Last week's trade of Jahlil Okafor, Nik Stauskas and a second rounder from the 76ers to the Nets for Trevor Booker was fascinating for a few reasons. First, it gave two recent lottery picks a new start before free agency on a team looking for contributors. Second, Booker now joins the Sixers, moving from a feisty cellar-dweller to a potential playoff team.
However, the most interesting part of this deal from the CBA/salary cap perspective is what the Nets gave up.
Over the offseason, GM Sean Marks added a ton of money to Brooklyn’s balance sheets by acquiring players already under contract. Allen Crabbe, Timofey Mozgov and DeMarre Carroll each had at least two seasons and $30 million left on their respective deals and even D’Angelo Russell’s $7 million for 18-19 is sizeable for a player still on a rookie scale contract. Those moves, coupled with Jeremy Lin likely picking up his $12.5 million player option after losing a second straight season to injury, took Brooklyn from potential cap team to around $12-15 million in space for the summer of 2018. Marks would describe that as an understood and justifiable part of the moves they made and can point to Russell and Toronto’s first round pick as assets they could not have acquired without taking on that kind of salary but it is certainly a consequence of his approach.
As such, Brooklyn was looking out as a team with limited cap space in 2018 that mostly expires in 2019 when Russell will be on a new contract. The Nets could use that $12-15 million in space to sign free agents or take on contracts from other teams in an offseason where very few franchises will have flexibility. Marks also has the ability to concentrate that remaining money on one or two players since they still have so many players on minimum or near minimum contracts and could still use the Room Mid-Level exception to add another free agent on top of it. One complication the Nets have to contend with is how long they would want to take on additional commitments because they could be players in either the 2019 or 2020 offseason depending on how they use money between now and then.
Acquiring 18-19 money now would have come at a reduced cost in terms of flexibility because of the new CBA finally increasing the value of exceptions. The Nets could use that $12-15 million in cap space however they want plus the estimated $4.4 million Room MLE for a new addition but spending beforehand would open up the $8.6 million Non-Taxpayer MLE and the $3.4 million Bi-Annual exception for free agents. While Brooklyn could not use those exceptions to acquire talent via trade, the pure spending power would not be that different and presumably the preceding trade where they took on money would have brought in assets.
In the immediate, they had another option in Booker. Instead of waiting to see what opportunities presented themselves in June and July as other teams look to clear cap, they could have wielded Booker’s expiring contract to use that space before the league year turns over. Having that $9.1 million expiring salary owed to a player that could help someone, as ended up being a part of the Philadelphia trade, made that an even more intriguing option since it could be a salary dump and talent upgrade for their trade partner as well. Typically, that combination generates a superior asset in return than purely taking on money as Brooklyn benefited from over the summer by including Brook Lopez’s expiring contract in the Mozgov/Russell deal.
There are no guarantees that this approach would have yielded a massive haul but there certainly are some teams and players that fit the description. Denver recently gave Gary Harris an extension and are anticipating a big raise for Nikola Jokic that will put them close to the luxury tax. The Nuggets have Darrell Arthur and Kenneth Faried under contract for one more year, assuming Arthur picks up his player option, and a slew of intriguing young players that are under contract for more than just this season. Similarly, Milwaukee could be scared of a potential luxury tax bill after trading for Eric Bledsoe while New Orleans (Alexis Ajinca/Omer Asik), Indiana (Al Jefferson) and Minnesota (Cole Aldrich) have centers collecting dust with full or partial guarantees for next season and each of those teams could use another capable forward. We know Brooklyn did not receive any additional compensation for this part of the trade because Philadelphia did not accrue any of this benefit since Booker, Okafor and Stauskas are all on expiring contracts.
What makes this move so interesting is that the most logical team to use Booker in order to acquire a 2019 expiring contract was the team they traded with. The Sixers have now committed to Robert Covington and Joel Embiid, who could be in line for an even bigger pay bump if he makes first team All-NBA. They also owe Jerryd Bayless $8.6 million next season and should be looking to squeeze everything they can out of their 2018 space to get a difference-maker before locking in the rest of their young roster. The sticking point in those negotiations, which likely happened while making this trade, was presumably a justifiably elevated asking price for taking on another year of salary combined with the Sixers still needing a capable guard with Markelle Fultz out. Even so, it seems like a deal that could and arguably should have happened.
To be clear, Brooklyn did not foreclose on the possibility of extorting assets from desperate counterparts in June or July by making this move unless they elect to re-sign either Okafor or Stauskas. However, trading Booker removes the additional benefit of a sweetener for that kind of deal before the February trade deadline, making it more likely they hold firm for now and wait until the offseason to maximize that space. We will have to wait until July to see whether the offers are better then and if the rolls of the dice on Okafor and Stauskas work out but making that move effectively closes the door on the Nets ransoming their 2018 space beforehand.