Proving that billionaire owners, or more precisely their close business associates, are just like the rest of us, Bobby Marks remembers the days when Nets executives would ask him to evaluate a trade they made up the night before on the internet.
“When I was in Brooklyn and we had the Russian group,” says Marks, now ESPN’s NBA front office insider, “we’d come in some mornings and we’d have ownership trade questions from ESPN they had gone through and say, ‘Hey, does this make sense?’”
Offering up the ability to play pretend GM, it doesn’t take an Ivy League-educated elite to understand the appeal of a trade machine. ESPN’s debuted in 2006 while RealGM and, more recently, tradenba.com built their own versions that allow savvy basketball observers to test out potential trades just as easily as a kid trying to create the next super team.
Whether or not they serve a positive purpose—since many who tinker with them fail to grasp just how nuanced and layered an NBA trade actually is and create farcical transactions that would never happen in a million years—might be debatable if you consider yourself an educated and sophisticated basketball observer. But given trade machines often serve as a gateway for fans to gain a deeper knowledge of the league, only the saltiest of cynics would suggest trade machines are anything but harmless.
“I think anything that brings people enjoyment and allows them to enjoy the NBA and the sport more deeply, or on different levels, is nothing but positive,” says Thunder general manager Sam Presti. “At the end of the day, sports is something to be experienced and brings you memories and joy and a lot of times frustration. If the trade machine is another extension of that experience, and people enjoy it more and builds their passion for the sport, I think it’s great.”
It’s a cool tool. The appeal of being able to shift the balance of power in the league—like sending Bradley Beal to a contender—with just a few clicks of the mouse is undeniable. So is the satisfaction of believing you could make your favorite team better, if only the GM listened to you, then proving it to your friends. Plus, today’s trade machines do a significantly better job of incorporating those complicated collective bargaining agreement rules—like how a team can’t receive more than 125 percent plus $100,000 of the salary it’s trading for a deal to be okayed and other legalese that would make the average fan’s head spin.
“I think the educated fans come up with some pretty creative trades. What I always say to fans is it’s fun to do it, but you have to put yourself—not in the perspective of a fan of the Knicks or Heat—of the GM of both teams.” — Bobby Marks
Zach Rodriguez, who hails from San Antonio and is a Spurs fan, is the mastermind behind the tradenba.com machine that launched two and a half years ago in order, he says, to “make a better version of the ESPN trade machine.” If you’ve spent time on his site then you know he’s largely succeeded. Rodriguez took six months to build it before it debuted and gradually added features fans pined for on Reddit and other areas of the internet—like the ability to trade picks and incorporating pick swaps and protections. He’s constantly tweaking the machine as the NBA adapts to the pandemic.
“It’s definitely been challenging this past year with so many changes to the CBA,” says Rodriguez. “We’ve been trying to keep track of those and as that information comes in then we add that to the site. That’s something we definitely want to do, add that educational aspect to it to just have people more informed when using our tools.”
While he has no idea the breakdown between users of the site who create legit trades vs. those that want to deal Steph Curry to the Lakers, the next evolution of Rodriguez’s trade machine would incorporate common sense. Technically LeBron James can be traded, but we all know he’s untouchable.
“We do want to make it as realistic as possible and we also do like the fact that normal people can use it,” says Rodriguez. “If we ever got the opportunity for real teams to use it that would be another cool thing to have.”
Plenty of teams, says Marks, have their own in-house trade machines built by members of their analytics department that aren’t significantly more complicated than what’s available to fans. Marks also points…