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Why Sign-And-Trades Sometimes Aren't Possible For The Incumbent Team

At the end of my Shaun Livingston piece, I put in a little footnote that had a mistake a reader thankfully pointed out. As a CBA nerd, when something like that happens I try to write it out so that hopefully others do not fall into the same pit down the line.

In the case of Shaun Livingston, it came in the minefield of sign-and-trades. At their most basic, the concept for a S+T deal is easy to grasp: the trading team must be able to sign the player to that contract and the acquiring team has to be able to receive it.

We end up focusing most of the time on the team getting the signed and traded player because there are different and more commonly used restrictions on that part of the transaction. The receiving team must be able to fit the contract in using cap space, a trade exception, or an appropriate amount of salary going back to the trading team. In addition, under the current CBA only teams under the luxury tax apron can acquire a player using a sign-and-trade with doing so carrying the added effect of hard capping that team at the apron for the rest of the league year.

This happened to the Warriors last season when they ended up adding Andre Iguodala from Denver with a sign-and-trade to retain their other exceptions.

The part of these transactions that gets far little attention focuses on the team that has to sign and then trade their player. In many circumstances, this does not get discussed because it happens pretty easily. Most of the high-end players in the league do not get into situations where this becomes relevant but we can see in this case how this strange situation can come to pass.

The easiest way to think about how a team would be unable to sign their own player to a contract is through a series of negatives:

1. They cannot have enough cap space to sign him- This one is easy. If the team has the space to sign the player outright, this part of the trade happens painlessly. In this case, the Nets are miles over the salary cap.

2. They do not have full Bird rights- There are different levels of Bird rights (Non-Bird, Early Bird, Full Bird) that all have different rules and privileges. If a player has played for three seasons with the same team without clearing waivers or changing teams as a free agent, the team has full Bird rights so they can go over the cap and tax to sign him. In this case, Livingston signed with the Nets as a free agent before the 2013-14 so he is a non-Bird free agent for them. Note that because the CBA is evil, the non-Bird status is a form of Bird rights- the team just has less flexibility than the other forms.

3. The team cannot pay the salary using an exception- This has a few different components. First, the salary has to be higher than the team can pay using an exception. In this case, Livingston is signing for more than 120% of his 2013-14 salary so the Nets cannot use his “Non-Qualifying Veteran Free Agent” (non-Bird) status. In addition, the reports are that the Warriors want to sign him to the full non-taxpayer Mid-Level Exception. Since the Nets are over the apron, they only have the taxpayer MLE available and thus cannot sign him to a contract at that value using their MLE.

In these circumstances, the original team cannot sign the player to the contract he agreed to so the transaction must occur as a straight signing. Unfortunately for the Warriors, that limits their flexibility somewhat because using part of their huge trade exception would have allowed them to have their Mid-Level to use for one or more free agents. Instead, it just becomes another interesting lesson about an intricacy of the CBA.

Jason Kidd's Great Escape

On the surface, Jason Kidd’s jump from the Brooklyn Nets to the Milwaukee Bucks doesn’t make a lot of sense. After a rough start, Kidd found his sea legs in the second half of the season, leading Brooklyn to the second round of the playoffs and establishing himself as a legitimate NBA head coach on a perennial playoff contender. Milwaukee, in contrast, is a perennial underachiever coming off a 15-win season that hasn’t made the second round since 2001.

However, if you take a closer look at the environment surrounding both teams, you can see the logic behind Kidd’s thinking. As he is undoubtedly aware, an NBA head coach is hired to be fired. No matter how successful a coach has been, they can lose their job at any time. The key is expectations and the appearance of forward progress - the Bucks have nowhere to go but up, the Nets have nowhere to go but down. For a young head coach, the choice is easy.

The Nets have far more talent than the Bucks and they will almost certainly be a better team over the next two seasons, but they don’t have much room for growth. After trading three future first-round picks for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, they went all-in last season, only to see their best player (Brook Lopez) go down in the first two months. Kidd responded admirably in changing their identity on fly, but the limits of the approach were exposed in the playoffs.

With Pierce and Garnett aging and no other ways to add talent to their roster beyond the free agent bargain bin, Brooklyn will need Mikhail Prokhorov to continue writing monstrous luxury tax checks just to stay in place. Even if Prokhorov doesn’t tire of subsidizing half of the league, what’s to stop him from looking at the coaching staff for an upgrade next off-season? Kidd only needs to look at Mark Jackson with the Golden State Warriors to see how quickly the knives come out.

