It takes specialized expertise and a steely mentality to work in an NBA front office. It’s a 12-month avocation with countless hours, reaching a crescendo around July 1 during the summer free-agency period and in the weeks leading up to the February trade deadline.
It’s also a time for voracious NBA fans to put on their thinking caps as virtual general managers, coming up with potential deals — a mix of altruistic fandom, outlandish flights of fancy and witless whims — in trying to improve their favorite team.
ESPN’s Trade Machine is a one-stop shop for figuring out whether deals would work financially. It aggregates current player contracts and utilizes the rules of the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement to determine whether a trade would work under salary-cap regulations and the myriad other restrictions in the CBA.
Pistons assistant general manager Sachin Gupta has plenty of experience with the Trade Machine — he created it in 2006 while working for ESPN. At the time, he had no idea that it would become as popular as it has.
“It was actually an idea that came from the NBA editor at ESPN, Chris Ramsey, the son of Dr. Jack Ramsey,” Gupta told The Detroit News. “He came to me with the idea and it was a side project from me; it didn’t come from my boss.
“It was a fun project that ended up being a big time-waster for a lot of (fans).”
Gupta, who has a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering from MIT, said he spent a chunk of time trying to understand the CBA himself and devoted about a month writing the code for the Trade Machine. He said he used the actual CBA and some other resources, including Larry Coon’s CBA-FAQ, as baselines to understand the nuances.
The Trade Machine saves its users hours of time combing through the CBA and all its intricacies, but some fans don’t discern between trades being possible — and more importantly, whether they're viable. It’s a one-sided proposition, leading to the popular tagline, #WhoSaysNo.
In many cases, one of the teams would reject the proposal — and often, the proposed deals are so ridiculous, that all teams involved would balk at the trade. That doesn't deter fans from conjuring up some quirky deals — and seeking approval on Twitter.
“It’s not meant to replace common sense. It’s not meant to replace any GM’s job,” Gupta said. “It’s simply based on the rules and whether it works or not. Sometimes people throw out different trade ideas and this at least allows you to verify that from a numbers perspective.”
For NBA beat writers, the weeks before free agency, the trade deadline and the draft are peak times to check continually with sources around the league, looking to follow up on trade rumors, while still keeping up with the daily ruminations of the teams they cover.
Still, we're often flooded with fans' oft-misguided Trade Machine proposals. Some have merit; others follow the familiar formula of sending out players that they don't like and expecting to get All-stars in return.
To show the folly of the Trade Machine, I came up with a deal that almost swaps the Pistons roster for the Warriors players, all except Kevin Durant, who has a no-trade clause — which drew a laugh from Gupta.
What’s missing from the Trade Machine is an artificial-intelligence upgrade that determines whether a trade would be accepted by both teams, based on logic.
The real trade machine
For team presidents and general managers, it’s a stressful period, when they can remake their rosters on the fly, looking to add a key piece or — in the case of the New Orleans Pelicans or New York Knicks — one where the centerpiece of the franchise demands a trade.
The news that Anthony Davis wanted out of New Orleans stoked a mad rush to the Trade Machine for deals involving the Lakers, Davis’ desired destination.
In the fantastic world of the Trade Machine, no one is safe — not LeBron James or James Harden.
Not Blake Griffin. Not even Meyers Leonard or Bismack Biyombo. Nobody.
Not even Pistons role players Jon Leuer, Langston Galloway, Stanley Johnson or Ish Smith — who were frequently included in proposals because of their expiring contracts or the notion that they weren’t living up to their deals.
This isn’t an attack on the Trade Machine — it’s a tool that does what it was designed to do. This is about fans and their unreasonable vision of how easy it is to make trades in the NBA.
How the deals really happen
In the 10 days before the Feb. 7 trade deadline, the Pistons were at a season-worst seven games below .500. Rumors bounced around that they were considering trading for a point guard, which led to a spike in Trade Machine proposals.
“A lot of deals you propose and the other team doesn’t do it and vice versa,” Pistons senior adviser Ed Stefanski said. “It’s fun, it’s nerve-racking, it’s frustrating and it’s exciting.”
Fans experience many of the same emotions, without the same pressure of having to get it right — and the risk of being fired if things don’t work out. It leads to a frenzy of ideas — anything from bringing in a superstar to expelling an undesirable contract.
In reality, the trading process is much different for Gupta and the Pistons front office. Stefanski, Gupta and the other assistant general managers, Malik Rose, Pat Garrity and Andrew Loomis, were busy working the phones to try to find a deal that worked.
There was no need to consult the ESPN Trade Machine because, for the most part, they can do those calculations in their heads. With their limited space in the salary cap, the Pistons couldn't do much, but they were able to make two deals. One sent Reggie Bullock to the Lakers for Svi Mykhailiuk and a 2021 second-round pick and another moved Stanley Johnson to the Pelicans and getting Thon Maker back from the Bucks in a three-team deal.
Those two moves created more cap space, which enabled them to sign free agent Wayne Ellington, who was waived by the Suns.
Gupta has moved on from the Trade Machine, making the jump from theory to reality.
“To be honest, I haven’t used it. RealGM.com has a trade builder, like a pro's Trade Machine that most teams use in-house that has more features and information in there, so I spend a lot of my time in that tool,” Gupta said.
“We all have a pretty good sense of which trades are viable from a CBA perspective so that often ends up being a final check or sometimes it’s pretty close on the salaries. Certainly, it’s not where all the magic happens in the first place.”
Those deals are steeped in reality. The real magic happens in fans' outlandish Trade Machine proposals. The frenzy slows down through the playoffs but picks up again in time for June and the pending period of free agency.
And the madness starts all over.