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December 20, 2010
Transaction Analysis
'Tis the Season to be Dealing

by Bradford Doolittle

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The trading season got off to an early start with several significant deals over the last few days. Our breakdown of these deals follows but I just want to point out that the analysis was all written with the terms of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement in mind. As we have no idea what the terms of the eventual agreement will look like, that's really all we could do. So consider that as you read.

HOUSTON ROCKETS

Acquired Terrence Williams from New Jersey in exchange for a 2012 first-round draft pick. Also sent the rights to Sergei Lischuk to the L.A. Lakers as part of the three-team trade. [12/15]

Acquired a conditional second-round draft pick from Sacramento in exchange for Jermaine Taylor and cash. [12/15]

The Rockets pointed to last summer as an opportunity to build back up to elite status. General manager Daryl Morey set up last year's team with plenty of flexibility and allowed Rick Adelman to install a new, up-tempo offense. He acquired Kevin Martin from Sacramento and added a young asset in Jordan Hill in exchange for Tracy McGrady's expiring contract. This was all done with the expectation that Yao Ming would return this season and become the team's centerpiece player once again. Clearly, that's not going to happen this year and probably never will.

Faced with the uncertainty over Yao's future, Morey declined to negotiate an extension with starting point guard Aaron Brooks in October. For that matter, he has resisted tying up any additional long-term money. By maintaining his financial flexibility, Morey can now try to re-make the Rockets on the fly, armed with the knowledge that Yao can no longer be considered a foundation player. Yao's contract is up after this season and if he returns to Houston, it will be under terms favorable to the Rockets, who have shelled out a lot of dough for a lot of inactivity.

While re-mapping the Rockets' direction, Morey has set about collecting young assets who might be part of the solution. Williams had fallen out of favor in New Jersey under new coach Avery Johnson, but he's a tremendous two-way prospect who is multi-skilled as a scorer and a passer on the offensive end. In the short term, Williams probably won't see the court much as Houston has Martin, Courtney Lee, Shane Battier and Chase Budinger holding down the wing positions in Adelman's current rotation. In the long term, he's a lottery-caliber talent acquired for what won't be a future lottery selection. The pick Houston sent to the Nets is lottery-protected through 2016. In the unlikely event that the Rockets land in the lottery every season until then, the pick defaults to a second-round selection in 2017. If the Rockets end up losing their 2012 first-round pick, they still have another first-round selection thanks to the deal that brought Hill to Houston from the Knicks. That pick is only top-five protected.

Sergei Lischuk is a face-up banger from the Ukraine who is going to be 29 years old next March. He was originally selected by Memphis in 2004. There seems to be little chance he's going to move over stateside any time soon, so the Rockets aren't losing anything.

The Taylor move was made simply to open a roster spot. The amount of cash Houston sent to Sacramento is unknown, but it's probably around $1 million--enough to cover Taylor's contract plus a little extra for the Kings' trouble. The second-round pick the Kings conditionally owe Houston is top-55 protected. It'll go away unless the Kings win their last 57 games or so, which they might have to do to finish with one of the top five records in the league.

LOS ANGELES LAKERS

Acquired Joe Smith and two second-round draft picks from the Nets in exchange for Sasha Vujacic and a 2011 first-round draft picks. Also acquired the rights to Sergei Lishchuk from the Rockets as part of the three-team trade. [12/15]

The Lakers' part in the three-way trade with New Jersey and Houston has been termed a straight cost-cutting move. To a certain extent, that's true, but there is a little more going on than that. Just a little.

By unloading Vujacic for Smith, the Lakers exchange a player with an expiring $5.475 million contract for a player who's cap hit is the minimum of $.854 million. Factor in the luxury tax savings and Dr. Jerry Buss will trim about $8.2 million in payroll with this deal. Vujacic has long ceased to be a member of Phil Jackson's rotation. My last image of him as a Laker was watching how amused he was by the antics of Bennie the Bull in L.A.'s game in Chicago a while back. Vujacic was watching the Bulls' mascot from his seat on the bench, while his teammates huddled during a timeout a few feet away.

Smith provides veteran depth for the Lakers as he moves to his 12th team in 15 NBA seasons. Rookie Derrick Caracter had been receiving regular minutes because of L.A.'s lack of depth in the frontcourt. If Andrew Bynum can't stay healthy--always a possibility--Smith gives Jackson a better option come playoff time. Even if Smith spends most of his time sitting at the end of the bench, he's a better and vastly-more cost effective use of a roster spot than Vujacic. Smith also gets a chance to earn a ring, which would be a nice reward for his long service and prodigious travels.

