The Cavaliers, Thunder and Knicks completed a blockbuster three-team trade that sent J.R. Smith to Cleveland and Dion Waiters to Oklahoma City.
Who’s going where? Who won? Who lost? Let’s take a look.
Incoming: J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert (from NYK), Protected First-Round Pick (from OKC)
Outgoing: Dion Waiters (to OKC), Lou Amundson, Alex Kirk and 2019 second-round pick (to NYK)
The offseason arrivals of LeBron James and Kevin Love instantly shifted Cleveland's mentality from a long-term rebuild to "title or bust." The idea that Waiters might become a casualty of this transition arose quite early, as his shoot-first, no-defense game seemed a poor fit alongside the Cavaliers' new Big Three.
There were plenty of good reasons for Waiters to be considered expendable: he reportedly butted heads with Kyrie Irving last year, he wanted to start this season but was demoted quickly, he frustrated James on both offense and defense, and his numbers in his new role this season (10.5 points, 2.2 assists, 40.4 percent shooting) were all career-lows. With a massive hole in the middle and an extraordinarily weak bench, the underperforming Cavaliers had every reason to shop him. Waiters, for his part, should welcome a change of scenery since he is extension-eligible this summer and will be entering a contract year in 2015-16 if he doesn’t ink a new deal.
This deal was a no-brainer for the Cavaliers. Waiters was harming Cleveland's offense when he was on the floor (the Cavs' offensive rating dropped from 109.4 when Waiters sat to 101 when he was on the court). Despite his reputation as a pure scorer, Waiters' defensive woes were overshadowing his offensive skill set. With James and Irving running the show, there weren't adequate opportunities for Waiters to contribute. Often, he'd simply demand the rock and pout when he was ignored. Perhaps this could have worked if Waiters found a way to recast himself as a spot-up shooter, but he was shooting an abysmal 25.6 percent from outside this season. This team/player relationship dynamic had very few, if any, redeeming qualities.
Replacing Waiters with Shumpert should provide a cleaner fit. Cavaliers coach David Blatt has been starting Mike Miller and Shawn Marion at the two; Shumpert should be a strong candidate for that job once he returns from a dislocated shoulder. Boasting a longer frame and a better commitment to defense than Waiters, Shumpert will be a welcome addition to a Cavaliers' defense that ranks No. 23 overall. Although he is far from a knockdown perimeter shooter (34.3 percent from outside for his career), Shumpert is capable of hitting the corner three and, unlike Waiters, he won't chafe when asked to play a complementary role.
Smith has suffered through a sharp decline since his 2013 Sixth Man of the Year campaign, but he’s well-equipped to fill the same role that Waiters was supposed to. Like Waiters, he enjoys creating shots and taking shots -- it's just the making shots part that can get tricky. Importantly, Cleveland’s potent offense, which ranked in the top five before a recent stretch of injuries to James and Irving, gives Blatt the luxury of carefully managing Smith’s role. With his penchant for immature behavior, Smith is generally regarded as one of the league’s riskiest players, but Cleveland has sufficient talent that its fate just isn’t that reliant on Smith’s productivity. If he can pull himself together, great. If not, Blatt can simply go in a different direction.
Financially, this trade is a tough sell for the Cavaliers. Acquiring Shumpert, who is in the fourth year of his rookie deal and could become a restricted free agent this summer, required taking on Smith’s contract, which runs $6 million for this season and includes a $6.4 million option for next season. All told, the Cavaliers parted with their top trade chip (Waiters), took on roughly $3.1 million in salary for this year and the possibility of paying Smith next season (at this point he would be smart to opt-in) while exposing themselves to new and significant luxury tax penalties in both 2014-15 and 2015-16. And they have still yet to address their biggest need (center). That’s a lot of risk.
The upside is that the first-round pick arriving from Oklahoma City addresses a lot of those concerns. Cavaliers GM David Griffin deserves credit for negotiating favorable protections (top-18 protected in 2015 and top-15 protected in 2016 and 2017). In all likelihood, the pick will render next season, giving Griffin a quality chip to flip as he pursues a center to replace the injured Anderson Varejao before the deadline. Teams with available big men -- like Denver and Memphis -- can enter negotiations knowing the pick won’t be tied up for that long.
It must be noted that this trade is yet another reminder of how poorly Cleveland handled some of its lottery picks following the departure of James to the Heat in 2010. Remember, Waiters was a surprising No. 4 pick in 2012, taken before the likes of Damian Lillard, Andre Drummond, Harrison Barnes and others. The Waiters era in Cleveland – if such a thing really exists – goes down as a bust.
That said, Waiters’ legacy in Cleveland and the final assessment of this move both hang on what Griffin does next. As it stands, the Cavaliers forked over a lot of money without drastically raising their team’s ceiling. The incoming pick, though, has the potential to vault the Cavaliers back onto the list of serious contenders to win the East if it lands the right center in return. Swapping Waiters for Shumpert, Smith and a starting center would qualify as a home run for Griffin, regardless of how much it winds up costing owner Dan Gilbert. Stay tuned.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Incoming: Dion Waiters (from CLE)
Outgoing: Lance Thomas (to NY), Protected First-Round Pick (to CLE)
With a small-market budget and big dollars tied up in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, Thunder GM Sam Presti is stuck making compromises when it comes to adding talent. Waiters is one such compromise. Although he arrives with red flags galore, Waiters is a 23-year-old with "top-five talent" (emphasis on the quotes) who is locked into a rookie contract that will pay him $4 million this year and $5.1 million in 2015-16. Since the Thunder are contending for a title, even if their early-season record doesn’t yet reflect that, Presti is banking on Waiters having a bigger immediate impact than whomever he might select with the pick he is sending to the Cavaliers. That’s a reasonable bet.
