The 2023 NBA Trade Deadline is the gift that keeps on giving—or the horror that keeps on haunting—for the Portland Trail Blazers. Portland went into the critical 24 hours hoping to make big moves to help their team contend. They ended up trading starting small forward Josh Hart and much-heralded reserve Gary Payton II for a collection of young players high on potential, short on proven production. A conditional first-round pick, a few second-rounders, some cap savings, and an accompanying trade exception were the only salves to their salted wounds.
Still, the Blazers made it through. Like well-meaning counselors at the Campground of Doom, they walked away to sweet, relieving music after watching their dreams die, the sheen of sweat still visible on their faces.
Which, of course, was the cue for the chainsaw-wielding baddie to leap up behind them, revving his motor and chortling behind his mask.
This came today in the form of an injury report from the Golden State Warriors, the team that accepted Payton II in trade. He failed the standard team physical administered to incoming players. His lingering abdominal issue—the same that caused him to have off-season surgery—could to take months to resolve. That condition allows Golden State to void the trade, should they so desire.
Under these circumstances, the horror movie motif is no exaggeration for Portland. This is more than just an awkward, “Oops!” moment. It’s an ugly development in an already strange story.
Welcoming Payton back would be...interesting, to say the least. Here’s why, and the implications for what’s likely to follow.
If the trade is voided, the Blazers will lose the recompense they got for Payton: Atlanta Hawks forward Kevin Knox and five future second round picks. The Blazers also saved $5.3 million in cap space and earned an attendant trade exception in the deal.
Losing that extra space will take away potential plays in this week’s buyout market. Without the savings, they’re so close to the luxury tax threshold that they cannot add players without risking going over the line, a financial and flexibility disaster.
They’ll also lose the ability to capitalize on the trade exception later.
Voided trades aren’t common, but they do happen. Players returning to the teams that jettisoned them always creates an odd situation. The franchise has to explain why they didn’t want the player 48 hours prior, but now love him with all their hearts. Normally it takes a bit of negotiation to restore that relationship.
That’s going to be intensified for Payton and Portland for several reasons.
Prior to his return to action in January, the Blazers gave interviews intimating that Payton’s physical condition was satisfactory, and that his approach to the game was the major reason he hadn’t yet played for the team to that point in the season.
Behind the scenes, eyebrows were raising at the rumors coming out of franchise offices: mutterings of discontent, implications that Payton wouldn’t play with pain, wondering about his commitment to the franchise. The quiet consensus when the trade was consummated on Thursday was that the two sides were not in sync, to the point that moving Payton made sense even though he was more valuable than anything the Blazers got in return for him.
That’s a fraught situation to negotiate under the best of circumstances. These are far from the best.
The failed physical itself undercuts Portland’s side of the argument. Payton now has proof, at least from one team of physicians, that his injury was not only real, but probably should have kept him out even longer. Should he return, he would have every justification to sit out as long as he deemed necessary. Everything Portland has said about the situation up to this point now seems false and petty. They dare not utter another word about it, even if they’re still convinced they’re right.
If Payton’s side of the case—that the injury matters—is true, sitting out is an obvious choice. If Portland’s side of the case—that he isn’t giving his all—is true, he might sit out for that reason. Either way the case is over, the judgment moot. Payton now holds all the cards.
The Blazers can, and will, be grateful if Payton plays for them again. Even if he returns, he has absolutely no reason to any sooner than he deems prudent. If Payton’s sneakers touch the floor this year, the Blazers should be jumping for joy, crediting his ethics and heart.
General Manager Joe Cronin’s explanation of loving the return in the Payton trade will not soothe feelings one bit either.
Portland would be Knox’s fourth team in five years. He’s started five games total in the last four of those. He scores less than 6 points a game and plays fewer minutes than Payton himself. He’s a prospect, a project, a well-worn one at that.
Falling back on second-round picks, cap savings, and the trade exception as reasons to make the deal is even more of an implied insult. All of those have one thing in common: they don’t play.
Second rounders buy low-level, speculative recruits who often don’t make the team. They were thrown into deadline trades as if they were “Buy One, Get One 25% OIf” coupons from your local Boy Scout book. Trade exceptions net players that other teams literally give away for nothing. Cap savings IS nothing, at least in terms of player acquisitions.
In short, the Blazers just told Payton they prefer playing a non-accomplished prospect and saving some money to having him on their team. The distance between that and the relationship when Payton signed with the team last summer is immense. He’s probably going to note the change.
To top it off, the Blazers just acquired a bunch of young wings to test drive: athletic, offensively-challenged defenders they hope will blossom with enough playing time and care. Chief among them, for these purposes, is Matisse Thybulle. The 6’5, defensive-specialist shooting guard was named Payton’s replacement by popular acclaim almost immediately after the GP2 deal got done.
If Payton returns and plays, he’ll battle the new players for playing time and rotation spot. In the fracas, either Thybulle, Cam Reddish, Nassir Little, or Shaedon Sharpe will get pushed down. Either that, or Payton just won’t play, in which case, what’s the point?
What Happens Now?
For all these reasons, Portland has incentive to make sure this deal goes through, no matter what the cost. The chemistry problems alone would curdle all the milk in Tillamook County. The financial implications and other costs cement the need.
Fortunately for Portland, Golden State also has incentive to see this trade through. The Hawks and Detroit Pistons were involved in the four-way deal, which sent the Warriors’ own problem player—James Wiseman—to Detroit with a fairly good return of Saddiq Bey. That move will save the Warriors tens of millions of real dollars in salary and tax penalties. Plus they will have solved their own chemistry issues. (No doubt the Hawks and Pistons are rooting for a reconciliation between the Bay and the Rose City too.)
The Warriors have until Saturday to decide whether to complete the trade despite the failed physical. They’re likely to demand compensation from Portland, perhaps retaining some of those second-rounders or asking for cash. The Blazers might decide to play chicken with them, knowing that secretly, Golden State wants this too.
No matter the posturing, odds are that the trade will go through, perhaps for slightly less than originally agreed, allowing both sides to walk away with pride intact.
If that doesn’t happen, though, things are about to get very interesting in Portland for a few months.
Grab your popcorn and stay tuned.