L.A. also saves some cash next season by unloading their first-round pick on the Nets. The pick is protected from 1-18, but the Lakers won't fall that low, so the pick is good as gone. The two second-round picks the Lakers got back from Jersey originated with Chicago and Golden State, respectively. The Warriors' pick is for 2011, so it in effect will be only a few selections after where the Lakers would have picked in the first round. (The Chicago pick is for 2012.) The Lakers will get a comparable player only won't have to invest in a rookie contract with its guaranteed dollars. They can mine the fringes of the prospect mine for useful role players in whom they can make little initial investment. This is what they did with Caracter in this past draft, in which they also landed second-rounder Devin Ebanks. Whether or not either of those players stick long term, it's a sound drafting strategy for a team in the Lakers' position. And you never know--useful players emerge from the second round of every draft.

NEW JERSEY NETS

Acquired Sasha Vujacic and a 2011 first-round pick from the L.A. Lakers in exchange for Joe Smith and two second-round draft picks. Acquired a 2012 first-round pick from Houston in exchange for Terrence Williams. [12/15]

All indications are that his bit of manuevering by Nets general manager Billy King was undertaken to better place the Nets in position to land Carmelo Anthony. New Jersey now could have as many as seven draft picks in the next two years, five of them first-rounders. The picked acquired from the Rockets is lottery protected, which you'd think has only nominal value. The Nets also land a Lakers' pick that is protected from 1-18, so that means Jersey will probably get the Lakers' pick in 2011 and it'll come at the end of the first round. Again, nominal value. In 2012, in addition to the possible Houston pick and their own, the Nets also have a protected first-round pick from Golden State. If the Warriors finish near the bottom of the league from 2012-2014 (a possibility), then that pick turns into a pair of second-round choices. So there are a lot of first-round picks in the Nets' larder, but is it really an enticing package? Perhaps ... if it also includes Derrick Favors and some other pieces.

By giving up Williams, the Nets surrender a talented player that earned the ire of head coach Avery Johnson during the short time they were together. Williams has an awful lot of potential to be unloaded because of a contingency, but it seems like the Nets did just that. Sending Smith, who was useless on a team like the Nets, to the Lakers for even a late first-round pick is a solid value. But sending a lottery talent like Williams away for a pick that won't be a lottery choice is dubious.

We have to give the Nets an incomplete because it's apparent that they're stockpiling assets for a bigger move down the line. If said bigger move is not forthcoming, then the Nets will have squandered a legit talent for a gaggle of iffy draft picks. However, if the Nets land Anthony, then whether or not you think these trades are worthwhile depends on what else they give up along with what your ultimate opinion is of Carmelo Anthony's value.

In Vujacic, the Nets land another shooter, which is something they need and with his contract expiring, this will give New Jersey a solid few months to evaluate the quirky Slovenian. With Anthony Morrow ailing, Vujacic has a golden opportunity staring him in the face. After shooting poorly last season, Vujacic again struggled in his limited time with the Lakers to start this campaign, so he's got to prove that he can be the same threat he was in 2008-09 and, in particular, 2007-08.

ORLANDO MAGIC

Acquired Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu and Earl Clark from Phoenix in exchange for Vince Carter, Marcin Gortat, Mickael Pietrus, a 2011 first-round pick and $3 million cash. [12/18]

Acquired Gilbert Arenas in exchange from Washington for Rashard Lewis. [12/18]

Of the teams making moves the last few days, the Magic deserves the most scrutiny. Few general managers are as aggressive as Otis Smith and he again displayed his willingness to make a splash with this weekend's deals. Orlando seemed to be performing at near-championship level early in the season, with a 15-4 start. Then a stomach virus hit the team, costing the Magic multiple players at a time, and a four-game losing streak ensued. Then the team got healthy and won two games and appeared to be getting back on track. However, Smith determined somewhere along the line that his was not a championship roster.

I'll say this: I firmly believe the goal of every team should be to win a championship and every move they make should be towards achieving that goal at some point in the future. That seems almost naively obvious, but the fact of the matter is that too many teams operate as if perpetual mediocrity is perfectly acceptable, as long as a respectable turnstile count is maintained. Teams invest too many dollars in role players that block their ability to add to its core. Or, worse, they misidentify players as core talents and hand them bloated, long-term deals. Perhaps he's motivated by a possible future without Dwight Howard, but Smith wants to win now, thinks he can get there with the right moves and isn't afraid to shake things up to see if it can happen.

