Having just watched the Clippers play the Milwaukee Bucks and seeing Caron Butler make some threes against his former team, I could not help thinking about the trade that brought J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley to Los Angeles. Trying to explain the situation to my son (who wasn't paying attention over the summer) was particularly interesting:
"Caron's on the Bucks? So the Clippers traded Butler for Redick."
"Well, yes... kinda. They got Redick from the Bucks and they got Redick for Butler, but they didn't trade Butler to the Bucks."
When the Clippers executed an off-season trade of Eric Bledsoe, Caron Butler and a second round pick in exchange for J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley, the trade was almost universally hailed as a coup for Doc Rivers. Redick was the real prize, and as a free agent the Clippers could not have acquired him without a sign-and-trade agreement -- his price tag was beyond the level of the mid-level exception which was all the Clippers could spend, and besides, they wanted to use the MLE on other things (specifically Matt Barnes and Darren Collison as it turned out).
The Clippers knew they were losing a major talent in Bledsoe, but all of the assets they gave up in the deal were limited in value to them in one way or another. Bledsoe was stuck behind Chris Paul in his natural point guard position, and would be coming up on free agency himself. He would eventually get paid, and the Clippers knew they couldn't be the team to pay him. Butler was making $8M per year, more money than the fifth best starter on the team should make, so while he was still a useful and popular player, they were happy to be rid of the contract. And the 2015 second round pick figured to be somewhere in the 50s, so no big deal.
In exchange they were getting two starter-quality wings, improving their perimeter shooting, and getting younger. So it looked like a great deal from the Clippers' perspective. In fact, on some pre-season lists it was rated as among the best moves of the off-season.
But upon closer inspection, the Clippers probably left a lot of value on the table in this deal.
The Bucks lost J.J. Redick and got two second round picks in return, one from the Clippers and one from the Suns. Redick was an unrestricted free agent and the Bucks were not planning to keep him. The sign and trade structure allowed them to get something, however small, in return for Redick. It's important to recall Milwaukee's complete lack of leverage in the situation -- it seems like the Clippers did pretty well in this trade, but that's almost entirely because Milwaukee knew they were losing Redick regardless.
By way of contrast look at what the Phoenix Suns were able to accomplish. If you look at the Bledsoe transaction on its own, it might at first glance seem as if the Suns were swallowing Butler's contract to make it all happen, that Bledsoe was the spoonful of sugar and Butler was the medicine. But that viewpoint breaks down when you realize that seven weeks later the Suns flipped Butler for two cheap contracts, Ish Smith and Viacheslav Kravtsov. The trade partner this time? Milwaukee, coincidentally enough.
So at the end of the day when you combine the two deals, the Suns got Eric Bledsoe, Ish Smith and Viacheslav Kravtsov for Jared Dudley and a second round pick. Holy FSM! They added a potential all star in Bledsoe, and didn't even take on signficant additional salary to do so after flipping Butler. Bledsoe, Smith and Kravtsov combined make a little more than $5M while Dudley makes $4.25M. (Of course that salary equation is going to change after this summer when Bledsoe gets his payday, something we have to continually remind ourselves in evaluating the long term impact of this deal.)
Nor was the structure of the deal an impediment to the Clippers doing better. The fact that Phoenix wound up dealing Butler to the Bucks illustrates very clearly that the Clippers could have gotten Redick (the real prize of the summer obviously) without parting with Bledsoe. They could have done Butler and a 2nd rounder for Redick and Smith and Kravtsov; they could have included a second pick, either of their own or one they bought off another team, and given Milwaukee the exact same return. (Obviously the Bucks thought that the Suns second rounder was going to be in the 30s despite the fact that now it looks like it will be in the 50s, so it probably would have needed to be a decent second rounder, but there are ways.)
Looked at this way, the Clippers essentially got Dudley and a second round pick in exchange for Bledsoe -- and obviously that's not good value.
Structuring things differently would have been difficult, don't get me wrong. The problem with trying to get value back for Bledsoe is that you would need to match salary to get a veteran -- and without Butler, there wasn't really any salary to package with Bled. But that's nitpicking. If the Clippers had been able to bring in Redick while still retaining Bledsoe as a trade chip, it would clearly have been a stronger position moving forward.
When Bledsoe for Arron Afflalo was rumored in the off-season, my reaction was that the Clippers needed more return than that. Afflalo is averaging 19.7 points per game and could wind up on the Eastern Conference All Star, so obviously he would have been nice to have. But without Butler, structuring a Bledsoe-for-Afflalo deal would have been difficult. Perhaps they could have looked at a young-for-young swap to improve the front court, say Bledsoe for Greg Monroe or Bledsoe for Enes Kanter.
This is all Monday-morning quarterbacking of course. The Clippers can be pleased that they normalized their roster, while getting younger on the wings and adding shooting, all solid accomplishments. The fact that Bledsoe was having an All Star year in Phoenix before he got hurt makes it seem like a bigger problem than it is; clearly he had value as a trade chip and teams knew that, but his value probably seems higher in retrospect. (Likewise the fact that Jared Dudley is below his career averages almost across the board makes the deal seem disappointing in hindsight.)
The standard of perfection can be a dangerous thing -- you can make yourself crazy wondering if you got the absolutely best deal on that new car or on that mortgage rate or on that NBA trade. The Clippers did well in their use of Bledsoe as a trade chip; they certainly didn't receive maximum value in return, but they did well. It's clear at this point that they could have done better, but eventually Bledsoe was going to leave (he was going to get his payday somewhere) and the Clippers were going to lose leverage with him at some point.
So I'm not overly disappointed or upset; it's just interesting to examine it six months on.