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The Psychology of the NBA Trade Deadline
Posted By Travis Heath On February 19, 2013 @ 4:00 pm In Main Page,NBA | No Comments
Imagine for a second if you were just going about your business one day at your place of work and your boss had the ability to tell you that you had been relocated to anywhere in the country (and even one place outside of it) without any sort of requirement to tell you of this in advance. In fact, he might not even tell you at all. It’s possible that you might find out from an internet report or on television prior to your boss talking with you.
To add to this, now imagine that there was a deadline once a year that once reached, you could no longer be relocated. Further, in advance of this deadline your boss would be talking with members of the media about potential destinations for workers such as yourself. Finally, imagine that people would ask you about this for weeks leading up to this deadline and in the various forms of media in the year 2013 there would be a series of rumors and denials about your future whereabouts.
Feeling stressed yet?
This is exactly what happens every season for players leading up to the NBA trade deadline. Usually the reaction of fans is something like, “Suck it up. You make a stupid amount of money.”
While such sentiment is true with regard to the amount of money NBA players make, the misguided assumption is that because the players make a lot of money they must be less than human and able to perform like automatons in advance of the trade deadline.
Truth is, the threat of being uprooted has a very real impact on players for a variety of reasons.
1) Loyalty - We all want to feel wanted. Often, rookies come into the NBA with a special attachment to the team that drafted them. It can be hard for them to realize that loyalty beyond performance rarely exists in professional sports. Moreover, it is common for general managers or other team operatives to come to players and assure them they aren’t being shopped. Sometimes these denials are made public. It is very important to pay attention to the semantics of what is said. For example, GM’s often say that they are “not shopping a player” or “aren’t looking to trade” him. That leaves the GM with the perfect out when a trade happens by uttering something like, “We weren’t shopping him, but Team X came to us with a package we just could not refuse.”
Take the comments made recently by Clippers’ vice president of basketball operations Gary Sacks on the rumored trade for Kevin Garnett that would send DeAndre Jordan and Eric Bledsoe to Boston.
“I haven’t called anybody to say, ‘Hey, we have Eric Bledsoe and would you like him?’ Or, ‘We have DeAndre Jordan or we have anybody and would you want them?’ That’s not where I am right now with this team,” Sacks told Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times.
“I like our team. I think we have a chance to be in the mix at the end whether we do something or not. Look, I’m not saying that five days from now that we wouldn’t change our mind if there is a deal that makes sense for us. I’m never going to say never. But I’d be thrilled if we had the same roster as we move forward into the rest of the season. I like who we are.”
If he was going to speak up, Sacks played it about as well as he could. Even so, how would you feel if you were Jordan or Bledsoe? Posed differently, how would you feel if your boss had uttered something similar about you?
Essentially he’s saying, “We really like you, but we’ll replace you if something better comes along.”
While most of us understand this is a possibility in our place of employment, we don’t have to worry about our bosses talking about it publicly. The public nature of talks adds a dimension to the psychology of the trade deadline in pro sports that simply isn’t present for most of the rest of the world’s occupations.
It is precisely for this reason that a few organizations, the San Antonio Spurs being one, avoid publicly talking about trade rumors at all. This is hard to do, though. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the time I’ve spent around the NBA in the last decade or so it’s that a team that thinks it has the potential to make a trade that will make the team better is eager to brag about it. Information almost always gets out.
2) Comfort – Think about your daily routine. We all have one. We might eat at the same place every morning. We get to know the city in which we work and achieve a feeling of comfort. Not to mention the fact that we form close bonds with some of our co-workers whom we interact with on a daily basis. When something feels safe and familiar, it allows us to focus on our jobs without having to worry about myriad of little stressors. Moreover, we become aware of the “office politics,” so to speak. While it’s likely there are aspects of the politics we don’t like, at least we know the lay of the land. Said differently, the dysfunction we know at our current employer is less scary than the potential dysfunction we don’t know somewhere else.