This trade comes as a surprise since Presti is parting with a future pick to improve the present rather than stockpiling assets. It also nudges Oklahoma City across the luxury tax line (the Thunder added roughly $3.2 million in payroll). Note, though, that Presti has until the trade deadline to retreat below the tax line, and the Thunder’s track record suggests he will do just that.
Initial reports surrounding the three-team trade suggested that Oklahoma City might ship back-up point guard Reggie Jackson to New York; Jackson (a restricted free agent this summer) and shooting guard Jeremy Lamb (in his third season, like Waiters) should both be holding their breath until the deadline passes. Simply put, Presti is unlikely to get stuck here. Jackson has shown that he can be a capable starting point guard while filling in during Westbrook’s injuries, and Lamb isn’t yet a lost cause, even if his inconsistency can be maddening. If Jackson is indeed moved, Waiters should be able to replicate some of his attack-minded play and take on offense-initiation duties for Oklahoma City’s second unit. If Lamb gets moved, Waiters will be a secondary ball-handler helping to relieve the pressure on Jackson.
The biggest question is whether a change of scenery will actually help Waiters. The Thunder present some of the same challenges as the Cavaliers for Waiters: there are alpha dogs already in place and playing time will be contingent upon defensive contributions.
Don’t underestimate the role of Durant’s 2016 free-agency in Oklahoma City’s thinking; the time for total patience is apparently up. Whether this trade is remembered as a pro-active play or a panic move will be determined by Waiters’ ability to get back on track offensively and find a comfort factor that was missing in James’ shadow.
New York Knicks
Incoming: Lou Amundson, Alex Kirk and 2019 Second-Round Pick (from CLE), Lance Thomas (from OKC)
Outgoing: J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert (to CLE)
Fixing the Knicks is going to take ever so long. This trade helps, even if it amounts to Knicks president Phil Jackson hitting the “undo” button on previous mistakes with nothing besides financial savings, cap flexibility and a measly second-round pick four years from now to show for it.
The decision to sell should have been a no-brainer for Jackson. After all, his Knicks hold the league’s worst record thanks to a 12-game (and counting) losing streak despite a payroll that approached $90 million. Here, Jackson managed to shed $8.6 million from his 2014-15 books without taking back any guaranteed money, as Lou Amundson, Alex Kirk and Lance Thomas are all on nonguaranteed contracts. In a related move, Jackson will also reportedly waive center Samuel Dalembert – his $3.6 million salary was partially guaranteed for $1.8 million – bringing his total savings in payroll and luxury tax costs to upwards of $20 million.
Perhaps the biggest win was dumping Smith’s $6.4 million salary for next season. Smith, whose misbehavior has made more headlines than his play over the last two seasons, made little sense in Jackson’s preferred triangle offense and his presence was bound to be detrimental in a rebuilding environment. Now, New York’s only major contract obligations for next season are Carmelo Anthony ($22.9 million) and Jose Calderon ($7.4 million), giving Jackson $30+ million of cap space. Jackson has officially freed himself to build a roster that fits his vision once Amar’e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani come off the books at the end of the season.
Even if Jackson fails to land an A-list free agent, the departures of Smith and Shumpert open up minutes for the likes of 2013 first-round pick Tim Hardaway Jr. and 2014 second-round pick Cleanthony Early. If you’re going to lose – and the Knicks surely are -- you might as well develop some younger players along the way. Most importantly, the Knicks are on the fast track to the very top of the 2015 lottery order, especially if Anthony gets shut down for the season due to his knee injury. This team was tailor-made for tanking, and here they go.
Nitpickers will bemoan the fact that Shumpert, who looked like a 2011 draft steal and was linked to big-name targets in trade rumors for years, departs for basically nothing. However, Shumpert has failed to post a Player Efficiency Rating of 15 or better during his four-year career and his market value took a major hit when he suffered a serious knee injury in 2012. He is also heading for free agency this summer, a fact that naturally limits interest in him. Knicks fans might lament Shumpert’s departure, but it’s difficult to argue that retaining him was a higher-priority than digging in on a full rebuilding effort considering New York’s performance this season. If there’s a legitimate gripe, it’s that Jackson didn’t squeeze out another second-round pick.
Decisive, symbolic action was needed, and Jackson deserves credit for acknowledging that reality rather than living in denial. It took less than three months for fans at Madison Square Garden to chant for rookie coach Derek Fisher’s firing; Jackson’s trade takes the Knicks from the “they’re unintentionally terrible” territory to “intentionally terrible,” thereby relieving some of the pressure on Fisher and his younger players. This deal made the worst Knicks team of all-time that much worse, but the franchise will almost certainly be more relevant in 18 months because of it.