Trading Places: The Dynamics of a Switcheroo
Issue   |   Wed, 10/26/2011 - 01:07

The concept of a ‘trade’ in sports has always struck me as one of the most interesting parts of the industry, a phenomenon with no direct comparison in the real world.

While people in real jobs replace each other, compete for promotions with each other, and transfer between companies, can you imagine reading in The Wall Street Journal that Goldman Sachs, unsatisfied with its recent performance, traded its director of investment banking and an employee to be named later for the VP of Morgan Stanley, a promising young executive with his best years ahead of him? The Sachs CEO was reportedly cautious about trading within his finance division, but was excited about the upside of the Morgan Stanley VP, who he said “has great hands when dealing with Microsoft Excel.”

The business of sports trades, however, does prove analogous in many ways to a stock market.

General managers try to buy low and sell high, just as traders do, and an up-and-coming prospect holds similar trade value to a new company that seems primed to rake in profits.

The two situations diverge, however, when we consider that the stock market trades inanimate stocks, human creations that exist purely for the sake of business, rather than human beings who have worked hard to become professionals.

While the most jaded of sports fans may claim that money ultimately drives everything about the industry, sports teams must also deal with a multitude of other factors when trading their players.

The intersection and overlap of personalities and profitability; business ventures and relationships; winning and coldheartedness make the trade such a unique and fascinating event.

Instead of seeing things simply in black and red as businesses do, general managers must juggle several hats when making decisions on trades, free agents, and other player transactions. They must indeed act in that best interests of their franchises, but the definition of ‘best interest’ can vary widely.

While fans want to see a winning team, ownership can often put limitations on general managers in order to maintain the profitability of a franchise. For example, the owner of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns, Robert Sarver, sold multiple first-round draft picks in the 2000s for $3 million each.

While that might not initially sound strange, consider this: during that time span, his team featured superstars Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire and Shawn Marion along with a solid cast of role players — a group that was perennially contending for an NBA championship.

If Sarver had been acting in the best interests of his players and fans, even one or two decent draft picks could have put his squad over the top, but his bottom line dictated his choices at the end of the day potentially kept his team from an NBA Championship.

Even when GMs have free reign and an open budget, they must deal with the harsh reality that accompanies a job in which human beings are transferred like stocks.

To construct a winning team, GMs have to abide by the basic economic principles of utility and cost that dictate when to obtain a player and when to get rid of him when he stops producing at expected levels.

But, on a personal level, how do you tell a player who may also be a friend, family man and brother to his teammates that he must pack his bags?

In addition, myriad other confounding factors complicate this situation, namely the effect on team chemistry that comes with losing a teammate.

A prime example of this came last season in the NBA, when beloved Boston Celtic center Kendrick Perkins was dealt to the Oklahoma City Thunder for small forward Jeff Green.

The trade made basketball sense, as the Celtics desperately needed another wing with Green’s skill set, but Perkins’ departure devastated his teammates and became a factor in the team’s underachieving performance the rest of the season.

When the team exited the playoffs, many fans and sportswriters alike attributed a portion of the tailspin to the erosion Perkins left behind.

While traded players often have strong bonds with their teammates, the GMs who have the power to trade them can ironically be supporters and friends as well.

As a Cleveland sports fan, I have seen more than my share of teams trading away players because they were deemed too expensive.

The Indians have traded away two Cy Young pitchers in the last five years, CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee, yet the most painful deal involved neither of these franchise cornerstones.

Rather, it was the trade of the universally beloved Victor Martinez (an extremely valuable player in his own right) that caused Tribe GM Mark Shapiro to announce the trade while holding back tears in front of the media.

All of these factors, personal and impersonal, play a role in many player transactions, making the trade one of the most intriguing off-the-field aspects of the sports industry.

Trades can be logical and beneficial, lopsided, or simply insane; in any case, they are nothing if not polarizing.

The most recent trade generating buzz in the sports world is the deal that sent quarterback Carson Palmer from the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals to the Oakland Raiders for a 2012 first-round pick and yet another potential first-round pick in 2013.
The trade defies convention, as Palmer was steadfastly refusing to play for the Bengals, instead choosing to work out in California until he was traded.

Yet, Bengals owner Mike Brown played hardball with his disenchanted quarterback for months by stating that he could sit out as long as he wanted but would remain under contract with the Bengals.

By NFL standards, where first-round picks are protected like a GM’s own child, the Raiders paid an arm and a leg to get Palmer, who became expendable in Cincinnati when Bengals’ rookie Andy Dalton performed relatively well as the starting quarterback in Palmer’s place.

The Raiders felt pushed to make a strong offer when their own quarterback, Jason Campbell, broke his collarbone and left the team without a viable starter.

Yet Palmer, who has not played in an NFL game in quite some time, is on the wrong side of 30 and has turned in a few mediocre seasons in the past.

Can the Raiders and Palmer’s old coach Hue Jackson rejuvenate this formerly elite quarterback, or will their lost first-round picks be the casualties of an overly aggressive and ambitious plan?

The questions surrounding this trade and so many others makes trade deadlines and player movement one of the most riveting parts of the sports we love, and we have to tune in to find the answers.