Despite an early start to the burning, Danny Ainge's expected fire sale of the 2014 Boston Celtics was put on hold until the summer. With no deals worth chasing coming to fruition, the Celtics declined to cash in on assets at a time of need and instead wait until their value peaks.
The easiest misconception of Ainge's strategy is that the Celtics need to bottom out as much as possible this year so they can start winning as soon as possible. With their cap space locked up through the end of next season and a high draft pick being the only likely addition without trade this offseason, there was no imperative to move players like Rajon Rondo,Brandon Bass and Jeff Green Thursday. Even Gerald Wallace is more valuable as a trade asset next year.
The one player that the asset value clock was ticking on was Kris Humphries. Perhaps the Celtics' most reliable player of the past two months, Humphries' expiring contract never really gained traction around the league. With the 2011 CBA making first-round picks -- and even second-rounders -- the new hot commodity, teams weren't able or willing to carve out $11 million in room to bring in Humphries.
While moving Humphries would have opened more playing time for Kelly Olynyk, his presence on the floor is important for keeping the team from going off the rails if the losses pile up in March. But the lack of movement from Boston and Orlando, teams with a clear mission and capable veteran pieces on the trading block, illuminates this novel morbid fear of the luxury tax from GMs league-wide. No longer does the expiring contract cause waves throughout the league, but rather the cheap contract or the future first-rounder.
Ainge looks ahead to the summer, where roster flexibility and turnover puts more teams on the trade market. Draft picks lose value because of the uncertainty factor during the season. But after the draft lottery, trading for a pick becomes significantly easier as GMs can accurately gauge the value of the pick, which explains why establishing potential trade partners and value for Rondo in June is much more feasible.
"Ultimately, for the last eight years, we have just valued Rondo more than everybody else," Ainge said. "I think the summertime will be a better time (for deals) based on what I've just listened to & heard over the last few days."
But the more alarming news to come out of the 2014 trade season was how high the value of draft picks has become. Draft picks' value comes in their predictability for contrat length and cost. But drafts are still essentially an educated guess. While the guesses have become better educated, the high frequency of one-and-done players makes scouts depend more on future projections than actual performance analysis.
GMs with any semblance of job security, especially Ainge with his 60's era Soviet stockpile of picks, are investing heavily in the draft over actual players. But the risk factor associated with a mid-to-late first round pick is astronomically higher than a proven NBA player. The likelihood of a post-lottery draftee being a valuable contributor at $1.5 million annually compared to a veteran at $4 million is much lower, but the crushing weight of the punitive tax has skewed the significance of that assessment.
So trading future first-round picks appears to require some shorter-term liquidity than five years into the future to hold significant value, but as punitive taxes begin to go into action, the value of payroll predictability will increase. Ainge has one more year to prepare for massive flexibility and he showed Thursday that he is in no rush to empty the deck. But sooner or later, those picks and players will have to move.
For now, patience is his virtue.