“The NBA is a business.”
This is repeated ad nauseam by everyone in the league, from players to agents to executives to coaches. It is cliché, but it’s also stated often as a reminder – a way for individuals around the NBA to desensitize themselves to the fact that out-of-their-control, life-changing moves can happen at any time. Repeat this mantra enough and perhaps the next transaction won’t sting as badly.
Every player has a story about how they learned this league is, first and foremost, a business. While hundreds of men get paid astronomical salaries to play a game they love, cold and calculating decisions must be made because the NBA is a $7 billion industry.
Some players learn the harsh realities second-hand. The 2005-06 New York Knicks had several young players, including Trevor Ariza (20 years old), Nate Robinson (21), Channing Frye (22), David Lee (22) and Mike Sweetney (22). Sweetney, the No. 9 overall pick in the 2003 NBA Draft, was entering his third NBA season after posting career-highs across the board.
A few weeks before the season began, Knicks President of Basketball Operations Isiah Thomas planned a night out for the team so everyone could bond and have some fun. The team rented a fancy restaurant and a nightclub for the evening. Most of the players had a great time, but Sweetney was quiet and kept his head down. When Thomas asked him why he was upset, the big man said he’d seen reports indicating New York might trade him to the Chicago Bulls for Eddy Curry.
“I’m not going to trade you,” Thomas told Sweetney, patting his shoulder. “Go enjoy yourself!”
Sweetney loosened up and enjoyed the rest of the evening.
“A few days later, he came to my room and told me that he had to make the trade and that it was out of his hands,” Sweetney told HoopsHype. “In my opinion, Isiah wanted me there, but ownership wanted me out. Every player wants honesty, wants to know what’s going on. In my situation, I felt like he was coming from a good place and going out of his way to make me feel comfortable [and get the rumors off my mind for at least a night].
“Most of the time, teams just trade you without any warning or conversation – and it’s a business, so I definitely understand it. But it did surprise me because I was young and I didn’t understand that side of the NBA yet.”
The first trade is typically the toughest on a player and it can help to have his agent guide him through it. A good agent is constantly communicating with executives around the league rather than just taking one GM’s word that a deal isn’t happening. If an agent finds out that a trade is likely coming, he might be able to step in so the player ends up in a better situation. Sometimes, an agent can figure out which teams are in the mix for his client and the player can brace himself for the move and get an idea of which suitors are a realistic possibility.
Agents don’t have as much power (or information) during trade season as they do during, say, free agency or the pre-draft process, but sometimes they can help push a player to a better situation or prevent a player from being completely blindsided. HoopsHype talked with a number of NBA agents about what goes on behind the scenes leading up to the trade deadline. The agents requested anonymity to protect the interests of their clients.
WHAT AGENTS DO LEADING UP TO THE DEADLINE
Agent 1: “You’re constantly looking at what’s going on around the league depth-chart wise because you always want to be aware of what possibilities are out there. We have a league-wide depth chart that we’re always updating. We’re always monitoring team situations. Then, you’re focusing on your specific players and what’s going on with them. Last year, I had a player who was unhappy and wanted to be traded, so I started trying to find a suitor that made sense from a fit standpoint and a financial standpoint. You cross a lot of teams off the list of possible suitors because they don’t have a need at that position, they don’t have the assets to make a move or they can’t do a deal financially. It gets to the point where you can typically zero in on about two or three realistic options and they become your primary focus.”
Agent 2: “Honestly, my day-to-day schedule doesn’t change, but I am communicating with teams much more. Rather than just checking in periodically, I’m talking to teams on a daily basis in the weeks leading up to the trade deadline. I need to stay in the know and see what the latest rumors are and find out if any of my guys are coming up. That’s the biggest change for agents: the amount of communication with executives increases.”
Agent 1: “As the trade deadline gets closer, I’m not only calling a lot of executives, I’m also going to more NBA games so I can chat with executives in person – especially the ones I’m close with. If I’m not close with them, I don’t want to say too much, though. Sometimes, information is power. Everyone is trying to figure out what’s really going on and trying to get accurate info.”
