The end of untouchable assets in the NBA

WALTHAM, MA - SEPTEMBER 26: General manager Danny Ainge of the Boston Celtics speaks with the media during Boston Celtics Media Day on September 26, 2016 in Waltham, Massachusetts. (Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images)
WALTHAM, MA - SEPTEMBER 26: General manager Danny Ainge of the Boston Celtics speaks with the media during Boston Celtics Media Day on September 26, 2016 in Waltham, Massachusetts. (Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images) /

While the blockbuster trade revolving around exchanging Kyrie Irving for Isaiah Thomas and a slew of assets — the quality of the assets being the primary hang-up — remains up in the air, thanks to Thomas’s purported hip issues, it still marks a new era in the NBA’s second season.

Whether or not this trade eventually goes through, the sheer fact that it was even considered, that two Conference rivals that just faced off against each other in the Eastern Conference Finals would get on the phone and seriously discuss trading two of their most prized assets, is groundbreaking. Hell, some front offices consider in-division trades taboo — regardless of where their potential bartering buddies fall in the pecking order relative to them. Even this offseason, rumors were floated the Indiana Pacers wouldn’t deal Paul George to the Celtics because they were in the same conference, forget the fact Boston’s success would have virtually no effect on Indiana’s inevitable rebuild.

That both the Cavs’ new front office brass, headed by GM Koby Altman, and the longtime architect of Boston’s roster, GM Danny Ainge, actually agreed to pull the trigger, is instructive. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, this would be the first time in NBA history that an offseason trade went down between teams that just faced off in the Conference Finals.

Read More: Jaylen Brown vs. Jayson Tatum — how high do their ceilings go?

These are teams operating in the a world order. And it begs the question: Has the dominance of the Durant-led Golden State Warriors, with a combination of talent and functionality that put LeBron’s Miami Heat super-teams to shame, combined with the advent of the new super-max contract extension, rendered the trade market into a world, where nobody — possibly for the first time in NBA history — is untradable?

Let’s start with the specter of the Warriors, which is turning team-building into a go-for-broke proposition. The best move for a franchise that’s hoping to win a championship in the next decade is to either rebuild and hope to latch onto a couple young stars that hit their prime right around Golden State’s demise, or to put all their eggs in the basket marked “present.” Which means teams on the brink are going to have to be willing to do what they wouldn’t in the past.

Ask yourself this: If you’re the Cavs’ front office, and you think this deal makes you better, can you even remotely consider the fact that it might also make the Celtics better, when the challenge of beating the Warriors in the NBA Finals looms so large? An incremental improvement in Boston is nothing compared to the threat beyond The Wall.

And then there’s the designated player contract, or the super-max, which allows qualifying players to sign contracts that are worth 30 to 35 percent of the cap — think Steph Curry’s freshly inked five-year, $201 million contract, or James Harden’s $228 million deal. That pay jump is a cap-killer, and it’s forcing team’s to make tough calls on stars for whom they would have otherwise strapped on their rose-colored grasses and tied their franchises hopes to.

Jimmy Butler stands out as a prime example: A top-10 player, a bonafide two-way force, an all-NBAer and an Olympian. He likely would have helped the Bulls scrape by into multiple playoff seasons, but they opted to deal him for young assets, an early signal that the supermax might apply only to bonafide MVP candidates, guys who you could genuinely envision leading a team to the Larry O’Brein. Filling up seats is no longer enough, which means second-tier franchise stars that otherwise would have commanded a haul in a trade may be on the shopping block.

All of which brings us to the bonafide supermax stars, the untouchables, where they’re level of agency alone — their individual power — ironically renders them tradable. Let’s take LeBron James, who once topped a one-man list of untradable players. These days, The King is the subject of so many trade rumors, some of them even saying there’s a zero percent chance he’s back in Cleveland after this season, that the Cavs at least have to consider it. A scenario a posited before the potential Irving deal: What if Boston threw the kitchen sink — Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Jae Crowder, and the 2018 Brooklyn pick — for LeBron? If the rumors of his departure persisted and the Warriors looked like they were in position to mince Cleveland again, the front office would at least have to think about it.

Next: Jae Crowder is the role player LeBron James and the Cavaliers have been missing

That brings us to the Warriors, who hold the most untradable player in the league in Kevin Durant. Let’s be real for a second: In the right scenario, there’s no way I’d put it past the most disruptive, forward-thinking front office in the NBA to trade Steph Curry, especially if there’s trouble in paradise. So that’s where we are: The most untradable player in the NBA plays for the one front office in the NBA that constantly shirks conventional wisdom, that’s liable to do anything, public opinion be damned so long as they believe it’s the right move. There’s always a chance that the Warriors will eventually be forced to keel over in the face of the world they created. It’s hard to envision that possibility, but there was also a time it was hard to envision the two best teams in the conference exchanging their All-Star point guards.

This might be where the buck stops. Hell, maybe Durant is untradable. But nobody else is, and the safest player in the league, for the first time, has never been less safe.