The Rockets, Wolves and Sixers appear to have pulled off a rare feat with their trade Friday night. Most NBA teams spend the majority of the season over the cap, so swaps that involve as many as three teams, as Friday’s trade did, usually need to have at least part of the transaction fall within the matching guidelines the NBA sets forth for “simultaneous” trades. Occasionally, as with the Rajon Rondo trade, some elements of deals are “non-simultaneous,” allowing teams to use and create trade exceptions, as the Celtics did last week. But ordinarily at least some salary matching has to come into play. Not so with the Corey Brewer trade.
Friday’s trade allowed the teams to use trade exceptions, the minimum-salary exception, and cap space to avoid salary matching. The trade exception that gained the most notoriety was the one the Rockets used to absorb Brewer. Houston had reportedly been targeting Brewer for several weeks as a player that it wanted to absorb into that exception, which GM Daryl Morey and his staff appeared eager to use. It was an asset left over from the Jeremy Lin trade that allowed the team to trade for a player, or players, who made up to $100K more than Lin’s $8,374,646 cap hit this season. The Rockets had until the one-year anniversary of the Lin trade to use it, but they chose not to hesitate quite so long.
Brewer’s $4,702,500 salary fit within that exception, but it left a sizable chunk. The deadline for the remainder of the exception didn’t change; Houston could have saved it up until the Lin trade anniversary. However, using the rest of it before the end of December 19th meant the team could flip not just Brewer, but another player in a trade at the league’s February 19th deadline that aggregates their salaries, since there’s a two-month window following a trade in which teams may not aggregate the salaries of the newly acquired players in a subsequent trade. Aggregating player salaries is similar to but not quite the same as packaging players in a trade, and there are ways to package players without aggregating their salaries. However, it’s complicated and often difficult to do so, so Morey and company decided to avert that potential stumbling block.
The Sixers under GM Sam Hinkie have proven willing participants when other teams need help making a transaction, as long as Hinkie and company can reap at least one second-round pick from the affair, as they did in this trade. Morey, Hinkie’s former boss, found a player on his protege’s roster who both fit within the remainder of the Lin exception and gives the Rockets another option at backup point guard, the role Lin had played for the team prior to the trade that allowed the Rockets to create the exception in the first place. Hinkie allowed Morey to fold Alexey Shved‘s $3,282,057 salary into the exception along with Brewer, leaving but a $390,089 stub that’s worth less than the rookie minimum-salary, meaning the Rockets have, for all practical purposes, used up the exception.
In so doing, Hinkie also helped facilitate another three-way trade that involved the Timberwolves, just as he did when Minnesota sent Kevin Love to Cleveland, which happened to have been the deal that brought Shved to Philadelphia. This time, the Sixers took in Ronny Turiaf, who’s out for the season and whom the team reportedly intends to waive. His $1.5MM salary represented a sunk cost for the Timberwolves, since he’s on an expiring contract and isn’t expected to be healthy enough to play until his contract expires at season’s end. However, he comes as a savings to Philadelphia, since he makes less than half of what Shved does. So, the deal represents a net gain of cap space for the Sixers, even though that might be a wash if Philadelphia falls short of the league’s $56.759MM team salary floor and has to distribute the difference among the players on its roster at season’s end. It matters not for salary matching purposes that Shved’s pay is so much greater than Turiaf’s, nor that the Sixers didn’t have any trade exceptions. Salary matching and trade exceptions are the concern of teams over the cap, a threshold that Philadelphia is nowhere near.
The Timberwolves wound up the beneficiary of Philadelphia’s cap space and Houston’s trade exceptions in that they allowed Minnesota to create new trade exceptions for Brewer and Turiaf, each one equivalent to their respective salaries. Wolves coach/president of basketball operations Flip Saunders couldn’t otherwise have shed so much salary while taking in only the $816,482 one-year veteran’s minimum salary of Troy Daniels, whom Minnesota can accommodate via the minimum-salary exception. Conversely, the Rockets created a new trade exception equal to the salary for Daniels. It’s not nearly as valuable as the Lin exception that Houston employed, but it’s an asset nonetheless.
Saunders also accomplished another order of business in this trade. The team had been carrying 16 players based on a hardship exception to the 15-man regular season roster limit that the league granted because of the prolonged absences of Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic, Kevin Martin and Turiaf. The Wolves had used the ability to add a 16th player to sign Jeff Adrien. Relinquishing Turiaf meant that the team would no longer be eligible for that extra roster spot, which requires that no fewer than four players be expected to miss a significant amount of time. So the trade, in which the Wolves gave up two players and acquired one, allowed Saunders to remove Turiaf’s contract, which he was otherwise prepared to waive, without Turiaf’s salary sticking on Minnesota’s books and without having to relinquish Adrien, who rebounded at an impressive rate in nine games prior to the trade, racking up 4.6 boards in just 11.6 minutes per game. That translates to 14.2 rebounds per 36 minutes.
The deal didn’t work perfectly for the Rockets, who wound up having to release Francisco Garcia to satisfy the 15-man limit. Garcia apparently refused to go to the Wolves, as was his right, since he held a de facto no-trade clause by virtue of having re-signed with the Rockets to a one-year contract in the offseason. Agreeing to the trade would have nixed his Bird rights, but those are gone anyway, since the right to veto a trade didn’t give him the right to block Houston from waiving him. His departure completes a trifecta of sorts for the Rockets, who handed out three fully guaranteed one-year contracts for the minimum salary in the offseason only to waive all three. Those deals were with Ish Smith, who’s now a member of the Thunder, Adrien, whom Houston let go at the end of the preseason, and Garcia.
Plenty was familiar about the Brewer trade, which involved former Rockets cohorts Morey and Hinkie, and Saunders, who’s twice involved the Sixers in three-team deals in the space of four months. Yet this was an unusual trade that required flexibility and creativity on all sides. Now, it’s up to Morey to see whether Brewer and Shved work better as complements to Houston’s rotation or as fodder for the acquisition of a third star player, Saunders to use his new trade exceptions in a way that furthers Minnesota’s rebuilding efforts, and Hinkie to continue to seek ways to maximize Philly’s league-leading cap space and turn his stockpile of second-round picks into better than second-rate assets.