The trade veto is the most fun you can have without winning your league

Sometimes even the irresponsible parties think so. Like me.

It’s been a while. The Old Man has been parenting but is back to talk about the most fun you can have in a dynasty league without actually winning it: the trade veto.

Nine times out of 10, the trade veto is pure chaos. If you are not one of the parties to the trade, you get to get really mad over fantasy sports, and what’s more fun than getting really mad about fantasy sports? Don’t answer that. Anyhow, do not let the fact that this post was provoked by the 10th percentile trade veto that merely verged on chaos without descending into it worry you. We still have drama.

The trade veto is a nonetheless a universal delight, so I do not suspect that the fact this happened in a basketball league will affect those of you not into fantasy or dynasty basketball, but if it does, please ask a friend to sign up and read in your stead, please. The basketball angle certainly hasn’t stopped the responsible parties from being roasted by non-league members in the baseball and football threads,. Nor do I think the fact that I was one of the responsible parties—some might say, correctly, the most irresponsible party—will stop me from being, uh, objective, because it worked out well for the ol’ Old Man in the end.

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Let’s flash back a calendar year. My dynasty basketball team had lost by three steals in the semifinals the year prior and was stronger heading into the 2020 playoffs. (Not to be outdone, the other semifinal that year was decided by one free throw.) While the NBA’s 2020 playoffs ended up playing out inside the bubble, our fantasy playoffs were in their first week when Rudy Gobert happened, and the force majeure of COVID-19 was upon us. Still think that should be Gobert’s nickname. Anyhow, we split the pot four ways and as I’ve been told repeatedly in other contexts, sometimes accurately, “co-champs is no champs.” It’s not true when, say, consenting poker players split a heads-up pot. It’s definitely true in fantasy, where a split pot is just a sad way to end things, but we had no choice.

Heading into this year it had been two years, no titles, and my team was only getting older. My core consisted of LeBron, Kawhi, PG and Russell Westbrook, and had virtually no other starters under 29. That these players were good (Bojan, Danilo, Marcus Morris, Dragić) was less relevant as the collection of superstars around which my team was built aged another year and played less and less. They are all still good players, but the playing time became an issue early on, especially with the teams that played deep into the delayed playoffs last year.

Having mortgaged almost all of my future assets to be in a winning position the first two seasons in the league, my options were virtually exhausted. Faced with the possibility of not having enough old man firepower to last the season, I added some more old man firepower, trading Seth Curry and my sole first round pick for CP3. If it didn’t work, I’d have to scrape for the fourth seed against the returning strong teams from last season and the ascendant ones who had been building for two years, but I thought I could hold them off.

And I did, sort of. I was fine, but fine wasn’t good enough. I decided that I was ultimately going to rebuild, and posted to the league message board in early December that my stars were available for rebuild packages. In fairness I say shit I don’t ultimately mean on the message board a lot, so I repeated it a couple weeks later when I received no offers, and repeated it a couple weeks after that, and still nothing. My team was still treading water so I don’t think people thought I was serious, and I wasn’t in a rush to pull the trigger until one night some Guinness told me I was, so I put together an offer I knew would be accepted, to the league’s hottest and youngest team, and sent it flying.

So okay yes first off: Sending an offer you know will be accepted can be a way you know your trade is lopsided. I hear it. I knew it. I thought this was the market, because this league had gone sort of quiet. I knew this would jolt it, but I underestimated by how much. You will probably understand where my critics were coming from. I mean, I do.

Rather than be subtle, I decided to package all five of my old superstars and sell them for the highest-profile player I could land and be happy with without having to stoop to the level of haggling about the value of a package of LeBron, Kawhi, et al. I did not want to argue about any of this, so I tried to head it off. And I certainly headed off any arguing from the opposing owner, who is one an ascendant team and rosters Zion Williamson, who might be the single most coveted player in dynasty for both production and swag. If I was going to trade five superstars for anyone, you’d figure it would be him.

