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The ‘other worst trade’ ... an inside look at Nets’ 2012 deal with Portland

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The Nets trade history is filled with cautionary tales. Here’s another one.

Chicago Bulls v Brooklyn Nets - Game Seven Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Everyone knows how bad the 2013 Nets trade with the the Celtics turned out and there have been countless articles on how it went down.

But more than a year before, there was another bad trade, a really bad trade, engineered by Billy King, et al, the 2012 deal between the Nets and the Blazers that wound up being a fast deteriorating player, Gerald Wallace, for a lightly protected draft pick that turned into Damian Lillard, the future Rookie of the Year.

Ben Falk was the Basketball Analytics Manager with the Blazers at the time. Now, after a stint with the Sixers, he’s running “Cleaning the Glass,” a subscription site. And this week, with the deadline approaching, he laid out his recollection of how it went down ... and how Blazers officials thought they had put one over on King.

Falk starts his narrative with a discussion he had with the Blazers assistant GM the morning of the day before the deadline in March 2012. The deadline was later that year because of the lockout.

We were sitting in one of the offices in the Trail Blazers’ Practice Facility, a whiteboard on one wall filled with magnets showing the rosters and salaries of each team, spitballing various ideas and talking about past trades that had been made, good and bad.

“You know,” I said to the Assistant GM. “I feel like every now and then there’s a team that gets lucky at the deadline. It’s not that they did anything special. They had the right player at the right time and the right team calls them and it’s a home run.” I shook my head. “Why can’t, just once, that be us?”

He laughed. “Maybe. You never know!”

Indeed they were. Although it’s not part of the narrative, things were boiling on the other side of the country in East Rutherford, NJ. The Nets had lost out on Dwight Howard. At the last minute, the player then seen as one of the two or three best in the NBA, decided to opt in with the Magic. No deal would go down. King had been so sure the deal would go down that he had asked Dr. Riley J. Williams to come to the training center early the next day to complete Howard’s physical exam.

Now, there was a level of panic in New Jersey. Howard had been the keystone of the Nets star-driven strategy. Deron Williams, the darling of the front office, was a free agent in three months and the Nets had pledged to surround him with stars once they got to Brooklyn in 2012. Howard was critical to that strategy. Now he was gone.

The Blazers knew that. Indeed, they had been part of Dwightmare I earlier that season. The Magic wanted more than just draft picks. The Nets were offering three. They wanted players.

So King constructed a deal for Howard. The deal offered to Orlando in 2011, according to reports at the time, was a three-team affair that would had the Nets send three unprotected first round picks -- in 2011, 2013 and 2015 -- to Portland for Gerald Wallace who would have been packaged along with Lopez and two other Nets picks, their own in 2017 and the Rockets 2011 pick, for Howard, Hedo Turkoglu and Chris Duhon. The Magic rejected it.

But the Blazers thought the Nets had some interest in Wallace and they had just decided to start rebuilding, hoping to use their veteran assets to add draft picks. Falk called it “teardown” mode. So their acting GM, Chad Buchannan, called King. Falk recounts the first phone call...

As the deadline approached, Chad reached out to Billy King, the Nets’ GM, to see if he might still want to deal for Wallace. King said he did and that he’d talk it over with his group. When Chad got the call back, he called us into the conference room immediately.

“So they’re definitely interested in Gerald,” he said. “It sounds like he’s a player Deron Williams wants to play with and they think will convince Deron to re-sign this offseason. They’re offering their first rounder in this upcoming draft for him.”

The Nets had limited faith in the 2012 draft, telling people that they thought there were only three game-changing prospects: Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Thomas Robinson, a Nets favorite. So they were willing to limit protections. Buchanan in fact was stunned, Falk writes. Everyone in the Blazers’ decision-making process was stunned.

“What are they talking about for protection?” one of our executives asked.

“We’ll have to go back to them about it,” Chad said. “But sounds like it’s not going to be too strong.”

My heart hit the gas pedal. I learned very quickly after I started working for the Blazers that just because a trade is discussed doesn’t mean it’s likely to happen — there are countless ways a deal can die on the vine. But that didn’t stop the excitement. This was the exact scenario I had wished for only the day before and now, suddenly, it was real. We had the right player at the right time and were called by the right team.

Subsequent phone calls confirmed that the protection would indeed be light.

After some back-and-forth with New Jersey it became clear that they were not too concerned with protecting the pick outside the top three, but felt strongly about not going any lower than that.

Negotiations presented the Blazers with a “dilemma,” Falk recounts. They knew they had King where they wanted him. How hard should they push?

The initial offer was so good that it presented a dilemma: what was the right way to negotiate the protection on the pick? Push too hard and it might kill the deal. But let them protect it too much, and the pick could roll over to the following season when it seemed likely the Nets would be much better.

The deal was struck. The Nets agreed to top-3 protection only. They were confident they had done well, protected their asset in DWill and even when the draft lottery went the Blazers way, that comfort level remained high. Falk recounts...

The pick landed at #6 and we used it to select Damian Lillard, who would go on to be the unanimous Rookie of the Year, a three-time All-Star in his first six seasons, and completely change the trajectory of the team.

Wallace played well the rest of that season —15.2 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists— but the sample was small, 16 games. His years and minutes in Charlotte were catching up to him. No matter, when it came time to re-sign him again that summer, King doubled down on his mistake giving Wallace a four-year, fully guaranteed $40 million contract. It quickly became an albatross and it factored in the larger mistake, the Celtics trade.

In order to make the numbers work, Wallace had to be included in the expanded deal that included Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry. Danny Ainge was willing to take on Wallace’s contract, but he wanted to add to the cache of unprotected draft picks. Figure at leasf one of those picks was sent to Boston to compensate for Wallace’s bad contract. And the rest is history and misery.

Summing up, Falk writes that the deal was “not typical.” Indeed.

The Gerald Wallace trade was not a typical trade, and the 2012 deadline in Portland was not a typical deadline. Most teams are not in teardown mode, and most trades are not that consequential.

Would D-Will have stayed if the Nets hadn’t gotten Wallace. It was touch-and-go. He was talking with the Mavericks, but the Nets offer was $30 million greater than what Dallas was offering. It doesn’t take much to say the Nets panicked, that they didn’t think things through. The same scenario was played out on Draft Night 2013 when the Nets concluded their deal with the Celtics. And the same result ensued: a bad, bad deal.

The Nets are no longer going for broke. They’ve (apparently) learned their lesson, but it’s hard one.