ATLANTA — Let us talk about Monopoly. I would rather talk about just about any other board game, but for the purposes of this analogy it makes sense to go with that you, the readers, have played.
Everyone has played Monopoly, or at the least some newfangled version of it that is cranked out with alarming efficiency. Someone gives your kid Deadpool Monopoly or Fortnite Monopoly or Movie You Haven’t Even Heard of Monopoly and it seems fun for about 10 minutes and then everyone remembers that Monopoly is boring and takes too long.
Anyway, Monopoly. The key is to plan and build carefully and deliberately. Everyone above a certain age knows this, and they slowly acquire properties and try to get complementary assets by suckering the kids at the table into lousy deals. (Perhaps you are a parent and do not do this. To which I say: SOFT.)
It’s the same strategy in most board games. And also in most pro sports front offices, but instead of needing Marvin Gardens to complete the yellow set, the executive is looking for a wing defender or a power-play specialist.
Which brings us, after a bit of labouring, to the looming NBA trade deadline and the Toronto Raptors. Team president Masai Ujiri has been an excellent assembler of assets. It has taken years, but he has moved all around the board and executed a series of deals and acquisitions that gave him a nice pile of cards. His front office still needs his opponents to land on his properties, but the potential for a big windfall, and some sweet bankruptcies, is there.
But this is the NBA, and it turns out that there are a lot of very impulsive kids at the table. In just the past couple of weeks, the trade demand from Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans and the actual trade of Kristaps Porzingis from the New York Knicks threw many of the NBA’s best-laid plans into doubt. Suddenly the Boston Celtics could be getting Davis to pair with Kyrie Irving, or maybe they will end up with neither. The Knicks could land Kevin Durant and Irving in free agency, or perhaps they will get the 2019 version of Amar’e Stoudemire. And then overnight on Tuesday the Philadelphia 76ers snatched Tobias Harris from the L.A. Clippers, drastically improving their chances this season while adding another piece, as they already had in Jimmy Butler, who could walk in the summer.
That is, then, three of the Raptors’ four Atlantic division-mates that are either better now, could be much better by the summer, or could have the floor drop out from beneath them in July.
Which is, of course, where the Raptors also sit. That Clippers-Sixers trade will make it easier for the Clips to recruit a pending free agent like Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard, who they have openly coveted this season, although Leonard remains inscrutable and it’s unclear if he would want to join a Los Angeles team that is in the rare position of trying to crash out of a playoff race.
It must be a strange thing for Ujiri and team. There you are, prudently arranging your pieces on the board, and then here comes James Dolan giving up three railroads for Baltic Avenue.
The larger point is, none of the other major pro leagues have teams that buck and swerve with such wild abandon. Player movement in the NHL is largely restricted until their veteran years, and this week the big news was a talented young player who signed a contract extension with the team that drafted him. The aftershocks will be felt throughout the league, as it will cause other young talents to also sign extensions with the teams that drafted them. Even when big-name hockey players switch teams, it’s rare that one move will significantly affect the Cup chances of a team (or its rivals). Lord knows that in Major League Baseball, you are more likely to discover that a good team is trying to become bad than witness a close rival suddenly make aggressive moves to win in the short term.
But, not so in the NBA. Owing in part to the fact that star players have discovered that they possess great leverage themselves, in part to the significant impact that one player can have on a small roster, and in part to the ballooning salaries that mean superstars can forgo tens of millions of dollars and still be obscenely rich, the NBA has become a roster-construction madhouse. Toronto spent three years trying to get past the Cleveland Cavaliers, and then Kyrie and LeBron left and now the Raptors won’t have to go to Quicken Loans Arena, their personal playoff Waterloo, unless their plane is mistakenly diverted. But the Sixers are now daunting, the Bucks are leading the East and occasionally manhandling the Raptors, and the Celtics could be better than any of those three if they can somehow land on a roster that includes Kyrie and AD in July. Even the Knicks could become good in a hurry. The Knicks!
It must be enough, one imagines, to drive a careful roster builder somewhat batty. Not that there is much Ujiri can do about that. People are swapping properties and building hotels all around him, and it will be awfully tough to just hang on to his cards.