How NBA Teams Can Trade League's Worst Contracts
Fudging together trades for the NBA's worst contracts is extremely difficult. Let's do it anyway.
Non-assets are a subjective concept. No player is truly immovable. Some teams can find motivation to acquire another's financial roadblock. Others will see value in their own dollar-sign obstructions.
To account for this variance and unite us all under one centralized focus, a few parameters must be put in place:
- Contracts are being viewed from the front office's perspective. They're bad for the teams, not the players, who have every right to collect their bag. This also means we are not serving as judge and jury in every case. Only unwanted money is eligible for inclusion. Call this the Andrew Wiggins Rule. His five-year, $147.7 million pact looks bad, because it is, but the Minnesota Timberwolves haven't yet turned him into chopping-block fodder. Players like, Mike Conley (three years, $97.5 million), Blake Griffin (four years, $142.3 million) and John Wall (five years, $190.1 million) fall under this tier. They're either clearly wanted or integral to their team staving off rebuilds.
- Players who have already been moved over the offseason will be excluded. Apologies to fans of the Charlotte Hornets (Bismack Biyombo) and Orlando Magic (Timofey Mozgov) as well as anyone who remains too hard on DeMar DeRozan.
- Expiring salaries are getting the ax as well. Ditto for contracts with team-controlled partial guarantees at their conclusion (Omer Asik, JR Smith, etc.). They're more digestible than agreements laced with and without early-termination and player options.
Even with all this in place, the line has to be drawn somewhere. The Association's ledgers are overrun with fringe detriments. Other candidates will earn reprieve by way of tiebreakers. Youth gets the benefit of the doubt (think Tyler Johnson versus Hassan Whiteside), and the likelihood that a team is open to waiting out the life of a deal will come into play (think Ian Mahinmi versus Joakim Noah).
Luol Deng, Los Angeles Lakers
Los Angeles Lakers Receive: PF/C Zach Randolph, SG Iman Shumpert
Sacramento Kings: SF/PF Luol Deng (two years, $36.8 million), 2019 first-round pick (top-three protected), 2020 second-round pick, 2021 second-round pick
Other permutations of this proposal exist if the Kings are especially attached to playing Zach Randolph over their younger big men. This package still works when subbing him out for Kosta Koufos.
The Kings should stick with this version. They're welcoming two new faces into the frontcourt rotation, Marvin Bagley III and Harry Giles, and have unnecessarily complicated their minutes distribution enough with the addition of Nemanja Bjelica. Offloading Randolph is learning-curve friendly and should allow for Bjelica to see time at power forward, his actual position.
Netting just one first-round pick for swallowing Luol Deng's money doesn't sit right on the surface. Dig a little deeper, though, and the Kings are doing just fine. Landing a first-rounder at all is a big deal. They don't own theirs, and Los Angeles has more leverage than most think.
Signing LeBron James has not morphed the Lakers into an overnight superpower. The real plus-minus prediction model from ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton has them winning around 41 games. That feels low. James should make the Lakers a playoff team. But the Kings, in all likelihood, won't be settling for a bottom-five first-rounder. They're looking at a selection in the late teens to early 20s. That's not nothing. It's enough for the Lakers to resist including another first-round choice.
Shaving $4.7 million off this year's bottom line is icing on the cake. The Kings have almost $10 million in cap room as it stands. That extra wiggle room, plus Koufos' expiring deal, will allow them to take on more unsavory money in exchange for picks and prospects closer to the trade deadline.
Don't cry for Sacramento's flexibility next summer, Argentina either. The combination of non-guaranteed salaries and Willie Cauley-Stein's restricted free-agent hold preserves a clear path to max money even with Deng on the books.
As for the Lakers, they shouldn't think twice. Yes, they're playing the long game. Their post-LeBron signings prove as much. But giving up a single first-round pick to dump Deng beats stretching his salary across three years starting next summer. They'll sleepwalk to more than $40 million in space by jettisoning his entire 2019-20 hit. Kawhi Leonard will be thrilled.
Hassan Whiteside, Miami Heat
Miami Heat Receive: PG/SG Matthew Dellavedova, C John Henson
Milwaukee Bucks Receive: C Hassan Whiteside, 2022 second-round pick, cash
Sources told the Miami Herald's Barry Jackson the Heat have "made Tyler Johnson, Hassan Whiteside and Dion Waiters available in trade talks this summer." Their primary goal: eliminating their luxury-tax bill.