Milwaukee, on the other hand, is an almost ideal situation for a young head coach. After bottoming out under the old regime, they have a new ownership group looking to start over and a promising young core to build around. Last season was a perfect storm of injuries, bad free agent signings and back luck. Even without a coaching change, they are almost certain to have a dead cat bounce and regress to the mean, which will give Kidd breathing room.

When you take a look at the elite young talent under contract, the Bucks situation going forward looks even more promising. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker are both under 20 and have as much upside as any two young players in the NBA. Just as important, their games complement each other, which will allow them to grow together over the next 3-5 years. They could be the best two players on an elite team and Kidd gets them at the ground floor.

After only one season, Giannis already looks like the steal of the 2013 draft and possibly its best all-around player. At 6’10 210 (and growing) with a 7’4 wingspan, he has a freakish combination of length, skill and athleticism that allows him to match up with multiple perimeter positions and impact the game in a number of ways. He’s a franchise-type talent - if he had stayed an extra year in Greece, he could have been a Top 5 pick in this year’s draft.

And while Giannis can defend and slash to the rim, Jabari can stretch the floor and command double teams on offense. The No. 2 pick in 2014, he is an elite prospect who was also one of the safest picks on the board. At 6’9 240 with a 7’0 wingspan, Jabari already has a high-level combination of athleticism, ball-handling, shooting and feel for the game. He averaged 19 points and 9 rebounds a game on 47% shooting at Duke and should be a ROY front-runner.

The big concern for Jabari comes on the defensive end, which is what makes Milwaukee such a good fit. Not only do they have Giannis to handle the tough defensive assignments on the perimeter, they have two quality rim protectors - Larry Sanders and John Henson - to play behind him. There are spacing issues with playing Sanders and Henson together, but they should combine to protect Jabari over 48 minutes and you can always trade an athletic 6’11+ player.

The Bucks current mix is far from perfect, but there is talent up and down the roster that can be moved around in order to better complement Jabari and Giannis. That will be what next season is all about - figuring out which combination of Sanders, Henson, Khris Middleton, Ersan Ilyasova, Ekpe Udoh, Brandon Knight and OJ Mayo is worth keeping around. No matter how it shakes out, they don’t have the same type of cap-killing contracts as the Nets.

For Kidd, the plan is simple. Develop Giannis and Jabari, consolidate the peripheral talent around them and add another high lottery pick - preferably a two-way perimeter playmaker and shooter - next season. With a new Big Three and one of the Henson/Sanders duo upfront, Milwaukee isn’t that far off from being a playoff contender and a long-term power in the Eastern Conference. They just need to add shooting and improve defensively over the next two years.

If Kidd plays it right, he can be the Scott Brooks to their version of the Oklahoma City Thunder North. Kidd’s already proven he’s a more flexible strategist than Brooks, so hitching his wagon to that type of young talent could give him nearly unparalleled job security. Throughout his long career in the NBA, Kidd has been the consummate survivor, one step ahead of the pitchforks and leaving disaster in his wake. His latest move could be his greatest escape yet.

Identifying What Late 1st Round Big Men CAN Do

Amidst one of the most disappointing rookie classes in recent memory, two bright spots have emerged from the middle of the first round - Gorgui Dieng and Mason Plumlee. Taken with the No. 21 and No. 22 picks, where an average NBA player is all you can hope for, Dieng and Plumlee have already exceeded expectations. As rookies, they are both solid NBA centers who look headed for 10+ year careers. A lot of teams should regret passing on them. 

Dieng, taken by the Minnesota Timberwolves with the second of their two first round picks, didn’t play much for the first four months of the season. With Minnesota making a desperate playoff push to keep Kevin Love in town, Rick Adelman stuck with his veterans, giving Dante Cunningham and Ronny Turiaf minutes behind Nikola Pekovic at center. It wasn’t until Pekovic went down with an ankle injury in mid-March that Dieng got a chance to show what he could do. 

Because he wasn’t playing much, the feeling around the league was that Dieng was a raw player, years away from being ready to be a contributor. The reality was somewhat different - just because a young player doesn’t get minutes doesn’t necessarily mean he can’t play, particularly guys who aren't drafted in the lottery. The NBA, like most workplaces, is not really a meritocracy. On many teams, years of experience and the size of your paycheck determine playing time. 