During my travels in professional sports, I have learned that athletes are among the most rigid creatures of habit. Threaten their routine, and you often pose a threat to their performance. The trade deadline poses exactly this kind of threat.
Teammates become extremely close. Recall when Chauncey Billups was traded from the Detroit Pistons to his hometown Denver Nuggets. It’s the one place Billups would likely have wanted to be traded, but even so, leaving the teammates he won a championship with in 2004 was extremely difficult. So difficult that Billups shared tears with Rip Hamilton in his hotel room before reporting to Denver. This sort of human experience is too often missed in the rumor-mill madness leading up to the trade deadline.
3) Family – Some NBA players are single and this item obviously does not apply to them. However, for those players who are married and have children, the threat of a move due to a trade impacts more than just themselves. Just as there are in the general population, there obviously have been and will continue to be NBA players who are less than adequate parents. However, there are also many players I have met over the years who are good husbands and fathers. A trade before the deadline in February virtually guarantees that a family will be separated for at least a few months due to fact that it happens right in the middle of the school year.
As a husband and a father of a 10-month-old daughter, this is certainly the aspect of the trade deadline that would weigh most heavily on me if I were a player. If I were single, adjusting to a new city would be no big deal and even kind of fun. But with a family, it would be extremely difficult. Heck, one of the major reasons I decided to pass on opportunities to continue working in the NBA in a larger capacity was because I knew my wife was pregnant and I could not in any way justify being away from them for more than half the year on account of my job. There are a few things you don’t get a second chance on in life, and being a good husband and father is one such thing.
It’s very easy to rattle off clichés and say that pro athletes have a job to do regardless of whether their name pops up in trade rumors or not. However, it is simply denying the basics of human psychology and physiology to fail to acknowledge that a stressor like the threat of being traded and everything that comes with it has an impact on players. I often wonder how the announcers, writers or executives who utter such clichés would perform under similar circumstances.
Even most players who say they aren’t impacted by the trade deadline are simply stating what they know they are “supposed” to say regardless of the statement’s truth-value.
Leave it to Charles Barkley to capture the essence of the human side of the trade deadline. While Barkley undoubtedly has his flaws, he has never been afraid to let people see who he authentically is – flaws and all. In that way, he let’s us see his uniquely human side, a part of an athlete’s persona that is not often captured by the cameras for public consumption.
“They are shopping me around like a piece of meat, which is typical of the insensitive organization that I’m associated with,” Barkley told the media in the early 90’s during his final season with the Philadelphia 76ers prior to being traded to the Phoenix Suns. “It’s just unfortunate. All athletes realize that they are a piece of meat, but I wish the Sixers would realize that I’m not a piece of meat. This is my life we’re talking about.”
Yes, pro athletes do make an absurd amount of money. However, money does not make a person any less human. So to imply that athletes should perform and feel the same when they are on the trading block as they do when they are not is to deny reality.
Of course, the pendulum could swing too far back in the other direction if we just allowed athletes to shut it down because the pressure of the trade deadline was too much. As with most things in life, there is a happy medium to be found here. We can acknowledge that the trade deadline is a bona fide stressor for pro athletes that can negatively impact their performance while also still expecting them to go out and play as hard as they can given the circumstances.
It can be easy to view pro athletes as characters in a video game or personalities in a television reality show because they are portrayed as both in our increasingly fast moving and digital world. As this year’s NBA trade deadline approaches though, take a moment to consider the human side of this endeavor. I’m not asking you to “feel sorry” for the players or suggest that they are getting some kind of raw deal as they know the potential of being traded exists when they sign a contract in the NBA. What I am asking you to do is humanize the characters in the NBA and remember that they are not immune from the very same sort of stressors that all of us experience to various degrees in our daily interactions.
Dr. Travis Heath is a psychologist in private practice and an assistant professor of psychology at MSU Denver. He previously served as a team consultant in the NBA. He also co-hosts a show on Mile High Sports Radio weeknights from 6-8 p.m. You can follow him on Twitter @DrTravisHeath.
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