Reader, I did not ask for Zion.

Instead I asked for Jayson Tatum, who I figured, since he was about the fourth-best player on his loaded team, was available as a centerpiece. I did not dig into the numbers because Tatum, 22, is about as solid a player as you can roster in a league with some rabid Celtics love. The other player for whom I asked was Michael Porter Jr., who was readily available in a deal like this because of the amount of projection involved. He’s similar aged to Tatum and not nearly as good a player, but he might be some day, at least on offense so, great for fantasy, at least to hear the podcasters tell it. To this package Coby White and a couple other players were ultimately added by the other owner, as well as two first round draft picks. I saw it like this:

  • Kawhi and PG: About the value of Tatum and a first

  • LeBron: About the value of a first

  • Russ and CP3: About the value of Porter, White and the rest

The league did not agree.

The first reaction on the message board was “Well, there goes the league for the next three years!” Then resignation turned to anger and action, as owner of a team said his co-owner was livid, then spent about an hour telling me why those numbers I hadn’t dug into on Tatum were actually kind of important, how Kawhi, LeBron and PG were worth a lot more, and how he had a better offer all ready to go all while arguing, to the angry co-owner, the merits of my position. It was a confusing time, to be sure, but as only he was being vocal, I figured it would just be like so many trade spats in the past and blow over.

Often the best think I can do when the internet is driving me mad is drive away from the internet. I will take the kids somewhere or listen to a podcast or both, and in this case I did both, driving them to McDonald’s while force-feeding them The Lowe Post. I was waiting in the drive-thru line when the Fantrax push alert came through on my phone: Your trade has been vetoed. I will not lie, friends. I laughed. By that point, the arguments against the trade had been made clear to me and I understood them. More to the point, I hadn’t understood how the trade would have obviously reshaped the league independent of me, something which a majority of the other owners obviously realized instantaneously. It had been a couple hours since the trade went through. I’ve never seen a veto that fast.

Uncharacteristically, I was not mad. I was sort of relieved. I said as much: If I was wrong about the market for these players, I would be happy to be proven otherwise. In the hours following the veto, the league proved me otherwise. I eventually turned the same five players in to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Marvin Bagley, Porter, White and four first round picks via trades with three different teams. In our scoring system, SGA is about as good as it gets for a rebuilding piece, certainly better than Tatum and, on the merits, perhaps might be better than Zion, but that and three bucks will get you on the subway, so to speak. It was an unquestionably better return. But the veto was kind of never really about the return at all.

Here is where we get to the point where it actually is important that it happened in a basketball league. As in fantasy baseball, fantasy basketball players take a long time to develop. As in fantasy football—and, pointedly, unlike fantasy baseball—your team’s performance, on aggregate will almost always directly correlate to how many elite players you have. In baseball, it’s definitely more likely that your team is good if you have elite players, but even in the smallest of leagues you could easily miss the playoffs with five elite players if the rest of your team was garbage.

That will rarely happen in football and almost never happen in basketball, which is why competitive balance across the league is important. It wasn’t just that my trade was bad for me—the other owners want me to do bad trades!—it was that it made my trade partner’s team too good. It would no longer make the league fun for them. It was selfish of me to think that during my rebuild, a time where I will not care too much about performance, I would ask the other owners to similarly roll over. My trade partner and I agreed with the veto in that sense and said as much: We didn’t want to ruin the league. I thought I was rewarding him for spending two years in the gutter and building wisely, and I was, but the gift was too lavish. It had to be returned.

All of this happened in a day, and all of us involved will remember it and make jokes about it forever. It was a certified moment, as all trade vetoes are, but unlike many of them, there were no real victims in the end. The market was re-established, and trades have been flowing steadily since then, the collective seism having roused the league to life, and my team is inarguably better. There are some people who will categorically never vote to veto a trade, and while I’m not one of them, it would have to be pretty bad for me to pull the trigger.

It would have to be like this one.

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