Breaking down the Austin Rivers-Marcin Gortat trade

On Tuesday, the Washington Wizards and Los Angeles Clippers agreed to and executed a trade, swapping Marcin Gortat and Austin Rivers. On the surface, two slightly overpaid players being exchanged for one another without additional draft picks or young players going one way or the other makes the move relatively uninteresting, but there could be a lot of implications for these teams and the league at large as a result.  For Los Angeles, the trade helps to clarify their guard rotation and brings in a center to man the middle in case DeAndre Jordan leaves this summer, and for Washington, they get rid of an unhappy player in the locker room and add depth in the backcourt, an area in which they sorely lacked last season.

Despite turning in the best year of his career in 2017-18, Rivers was going to see his role shrink going forward after the Clippers drafted two players at his position in the lottery of last Thursday’s NBA Draft. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jerome Robinson just added to the insane depth they had at the guard positions, which still includes Lou Williams, Milos Teodosic, Patrick Beverley, and Jawun Evans, not to mention free agents Avery Bradley and Tyrone Wallace. Though Teodosic still may be cut between now and when free agency kicks off, that’s still a ton of guards to bring into next season. Gortat provides them at least a reasonable facsimile of Jordan at about half the cost, though there’s no getting around Gortat’s age and rapid decline over the last few years. Still perhaps the best screen setter in the league, some of his skills on both ends of the floor have fallen off considerably, as he’s no longer nearly as mobile as he once was as a defender and doesn’t have the scoring prowess he once boasted in pick-and-roll settings. Inserting Gortat in Jordan’s role and expecting similar production will lead to nothing but disappointment for the Clippers, but it’s likely that restricted free agent Montrezl Harrell can take some of that burden off Gortat, as well as anybody they’re able to bring in during free agency. Still, purely based on the value of the two players league-wide, it has to be said that going from Rivers to Gortat is a downgrade for the Clippers, even if it makes sense given their roster construction.

For Washington, bringing in a high-level backup combo guard will fit seamlessly into their system behind John Wall and Bradley Beal. Rivers will even be able to play the 3 in small-ball units, as he did for stretches with the Clippers last season. Not the purest ball handler, Rivers will benefit from always sharing the court with one of Wall and Beal, giving the Wizards another playmaking option to pair with him. After a rough start to his career from beyond the three-point line, Rivers has turned it around in recent seasons and now actively looks for his shot in spot-up situations, which wasn’t always the case when he was younger. He also brings above-average perimeter defense to the table, a skill the Wizards were getting from precisely nobody off their bench last season. Rivers’ deal expires at the end of the 2018-19 season, but they might still view him as a long-term piece, or at least that’s what they’ll tell Kelly Oubre during extension negotiations this fall.

From a cap management perspective, this deal keeps Washington over the projected tax line for 2018-19 but does cut about $1.5 million of their final bill. Of course, there are more moves to come for the team, so where exactly they end up remains to be seen, but cutting about $1 million in salary and $1.5 million in tax payments while trading for the better player who fits their team seamlessly has to be seen as a big win for the Wizards. For Los Angeles, the deal puts them closer to the tax for now, but that won’t matter once Jordan is no longer taking up $24.1 million of their team salary. Whether he opts in and is traded or leaves in free agency, it certainly seems as though he’s not long for the Clippers’ roster, which will give them more room under the tax to use their mid-level and biannual exceptions to bring in additional players. The Clippers had to do something to address their guard rotation and Jordan’s impending departure, but one would think there was a better deal than this out there.

A note on the 2017-18 luxury tax: Los Angeles was dangerously close to the tax for this league year and just added $1 million in 2017-18 salary, but that doesn’t put them over the tax limit for 2017-18. The tax is calculated based on a team’s roster at the end of the regular season, not the end of the league year, so this trade doesn’t affect their tax situation for this past season.