Former agent Matt Babcock: “There are some scenarios where a team will be unreasonable and this is when an agent and player can choose to get difficult: going to the press, nagging constantly and so on. If the team is open to moving the player, I would request permission from the general manager to speak with other teams to potentially serve as an intermediary between the teams to potentially strike a deal involving my client.”
Agent 3: “There’s only so much an agent can do. Two teams can negotiate and complete a deal without involving the agent at all. The best thing I can do is dig for information and be completely honest with my player. Don’t just tell the player what he wants to hear; be honest and tell him what’s really happening. These days, more front-office executives will talk directly to the players themselves. There are still some guys who are old-school and they’ll only handle things through the agent. But I’ve noticed more executives will talk to the players and even develop relationships with them rather than being detached [so it’s easier to make tough business decisions].”
Agent 4: “Maybe four-to-five percent of all players are traded around the deadline in any given year, which is less than one player per team. And when you’re dealing with young players, the odds of a trade are even lower. With that in mind, it’s sort of a waste to prepare specifically for the trade deadline, in my opinion. I send that stat to players and the people close to them so they understand how unlikely it is that they’ll be traded. Usually, hearing that will help a guy calm down.”
Matt Babcock: “You’re constantly looking around the NBA for possible landing spots for your client. It’s important for agents to keep a pulse on every team throughout the year. It’s a volatile business. Agents and teams need to be prepared for anything and everything. As an agent, I always prepared for Murphy’s law: whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.”
Agent 1: “In the weeks leading up to the trade deadline, that’s when things are most stressful because you’re having a ton of conversations and trying to figure out what’s real and which teams are actually looking to make moves. By the time the actual day of the trade deadline is here, you’re revisiting conversations and just getting the latest updates and waiting to see if the weeks of talks culminate in an actual move.”
Agent 5: “I never get my information from reports or rumors, so I’m always talking to teams. I only trust the information that I receive directly from executives. I primarily talk to the GMs of the teams that my players are on. I’ll sometimes go a month or two without talking to a specific GM if I don’t represent someone on their roster; those conversations just don’t happen as often. The GMs whom I’m talking to often are the ones who have my players under contract, and I’d say I check in with them weekly [leading up to the deadline]. When I reach out to a team, it’s never confrontational. I try to make it as mutually agreeable as possible. If my player isn’t getting any minutes, I’ll pitch different trade scenarios that I think would be a good fit and I’ll ask the team if they can follow up on those options.”
Agent 6: “With some clients, the concern is that they may get thrown into a trade [as salary filler] and then get waived. Or maybe the team can’t trade them so they’re looking to do a buyout. You need to prepare for that too.”
Agent 5: “Teams play their cards close to their vest, so the earliest that you can start to tell whether a trade deadline will be active is two-to-three days before. But even still, you aren’t sure if a lot of talks will translate into a lot of actual transactions.”
AGENTS GET TRICKY IN HOPES OF PREVENTING TRADES
Agent 6: “Just like some agents will try to create draft promises, there are things that agents try to do around the deadline. They’ll hold a guy out because of an injury, but there’s not really an injury. Or if a guy is injured, you may have him stay out longer and get a strategic second opinion because if he’s not out there playing right before the trade deadline, teams may be wary and not want to deal for him. There are a lot of things agents will try.”
Agent 7: “Agents will leak BS stories and BS information to push for a trade or in an effort to derail a trade, which is definitely an issue for teams.”
Agent 1: “You need to be careful about who you talk to and what you say. People may take your info and tell it to the press. Trading intel is common around the deadline. One time, I was talking with an executive, but I didn’t know him well. I told him that we had a player who was likely getting traded and that Phoenix, Denver and New York were interested. In reality, it was only Denver and New York that were interested. Maybe 12 hours later, I got a call from a reporter and he said, ‘I heard Phoenix is interested in your player?’ You sometimes have to do things like that so you know who to trust and who is leaking info.”