This trade is all about this season, but let's first see how the deal affects Orlando's long-term finances:

        -2010-11-   -2011-12-   -2012-13-   -2013-14-   -2014-15-
BEFORE: $95.2 (1)   $98.2 (1)   $78.2 (2)   $16.7 (25)  $3.2 (29)
AFTER:  $90.8 (1)   $78.3 (2)   $83.9 (2)   $47.5 ( 3)  $3.2 (29)

Howard can opt out after next season and the numbers here for the 2012-13 season include his $19.5 million deal. That said, the Magic rank in the top three in committed dollars for each of the next four seasons, including this one. Whether or not Orlando can win a title, you can't say they were afraid to spend to make it happen. So do the trades bring Orlando closer to realizing that championship dream? Here's a look at Orlando's 10-man rotation, pre-trade and after:

BEFORE                          AFTER
Player     USG   TS%  WARP      Player     USG   TS%  WARP
Howard    .302  .587  15.2      Howard    .302  .587  15.2
Nelson    .244  .548   8.2      Nelson    .244  .548   8.2
Carter    .243  .557   5.0      JRich     .259  .574   7.8
Lewis     .189  .524   2.1      Turkoglu  .167  .567   4.0
Bass      .230  .579   4.5      Bass      .230  .579   4.5
-----                           -----
Gortat    .119  .562   2.1      Allen     .099  .438  -0.3
Duhon     .119  .501  -2.7      Arenas    .270  .505   3.1
Redick    .160  .579   2.6      Redick    .160  .579   2.6
QRich     .151  .514   3.1      QRich     .151  .514   3.1
Pietrus   .147  .540   0.9      Anderson  .275  .525   1.0
-----                           -----
TOTAL       --    --  41.0      TOTAL       --    --  49.2
Note: WARP figures are prorated for 82 games

Totaling up the prorated WARP totals is a rough sketch and much of the difference can be attributed to the value of what Arenas did for Washington over what Orlando got from Chris Duhon, who is likely to drop out of the rotation. This is also just a guess at how Stan Vany Gundy is going to deploy his players. All he's said so far is that Jameer Nelson will continue to start. However, Orlando looks like it got better. Richardson is just flat a better player than Carter. Also, as poorly as Turkoglu fit in Phoenix, his numbers weren't that bad and we've seen that he works well in Van Gundy's system. With the way Lewis was playing, that's a clear upgrade. Turkoglu uses fewer possessions and creates plays for others, which Lewis didn't. If the former Suns mesh as well as they should, the Magic got better with the deal. Did they leap back to championship contention? Eight ball says it could go either way.

The Arenas for Lewis swap was sort of puzzling. Personally, I would have liked to have seen Orlando try to rekindle the chemistry of the team that reached the Finals the season before last, the one that paired Lewis and Turkoglu together in the frontcourt. Arenas gives the Magic another player that can create his own shot and has the ability to run the team. He could make for a dangerous pick-and-roll partner for Howard. I like the idea of Arenas coming off the bench, where he can get more shots and add life to Orlando's second unit. Whether or not he finishes a game would depend on the opponent and how well he's shooting. However, as I mentioned, I have no idea if Van Gundy plans to start Arenas, Richardson or both in a small lineup. Starting all three primary new players in a small lineup and moving Brandon Bass back to the bench is an intriguing proposition.

Van Gundy's ability to find the right role for Arenas and to get him to accept it will ultimately determine how well this trade will work for Orlando. We'll never know now if another Lewis-Turkoglu pairing would work as well as it did before, even though Smith would have been able to go back to Washington at any point and find a willing trade partner, given the Wizards' desire to shed Arenas' contract.

The trades leave Orlando thin at the big man positions, especially in terms of a backup center, where the Magic go from Gortat, one of the league's best, to ... well, no one, really. I've plugged in Malik Allen here. With Duhon now extraneous and Jason Williams also on hand, look for another deal to be made at some point. One possibility, and this is just me thinking aloud, is sending Duhon back to the Bulls for Kurt Thomas. Chicago has just enough cap space to absorb the additional salary (by my calculations) and the Bulls need a true backup point guard. With Joakim Noah out, the Bulls could use their 15th roster spot to sign a D-League big man to fill out the bench.

