After agreeing terms with Paul George and Jerami Grant on lucrative new contracts in the opening moments of free agency almost three weeks ago, the entire basketball world spent days gawking at the Oklahoma City Thunder’s insane luxury tax bill. The first team to climb north of $300 million in total spend, even if it was never actually going to end up that high, the Thunder were roundly mocked for their unconscionable spending and the amount they could save by cutting ties with Carmelo Anthony and Kyle Singler. The Thunder moved on from the former on Thursday, agreeing to trade Anthony after one unceremonious year to Atlanta, with whom he’ll immediately engage on buyout negotiations with eyes toward Houston. In the move, the Thunder cut more than $70 million in salary and tax, with another $23 million coming as soon as they make the move to stretch Singler, which has to be done by September 1.
It’s been an open secret in league circles that Thunder ownership had greenlit a budget of more than $200 million for Sam Presti and his staff for 2018-19, but even Clay Bennett had to balk at the price tag of the team once George and Grant agreed to return to the Thunder. Anthony’s no-trade clause complicated matters, but once it was clear that Oklahoma City would simply waive him otherwise, he began to work with them on a trade, which brought us to this week’s rumors and eventual consummation of his very brief stay with the Hawks.
The details, to make sure we have them on the record: Atlanta will send Dennis Schröder to Oklahoma City and Mike Muscala to Philadelphia, Oklahoma City will send Anthony to Atlanta along with a 2022 lottery-protected first-rounder that turns into second-rounders in 2024 and 2025 if not conveyed in 2022, and Philadelphia will send Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot to Oklahoma City and Justin Anderson to Atlanta. The Thunder, in addition to the massive savings, also receive a $10.9 million trade exception for the difference between Anthony’s outgoing salary and the combined incoming salary of Schröder and Luwawu-Cabarrot, which can be used up to one year from now to take on a player making up to that amount in a trade or waiver claim. The exact expiration date on the TPE will depend on the official transaction date, as there has been reporting that the trade will not go through immediately upon being agreed, likely because Anthony needs to secure his buyout with Atlanta before consenting to the deal.
It’s relatively rare in a three-team transaction, but it’s each of Atlanta, Oklahoma City, and Philadelphia made out well in this five-player swap. If there has to be a clear winner, the Hawks take top prize, as they were able to remove Schröder’s onerous long-term contract from their books, pick up a first-rounder, and get a look at Anderson, who is headed for restricted free agency next July. Many around the league believe the Hawks would have done this deal without Anderson or the first-round pick coming back to them, but as one of only two teams in the league capable of taking on Anthony’s $27.9 million into cap space this summer, they held most of the leverage in negotiations. Sacramento was the other team who could have thrown their hat into the ring, but if the Thunder wanted to both improve their squad and dump Anthony’s contract, then Atlanta was truly the sole suitor.
I’ve spilled plenty of Internet ink about Schröder’s value over the course of the past year, including a deeper analysis of this trade from the Hawks perspective for Peachtree Hoops, with much of it instilling in the readers just how poor his 2017-18 campaign was. A true one-trick pony, he excelled at getting to the basket and was somewhere between average and abjectly horrible in every other facet of the game; he finished at the rim decently and continued his efficiency on pull-up 2s in pick-and-roll on larger usage, but the rest of his game was really poor. Now with five years in the league and two as a full-time starter, Schröder’s never been able to grasp the balance between making plays for his teammates and for himself, which is fine if you’re an all-world scorer, but with a three-point percentage that makes Rajon Rondo blush, he wasn’t nearly efficient enough to overcome his lack of playmaking expertise. Still, with all his warts, Schröder is likely a positive offensive player due to his sheer volume. Defense, however, is an entirely different story. Outside of a six-game playoff series in 2016-17 and Germany’s run to the quarterfinals in EuroBasket 2017, he simply hasn’t put in the effort required to be even a passable defender in the last two years. Renowned for his defensive capabilities featuring quick feet, tenacious effort, and a plus-7 wingspan on top of his 6’1 height through his first three years in the league, there was plenty of opportunity for Schröder to take the starting mantle from Jeff Teague ahead of the 2016-17 season and become one of the Eastern Conference’s better two-way point guards, but his game instead regressed in such a marked way that it’s worth questioning whether even Oklahoma City’s famed culture can fix what ails him. If anybody can, it’s the Thunder, but there’s very much a non-zero chance that the Thunder took on a much worse contract than they sent out in this deal.
Should Schröder be able to recapture his peak on both ends of the floor, he’ll serve capably as a backup to incumbent superstar Russell Westbrook. It’s hard to imagine those two can play together particularly well due to the combined lack of shooting and necessity for each to have the ball to be effective, but in a backup role for 18-20 minutes off the bench, the young German point guard will have every chance to get back to the full-court pressing, madman-level defensive effort he showed in his first three seasons with the Hawks. His offensive weaknesses will also be lessened, as bench units won’t feature the same strong defenders he grew accustomed to seeing as a starter. If Schröder, still just 24 years old, is going to be able to turn his career around to become a starting-level player once again, he’ll have to prove it as a backup in Oklahoma City.