Agent 3: “There are times where a player and their agent will try one of these tricks and then it blows up in their face. I know a player who was being mentioned in trade talks and he didn’t want to get moved. Well, he had been dealing with a minor injury and he decided he was going to sit out a bit longer than necessary because he thought it would show his value to the team and prevent a trade. He did this on two different occasions, on two different teams. It worked the first time because the team missed his production and realized they needed to keep him. The second time, it backfired. The team actually played better without him and he ended up getting traded anyway.”
Agent 1: “It’s risky when you start milking injuries and things like that because it can really hurt how your client is perceived. If anyone were to find out that a player sat out a bit longer because he was trying to block a trade, that becomes really detrimental to your client. Not only does that affect how they’re viewed in the short-term, you could be doing long-term damage to [their stock]. You don’t want that to stick with him.”
Agent 8: “Sometimes, an agent will float out information to scare teams off. For example, an agent may tell a reporter that his client won’t accept a bench role and they’re hoping that may prevent a trade from happening. Agents have to be careful, though. Executives know a lot of these tricks. And now, you have former agents like Bob Myers and Rob Pelinka running teams. You have to be careful because you don’t want to do something that’s going to blow up in your face or hurt your relationship with a front office.”
Agent 5: “There are definitely pros and cons to working with an agent-turned-executive. On one hand, they can relate to you, but I would say it’s typically harder because they know [the tricks].”
Agent 6: “I think it’s easier to deal with former agents because they’ve been on our side. There may be times where it’s tougher to negotiate with them or they spot your bluff, but I think when it comes to their communication and transparency, they are way better to deal with than other GMs.”
Agent 9: “There’s trickery happening on an every-day basis. My job is to do whatever is best for my client. And, look, it’s important to keep in mind that teams do shady stuff too. Executives face a ton of pressure from ownership and fans and stars, so they leak stuff and pull off their own tricks.”
Agent 1: “If you’re a more established agent with a long list of clients, your phone calls get picked up more frequently or returned quicker, but I don’t think most teams treat the agents too differently. They may try to push for a more team-friendly deal or something, but they won’t try to screw the agent over too much because, at the end of the day, that can hurt the front office’s relationship with the player – and that’s the last thing they want.”
DEALING WITH RUMORS AND SPOTTING FAKE NEWS
Agent 7: “Adrian Wojnarowski has a relationship with damn near everybody, so when he says certain things, it’s almost like hearing it directly from a general manager. He talks to executives, agents and players, so when he reports something, everybody pays attention. When he says something is being discussed, you know it’s being discussed. When he says something is going to happen, it’s going to happen. When there’s a rumor from someone else, a player will ask around to figure out if it’s real. When it’s from Woj, it’s treated as fact. Shams Charania is very credible too.”
Agent 5: “I joke with Woj that he knows more about my players’ future than I do. I’ll know if we’re trying to get a player moved, obviously, but sometimes I’m one of the last people to find out if an actual deal is going down. Sometimes, I’m finding out about a trade right before the public… and right after Woj (laughs).”
Matt Babcock: “Certain teams are known to leak information. But I think this is a bigger issue for the teams when they’re dealing with each other. It’s not as much of an issue for the agents who are dealing with the teams. With that said, some agents are known for leaking [BS] and that info getting out is definitely an issue for teams.”
Agent 6: “There are three kind of stories: There are stories floated out by teams, stories floated out by agents and stories floated out there by reporters who just want to put it out there for clicks. The ones that are basically just trade ideas for clicks are frustrating because there may be no substance to the story and it affects the people involved. People forget that there’s a human element here. These players have wives, girlfriends, kids in school. A lot of people read the rumors and believe them, so that’s where you’re causing someone to panic or you’re causing tension. You could affect the player’s performance. It’s one thing if it came from a legitimate source like a team or an agent. The stories I really don’t like are the ones that someone just floats out there and they weren’t able to confirm it with more than one person, but they make it sound like it’s something that could happen in the very near future. You can usually tell those apart [from the credible stories] since it doesn’t match what the teams are saying or make much sense based on everything else you’re hearing, but they’re still frustrating.”
