The NBA is about superstar players. LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant. The players that drastically improve a team’s chances to win a championship.
There are three ways franchises can go about acquiring these players – free agency, the draft or through trades. The draft and trades prove the most effective routes for teams in smaller markets that aren’t based in cities that entice big name free agents. And that’s exactly why asset accumulation has become so prevalent as a front office strategy in recent years, especially when rebuilding.
But reducing players to “assets” ignores the intangible human element of sports. Personalities, chemistry, effort, reputation and countless other factors can be negatively impacted by the cold, harsh reality of a franchise pursuing this strategy. These are the risks NBA front offices run and there’s already been countless examples.
Asset accumulation – the act of teams trading for as many players on favourable contract terms or draft picks as possible – helps organizations land superstar talent down the line. Having numerous draft picks improves a team’s chances of selecting a young star, or they can be packaged, along with players, as part of a trade for an established superstar. Teams trading for superstars isn’t a new phenomenon, unlike asset accumulation, but previous superstar trades are a far cry from the superstar trades of today.
In 1975, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers from the Milwaukee Bucks (alongside Walt Wesley) for Junior Bridgeman, Dave Meyers and Elmore Smith. In 1992, Charles Barkley was traded to the Phoenix Suns from the Philadelphia 76ers for Jeff Hornacek, Andrew Lang and Tim Perry. The team that gained the best player was declared the ‘winner’.
Now, trades are no longer measured by who receives the best player – what they give up getting that player is taken into account. One of the recent, and more notorious, asset accumulators, Oklahoma City Thunder GM Sam Presti, has ‘won’ trades by swapping superstar players for various assets, not just other players.
For example, at the start of last season, Presti traded Russell Westbrook to the Houston Rockets for their 2024 and 2026 first-round draft picks, the right to swap first-round picks in 2021 and 2025, and Chris Paul.
By traditional standards, the Rockets ‘won’ that trade. They gained the better player in Westbrook – a former MVP who was named an All-Star, and a member of an All-NBA team, in eight of his last nine seasons. Chris Paul hadn’t been an All-Star since 2016 – his penultimate season with the Clippers.
Presti knew this, so to take on Paul’s contract (which was comparable to Westbrook’s in terms of salary but not in player performance) Houston would need to provide more assets – which they did. The Thunder also more than likely tried to trade Paul before the start of that season, but the future Hall of Fame point guard ended up staying in OKC and recapturing his All-NBA form, which undoubtedly improved his trade value.
Paul was traded to Phoenix in November, with OKC gaining yet another first-round selection and players they again moved for even more draft picks.
With the Rockets now facing an uncertain future, the draft picks Presti obtained have increased in value – and they aren’t the first load of assets he’s accumulated from another team.
When Paul George was traded from the Thunder to the Los Angeles Clippers, Presti got his money’s worth. Not only did he gain five first-round picks (and the right to swap two others) he acquired Danilo Gallinari’s expiring contract and promising young guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. He didn’t just obtain draft capital, but also the asset of a young player.
In New Orleans, David Griffin was praised for the Anthony Davis trade – despite the Los Angeles Lakers ending up with the best player, and eventually the title – as he received not just three first round-picks, but young, promising players.
Recently, Griffin again did something similar, managing to obtain two first-round picks and the right to swap two others from Milwaukee, in a four-team trade centered around Jrue Holiday. Oddly enough that trade also involved Presti’s Thunder, with them sending Steven Adams to New Orleans for players and a first-round pick.
But despite assets becoming the league’s most valuable commodity, asset accumulation is not without its risks – as one of its pioneers has shown.
In 2013, Boston Celtics GM Danny Ainge traded 35-year-old Jason Terry, 35-year-old Paul Pierce and 37-year-old Kevin Garnett to the Brooklyn Nets. He received assets. These came in the shape of five players, three first-round picks and the right to swap first-round picks in 2017.
And so began Ainge’s journey of asset accumulation.
Much like Presti, Ainge would take, or give up, almost anything, as long as he was receiving something with perceived value – all with the aim of helping his team in the future. He took on bad contracts, traded away star players and dumped salaries to free up roster spots. In 2014 he traded away the last remaining starter from Boston’s 2008 championship team, Rajon Rondo, for three players and draft picks. He also essentially traded his head coach, Doc Rivers, for a first-round selection.
In 2017, a pick from that Brooklyn trade became the number one overall pick in the upcoming draft. Ainge traded down to third overall, acquired other picks, and drafted Jayson Tatum – a future All-NBA player – to partner with Jaylen Brown, who was selected in 2016 using yet another of Brooklyn’s picks.
Then later that year, a superstar became available, and Ainge finally got his chance. He traded Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and a 2018 first-round pick to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Kyrie Irving. Ainge had acquired three of those four assets from previous trades, as the first-round pick was Brooklyn’s.
Whether Kyrie was a success in Boston or not, his trade showed the benefits of asset accumulation as Ainge drastically sped up the Celtics’ rebuilding process. But at the same time, he also showed the pitfalls of this method.
Because of these accumulated assets, the Celtics have been constantly linked with trades for star players like Jimmy Butler, Paul George, and Anthony Davis. But any future trades have been jeopardized by Ainge’s moves in the past.
Months before the Kyrie Irving deal, Isaiah Thomas scored 33 points in a playoff game for Boston the day after the death of his sister. Then, in a later round, he exacerbated a hip problem whilst playing through injury. Despite endearing himself to Boston’s fans throughout this playoff run, Ainge still shipped Thomas away.
This treatment of Thomas negatively impacted people’s perception of the Celtics, as Anthony Davis’ father told ESPN: “I would never want my son to play for Boston.”
“No loyalty. Guy gives his heart and soul and they traded him.”
Even now, the Celtics and Ainge are still stuck with an accumulation of assets, but with no use for them. During this year’s draft, Boston made it clear they wanted to trade up, but they were unable to shift all three of their first-round selections. Eventually, they traded the 30th overall pick for two future second-rounders.
Some consider this to be Ainge’s fault. People think the Celtic’s GM is waiting for the “perfect trade” and he has also been criticized for overvaluing his own assets, making it harder for them to be moved. Presti needs to learn from his counterpart in Boston.
Accumulating valuable assets is a smart way to rebuild a franchise, but GMs have to be able to do something with them. Maybe Presti is hoarding assets because he ‘lost’ the infamous James Harden trade with Houston. Maybe Ainge got cocky after swindling the Nets out of so many picks, and it cost him opportunities in the future. Maybe they should start thinking of players as players, not just as assets, or as trade pieces.
The NBA is built on superstars, but it seems to value assets. Teams need to realize the true price of trying to accumulate both.