury of an expanded timeline and, maybe more importantly, lowered expectations.
Living in the limbo of opportunity cost is a tough place for both fans and franchises. Seeing the Celtics get Love or Raptors get Young provides an immediate return and sets each team on a tangible path of wins and losses going forward. The theoretical outcomes that lie ahead are much more frustrating to assess, mainly because they simply take time to evaluate.
But as basketball legend John Wooden is famously quoted for saying, “Never mistake activity for achievement.” By choosing to avoid activity on Thursday’s deadline, Boston and Toronto may have achieved a great deal, it just may be awhile before we can really see all that they’ve gained.