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Why the Wizards-Mavericks trade is an all-around epic fail

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Most NBA trades involving rebuilding teams have to be evaluated in three components.  One is whether the rebuilding team got somewhat decent current talent back.  The Wizards clearly didn't.  The second is whether they got young talent or future assets back.  The Wizards didn't.  The third is whether it saved money, both in the short and long term.  The Wizards saved money long-term and a little bit short-term, but didn't get out of the luxury tax this year, so it's not a complete success there either.

But the reason this trade is a failure is above all that.  It's not just about getting no talent back or not clearing enough salary to get under the luxury tax this year.  It's not just about sacrificing two somewhat valuable assets for nothing more than a little extra room under the luxury tax and flexibility in 2011.  It's not just about bringing in two guys who aren't great characters and would take away minutes from the young players. 

No, it's about the coalescence of bad planning, a bad read of the market, a lack of creativity, misplaced priorities and a lack of understanding about what the fans want and what they want to hear.  That's why this trade stinks.

To get into the right mode, let's begin by speaking the Wizards' language.  The bottom line is that the Wizards desperately need to cut payroll, both current and future.  The team stinks, and they're also paying a hefty luxury tax bill.  They're also in the process of being sold, and the current owners cannot agree with the future owner on the right price.  As much as we as fans don't want to hear about finances, since it isn't our money, that's what's driving this move and any additional moves we make before the trade deadline.  Cutting money is more important to this team right now than getting current talent back or holding out for some B-level prospect like J.J. Hickson or even Rodrigue Beaubois (for Dallas to say he's untouchable, that's ridiculous at its face value.  They're just trying to pump up his value).  

Does this trade allow the Wizards to cut money?  Technically, yes.  The Wizards will save about $2.5 million this year (double that for the tax) and $15 million in 2010/11 by swapping Stevenson out as well.  That sounds like a lot of money, and technically, it is.  But this trade fails to do the two things that are absolutely necessary to improve the finances of this team.  It doesn't eliminate the Wizards' luxury tax penalty, and it doesn't save money in the long, long term.  No additional money is saved past 2011, because Stevenson and Butler are off the books by then, and the tax isn't eliminated because, for some odd reason, the Wizards didn't force Dallas to take on Fabricio Oberto for their traded player exception as a price for getting two very good players for nothing.  

The last sentence is an example of the lack of creativity here, as well as the lack of planning.  I don't have an idea of whether the Wizards decided they need to go into full seller mode sooner than the last few weeks, but as recently as December, Ernie Grunfeld was talking about not having his "full deck" of players.  As recently as January, there were vibes that Ernie wanted to hold off on a full-out sale.  I don't know if it was all a mask for what Ernie was trying to do, but it certainly seems like he didn't wake up and smell the roses until far too late.  All that time wasted was time where minor pieces could have been moved to cut into that luxury-tax bill.  The Hornets, for example, completely eliminated their luxury-tax bill by moving the following players: Rasual Butler (summer), Tyson for Emeka (summer), Devin Brown, Hilton Armstrong and Bobby Brown.  They saw a problem on the horizon, planned ahead and accomplished their goal.  We sat there and did nothing. 

There were all sorts of ways to help avoid the tax.  With Memphis worried about Rudy Gay and needing another bench piece, why not inquire about trading Nick Young for their open cap space?  How about Mike James for a smaller 2011 contract?  DeShawn Stevenson for a smaller 2011 contract that's equally cruddy?  These smaller moves would have required more creativity, but would have advanced the goal of getting further under that tax and made it less necessary to dump two decent assets (good players, both of whom are on fair deals and expire before 2011 CBA-gate) for tax room. 

And here's another example of bad planning: thinking that Butler and Haywood (and Stevenson, for that matter) are must-dumps.  As I wrote earlier this week, the true bad contract on the roster is Antawn Jamison's (well, besides Gilbert Arenas').  Jamison is the one with the larger contract than Butler.  Jamison's the one that's 33 and could potentially scare teams away because of his age.  Jamison's the one that extends past the 2011 CBA, which only adds more uncertainty to the proceedings even if a) the new CBA isn't as bad as we all think and b) the old contracts can get renegotiated.  

But for some reason, whether out of loyalty to Jamison, a misunderstanding of his skills and/or a narrow-minded point of view that only considered that Jamison's been a better player than Butler this season, the Wizards felt that he wasn't as essential to get off the payroll for salary relief instead of Butler and Haywood.  That, to be frank, is a ridiculous point of view.  We're currently slated to pay $34 million in 2012 to just two players (Arenas and Jamison), when cap flexibility will be most important because of the new CBA.  That's when there's tons of potential for the type of unbalanced trades that could net us additional draft picks (like what OKC did the last couple years).  To me, not having cap space next year isn't the end of the world - we shouldn't be splurging in the 2010 free agent market anyway because we're at the beginning of rebuilding.  Not having cap space in 2012, however, is a problem.  