Agent 7: “A lot of it boils down to who’s reporting the story. The most reputable reporters aren’t going to put something out there unless it’s based in fact and close to 100 percent true. If it’s coming from reputable reporter, I’ll believe it. But a lot of the rumors that get started around the trade deadline are put out there by up-and-coming reporters who are trying to make a name for themselves. If they hear anything – any kind of buzz at all – they’ll put it out there. Sometimes, that stuff is coming from one source and they aren’t confirming it or anything. I stay away from all that. If I see something like that, sometimes I’ll go straight to the team to ask if it’s true or not. But usually, I just ignore that stuff and consider the source.”
Agent 9: “I always tell my guys to stay away from the rumors and just listen to me. The information that I have is the most accurate, so there’s no sense in reading the rumors. There’s a lot of misinformation out there. My players understand that people purposely put out false information because they want to influence potential moves. Why listen to what’s out there? It’s probably not true and it’s out there because someone has an agenda. I let my players know the information that pertains to them – the stuff they want to know and need to know. There are a lot of little details that I don’t pass on to them because it’s just unnecessary, extra information. You don’t want the guy to overthink everything. But I tell them all of the important information and make sure they’re up-to-date on what’s happening.”
Agent 5: “I talk to most of my players on a daily basis, but I won’t necessarily bring up rumors with them every single day. These guys are human. Even the ones who say they don’t care and they aren’t affected by it, I’m hard-pressed to believe them. I’m not telling the player, ‘Hey, this team called today,’ or, ‘There were no calls today.’ If there is actual information from a valid source that I can pass on, I’ll brief them on it. But I stress that they should just control what they can control and focus on their play.”
Agent 6: “I try to be completely open with my players and give them all the information. I tell them what teams are looking to do, the likelihood of specific moves and everything I’m hearing. My guys want all of the information, so I give it to them and I’m completely honest.”
Matt Babcock: “I think most players read HoopsHype and other media outlets regardless [of what they’re told]. My approach with players has always been something along the lines of, ‘You’re paid a lot of money to play basketball. You have one of the best jobs in the world. But with such a great job, there are sacrifices that have to be made. This industry is volatile. Let’s control what we can control, check our egos at the door and operate professionally.’”
Agent 7: “I’ve been fortunate enough that teams have been really honest with me when I approach them. If I see a report or hear something from another executive, I’ll go straight to the source and the teams are usually honest. In all my years doing this, I’ve never had a team tell me one thing and then do the exact opposite. I think part of it is that I’ve earned the respect of front-office personnel over the years, so even if it’s something they don’t want to tell me, they’ll be honest. There are times where they’ll beat around the bush or avoid the question or say, ‘I can’t really talk about that right now,’ but they never lie to my face.
Agent 6: “Most executives do a pretty good job of explaining what’s going on and why they’re considering certain moves. Some GMs will even say, ‘Look, if we can get X for your player, we’re going to do the deal.’ They’ll tell you exactly where things stand and how they value your player.”
Agent 7: “You get to know the different personalities and you learn how you need to handle your interactions with every team. Some teams are known to be more open and they don’t really keep things private, so I’ll limit what I tell them. But then there are other executives who I can be completely open with and I know they’ll never tell a single person. That’s one of those things you learn from experience. Yeah, you may get burned a few times [by the teams that leak information], but then you know how to carry yourself around them from that point on.”
Agent 5: “There are one or two teams that are really difficult to deal with. I won’t name the teams, but they just aren’t trustworthy. They will intentionally lie to you. It’s not like something changed at the last second, which does happen. No, they were just being dishonest the entire time. They’ll tell you whatever you want to hear, but they won’t actually follow through with any of the things they’re saying. They just have no integrity. You learn not to believe anything they tell you. And it’s not just at the trade deadline; you can’t trust them around free agency or the draft either. It’s to the point that I won’t even communicate with them because it’s better to just hear nothing from them than listen to their misinformation.”
