When the Washington Wizards traded for Nene back at the trade deadline, they did so because of their cap flexibility. They used this flexibility (akin to, but not synonymous with, cap space) to take on the massive contract of a decent player, thereby saving themselves the effort of having to overpay a decent player via the cap space route later on.
This cutting out of the middle man has now happened again. Out of nowhere, Washington traded Rashard Lewis’s big, redundant contract to New Orleans in exchange for the big, slightly less redundant contracts of Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor. Seemingly, then, this is Washington’s modus operandi now. If they knew they weren’t going to sign anyone anyway, losing the ability to sign someone is no real loss.
Since disbanding the Arenas/Jamison/Butler first round caliber team of a few years ago, the Wizards have gone from having incredibly little cap flexibility to having quite a lot of it. They have also been very bad, which has not made them an attractive free agent destination, if ever they were one, thus rather undermining said leverage. Perhaps cognizant of this, the Wizards haven’t attempted the big name cap space route — they haven’t signed another team’s FA to a multiyear contract since overpaying for Darius Songaila six summers ago, and, even prior to the Nene move, have burned millions in theoretically lucrative cap space acquiring Kirk Hinrich and Ronny Turiaf by trade. This move is a clear continuation of that strategy. Right or wrong, it’s a strategy.
Trading someone you didn’t want for two decent players is rarely a bad thing. Warts and all, Okafor and Ariza are undeniably just that. Ariza will bring his usual brand of league average, sporadic, effective-but-infuriating ball to a team who really need stability and mentorship on a roster already overladen with young forwards. Nevertheless, he is good enough to help the team on both ends. And the Wizards certainly need help on both ends. This trade, in theory, gets them into the playoffs.
Any success derived from the trade, however, is ultimately contingent not on Ariza, but upon Okafor’s coexistence with Nene. Other than brief stretches — including at the start of this season — Nene has exclusively played the center spot in his NBA career, whereas Okafor has spent all his time there. Okafor has always been slightly undersized for the position, yet his skill set and lack of athleticism prevents him from playing anywhere else. Nene’s skill set rather straddles the two big positions, yet, with Okafor’s inability to play outside of the paint on either end, the two are either going to awkwardly try and make it work (Yao Ming/Kelvin Cato, 2004) or sub in for each other (Eddy Curry/Tyson Chandler, 2005). Since the latter isn’t going to happen, Randy Wittman has a summer’s worth of tape in his future. Considering the relative costs involved, it’s just going to have to work.
(And if it doesn’t work, trade one of them for Kevin Martin. Simple as!)
Whether Washington could have sourced such decent veterans for cheaper — by acquiring, say, the comparable Sam Dalembert, or just seeing where they were at with Nene in the middle and using their assets elsewhere — is debatable. This may not have been an optimum appropriation of resources. How they plan to build a team around John Wall and yet surround him with absolutely no shooters is also a perfectly valid question. This move still leaves plenty to do. Nonetheless, they were returned decent players who will help.
New Orleans didn’t. They saved money. And that’s all they did.
They did, however, save a lot of it. Both Okafor and Ariza have contracts that run through 2014. Both Okafor and Ariza have options at their discretion to terminate these deals in the summer of 2013. Both won’t. Between them, they will earn a guaranteed $42,963,740 in that time. In contrast, Lewis’s mahoosive $22,699,551 contract is guaranteed for only approximately $13.7 million. “With this deal, then, New Orleans figures to save about $29.3 million over two years, opening up over $20 million in 2013 cap space, and about $7 million more this year. This is better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. And it also opened a ton of minutes for the young Hornets forwards. As not-for-basketball-reasons trades go, this one intrigues.
To get the approximately $9 million in savings on Rashard’s contract, the Hornets need to waive him. That much is obvious. What they don’t have to do, however, is waive him immediately. Lewis’s unguaranteed compensation has no guarantee date, other than the universal league-wide date of January 5th. It therefore costs the Hornets as much to keep him until that time as it does to waive him tomorrow afternoon; Rashard gets his $13.7 million either way. It is not indicative of anything, then, if they retain him for a while. Despite being really, really, really really really ridiculously overpaid, Lewis nonetheless provides cap flexibility.
Furthermore, he can be traded again. It isn’t likely to happen, but there’s nothing preventing New Orleans using Lewis’s unguaranteed salary as a trade asset of their own. They can do this right up until the date of his contract becoming guaranteed. Indeed, if they decided to guarantee his entire deal for some strange reason, even then he can be traded again. A $22.7 million contract can be a trade asset when it’s expiring. It could get them, say, a decent starting center and an incredibly average wing man. Those are needs that they have now. So, there’s that.
To receive absolutely no basketball talent back other than Lewis, though, is something of a risk. The only asset the Hornets were returned that wasn’t financially motivated was a second round pick, the No. 46 in this year’s draft, from which they may be able to draft someone who may one day be capable of being a backup. The only basketball player they return in the deal is one they will inevitably waive for financial reasons. An already weak on-court product just got a little weaker, and let’s not forget, this is a bad team. New Orleans have given themselves great flexibility going forward and have trimmed nothing but replaceable parts, but in doing so, they’ve only made themselves worse. You sometimes have to get worse to get better, but at some point, there must be a limit. (See also: Bobcats, Charlotte.)
If they use this flexibility correctly, however, that is fine. That’s better than fine. That’s ideal. Maybe this trade was the best means of acquiring said quality. If they use this cap flexibility to build around an Eric Gordon/Anthony Davis foundation, pay the cost of locking the two in indefinitely, tie down the savagely underappreciated Gustavo Ayon, and add some more young talent reconciled with a potent mix of solid veterans, they’re on their way to rebuilding the Oklahoma City Thunder way. As impossibly difficult as that is to do, it can be done, and winning the lottery got them halfway here. Maybe they even surprise us all and make a huge splash in 2013 (or 2012) free agency. After this trade, they can do all these things.
And if it doesn’t work out that way for whatever reason, they can always take the Washington route.