Convincing the Bucks to send them Matthew Dellavedova and John Henson could let the Heat altogether duck the tax. They save nearly $4.5 million in this deal, which brings their total salary commitments to around $122.5 million—more than $1 million beneath the $123.7 luxury line.
The Bucks shouldn't balk when looking at 2018-19 alone. They have enough breathing room under the luxury tax to float an extra $4.5 million. Assuming Mirza Teletovic's $3.5 million dead-money hit gets wiped from their ledger for medical reasons, they can treat Whiteside as a $1 million add-on.
Neither Ersan Ilyasova nor Brook Lopez invalidates this thought process. They bolster Milwaukee's frontcourt spacing, and Ilyasova is an underappreciated defensive worker bee who should see time at the 5 alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo. But Whiteside, for all his warts, has a better chance of helping in the rebounding and rim-protecting departments.
Selling Milwaukee on 2019-20 is the issue. Whiteside will take home around $7 million more than Dellavedova and Henson, and the Bucks already profile as taxpayers with Eric Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon (restricted) and Khris Middleton (player option) all entering free agency.
Sending cash now might alleviate some concern. Mostly, the Bucks shouldn't bother worrying too much about next summer. Whiteside's contract will be expiring and easier to move if things don't pan out, and they have no idea how much it'll cost to retain their own free agents. They're evading the tax this year. They can reconcile next season's obligations when the time comes.
For now, elevating their place in the wide-open, LeBron-less Eastern Conference is the more pressing priority. Swapping out Delly and Henson for Whiteside does that.
Ryan Anderson (Houston Rockets) and Kent Bazemore (Atlanta Hawks)
Atlanta Hawks Receive: PF/C Ryan Anderson (two years, $41.7 million), 2019 first-round pick (top-10 protected), 2021 second-round pick (protected for Nos. 31 to 39)
Houston Rockets Receive: SG/SF Kent Bazemore (two years, $37.4 million)
Atlanta is willing to eat what's left on Ryan Anderson's deal if Houston sends back a pick and a young player, according to Rockets Wire's Kelly Iko. In this case, "young player" is code for De'Anthony Melton.
The Rockets have yet to bite. They don't even have interest in acquiring Kent Bazemore, per USA Today's Sam Amick. Making Carmelo Anthony's arrival officially official in the most officially official way only diminishes their urgency to snag another wing—particularly when it sounds like the 34-year-old Melo is at least open to coming off the bench.
As head coach Mike D'Antoni told Amick when asked how the rotation will pan out:
"I don't know, and that's something that we'll have to work out. All I know is that we'll try different combos—preseason, early season, and the good thing is that with analytics and with gut feelings and coaches and players, we'll figure out what is the best way to play. And again, if everybody is on board, then it'll be, 'Hey, this is where we're the best. This is how we can win the championship.' I don't know yet, but we'll make sure we get it right as good as we can."
Pull Melton from hypothetical discussions, and the Rockets should reconsider their stance. They need another wing who can hold his own on defense regardless of Anthony's role. Bazemore is a tad overrated when it comes to chasing around bigger ball-handlers, but he can competently pester both guard spots while adding a dependable catch-and-fire stroke and "third wheel" playmaking.
Throwing away their 2019 first-rounder doesn't hurt unless the Rockets think they'll finish with something worse than a top-five or -seven record. They won't. The Hawks could—and probably would—try to extract Melton or another selection from this package. The Rockets should play hardball right back. They're not even saving $4 million before taxes in this trade.
Tossing in a future second-rounder is fine, but Atlanta should have to expand the deal and stomach Nene's salary and/or ship Dewayne Dedmon or Justin Anderson to Houston in order to collect more assets.
Ian Mahinmi (Washington Wizards) and Joakim Noah (New York Knicks)
New York Knicks Receive C Ian Mahinmi (2 years, $31.4 million), SG/SF Jodie Meeks, PG/SG/SF Austin Rivers*, PF/C Jason Smith
Washington Wizards Receive: PG Emmanuel Mudiay, C Joakim Noah (2 years, $37.8 million), SF/PF Lance Thomas
Joakim Noah isn't going to be on the chopping block much longer.
New York plans to stretch-and-waive him in September because general manager Scott Perry "has been cautiously unwilling to include the necessary assets—a good young player, or a future first-round pick or picks—to make Noah's contract palatable to another team," according to ESPN.com's Ian Begley and Adrian Wojnarowski.