It's not just bad long-term planning either; it's bad short-term planning.  The Wizards seem like they're still trying to trade Jamison, figuring that moving Butler out was more of a priority.  Ostensibly, they felt they could wait out the Cavaliers for Jamison, hoping they'd cave and give up J.J. Hickson.  In response, Cleveland appears to have said "Fine, we'll just go for Amare Stoudemire instead."  Down goes our best option to move Jamison's bad contract off the books.  Boston still seems interested, I guess, but the contracts don't match up (the reason Butler was included in the initial rumor was to get the contracts to add up to Ray Allen).  So where do we move Jamison now?  If the answer is nowhere, this is an epic fail, and that's looking more and more likely now.  As I wrote earlier this week, the worst-case scenario of keeping Butler is way better than the worse-case scenario of keeping Jamison.  Now that Butler's been shipped out, we've just increased our chances of keeping Jamison.  Bad, bad bad.  (Note: if we move Jamison for cap relief, I'll back down from this, but it doesn't look good).

So we've now hit at why this trade shows bad planning, a lack of creativity and a bad read of the market.  However, it's the last two criticisms that really make me mad.  I practically threw my computer on the floor when I read this:

You may be wondering, as I am, why Washington chose this deal instead of another blockbuster that would’ve sent Jamison and Butler to Boston for a package including Ray Allen. According to sources, a handful of Eastern Conference GMs pressured Wizards GM Ernie Grunfeld to shy away from the Boston deal for obvious reasons. "It would screw up the balance of power in the East for three years," one executive said. One theory circulating in Dallas is that Grunfeld didn’t want to alienate other teams he might need to do business with as he continues dismantling the roster in the wake of the Gilbert Arenas firearms fiasco. 

If Ken Berger is to be believed (obviously not a given), this is downright insulting to Wizards fans.  Ernie Grunfeld was talked out of helping Boston by his competition???  You've got to be kidding me.  As Wizards fans, I don't care who our trade makes better.  I care about whether it's good for our team.  I don't give a hoot if we mess up the "balance of power in the East."  Screw those guys.  And to think that EG made the Dallas trade just to make it easier to trade Jamison is just ...  I mean, how ridiculous is that?  Cleveland's moving to Amare Stoudemire anyway.  If Ernie really made this trade for those reasons, he should be fired immediately.  

The other thing that really bugs me is this disingenuous attempt to sell this trade based on on-court merits.  In a sense, I guess Ernie has no choice.  He can't go out there and say "we've decided to stink for the time being."  But one thing that Ted Leonsis preaches is the need for transparency.  An excerpt.

Once you make the decision to rebuild--be transparent. Articulate the plan and sell it loudly and proudly to all constituencies, the media, the organization, the fans, your partners, family and anyone who will listen. Agree to what makes for a successful rebuild--in our case it is "a great young team with upside that can make the playoffs for a decade and win a Stanley Cup or two."    

Leonsis' 10 points aren't all easily transferrable to the NBA, but that one is.  I could be wrong, but I think that most Wizards fans understand that the current mix is never going to win a championship.  We also mostly understand that we're far enough away that a minor tweak won't do it.  You can be frank with us and say "we weren't winning with this mix, so we're doing the necessary things to ensure we'll be at that level in the near future.  One of those is to have necessary payroll flexibility" or whatever.  Instead, we get this, from the press release:

"Our four new players bring versatility and the experience of playing in a winning situation," said Grunfeld.  "Josh and Quinton can each play both the shooting guard and small forward positions while providing athleticism and outside shooting.  Drew can play both the power forward and center positions and he and James give us an inside presence that combines skill and toughness."    

I mean ... come on!  Josh Howard and Quinton Ross are shooting 27 and 23 percent from three-point range this season.  They provide outside missing, not outside shooting.  And to say Gooden and Singleton provide "an inside presence that combines skill and toughness" is so vague it's not even worth anything.  

To his credit, Ernie does throw a nod to "financial flexibility" in an interview with Mike Jones, but there's also a need for "freshness" and how Josh Howard was an all-star three years ago.  Then, there's also the "retool on the fly" language from a couple weeks ago.  I realize you don't need to tell the truth with these things, but you also don't need to outright lie.  Emphasize the future, not the present.  We'll understand and appreciate your candor.  Just note how young GMs like Kevin Pritchard in Portland and David Kahn in Minnesota have skillfully emphasized the future in their situations and have gone out of their way to connect with the fans.  I know I'd feel better about our future if I heard more language from the horses mouth about it.

This got long-winded, but to review: this trade stinks because:

  • We got no current talent back.
  • We got no future talent or assets back.
  • We traded two cap-friendly deals (at least relatively so) for nothing.
  • We didn't eliminate our luxury tax bill, we only took steps towards doing it, while sacrificing two valuable assets in the process.
  • We didn't cut long-term salary (i.e. past 2012).
  • We didn't get more creative in getting more value for our players and/or cutting our luxury tax bill.
  • We traded the wrong guys first and may now be stuck with Antawn Jamison's bad contract.
  • We didn't demonstrate any sort of long-term plan, both in the past (leading up to this deal) and the future (going past this deal).
  • We seem to have misunderstood or misplayed the market, though obviously that could change in the coming days depending on future moves.
  • We seem more concerned with currying favor among other GMs than helping our team.
  • We didn't control the message at all, making us seem disingenuous to us fans.
I wish Caron and Brendan (and DeShawn) well in Dallas.  They gave years of great service here, and they deserve a proper sendoff.  We'll give them that in the coming week.  For now, I'm just angry, sad and depressed about this trade and what it says about the state of our team.  From all angles, it was a really, really bad trade.