Ben Gordon left Chicago for Detroit three summers ago in rather bitter circumstances. After two summers of failed contract negotiations, while on his way out the door, Gordon unsubtly stated that he was leaving to join an organization “where winning is the number one priority.”
This has been the exact opposite of what has actually transpired, and last night, he found himself in a trade that proved it. Gordon was traded to Charlotte, along with a protected first round pick, to Charlotte in exchange for Corey Maggette. More pertinently, Gordon and the pick were traded for Maggette’s expiring $10.9 million contract. With all due respect to Corey Maggette, he’s otherwise irrelevant here.
Perhaps Gordon thought that Detroit spending big, on him and Charlie Villanueva, was synonymous with prioritizing winning. If so, he was wrong. Since that summer of expenditure, the Pistons have been a moribund franchise, hamstrung by a lack of cohesiveness, submarined by infighting, and unable to do much about it due to the payroll inflexibility they saddled themselves with. Indeed, despite not winning more than 30 games in any season since signing the duo, the Pistons have been the least active team in recent years with regards to roster turnover, sticking with what they had even while knowing it wasn’t working. With so many big, underperforming contracts, they hadn’t the flexibility to do anything else. Last summer’s business was spent on re-signing a team that had just lost 52 games. The Pistons have been stranded in a wilderness of their own making.
The only salvation since that time has been some success in the draft. Greg Monroe is well on his way to a maximum value contract, Jonas Jerebko has made Villanueva completely obsolete, and Brandon Knight pretty much matches Gordon’s production already while being only 20. There’s another top 10 pick coming. The only thing missing from quite a nice situation going forward has been financial flexibility.
With this trade, they now have it. Gordon’s contract runs for two more years for a total of $25.6 million, whereas Maggette expires after this year. The financial savings in the upcoming year are negligible to the point of irrelevancy. In the summer of 2013, however, the Pistons can finally start again. Between Maggette, Jason Maxiell, Will Bynum, Austin Daye and the remainder of Rip Hamilton’s bought-out deal, the Pistons will see over $28 million of expiring (and largely dead) salary fall off their cap. If the amnesty clause is used on Villanueva at some point between now and then, that figure rises to $37 million. Waiving Rodney Stuckey — whose final season is not fully guaranteed — could add an extra $4.5 million if needs be. And the young talent will still be there.
The fact that the trade includes a first round pick, with protection that quickly falls away, is not insignificant. The Pistons are so far away from being good that it is far from certain that they will have reached a level in 2014 where the loss is insignificant and manageable. Charlotte knows this too, hence why the level of protection is where it is. In theory, a core of Knight/Monroe/Jerebko/this year’s pick is a solid low-level playoff team in the weak East by that time, even without much further reinforcement; however, that’s a favorable prognosis reliant upon good health and good personnel development. They might still suck then, at which point, so will this trade. Nonetheless, what they’ve given themselves is a reprieve, a do-over, an light at the end of the tunnel. There hasn’t been one of them for three years.
For Charlotte, they get a pick comparable to the one they still owe Chicago for the spectacularly underwhelming Tyrus Thomas. And unlike Detroit, they might even get an important player.
Somewhere beneath three years of forgettable play may lie Ben Gordon the explosive game changer, the guy who, for all his warts, could get so hot from three-point range that he could win you a game single-handedly. It’s been a while since we’ve seen this player, and it’s somewhat speculative that he even has that ability any more. Nevertheless, the Bobcats can afford to take that risk. They can barely afford not to. The risk is offset by the pick, and the reward is tempered by the cost. Gordon need catch fire in this way only four times next year and he’s singlehandedly gotten more than half of this season’s Bobcats win total. And while he’s considerably overpaid for his performance, no amount of money gets Charlotte such an explosive scorer in free agency. There’s just no incentive to sign there.
Justifying Gordon’s fit in Charlotte, particularly alongside Kemba Walker, is not easy. Frankly, they probably won’t pair too well. But Charlotte is in such a unique position that that barely factors. They are so, so bad that it doesn’t really matter at this point how well the pieces go together, they just need to get some of them. The pick is one such piece. And Gordon might be as well.
Does that mean they win the trade? Perhaps. Perhaps not. This is only determinable when we see what becomes of the Pistons, and thus the pick. Similarly, the Pistons only win the trade if they do good things with the new lease on life they may have given themselves. If all they’ve done is given away one of the key pieces to a successful rebuild, all they’ve done is make it worse.
So maybe both teams win. Or maybe both teams lose. One bad team gave away an underachieving player and a pick to another bad team, giving away the kind of asset they use well to create the kind of asset that they don’t. The other bad team shoulders the burden of an overpaid ex-Bull for the reward of a protected future first, that merely offsets the loss of a different protected future first they used to acquire a different overpaid ex-Bull.
Either way, it’s a trade! So it’s got that going for it.