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The Science Survey

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The Science Survey

We've got the news down to a science!

The Science Survey

Unraveling the Web of Forced Trades in the NBA

Behind the scenes of forced trades that have shaken the foundation of professional basketball.

In the high-stakes world of basketball, where talent collides and teamwork is reinforced, the National Basketball Association (NBA) stands out above all others as the pinnacle of the basketball world. 

Despite the reputation it has as being one of the most innovative major professional leagues in North America, the glamor and glitz surrounding the league still has imperfections within that persist. Among these issues are trades – a fundamental pillar of how the NBA functions. Trades in the NBA, along with the seasonal draft, are the mechanisms teams use to form a championship contending squad or rebuild their roster. However, there has been an underlying issue of players forcing their way onto a specific team. The result of forced trades leads to disruption in teams’ rosters and the discontent of fans. Forced trades also introduce possible hindrances to the market of the league as a whole. It has been an unresolved problem since the league’s inception, and it is just as persistent now.

The NBA is composed of 30 teams, divided into two conferences (Eastern and Western), each conference further subdivided into three divisions. Within this framework, teams engage in trade negotiations throughout the season and must adhere to NBA trade deadlines. These transactions can involve multiple teams over the exchange of one or more players and future picks in the NBA draft, complicating the process.

Player contracts are the cornerstone of NBA trades. These are intricate transactions governed by the league’s collective bargaining agreement. Players, draft picks, and cash considerations are the primary assets exchanged in these deals. While most players can be traded, there are exceptions: newly signed free agents, rookie-scale extensions, and no-trade clauses. Teams must adhere to salary matching rules to ensure that the trade aligns with the league’s salary cap regulations. The NBA trade deadline typically falls in February, which helps limit trade activity during the season. For the current season, it runs from the start of the season to February 9th, 2024. 

When the status of an NBA team becomes unappealing for a superstar, whether it be that they are no longer a championship-contending team, or the superstar wants a change of scene, they will pressure their management to seek a way out for them. 

Here are some of the most well-known forced trades in recent years.

James Harden

One of the most high-profile forced trades in recent memory involves James Harden’s tumultuous exit from the Houston Rockets. Despite being the face of the franchise for nearly a decade, Harden expressed his desire to leave Houston at the beginning of the 2020-2021 season. He cited a lack of championship opportunities as his primary reason for wanting out. His public frustration and off-court behavior, which included attending events and disregarding COVID-19 safety protocols, put immense pressure on the Rockets to accommodate his wishes. Eventually, Harden was traded to the Brooklyn Nets in a blockbuster four-team deal, effectively ending his era in Houston.

Anthony Davis

Another notable forced trade occurred when Anthony Davis, one of the league’s premier talents, informed the New Orleans Pelicans of his intention to leave. Davis made it clear that he had no intention of signing a contract extension with the Pelicans, putting the team in a precarious position. The saga culminated in a trade to the Los Angeles Lakers during the 2018-2019 season, where he joined forces with LeBron James. While the Pelicans received a package of young talent and draft picks in return, Davis’s departure was a stark example of a star player pushing his way to a more competitive situation.

Kyrie Irving

Kyrie Irving, despite winning an NBA championship with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016, requested a trade in 2017, forcing the Cavaliers’ hand. Irving was discontent with his role playing alongside LeBron James and sought a new challenge. His trade request led to a deal with the Boston Celtics, which brought the Cavaliers Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, and a first-round pick. This move highlighted the power of star players to influence team decisions and the intricacies of managing roster dynamics.

Damian Lillard

In the most recent chapter of this saga, talks about forced trades came back into conversation on the discussion of where to send the NBA superstar, Damian Lillard. A player who has been loyal to his team, the Portland Trail Blazers, ever since he was drafted in 2011, felt that his talent has been wasted in recent years.

Damian Lillard, the all-NBA point guard of the Portland Trail Blazers since he was drafted in 2012, finally left the team after the blockbuster trade involving the Portland Trailblazers, Milwaukee Bucks, and the Phoenix Suns. (Photo Credit: Erik Drost, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)

Lillard has put up numbers that would consider him one of the best point guards in the league right now, but the lack of a supporting cast on the Trailblazers made Lillard contemplate his future as part of the team. In the last decade, the Blazers’ appearances in the playoffs were met with a swift departure. Even in the last two seasons, the Blazers missed the mark completely. Acting with urgency, Lillard yearned for a supporting cast that would ultimately elevate both his game and the team’s fortunes; he knew his years in the NBA were numbered, so he wanted to take action sooner rather than later. 

Through use of the media, Lillard implied that he wanted to be traded to the Miami Heat. However, the League issued the memo that any player who tries to force their way to a team would receive disciplinary action. 

Regardless, the possible deal between the Trailblazers and the Heat quickly fizzled out, as the Heat provided no interest in landing Lillard in their roster. Even with the added pressure of Lillard’s request, he was forced to broaden his horizon to explore other options. 

The opportunity to play with Giannis Antetokunpo piqued Lillard’s interest and the blockbuster trade, now to the Milwaukee Bucks, was finalized in the later end of the off-season. “I think everyone expected Lillard to go to the Heat, so it was really surprising to see him get traded to a different team all of a sudden,” said Vikram Pallan ’25, an avid fan of the Miami Heat.

Now, the issue lies in the hands of the NBA. How should the league address the issue of forced trades that’s been haunting the NBA for decades? 

The most the league has done, prior to the Lillard situation, is practically nothing. 

Ben Simmons, an NBA superstar who forced his way out of the Philadelphia 76ers, was ridiculed for trying to leave the team – and is often regarded as a traitor. Some portions of the media referred to Simmons’ pressured departure in a humorous way, known as the “Ben Simmons Rule.” 

However, the league did not take any explicit action on the players who have tried to force trades away from teams; they only expressed disapproval along the way. Due to the leniency shown in this type of situation, nothing prevented the Lillard controversy from happening.

“I think a lot of leniency and ignorance shown to the situation has to do with the general culture of the NBA,” Pallan said. 

And he may be right. If the league isn’t losing money, they often don’t care. Owners of NBA teams don’t see the departure of superstars as a somber moment; players are expected to be moved around, and at the end of the day, it’s just part of business. In fact, even if a superstar leaves their team, it garners more publicity and attention from the media, and hence, more money. The NBA may simply be missing leverage that would give them complete control over players, and because their income isn’t negatively affected by this issue, forced trades aren’t their biggest priority.

“I think a lot of leniency and ignorance shown to the situation has to do with the general culture of the NBA,” said Vikram Pallan ’25.

About the Contributor
Jack Murdock, Staff Reporter
Jack Murdock is a News Editor for ‘The Science Survey.’  He seeks to use journalism and photography as a means to uncover stories that are overlooked by many. Outside of journalism, Jack enjoys playing ultimate frisbee, traveling to faraway places, and cooking meals for his family at home. He is planning on pursuing a career in the humanities or the field of diplomacy.