Four Common Misconceptions About NBA Trades

The NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement is a complex and often confusing document outlining the rules related to player contracts, trades, the salary cap, and much more. These rules are convoluted enough that we introduced a Hoops Rumors Glossary dedicated to unpacking a number of CBA intricacies and breaking them down in simpler terms.

While our readers are far more familiar than the average NBA fan with the terms and rules found in our glossary, we still see a few of the same trade-related questions and misconceptions surface in the comment sections of our articles or in the replies to our tweets. So, with the February 8 trade deadline right around the corner, we wanted to address a few of those misconceptions, ensuring that you have an even clearer sense of what sort of deals can and can’t be made this week.

Let’s dive right in…

Misconception #1: A player can’t be traded twice in a row.

There are a number of rules in the CBA that limit a team’s ability to reacquire a player after trading him. For instance, the Bucks weren’t able to re-sign Greg Monroe after the Suns bought him out last week, since Milwaukee traded Monroe to Phoenix earlier this season. The Celtics currently aren’t able to reacquire Avery Bradley in a trade, since they dealt him to Detroit at the start of the 2017/18 league year.

However, even though the Celtics and Pistons can’t currently acquire Bradley from the Clippers, the veteran guard is eligible to be traded again this week. The CBA only prevents the Clips from aggregating Bradley’s salary with another player’s salary in a trade for two months after acquiring him.

What exactly does that mean? Well, Bradley is currently earning $8,808,989. So if the Clippers want to acquire a player earning $20MM by packaging Bradley with Austin Rivers (whose salary is $11,825,000), they wouldn’t be able to do so, since Bradley’s salary would have to be aggregated with Rivers’ to match that $20MM cap figure. But if the Clips simply want to acquire a player earning $9MM, sending out Bradley on his own would be fine, since his salary isn’t been aggregated with another player’s salary in that scenario.

This doesn’t mean that Bradley has to be the only outgoing piece in any trade involving him. For instance, if the Clippers wanted to trade Bradley and DeAndre Jordan ($22,642,350) for a player earning $25MM, that would be okay. Jordan’s salary on its own is large enough to “match” a player earning $25MM, so Bradley’s salary doesn’t need to be aggregated with Jordan’s, even though it’d be a two-for-one deal.

Misconception #2: Injured players can’t be traded.

This misconception may be rooted in the NBA 2K video game series, which has historically prevented users from trading injured players. Despite existing in the game, this rule doesn’t exist in the real NBA.

Players involved in a trade generally must pass physical examinations with their new teams before a trade is made official, and there are certain situations in which this becomes problematic. At the 2016 trade deadline, for example, a three-team trade fell apart when the Pistons voided the agreement over the results of Donatas Motiejunas‘ physical.

More recently, the Cavaliers‘ concerns over Isaiah Thomas‘ physical last August delayed the completion of their blockbuster trade with the Celtics by a week, with Boston ultimately sending another draft pick to Cleveland to help ease the Cavs’ concerns.

In each of those cases though, the problem wasn’t that a player involved in the deal had health concerns — it was that one team was caught off guard by the extent of those health concerns. If an injured player needs to be included in a deadline deal for salary-matching purposes, there’s no rule stopping that. The team acquiring that injured player just needs to be on board — and willing to waive the requirement that the player must pass his physical.

Misconception #3: A team can agree to pay a player’s salary when trading him away.

In an MLB trade, a team can trade a player with, say, $25MM left on his contract and agree to pay most or all of that salary. That flexibility makes it a little easy for teams to dump overpaid players from their roster, and a club’s willingness – or lack thereof – to pay a traded player’s salary will often have an impact on what kind of return the club gets for its player. Pay that entire $25MM in remaining salary, and maybe you’ll get a good prospect or two in exchange.

NBA trades don’t provide this same kind of financial flexibility. A team can include cash in a trade, but there are annual limits on how much can be sent or received in trades, and that money isn’t technically applied specifically to a player’s salary.

There are ways to get around this rule in certain cases. A July 2017 trade between the Heat and Mavericks is a good case study. In the deal, Dallas acquired Josh McRoberts ($6,021,175 cap hit), $5.1MM in cash, and a future second-round pick from Miami in exchange for A.J. Hammons ($1,312,611 cap hit). The Heat desperately needed a little more cap room to finalize agreements with Dion Waiters, James Johnson, and Kelly Olynyk, and since cash included a trade doesn’t count toward either team’s cap, the McRoberts/Hammons swap allowed Miami to clear $4,708,564 in cap room, the difference between the two players’ salaries.

By including $5.1MM in cash in the deal, the Heat covered that difference, adding a little extra money in for good measure. So while the move cost the Mavs some cap room, they came out ahead from a spending perspective, and even picked up a second-round pick in the process.

The Heat essentially agreed to pay McRoberts’ salary in that deal, but it was a somewhat unique scenario, and it also shows how limited a team’s ability to sweeten the pot with cash can be. Because $5.1MM is the maximum amount a team can trade or receive this year, the Heat immediately became ineligible to include cash in another deal until next July. Additionally, while that annual limit allowed Miami to cover a modest expiring contract like McRoberts’, it wouldn’t help the Knicks much as they try to trade Joakim Noah.

In addition to still being owed the prorated portion of this year’s $17,765,000 salary, Noah has nearly $38MM left on his deal over the following two years. New York can’t offer to cover a significant portion of that remaining salary in order to dump Noah. The most the Knicks could attach in cash would be this season’s limit, $5.1MM.

Misconception #4: Teams can’t trade away first-round picks in consecutive years.

The Ted Stepien Rule, which we described in an updated glossary entry last month, is another complicated rule that is often misinterpreted. The rule prevents a team from leaving itself without first-round picks in back-to-back future seasons. However, a team can still trade its first-round pick every year, if it so desires.

Consider the Wizards. A year ago, Washington traded its 2017 first-round pick in a deadline deal for Bojan Bogdanovic. Does that mean the Wizards can’t trade their 2018 first-rounder? Nope. As soon as the 2017 draft passed, that 2018 first-rounder once again became trade-eligible, since Washington still has its 2019 pick. Trading the 2018 first-round selection now wouldn’t leave the team without first-rounders in consecutive future seasons, so it doesn’t violate the Stepien rule.

The rule also technically does allow a team to trade away its own first-round picks in consecutive future seasons as long as the team has acquired at least one first-round pick from another club in either of those two years. For instance, the Cavaliers have already traded away their 2019 first-rounder, but they could still trade away their 2018 first-round pick, since they’re owed the Nets‘ first-rounder in 2018. The Stepien rule would only block Cleveland from trading both of its 2018 first-rounders without securing another first-round pick for ’18 or ’19 in the process.

Are there other common misconceptions about NBA trade rules that we’re leaving out? Let us know in the comment section!

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