Dieng, a 24-year old coming off an NCAA championship season, was one of the most NBA-ready players in this year’s draft. At 6’11 240 with a 7’4 wingspan, he already had an NBA body, with the size to hold his own in the paint. Coming out of college, he was uncommonly skilled for a center, with the ability to hit a 20-foot jumper as well as a dissect a defense from the high post. Dieng shot 65 percent from the free-throw line and averaged two assists a game at Louisville.

Dieng started producing as soon as he got into the rotation. He averaged 12 points and 11 rebounds on 45% shooting over the last month of the season, including multiple games where he grabbed more than 15 rebounds. More importantly, from the Wolves perspective, Dieng showed the ability to protect the rim, something neither Love nor Pekovic can do. He averaged 0.8 blocks in only 13 minutes a game - he should have played more. 

Plumlee, like Dieng, struggled to get minutes early in his rookie season. When the Brooklyn Nets season began, not only was he behind Brook Lopez and Kevin Garnett, he was also losing minutes to guys like Reggie Evans. Many old-school coaches won't give a rookie a chance over a veteran, but Jason Kidd eventually went with the best player. It was an easy call - Plumlee is longer, more athletic and more skilled than Evans and he does more to help his team win.

After Lopez went down for the season, Plumlee took advantage of the opportunities he was given. Like Dieng, Plumlee is an older prospect, a 24-year old center who played four seasons at Duke and left with a body ready for the rigors of the NBA paint. Per-36 minutes as a rookie, he averaged 15 points, 9 rebounds, 2 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks a game. Not only could he protect the rim in the Nets small-ball switch-heavy scheme, he could also make plays for his teammates.

In the first two games of their first-round series against the Toronto Raptors, Plumlee has shown his worth to the Nets. He’s the perfect complement to the older players in front of him - a ball of energy who can finish above the rim as well as add a needed boost of speed to their line-up. In their Game 1 victory over Toronto, Brooklyn was +13 in his 12 minutes on the floor. Plumlee gives them a live body who can match-up with the size and athleticism of Jonas Valanciunas.

Plumlee is the only pick from the back half of the first round with a big role on a playoff team. The Atlanta Hawks took Dennis Schroeder and Lucas Nogueira, two European teenagers at No. 16 and No. 17. Schroeder is good, but Nogueira is a project whose best-case scenario is Plumlee. The Dallas Mavericks took Shane Larkin at No. 18, a smaller PG who hasn’t cracked their rotation. The Chicago Bulls took Tony Snell at No. 20, who has a PER of 8.0 this season.

All three of those teams desperately need help in the middle. Atlanta is using Elton Brand, an undersized 35-year old PF, as their backup C. Dallas has been making do with a platoon of Sam Dalembert, Brandan Wright and Dejuan Blair at the position all season. Tom Thibodeau is having to roll out 36-year old Nazr Mohammed to backup Joakim Noah in the playoffs. Most of those guys are barely NBA-caliber players at this point in their careers.

You can always find a good perimeter player in the D-League, but the best 6’10+ players in the world are pretty much spoken for. Larkin’s predicament in Dallas is the perfect example of the fungibility of PG’s - the Mavs picked up Jose Calderon, Devin Harris and Monta Ellis in free agency and don’t need another small guard. Snell could stick in the NBA, but will he be better than Xavier Henry or Wesley Johnson, two players the Bulls could have had for nothing in the off-season?

Nogueira went higher than Dieng and Plumlee because he was perceived to have a higher ceiling, but that had more to do with his age than anything he showed on the floor. At 7’0 220, Nogueira is a painfully skinny 21-year-old who is averaging six points and four rebounds a game in Europe this season. In many ways, he was where Dieng and Plumlee were as college underclassmen. The problem is most raw young big men never improve as much as those two did.

Plumlee and Dieng had turned themselves into effective centers, but they slipped in the draft because of concerns about their age and ceiling. Instead of focusing on what they could do, NBA teams worried too much about what they couldn’t. When picking in the latter half of the first round, you should think hard about passing on an NBA-caliber big man, no matter what his upside. Ask the Mavericks, Hawks and Bulls, who will once again be looking for big men this offseason.

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