The Jazz’s Friday trade with Philadelphia shows that the erstwhile asset-hoarders have changed gears. Spending picks at all is a big shift for GM Dennis Lindsey, who has been on the receiving end of those types of trade more often than not during his Jazz tenure.
But this time around, he ponied up. The Jazz sent the best and worst of their four second round picks in the 2017 draft1 along with Tibor Pleiss to Philadelphia for the non-guaranteed salary of Kendall Marshall, whom they waived almost immediately.
The move clears Pleiss’ $3 million2 from the Jazz’s cap sheet. What’s curious is why that $3M was worth parting with two draft assets. The Jazz themselves have shown that a single pick can net a lot of cash. At least in theory, they could have eaten Pleiss’ salary, then sold those same two picks at next year’s draft and likely come out ahead. So this wasn’t about saving money; it was about creating cap space.
That raises an interesting question: what can they do with ~$12.3 million in cap space that they couldn’t do with ~$9.3 million3?
More specifically, the $9.3M they had available before making this deal would have been plenty to do a meaningful “renegotiate & extend” deal with either Derrick Favors or George Hill. In the aftermath of a rare August trade, many started to wonder: is $12.3M enough to R&E both?
First, a bit of a primer on the R&E concept. It’s a useful tool because the rules for veteran extensions are pretty inadequate to keep up with the quick rise in NBA player salaries. An extension for Favors or Hill could start at 107.5% of their respective salaries in the final years of their current contracts. That would start a Favors extension at $12.9M in 2018, or Hill at $8.6M next season — in either case, well below their market value.
Renegotiation allows under-the-cap teams to use space to bump a player’s current contract up as high the cap and the player’s max will allow, and then a player can be extended starting anywhere between 60% and 107.5% of that figure. James Harden’s and Russel Westbrook’s teams just used this mechanism to lock in their All-League guys at max figures. The Jazz, though, might be interested in using the R&E tool more like Denver did with Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler in 2015. Instead of taking those guys as high as they could go, they essentially sought to replicate the same incremental money that Gallo and Chandler could have gotten from the marketplace over the extended term, but apply some of it to the current contract through renegotiation, spreading out the cap hit but giving them more or less the same money they’d have gotten as free agents.
It only works if a team and player can agree on what that market value is, and if a player is willing to sacrifice free agency as a means of getting some of the money sooner (and mitigating injury risk). So what are those market values in the Jazz players’ cases?
Can the Jazz swing both of those?
If Utah waited until after trimming their roster to 15 this October — let’s assume for argument’s sake that they cut Chris Johnson and Marcus Paige — the club would have $13,794,808 to split between Favors and Hill. If, for example, they used $5.5M for a Hill R&E and the remaining $8,294,808 for Favors, they could do the following:
So it works… with a pretty big caveat.
Doing those two transactions and then retaining Gordon Hayward and Rudy Gobert at their respective max salaries runs Utah $5.3M and change over the luxury tax limit. That’s with 12 players under contract and before the Jazz sign their two 2017 first-round draft picks, or make a decision on free agents Joe Ingles, Shelvin Mack and Joe Ingles.
If Trey Lyles is ready for a bigger role by then the Jazz could dodge next year’s tax by waiving Boris Diaw, whose $7.5M salary for next season in non-guaranteed until next July 17, but that only helps temporarily. The team would be in a similar position the following year, when the second contracts of Rodney Hood and Dante Exum would kick in, and Utah would be right back to teetering on — or sprinting right over — the tax line.
Even if you buy the argument that Gobert’s comps put him in a range just below max salary5, it doesn’t change the larger reality here: the Jazz just can’t keep everybody at their market rate and avoid the tax.
At some point, something’s gotta give. That could mean Utah venturing into the tax for the first time, or somebody taking a discount to help the group stay together… or it could simply mean Jazz brass making a decision on who is really vital to a championship core.
As for the Pleiss deal itself, it will be easier to evaluate it in the context of what Utah does with the extra cap cushion it creates. But for now, one thing we can say for sure is that it makes the Enes Kanter trade haul look a bit worse.
Look, the Jazz had to trade Kanter, for chemistry reasons and to clear the way for a burgeoning defensive star in Gobert. We all get that. There’s also no way they were going to pay him the $80 million he got as a restricted free agent. Trading the Turk was the right thing to do, and the benefits of the swap go far beyond the specific pieces it brought back.
But that package looks sparser all the time. The two players it yielded — Pleiss and Grant Jerrett — flamed out after appearing in just 15 Jazz games combined. So the Jazz essentially turned Kanter into two fringey NBA guys and two picks.
Basically what they’re left with now is an OKC non-lottery first rounder6 and a Detroit 2nd, less the value of two picks7. That’s a rough return for a guy who was averaging 18 & 10 per 36 minutes… even if the Jazz had no intention of keeping him and the entire world knew it.
But the real mistake here might have been guaranteeing $6.4 million of Pleiss’ salary. Had they not done that, they wouldn’t have needed to dump him at the cost of a pair of picks, and the remaining asset haul from Kanter would look less anemic. It’s unclear why the Jazz gave Pleiss so much guaranteed money — $2.9M last year, $3M for the upcoming season, and $500K of his $3.1M for ’17-18 — when they weren’t negotiating against any other NBA teams. Pleiss was a solid bench contributor for maybe the best non-NBA team in the world, but there were still valid concerns about how his game would translate. The Jazz bet heavily they could work with the giant German to answer those doubts, and in the end the wager cost them a couple of assets.
It was a minor misstep in an otherwise well-managed return to relevance, though. And if the Jazz are able to use the resulting cap room to extend Favors’ and Hill’s stays in Salt Lake City, people will quickly forgive and forget a slight overpay of Utah’s imported-then-exported center.