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Rentals: The New Age of Trading in the NBA

Paul George by Tom Britt is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Rentals: The New Age of Trading in the NBA

Estimated Reading Time: 6 Minutes

Nothing is more exciting for any sports fan than the trade deadline. Other than your team winning the Championship of course. Funny enough though that usually requires a trade to occur in your team’s favor. Many types have shaped the NBA. Trading has always been centered around money or winning, but recently we have reached a grey area.


Trading: A Dangerous Game

Most people assume there are only two sides to every trade. Common themes tell you one team wants to win now, so they set out to acquire a star or max player while one team is in search of younger assets to begin a rebuilding process. For example, Boston’s famous robbery of the Brooklyn Nets.

Brooklyn got two playoff appearances out of that trade and we’ve all seen what has happened since. Not all “contenders” get it right. Sometimes, however, a team is simply not willing to pay a player the salary they believe they warrant. The player is then traded to gain a return rather than watching them walk for nothing. This is where the term Rental comes into play. A rental trade usually occurs when a star player doesn’t have a no-trade clause. With that, the current GM may trade the players expiring contract to the highest bidder, regardless of what team it is. Think of this as borrowing a players talents.

This almost always leads to one team getting burned in Free Agency. In 2003, Gary Payton was traded to Milwaukee for Ray Allen. Milwaukee made the playoffs with Payton before he signed a deal with the Lakers that off-season. The Lakers famously traded for Dwight Howard in 2012 only to have him flee for Houston at the end of the season.

The rental idea is a risky business to get into. However, amongst some notable failures, there have been successes. In 2004, Rasheed Wallace was traded from the Trailblazers to Atlanta and then to Detroit. At the end of that season, he signed a 5 year deal with Detroit making the playoffs every year and the Finals once. Rentals can go either way. You can be the team forced to trade, or the team forced to risk it all, both scenarios are troublesome for any GM. No GM understands this concept better than Sam Presti at Oklahoma City.

Trading Places: Thunder Edition

The Thunder once had Westbrook, Harden and Durant…and Ibaka. Now they have…Westbrook. This is beside the point though. What I’m getting at is they have been on both sides of this risky style of trading. October 2012, roughly 4 months after losing in the Finals to Lebron James and the Miami Heat. The Thunder failed to reach an agreement with Sixth Man of the Year, James Harden. This led to a trade with Houston, a team looking for a superstar willing to gamble on the future. The Harden rental has since paid off for the Rockets. They were able to reach a contract agreement by the deadline to avoid making the trade enter into an uncertain area. Since signing his extension the Rockets have made it to two Western Conference Finals and Harden has won the NBA MVP award.

Fast forward to 2016, The Thunder go up 3-1 on the Warriors before dropping 3 straight to lose yet another Western Conference Finals in the absence of James Harden. In a contract year for Serge Ibaka, the Thunder decided to trade him to Orlando, as a rental, for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. A trade that worked in their favor finally. Serge would eventually leave Orlando to sign a deal with Toronto. (Another botched rental) However, when Durant left in free agency for the Warriors, this left OKC with a massive hole. That year Westbrook still got the Thunder to the playoffs and won MVP. Using this success they made two rental trades of their own that off-season.

  1. Using their winnings from the Serge Ibaka trade, OKC acquires Paul George. George is in his last year with the Pacers with no interest in re-signing. In fact, he wants to sign with the Lakers. Determined to get better Presti ignores this and rolls the dice on what seems to be just a one-year rental.
  2. The Thunder send Enes Kanter, Doug Mcdermott, and Chicago’s 2018 2nd round pick to New York for Carmelo Anthony, another one-year rental that desperately wanted out of his current situation.

The Results

A year later and the results for the team didn’t change. Another first-round playoff exit. With Lebron going to LA it was considered certain that Paul George would follow. However, this rental paid off and George decided to sign a 4 year deal with OKC. The Carmelo rental went according to plan as well, but in a different way. With no desire to re-sign him, the Thunder dealt him to Atlanta. The trade sent OKC a solid backup to Westbrook in Dennis Schroder and a young wing in Timothy Luwawu-Cabarrot. Sam Presti is the perfect example of if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again. The Harden trade was obviously a bad decision, but hindsight is 20/20 and he has seemingly fixed his mistakes with the Paul George Experiment. Now for Oklahoma City and Sam Presti, the question is how will the next four years go?

The New NBA Trading Landscape

So, What does this mean for the NBA? For one thing, it means even more player mobility. With all the different aspects included in NBA contracts, this could spell the end to the no-trade clause. Which would give owners and GMs a little more security in regards to handling their rosters. However, with so many expiring contracts being traded recently, this will surely mean larger free agency pools. The biggest Rental to date will be Kawhi Leonard. Recently traded from San Antonio due to a strained relationship with the organization. Toronto became the highest bidder and will get to give him their best season-long pitch to sign a long-term deal with them.

Other notable rentals that will be up for renegotiation soon are Kyrie Irving and Jimmy Butler. Two players traded from their respective organizations to contenders looking for leadership. In Irving’s case he went from one contender to another but still may seem unhappy with his location. He has been linked with the New York Knicks in the past and will be able to opt out of his deal after this season. Butler, also vocally unhappy with his new team, will be able to opt out at the end of this season too. The experiment continues and at the end of this year, I suspect we will have a better grasp on how the Rental Trading market is doing. I’m all for player mobility and personally find this style of trading to be good for the league’s popularity.

Predictions for 2019

Kyrie Irving will opt out and test the free agent waters no matter what success Boston finds this year. He has shown a liking to being the “Man of the House” with his respective organization. I suspect he feels Boston doesn’t view him this way and he will leave for the Knicks.

Kawhi Leonard will play out the entire 2018-19 season as a Toronto Raptor. He is far and away the top dog of that roster and will find success in a weak Eastern Conference. I believe he will sign an extension to stay in The North with a player option in case things go south quickly.

Jimmy Butler will be traded before this season ends due to a strained relationship with his new Organization. He will want to play for a contender and I think the Lakers will have the winning bid for an athletic wing who can defend.

For those keeping score at home, that’s 1 out of 3 for the new wave of Rental Experiments!

A Florida Boy who now calls LA his home now! In my free time all I do is watch sports and look up stats. I love all things college football, especially my beloved Miami Hurricanes! I also partake in my fair share of Fantasy Football and Basketball.

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