Earlier iterations of the deal had Muscala joining Schröder in Oklahoma City, but the Thunder understandably did not want to take on $21.5 million in total salary for Anthony’s $27.9 million, to say nothing of the $31 million Schröder is owed after this upcoming season. To alleviate that concern, the 76ers stepped in to offer up Luwawu-Cabarrot and Anderson to each team in order to nab Muscala, who will fill the role vacated by Nemanja Bjelica. In one of the stranger stories of the offseason, Bjelica backed out of his one-year agreement with the 76ers to sign for their Room Exception and looks to be headed west toward Sacramento on what could be a slightly longer deal. Muscala and Bjelica aren’t precisely the same player, but the former can do a reasonable facsimile of what the latter would have brought and adds a higher level of defense to offset some of the lacking versatility offensively. The 76ers were left searching for a big man after being spurned by Bjelica and they’ve found their man in Muscala while still retaining their Room Exception to use elsewhere, if they see fit. Sending out two young players for a veteran on a one-year contract stings for Philadelphia, but Muscala’s better than either Luwawu-Cabarrot or Anderson would have been for them and fills a much-needed role as the first big man off the bench behind Joel Embiid and Dario Saric on a team with designs on winning this season. His positional flexibility will fit right in with a 76ers team that employs some of the most versatile players in the league – he can capably play either big man spot with good three-point shooting (39 percent on 277 attempts the last two years) and playmaking in the DHO game. Muscala will be a good partner for either Embiid or point forward Ben Simmons in a way Amir Johnson and Richaun Holmes just won’t, due to his outside shot and ability to reasonably defend two positions.
For Oklahoma City, they get a two-year look at Luwawu-Cabarrot before he hits restricted free agency, during which time he’ll be incredibly cheap and will have a chance to prove he belongs at the NBA level after a rough start to his career. He’s got the physical profile of the prototypical NBA wing at 6’7 without shoes with a 6’11 wingspan, but the shooting concerns are real despite the defensive production. The Thunder are very familiar with employing guys on the wing who have trouble from deep – they have entire strategies to compensate for all-world defender Andre Roberson’s complete lack of threatening offensive skills. Luwawu-Cabarrot isn’t nearly as bad as Roberson offensively nor as good defensively, but he will need to improve his offensive game in order to really stick when his rookie contract is up. For the remainder of that deal, however, he’ll fit right into the Thunder’s defense-first ethos and gives them another player off the bench who will absolutely help them suffocate opponents. Between George, Roberson, Jerami Grant, and Luwawu-Cabarrot at the forward spots and Steven Adams roaming the paint behind them, Oklahoma City’s defense is going to be terrifying next season, even with two of the worst defensive point guards in Westbrook and Schröder leading the line. Should Luwawu-Cabarrot show signs of life offensively early in the season, he could quickly move up the rotation, though it’s likely he’ll start on the outside looking in, with George, Roberson, Alex Abrines, and Terrance Ferguson (who could take some strides defensively in his own right) holding down the main rotation spots ahead of him.
In Atlanta, Anderson will play for his third team in four years but is already intimately familiar with the defensive system, as his former coach has taken the reins for the Hawks. Anderson spent the last year and a half with Lloyd Pierce in Philadelphia and will rejoin his defensive coordinator in a very different situation but should thrive as a bench wing for a Hawks team that’s doesn’t have more than a few plus defenders on the roster. He doesn’t fit their stated goals of strong shooting and playmaking, but he will help boost a defense that, despite the presence of Pierce on the sidelines, will likely finish in the bottom five once again in 2018-19.
Despite the four-year gap between now and then, the 2022 protected first-rounder could prove very valuable to the Hawks down the line. As ESPN’s Jonathan Givony has reported recently, the NBA is pushing toward abolishing the one-and-done rule by 2022, creating a one-year double draft in which high schoolers graduating in both 2021 and 2022 would be in the same draft. As that decision is brought to fruition, Atlanta could hold an incredibly valuable piece, though certainly the ceiling of the pick is not nearly as high as some of their other assets. The pick is lottery-protected and doesn’t roll over to the next year, instead turning into second-rounders in 2024 and 2025 if the Thunder miss the 2022 playoffs. Projecting where Oklahoma City will be four years from now is nearly impossible, other than to say that a 33-year-old Westbrook will almost definitely feature heavily in that campaign, as he’s slated to make $44.2 million that season in the second-to-last year of the supermax extension he signed last summer. If the Thunder fall toward the bottom part of the Western Conference playoff picture, then a mid-teens pick in the deepest draft in years would be a monumental prize for Atlanta.
A worthwhile trade from every angle, the Atlanta Hawks were able to leverage what remained of their cap space to get rid of Schröder’s contract, pick up a first-rounder, and get a free look at Anderson, the Oklahoma City Thunder moved $70 million in salary and luxury tax payments, made their team more competitive for the remainder of Westbrook and George’s respective primes, and picked up a cheap talent in Luwawu-Cabarrot, and the Philadelphia 76ers armed themselves with a big man who will play a large role for them in Muscala for their run toward a berth in the NBA Finals. All three teams achieved their particular objectives in the deal without saddling themselves with large downside risk and while the Hawks probably made out best due to their better leverage in negotiations with the Thunder, nobody should walk away from this deal feeling as though they overpaid or were undercompensated.