Props to Perry and team president Steve Mills for not going "full Knicks" in this situation. Kevin Knox will be the most talented teammate Kevin Durant ever has, and Frank Ntilikina, Kristaps Porzingis and next year's first-rounder should join him inside the "hands off" bubble.
Remove them from talks, and New York doesn't have the sweeteners necessary to jettison Noah free and clear. That should not empower Perry and Mills to waive Noah. Stretching him will cost the team a hair over $6.4 million per year through 2021-22.
Punting on that much flexibility for three consecutive offseasons is pointless unless the Knicks know that Durant is coming, or that they'll be able to broker flat-out junkings for Tim Hardaway Jr. (three years, $54.5 million) and Courtney Lee (two years, $25 million) en route to entering dual-max territory.
This trade represents a nice middle ground. The Knicks are taking on $7.5 million in salary for 2018-19, but they're holding onto their best buffers and saving $3.1 million next season by replacing Noah with Ian Mahinmi.
That sliver of savings is not insignificant. It amounts to basically half of what they would be paying Noah anyway. They could make up the other $3.3 million elsewhere, and Mahinmi should be easier to pawn off as an expiring deal after 2018-19 ends. Worse comes to worst, the Knicks can stretch him at $5.1 million per year across three seasons—a slightly more digestible number than Noah's $6.4 million.
It shouldn't be too hard for the Wizards to talk themselves into this not-a-blockbuster. Noah might be playable when deployed as Dwight Howard's backup. More than that, this brings them within $3.6 million of the tax line. They'll save a ton of money even if they don't lean into an extra salary dump at the trade deadline.
Nothing happens here if the Wizards treat Austin Rivers as an asset. They shouldn't. He's no sure thing as a second-unit anchor. Lance Thomas' cross-position defense, coupled with his $1 million partial guarantee for 2019-20, is the more useful chip. And who knows: Maybe Emmanuel Mudiay, once dubbed John Wall in training, shows career-best progress during a contract year.
*Note: Rivers cannot be traded in combination with other players until after Aug. 26.
Nicolas Batum (Charlotte), Chandler Parsons (Memphis) and Evan Turner (Portland)
Charlotte Hornets Receive: PF/C Meyers Leonard, SG/SF Evan Turner (two years, $36.5 million).
Memphis Grizzlies Receive: SG/SF Nicolas Batum (three years, $76.7 million)
Portland Trail Blazers Receive: SF/PF Chandler Parsons (two years, $49.2 million)
Is this not one of the most bizarre three-team migraines you've ever seen? It is a masterpiece on the "LITERALLY WUT" scale, if I do say so myself. You're welcome.
Brace yourself, though, because it also makes some sense.
The Hornets should pounce at the chance to escape the final year of Nicolas Batum's contract. It doesn't matter whether they're trying to avoid a rebuild. They are. And they will fail. They'll wind up reshuffling the deck sometime soon. Paying Meyers Leonard and Evan Turner a combined $58.4 million through 2019-20 beats shelling out $76.7 million for Batum over an extra season.
The Grizzlies would be playing with fire, and we should love it. They tried using the No. 4 pick, which turned into Jaren Jackson Jr., to lop off Chandler Parsons' money before the draft, according to The Athletic's Michael Scotto. They have since doubled down on a more immediate timeline by paying Kyle Anderson and trading for Garrett Temple.
Acquiring Batum is an extension of that approach. The Grizzlies are getting another playmaker and switchy wing defender for Parsons, who has been unable to remain healthy since joining the cause. Footing the bill for Batum's $27.1 million salary in 2020-21 stings, but they're into Mike Conley for $34.5 million that year (early termination option). They'll be perfectly set up to start over that summer if they let this new-look nucleus run its course.
Or this dice roll could work out. Spacing remains an issue unless Batum rediscovers his 2013-14 form, but the Grizzlies will have the look and feel of a top-five defense with him, Anderson, Conley and Jackson on their side.
The Blazers accept their invitation to this party for the money. Consolidating Leonard and Turner into Parsons trims more than $9 million off their bottom line over the next two seasons.
It helps, too, that Portland tried to sign Parsons in 2016. He has appeared in just 70 games since then, and bad feelz could linger from his Twitter beef with CJ McCollum. But he canned 42.1 percent of his three-point attempts last season and is shooting 37.7 percent from deep for his career. He'll be a more natural fit for the offense than Leonard or Turner when he's not coping with knee injuries.