TEAMS AND AGENTS HAVE TO WORK TOGETHER AT TIMES
Agent 5: “I think if you conduct yourself in a trustworthy and respectful manner, executives will try to do right by you. They obviously have to look out for themselves, but all things being equal, they’ll try do right by you if you’ve been reliable and good to them in the past and you’re a decent person. They aren’t going to make a bad move or put their franchise in a worse position because you’re a nice guy (laughs). But I think it can only help to have positive interactions with them. I’m not one of those agents who likes to fight with executives and have an adversarial relationship. I know there are some people who work that way, but that’s not my style.”
Agent 8: “If you represent a lot of players or work at an agency that represents a lot of players, you get an idea of what a lot of teams are looking to do and that’s when you can try proposing ideas to different teams because you know the trade landscape pretty well. Not every GM will listen to you, but there are some who are willing to have those conversations. When they’re willing to talk through [possible deals], you’re trying to find a salary match and a situational match based on what you’ve heard.“
Agent 1: “By the time a team is asking me to help facilitate a trade, I’ve already done my homework on each team. I always know a handful executives that covet my guys. Sometimes a team will be asking for too much, so they ask me to play middle-man and help them come to a fair agreement.”
Agent 2: “If there’s a team that checks all of the boxes and seems like a great destination for my client and I trust them, I’ll start talking to their front office and maybe even work with them to come up with a trade package they can offer. You start looking at a deal’s possible framework. You wonder if a third team may need to get involved. This doesn’t happen all the time, but it can help move things along in some cases. By the way, if I’m doing this, I’ve already had a discussion with the team that my client is on. I’m never just going rogue. If you try to take things into your own hands, they may get really upset. If that’s the case, you’re actually hurting your client and yourself at that point. I don’t want them to think I’m playing games with them.”
Matt Babcock: “My usual stance is that agents do not have nearly as much power as they say they do; however, in certain trade scenarios, an agent and the player can have a lot of power. For example, Anthony Davis’ situation right now is pretty interesting. He is one of the best players in the world and I think it is safe to say every team in the NBA would add him if given the opportunity. However, it would not make much sense for a team like the Lakers or Celtics to give up significant assets for a player who is a pending free agent without a verbal agreement for an extension from Davis’ agent, Rich Paul. Therefore, Rich and his client have a lot of power and will affect the Pelicans’ trade discussions involving Davis.”
EMOTIONS ARE RUNNING HIGH AROUND THE TRADE DEADLINE
Agent 3: “Sometimes, a player is very hurt if they’re mentioned in trade talks. Sometimes, they’re flattered and it feels good to be wanted. It really depends on the player’s current situation and where he’ll end up.”
Agent 5: “Communicating with your players is so important. You hear about stories where players are upset with their agent or putting pressure on their agent to find a trade, but it’s oftentimes out of the agent’s hands. It all starts with the kind of players you sign. If you represent understanding, self-aware clients, you can keep an open line of communication with them and explain exactly what’s happening.”
Agent 3: “I’ve had a player get traded five minutes before the deadline and we had no idea that his name was even coming up in discussions. He was at the team hotel because they had just played a Western Conference team on the road the night before. Minutes before the deadline, the general manager and head coach called my player and one of his teammates into a conference room and told them they had been traded. Both guys were blindsided by it and they got emotional. Most of the trades that actually happen are the ones that are never mentioned by the press. Reporters get a lot of things right in terms of what discussions happened and who may be available, but most trades happen out of nowhere.”
Agent 5: “The trade deadline is like Christmas for fans. I know it’s a really exciting day, just like the start of free agency. As an agent, there’s some excitement, but there’s a lot of anxiety and stress as well. You need to be by your phone, by your laptop, all day. You need to be ready for anything. Sometimes, there will be a lot of moves and then you suddenly have a lot on your plate. Sometimes, nothing happens and it’s a slow day. On the day of the trade deadline, I’m mainly feeling anxiety about whether moves will be executed smoothly. You don’t want any surprises and you don’t want anything to be held up due to a technicality or things like that.
