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Grandmasters Swap Pawns

USA Today Sports

USA Today Sports

When two chess grandmasters are doing battle over the board and Player A takes a piece from Player B, it’s not really up to us non-masters among to declare if Player B has been put at a disadvantage or not. We can hazard a guess, sure, but eventually deference must be given to the dues the grandmaster has paid; their long-term strategy earns our respect despite being unknown and unknowable. We can only examine the eventual endgame to discern which player positioned themselves advantageously. When the two players swap pawns, there is a certain musicality, an implicit and very temporary agreement of two opponents working in concert, compelled by the boundaries of their board to push the game further towards its end.

The awesome part about following NBA trades and transactions (to briefly ignore the emotional and spiritual fatigue that befalls the cut or traded player) is that it’s a chess game played not by two but by 30 minds at once. Even more enlightening, for the neutral fan, is that hardly all 30 piece-pushers are grandmasters. Plenty flail with the wildness of novices, their grandiose maneuvers slyly countered into check by the meta-game’s more cunning tacticians. The last two days of manic trading sent about two dozen players packing suitcases and heading off to new homes at a phone call’s notice. But only a few of the swaps took place between two grandmasters. The biggest deal of the day, sending Danny Granger to Philadelphia and Evan Turner and Lavoy Allen to Indiana, was a meeting of two grandmaster minds, albeit while strategizing with agendas aimed in polar opposite destinations. Quietly, two other grandmasters swapped pawns.

R.C. Buford and Masai Ujiri traded Nando de Colo for Austin Daye.

Buford and Ujiri have built their imposing resumes using two very different skill-sets. Ujiri is the league’s reigning champion in synthesizing progressive trades, giving up the most expensive asset in the Carmelo Anthony, Andrea Bargnani, and Rudy Gay trades while yielding the undeniably superior return in each transaction. In retrospect the Carmelo trade feels especially brilliant. As the Orlando Magic have been painfully showing us the last two seasons, you can reap positive assets in exchange for a Top-10 talent and still see your position crater in the standings. Ujiri didn’t just keep his star-less team afloat but as a peripheral contender before his one-time employer in Toronto came calling.

Meantime Buford hardly makes trades at all, yesterday’s deal being just his tenth trade, period, since the Spurs’ last championship in 2007. Most of the first nine trades were minute deals, usually involving second-round draft picks in some way. (Basketball-Reference provides this gem: “Traded Beno Udrih and cash to the Minnesota Timberwolves for a 2008 2nd round draft pick. San Antonio did not receive the 2nd round draft pick because it was top 57 protected.”) Buford continually restocks San Antonio’s bottomless drawer of Swiss army knives from the end of both rounds in the Draft and then again late in the summer, annually envisioning new, position-defying futures for twelfth-men flown in from the whole league ’round.

In front of the media, however, Buford and Ujiri may as well have been trained by the same painfully introverted public relations liaison. Both GMs look at the ground and speak  slowly, with a quiet politeness, modestly betraying no hint that they spend their days immersed in high-stakes negotiations with so many millions of dollars at stake. They are instantly likable and intriguing.

If they existed, the recorded phone conversations between Buford and Ujiri as they reached an accord could be sold at a premium and would be dissected with glee. Who called whom first? And how long ago? What other players were discussed, but ultimately left out of the deal? Did an overextending offer from one party almost cause the other to drop the trade entirely? These are things I want to know about every NBA trade that takes place, but, even though this move only made the smallest of ripples in a relatively calm trade season, I’m especially intrigued by this one because of the two traders involved. In my mind one calls the other and just says “de Colo for Daye,” and the other sagely nods and says, “I’ve been waiting for you to say that,” and the paperwork is pleasantly and efficiently filed at the league office.

I’ve been trying to puzzle out the grandmasters’ pawn swap, even though I’m the type of player who has to consult my beginners’ book to make sure I remember how the rules work. I understand Toronto’s motivations entirely: having played Daye a total of 33 minutes (!) all season, they have shipped away this misfitting peg in exchange for a guard-sized version of Andrei Kirilenko, all wizardly passes, whirling dervish finishes, and (many) turnovers generated from wild and thrilling experiments.

San Antonio’s perspective doesn’t entirely come into vision for me. They have just traded for the world’s tallest small forward, a mismatch-monster who shot a very-useful 41.8% from three in scattered time between the Detroit Pistons and Memphis Grizzlies. This is probably a truer reflection of his talents than his aborted jaunt to Toronto, a chapter of his career that, like the tape from a 30-point loss, is better left burned out of memory. Come May, it’s all but destiny that Daye will nail a high-leverage three and Twitter will abound with “Who?” and “He’s on the Spurs?”

Only: Daye was free for the taking for an entire month of free agency before the Raptors signed him to a two-year minimum deal. The Spurs could have signed him at any point in July, saving them from ever having to experiment with Malcolm Thomas and Othyus Jeffers, and meantime retaining de Colo, their prospect they’ve carefully guarded and developed, from near and far, since they drafted him back in 2009. Daye will probably prove a useful tool, just he got purchased at such a high price.

But Buford is flying his team’s plane and I’m trying to peer through through the open cockpit door and out the windshield from my seat in the thirtieth row. This is probably a move to set up a move to prepare Livio Jean-Charles for his eventual NBA arrival, and he will probably be Tony Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo rolled into one All-Star of boundless future.

This trade has no winners and no losers. It only has two grandmasters intellectually dancing, briefly, in unison.

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