Should the NBL consider in-season trades?

NBL trade season would be a gamechanger - here's why.

Credit: Russell Freeman Photography

25th March saw the passing of the NBA’s trade deadline, the point in the season where trades can no longer be made.

As NBA teams scrambled to acquire talent before a lengthy playoff run, or looked to offload pieces at their peak value, fans stayed transfixed, fully immersed in the possibilities that awaited their respective teams. Woj and Shams Twitter notifications were turned on, and NBA jersey swap photoshop gurus prepared themselves for upcoming moves.

Trade season is easily one of the peaks in the NBA season, and one that should be a part of the NBL. Not only would it increase fan discussion, the actual transactions could help even talent disparities within the league, and add an extra dimension of uncertainty for fans and teams.

Allowing trades in the NBL would make the league immensely more engaging. Imagine watching a middle level team rise to a contender, purely through acquiring a player would rewrite a team’s narrative and journey. Trying to follow the various moves and decisions, or predicting which teams will buy or sell, would generate endless hours of conversations about the league.

Imagine Jock Landale teaming up with Bryce Cotton, or a Chris Goulding/Nathan Sobey backcourt, with one team trading their star player in order to gain younger assets, in hope of a rebuild. Allowing trades adds an extra layer of intrigue, a new topic of dialogue, and helps narratives and legends around championship contenders to build. More than anything, it gives teams an extra way to build towards a championship, which in turn delivers a more enjoyable product.

Fans of specific teams would also benefit from trades, as it gives even the most unsuccessful teams something to root for. Unlike the NBA, the NBL has no draft system, and bottom dwelling NBL teams do not have a high draft pick to hope for. Tanking isn’t rewarded. But allowing NBL teams to acquire top level talent means teams have a shot at reversing their fortunes, or moving off a player in his last year, to build a younger roster with a longer timeline in check.

The NBL has a considerably shorter season compared to the NBA, trading for a top level talent could impact the season record much more significantly in this league. Every win is much more valuable, and climbing the ladder is somewhat easier. Consider for example, how much the South East Melbourne Phoenix’s contender status has been improved with Ryan Broekhoff’s addition.

It goes without saying that a proper structure with rules and restrictions are needed. The NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) is a complex agreement between the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) that details everything from player salaries and contracts to trades, revenue split and more. It’s so complicated, Larry Coon created an FAQ for the document, to make it easier for everyone.

It’s unclear how close (or far) the NBL’s current CBA is from the NBA CBA, but the NBL would need to create something similar in scope. There would be restrictions unique to the NBL: for example, teams should not be able to trade either import players or Next Stars. Overseas players would be much more reluctant to sign with the NBL if they knew their single year stints came with the possibility of being traded. This is particularly complicated for Next Star prospects, whose salaries are paid by the league and come out to Australia to make a name for themselves, preferably without the impact of being dealt midseason to another team and having to undergo transition to a new system and so on.

Similarities would include having a trading window and deadline in place — similar to the NBA trade deadline — to ensure that competing teams do not trade for a superstar talent weeks before the finals begin, just to ensure competitive balance.

According to a statement from the Australian Basketball Players’ Association (ABPA) in 2019, the current CBA “contains content that is commercial in confidence and is a legally-binding agreement between the players and the NBL.” NBL salaries are not made public, but to make a trade work, matching has to be done. Every NBL team is subject to the same salary cap (barebones salary cap guide here), which means creating a transaction between players who make vastly different salaries would not work, and additional deals would need to be made. This would make some trades interesting, trying to figure out who earns what in order to facilitate the trade, and we’ve seen how intense trade discussions can get on NBA Twitterverse.

Realistically speaking, there’s little incentive to introduce an additional element of chaos into the current NBL landscape. COVID-19 already has introduced plenty of disruption with snap lockdowns across states happening at short notice, which has already left the NBL schedule scrambling almost from game to game at times. Displacing players from their current teams midway into a season, almost purely for fan engagement, would only make for added instability. There would likely be opposition from the players and ABPA, and the extra work the league would need to facilitate this wrinkle would be deemed as unnecessary, as it stands right now.

However, should this be considered down the track — and should the CBA and player salaries be open to public scrutiny — there would be no greater way to quickly build interest in not just only the sport, but the league itself and its inner workings.