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Why the Wizards can afford to wait on trading Caron Butler

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There are several reasons for wanting to move Caron Butler ASAP, even before Antawn Jamison.  Unlike Jamison, Butler has been a really poor fit for Flip Saunders' offense and hasn't really tried hard enough to fit in.  Unlike Jamison, Butler is often playing like he wants to be elsewhere.  Unlike Jamison, Butler has been consistently unproductive this season.  Unlike Jamison, Butler has been on a clear downward trend since his career year in 2008.  Unlike with Jamison, there have been clear complaints about Butler's attitude behind the scenes (though we do need to consider the source of said complaints).  

All these reasons make sense in a vacuum.  But this isn't a vacuum.  This is 2010, and drastic financial changes are on the way.  The NBA landscape after 2011 will look very different than it does right now.  Contracts will be much smaller and likely much shorter.  Cap exceptions could be a thing of the past.  Guys with long-term deals past 2011 that are properly paid now could be dramatically overpaid in the future.  

For a rebuilding team like the Wizards, this means cutting out all contracts past 2011 to preserve cap flexibility when the dust settles should be paramount.  So why is it that the Wizards are demanding more than cap relief for their contract past 2011, while sounding like they'll settle for luxury tax relief for the player whose contract expires before the new CBA?

Yeah, I don't get it either 

A full-scale rebuild requires big-picture thinking.  If the Wizards were close to a playoff berth, then they have more reason to worry about the concerns of keeping Caron Butler on board for one more season.  But they're not, and they probably won't be next year (nor should they, if it means keeping the gang together).

In a nutshell, the Wizards are likely worried that keeping Caron Butler means the following:

  • Butler, who seems to have been distressed with his role and the losing enough to put forth less than a maximum effort, will continue to do so if he's not dealt, and a losers mentality will permeate.
  • Butler's play will continue to decline, thanks in part to his age and the first bullet point, and he will have even less value over the offseason and next year.
  • The Wizards, who are likely looking at a luxury-tax payment this year, could avoid another in 2011 by dealing Butler for cap relief.  They could then potentially re-sign Brendan Haywood and Mike Miller and still be under the tax.  Additionally, they could get a team trading for Butler to throw in up to $3 million in cash to soften the tax blow.

Bullet point one is unimportant for this year.  The Wizards aren't making the playoffs, so any negative effect Butler's pouting (if he does indeed pout, which I don't see happening) has on the Wizards' win total doesn't matter.  In fact, more losses might be better for the Wizards because it increases their chances of getting a top pick in the draft.  As for a losers mentality - it's pretty clear a losers mentality has already slipped in anyway.  Flip Saunders has said that the Wizards shouldn't believe it can't get worse because it can, but it's tough to imagine the attitude inside that locker room getting any more negative (I know this word isn't totally descriptive, but I can't think of one that would be) past the trade deadline.  In fact, it probably would only get better if only because the players will feel less uncertainty about their immediate futures.

Point two is overblown.  What's the worst thing that happens if Butler is so bad that nobody wants him over the offseason?  The Wizards keep him and just let him expire before 2011.  Again, for a rebuilding team, that's not the end of the world.  The Wizards can wash their hands of Butler before the new CBA comes into play.

But the real problem here is point three.  Why?  Trading Antawn Jamison for cap relief only provides the same exact effect as trading Butler.  You get under the luxury tax next year simply by trading Jamison for Zydrunas Ilgauskas' expiring contract.  You can avoid a luxury tax payment this year by trading Jamison for Z, buying out Ilgauskas and asking Cleveland for $3 million in cash in return for letting them get Ilgauskas back after 30 days.  (In fact, you probably get more tax relief this year via the buying out of Z).  Then, there's the added benefit of clearing a contract that goes past the new CBA.  Fifteen million dollars for a 35-year old Jamison in 2012 under a drastically different CBA is an albatross, even though it's an expiring contract.  Just look at how much trouble Houston and Boston are having finding contracts to match up to Tracy McGrady's and Ray Allen's massive expiring deals.  (Not to mention if you trade Jamison's expiring deal, you're only taking on more bad contracts long-term).

The worst thing that happens if Butler doesn't get moved and Jamison does is that there's a little more losing, because of the "losers mentality" thing, a little more locker-room snipping on a team that snips at each other anyway, a slight leadership void on a rudderless team anyway and the prospect of keeping Butler for one more year before the new CBA comes into effect.  The worst thing that happens if Jamison doesn't get moved and Butler does is that the team wins just enough to put themselves out of high lottery position, the two young centers (Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee) don't get enough PT for the Wizards to properly evaluate them AND the Wizards get stuck with Jamison's larger contract past the new CBA, when $15 million for a 35-year old somehow becomes even less palatable for a rebuilding team.  

In other words, big-picture wise, it makes no sense to trade Caron Butler for mere cap relief and insist on keeping Jamison unless you get more than cap relief.

This isn't to say we must keep Butler.  Eventually, he'll be gone anyway, so getting value for him now would be smart.  However, if we're going to move him, we absolutely need more than cap relief.  If Dallas is willing to surrender Rodrigue Beaubois, do it.  If Houston will give up Kyle Lowry ... well, I'd have to think about it, but it certainly makes me more willing to make the move.  If Portland will give up Rudy Fernandez, do it 100 times.  But if all that's being offered is pointless cap relief for 2010, when cutting money past 2011 should be the priority, just keep Butler and send Jamison to Cleveland for Ilgauskas.  You get the cap relief anyway.  

Bottom line: Ernie, please look at the big picture.  I know there's not much incentive for you to do so, since you could easily lose your job anyway, but for the sake of us fans, please do it.