Monday, July 22, 2013

The Expendable All-Stars

Expendable All-Star Luol Deng launches a jump shot. Sylvester Stallone not pictured. (flickr)
By Jeremy Conlin  @jeremy_conlin

Under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, teams around the league seem to be tightening their belts. Even the best, most profitable teams in the league – Miami amnestied Mike Miller, the Lakers amnestied Metta World Peace, Oklahoma City let Kevin Martin walk in free agency, etc. It’s basically everyone but Brooklyn.

Teams are generally more afraid of the luxury tax than they ever have been before. For one, the tax is more punitive starting this upcoming season – what used to be a dollar-for-dollar tax is now a $1.50-per-dollar tax at a minimum, and can escalate to as high as $3.75-per-dollar, depending on how far above the tax a team is. More importantly, perhaps, is the “repeater” tax rate that will go into effect for the 2014-2015 season. If a team has paid the tax in each of the last three seasons, the minimum tax rate jumps from $1.50-per-dollar to $2.50-per-dollar and the maximum tax rate jumps from $3.75-per-dollar to $4.75 per-dollar.

In layman’s terms – a team $20 million over the tax line in 2013 would have paid a $20 million tax. A team $20 million over the tax line in 2014 would pay a tax of $45 million. In 2015, if they had paid the tax in each of the previous three seasons (and thus qualified for the “repeater” tax rate), they would pay a tax of (gulp) $65 million.
So with teams afraid of the tax, we might see playoff teams looking to trade key players for financial reasons. Not because the team is looking to blow up and re-build, but because they think they already have cheaper talent in place that can step in and fill the void. I’m not talking along the lines of the Celtics dumping Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce for future draft picks, I’m talking along the lines of Memphis dealing Rudy Gay and not missing a beat on the court.

(Also worth mentioning – I’m not talking about players like Kendrick Perkins or Joe Johnson who are past their primes with albatross contracts, the types of players who a team would have to surrender assets to get another team to take them; I’m talking about guys who still have value and teams might actually want.)

So, to get us started off, here are five expendable stars from playoff teams:

1. Luol Deng

Deng is the top of the list because there have already been rumors that Chicago is looking to trade him. He’s made the last two All-Star games (both undeserved, but that’s beside the point), but he’s prohibitively expensive for the Bulls, a team that historically has been very afraid of the tax, and already has a cheap replacement for him in Jimmy Butler. Butler still has two very cheap seasons left on his contract, and was an absolute workhorse in the playoffs filling in for the injured Deng. From Game 6 of the Brooklyn series in Round 1 through the end of the Miami series in Round 2, Butler played the full 48 minutes in five of the seven games (he also played 45:50 in another).

For Chicago, it simply comes down to whether they feel it’s worth it to pay Deng $14.3 million this season when Butler can fill the same role for $1.1 million. If they don’t think it is, they could dump Deng on a team mid-season for an expiring contract and a first-round pick.

2. Carlos Boozer

Again, Chicago isn’t a big fan of the luxury tax, and again, Chicago has a cheap replacement – Taj Gibson. Boozer is owed $32.1 million over the next two years. Gibson is owed $33 million over twice that span. In fact, Chicago was actually better on the court last year with Gibson than they were with Boozer. In Boozer’s 2465 minutes, the Bulls were actually -2.4 per 100 possessions. In Gibson’s 1459 minutes, Chicago was +5.8 per 100 possessions.

Boozer is probably less likely to be moved than Deng simply because Chicago doesn’t quite have the frontcourt depth to surrender Boozer unless they get another playable forward in return. But if they opt not to move Deng, and a deal becomes available where an Ed Davis-type asset is on the table (like last year when Memphis moved Rudy Gay), expect Chicago to bite.

3. Zach Randolph

Speaking of Ed Davis, his development could make Zach Randolph expendable in Memphis. The Grizzlies front office clearly thinks highly of Davis, they wouldn’t have traded for him if they didn’t. And even though he wasn’t in favor with coach Lionel Hollins, he still played well in limited minutes (12.2 points, 10.6 rebounds, 52% shooting per 36 minutes). Now that Hollins is out of Memphis, Davis could see more playing time.

If Memphis is still looking to cut costs and re-tool under new ownership and a re-vamped front office, Randolph seems to be the one to go. Randolph’s contract puts Memphis on the hook for $34.3 million over the next two years. Davis is paid $3.1 million in 2014, and wildly underrated center Kosta Koufos, acquired on draft night from Denver, is on the books for $3 million in 2014 and again in 2015. Even with a modest extension of Davis’ contract, Memphis could slash the Randolph expenditure in half by trading him, and perhaps picking up another cheap asset along the way.

4. Omer Asik

Houston’s GM Daryl Morey has been emphatic that they aren’t looking to trade Asik. However, it doesn’t make sense to pay Asik $16 million over the next two seasons to only play roughly 16 minutes per game. Dwight Howard makes Asik non-essential, especially when it would be very difficult to play the two of them together.

If Asik were on the trading block, there would surely be teams lining up to take him. He’s a dominant rebounder and interior defender – even the great defensive teams he played for in Chicago were better defensively with him on the court. If Houston can swap him for a power forward who can spread the floor with shooting, they should look into it seriously. An Asik-Ryan Anderson swap would make a lot of sense for both teams.
5. David Lee

Lee seemed to become superfluous in the playoffs this past season when Golden State was able to nearly make the Western Conference Finals without him. The Warriors went small and caused serious problems both for Denver (who they beat) and San Antonio (who they were a lot closer to beating than anyone will remember a year from now). Now with Andre Iguodala on the roster, an intriguing small-ball lineup of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Iguodala, Harrison Barnes, and Andrew Bogut is looming. Obviously, the odd-man out in this scenario is David Lee and the $44 million left on his contract over the next three years.

It will be tough for Golden State to cut the cord – Andrew Bogut is always an injury risk, backup center Festus Ezili is out until mid-season with his own injury, and last year’s big man super-sub Carl Landry left to sign with Sacramento. There could be a point early next season where Lee is the only healthy big on the roster. But, like with Randolph, if a young, inexpensive forward is on the table, it’ll be tough for Golden State to say no.

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