Agent 1: “When a player wants to be traded, I tell them to be on their best behavior. If they are getting upset, having bad body language, arguing with teammates and posting negative things on social media, it’s only going to be harder to get them dealt. Most guys understand this. It is hard when a deal is close and you’re updating your client on the talks and then the trade falls apart. It’s particularly frustrating when a deal doesn’t get done before the trade deadline because then they must finish the season with that team – unless they get bought out. That happened to one of our players recently. Something was close at the deadline. He was disappointed, but he finished the season strong and carried himself like a pro, so he ended up getting dealt over the summer.”
Agent 3: “When you make that call, some players are happy and thinking, ‘Okay, this will be good. This is a fresh start.’ Some are kind of in shock and thinking, ‘Damn, this is really happening. Now, I have to worry about moving and everything that comes with that.’ Either way, I just try to be as positive as possible and help them in any way I can with the transition, with the move. And your work isn’t done when you make that call. Really, that’s when the process is just starting.”
Agent 1: “Whatever doesn’t happen prior to the trade deadline just rolls over into the offseason. When the deadline passes, you start preparing for the summer since that’s when teams can start trading again. You may still have an ongoing trade situation that needs to be resolved after the deadline, but you can’t do anything about it for a few months. If your player wants to be moved, but it doesn’t happen, you come up with a plan to finish the season with that team and then find a deal in the summer.”
ANXIETY IS HEIGHTENED DUE TO SOCIAL MEDIA
In the past, players could avoid SportsCenter and newspapers if they wanted to stay away from criticism and rumors. Many of today’s players, especially the young prospects who entered the league in recent years, grew up on social media and can’t imagine life without Twitter and Instagram.
Not only do players read their mentions, they’ll search their name to see what else is being said about them. One agent noticed that several of his youngest clients would occasionally get upset and overly critical of themselves. He realized that stemmed from the players searching their own names on Reddit to see what fans were saying about them. The agent begged his clients to stay off the site, but there’s only so much the representative can do in that scenario.
Agent 8: “I wish my clients would stay offline, but today’s young players are obsessed with social media and they let it affect their mood. I’m talking about the guys who entered the NBA in the last two or three years. They’re the ones who use it the most and they really care what’s being said. There have always been sensitive players, but this is different. This should be a whole separate article. These are kids who have used social media their whole life and they let random people have a major impact on their happiness.”
Even if a player stays offline, some information is bound to reach them.
Agent 4: “Everyone is curious about trade rumors, so if a report surfaces and mentions the player’s name, the guy will suddenly get a ton of notifications. Their family and friends will ask about it. Reporters will try to confirm it. Even if the guy tries to tune everything out, some stuff will inevitably leak through. All of this just leads to more anxiety and nervousness as the trade deadline gets closer.”
Agent 6: “The last thing you want, as an agent, is for your client to find out they’ve been traded from Twitter or the TV. That’s become a bigger issue in recent years, so I always stress to teams that I need to be notified before the media. Here’s what is supposed to happen: The two teams agree on a trade. Then, they call both legal departments so the teams can start getting documents drawn up and finalizing the deal. Then, they call the agents to tell us. Then, we call the players to inform them. Then, each team will talk to the player they’re sending out and the player they’re acquiring. Then, after all of that, that’s when they’re supposed to notify the media. That’s good business. That doesn’t usually happen, though.”
Agent 7: “You never want your client to find out they’ve been traded over social media, but it’s happened to even the best of agents. That’s tough. All you can do is try to explain to them ahead of time that guys like Woj and Shams get stuff right from the teams, but that you’ll always do your best to get them the info first. It’s embarrassing when a guy finds out from a reporter, but there’s not much we can do in that scenario.”
Agent 1: “Things used to be very different before social media. Sure, there would be rumors in the newspaper, but people were a lot more selective about what they reported. And if a rumor ended up in USA TODAY or another big newspaper, it was probably fact-checked. Back then, agents could control the information more. You weren’t worried about every little thing leaking. Stuff didn’t get out as often. Now, because it takes a second to tweet and break a story and get a ton of attention, there are way more things being leaked. I have nothing against the media either; I know everyone is just trying to do their job. I get it, but it’s still frustrating.”