PHOENIX SUNS

Acquired Vince Carter, Marcin Gortat, Mickael Pietrus, a 2011 first-round draft pick and $3 million cash in exchange from Phoenix for Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu and Earl Clark. [12/18]

The Suns are stuck in NBA purgatory. With Steve Nash still around, the goal is still to win now. However, Robert Sarver's skin-flint tendencies make it impossible for the Suns to add the kind of win-now players that will take them into luxury tax territory. All Suns general manager Lance Blanks can do is re-arrange the deck chairs on his veteran Titanic of a roster. Phoenix's payroll obligations actually go up for this season by bringing in Carter (probably the reason Orlando sent Phoenix $3 million in the transaction), but Carter has just $4 million guaranteed if he's waived by then end of next June. You can bet your bottom dollar that's going to happen. That'll be enough to get the Suns under the cap, but not far enough to add a significant piece.

Nash is still probably playing at a championship level, but the Suns didn't have a championship core around him before the trade, and certainly don't now. The additional first-round pick Phoenix acquired could allow the Suns to begin the re-stocking process, but this isn't a team accustomed to making an impact through the draft.

Long term, Gortat could be an answer at center, but how much really is he better than Robin Lopez? IS he better than Robin Lopez? The pair can be deployed together for stretches, but that is a very un-Suns-like configuration. Also, neither has much of a face-up game, so it's not a good fit for the offensive end. They're comparable on defense, though Gortat is a better rebounder. One would think this will work out as a job-sharing arrangement that will leave both players less than thrilled.

Carter is basically a jump-shooter at this point, but he doesn't run the floor like Richardson nor does he mix it up in the lane. It's hard to imagine that he'll be doing much more than playing out the string for the Suns this season, before embarking on a latter-day, Jerry Stackhouse-like journey around the league for the last few seasons of his career. Pietrus is a useful piece and a good value who should fit right into Alvin Gentry's system.

As an analyst, it's hard for me to understand where the Suns think they're headed. As an NBA fan, I can only wish for a better situation for which Nash to close out his brilliant career.

SACRAMENTO KINGS

Acquired Jermaine Taylor and cash from Houston in exchange for a conditional second-round pick. [12/15]

The Kings have so little guaranteed money tied up that they can afford to act as a clearing house for teams looking to open roster spots or create payroll flexibility. Meanwhile, the Kings can stockpile a few assets along the way. The pick they gave up to Houston is top-55 protected. In other words, they gave the Rockets nothing and since Houston was kind enough to send some cash the Kings' way, Paul Westphal gets a free look-see at Jermaine Taylor. The second-year guard was billed as a sleeper pick as a potential big-time scorer after being taken in last year's second round. The Kings are a franchise searching for answers right now, so they lose nothing by giving Taylor a chance. In a very small sample size, Taylor has averaged 20.3 points per 40 minutes this season with a .242 usage rate and a .563 True Shooting Percentage. It's worth a shot to see if he can approach those numbers in a bigger window of playing time.

WASINGTON WIZARDS

Acquired Rashard Lewis from Orlando in exchange for Gilbert Arenas. [12/18]

In essence, this is a swap of Arenas' massively unfavorable contract for Lewis' less egregious, but still pretty bad, pact. The Wizards payroll obligations the next few years with Arenas would have been approximately (beginning with this season) $57.2, $60.7, $40.5 and $42.7. With Lewis in his place, those numbers now project to $59.0, $62.5, $42.4 and $20.4. You can also knock off about $10 million from the third year of that progression, because the final year of Lewis' contract is only partially-guaranteed. All told, you can slice about $26 million from Washington's long-term payroll obligations. There is a lot more work to do, but it's a step in the right direction.

Arenas was not going to be a tenable long-term backcourt partner for John Wall. Asking him to be strictly a catch-and-shoot player was a problem and Kirk Hinrich is much better fit alongside the talented rookie, as may be Nick Young, who has explosive scoring ability. With Wall battling knee problems, it might be while before we see the Wizards' new backcourt mix in action, but it's an enticing group. Lewis gives Washington another shooter to with which to surround Wall. It can't hurt. Washington still needs scoring in the paint, but Lewis is a more appealing floor spacer than Al Thornton. Lewis' game has fallen off the last couple of years but at least some of that may be attributed to the poor fit he had with Vince Carter on the wing in Orlando. Lewis is also 31 years old, so his decline may be real and his pay-to-performance ratio may get really gnarly for the duration of his contract.

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