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NBA Trade Rumors: Finding a Workable Framework to Send DeAndre Jordan to Dallas

Who has the leverage?

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Los Angeles Clippers Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

It appears as though DeAndre Jordan is currently caught in the middle of a staring contest between the L.A. Clippers, with whom he has played his whole career, and the Dallas Mavericks, the team he would reportedly like to join in free agency this summer (again).

Reports have circulated in recent days that, rather than take on the risks associated with free agency (Clippers could lose DJ for no compensation, DJ and Dallas both have to contend with other suitors and targets), there have been talks around an opt-in-and-trade, where Jordan would exercise his player option to be paid $24 million next season and then the Clippers would trade the final season of his contract to Dallas. All three parties seem to be on board with the idea. The Clippers certainly don’t want to lose Jordan without getting fair value back, but they want to avoid paying him long-term even more, and they had to have known all along that the team’s unwillingness to commit to re-signing him would end up driving him away. Maintaining flexibility can be the smart thing to do, and it can be a fair course of action, but DeAndre is obviously allowed to react negatively when the Clippers’ offers during extension talks were nowhere near his expectations. For DeAndre, it’s a chance to re-do his 2015 free agency, where he backed out of a deal with the Mavericks to return to L.A. And for the Mavericks, it’s a chance to accomplish their main free agency objective—adding a high-caliber starting center—before free agency even begins.

So, everyone is happy, right? Well, not exactly. There’s still haggling to be done between the Clippers and Mavericks regarding the exact details of the trade.

Let’s start by talking about DeAndre Jordan’s trade value, because I think this is a big shocker for a lot of Clippers fans: they aren’t going to get much for him. The Clippers actively tried to move Jordan at February’s trade deadline and weren’t able to make a deal that brought back positive assets without also bringing back big money long-term. If the Clippers try to talk to teams other than Dallas about DeAndre, they’ll quickly find that offers include Washington’s Ian Mahinmi (2 years, $31.4 million remaining), Toronto’s Jonas Valenciunas (2 years, $34.15 million remaining), and Milwaukee’s John Henson (2 years, $20.3 million remaining) along with one of Tony Snell (3 years, $36.2 million) or Matthew Dellavedova (2 years, $19.2 million). While those players would help the Clippers more in 2018-19 than whatever measly package the Clippers get from the Mavericks, their big salaries stay on the cap sheet once next season is over, preventing L.A. from adding star talent using cap room.

So we can see, even by February’s standards, DeAndre has less exchange value around the league than we might expect. And now, due to the status of his player option, the Clippers’ leverage is significantly lower. If DJ opts in on Friday afternoon without a deal in place, the Clippers’ leverage actually increases, since he can no longer threaten to walk in free agency. But in order to get to that point, they’ll have to risk the possibility of him deciding to not exercise that option on Friday, leaving them high and dry. Dallas’ recent moves to clear cap space make them capable of offering Jordan the same 1-year, $24 million contract that he’d get if he opted in, driving down his trade value significantly. By rescinding Doug McDermott’s qualifying offer, the Mavericks sent the Clippers a clear message: “we don’t need you.”

But just because the Mavericks don’t need the Clippers’ help doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t like it. There are some advantages to acquiring DJ via trade. The Mavericks would be immediately capable of re-trading Jordan if they shuffle their roster, where a free agent signing can’t be moved for months. More importantly, though, are Jordan’s bird rights, which transfer via trade. Typically, we view bird rights as valuable because they allow a team to exceed the cap to sign their own free agents—this value isn’t necessarily present in this instance because Jordan’s cap hold will be more than sufficient for Dallas to re-sign him next summer. There’s other value, though. If the Mavericks acquire Jordan in a trade, they can immediately begin work on an extension to keep DJ around long-term at a more reasonable rate than his starting salary, avoiding any risks next summer. That isn’t an option if they sign him to a one-year free agency deal—and on a multi-year deal, Dallas either has to commit to a larger salary in subsequent years than they’d like, or DJ has to give up some money in year one.

So when we discuss a DeAndre Jordan to Dallas trade in the context of this opt-in-and-trade deal, we aren’t looking for fair value for DeAndre as a basketball player, because the Mavericks can get DeAndre the basketball player without the Clippers’ help. We’re looking for fair value for the marginally increased value that the Mavericks get by acquiring Jordan via trade—a level of assurance that doesn’t come if he hits unrestricted free agency and talks to multiple teams, and the aforementioned bird rights. Typically, fair compensation for facilitating a deal that provides that kind of marginal value increase is one or two second-round picks.

If that’s determined by both sides to be acceptable value (the Mavericks seem to be there, as most rumored offers include a future 2nd and one of Maxi Kleber or Dorian Finney-Smith, but it’s yet to be seen if the Clippers accept fringe assets or play hardball and risk getting no return at all), then the next step is finding a way for the trade to proceed legally with regards to the salary cap. Trades done at this time of year allow executives to get creative, as they can choose whether they’d like to complete a deal now, in the 2017-18 cap year, or in July, when the 2018-19 cap year begins.

In the 2017-18 cap year, the Mavericks do not have enough space to simply absorb Jordan’s contract, though they do have nearly $14 million in space that can help make up the difference. There are three existing Maverick contracts that make the math work if a deal is to be completed in June: Harrison Barnes, Wesley Matthews, and Dwight Powell. Barnes is the Mavericks’ current best player, and a building block for them along with Dennis Smith Jr, Luka Doncic, and potentially DeAndre Jordan—he’s not the guy they’re moving here. Wesley Matthews, who has an $18.6 million expiring deal and isn’t a future piece, seems to be the Mavericks’ preferred candidate to move, while Dwight Powell’s $9.6 million salary (with a player option for $10.3 million in 2019-20) would also work financially in conjunction with Dallas’ cap space.

In the 2018-19 cap year, however, the Mavericks would be able to create the cap space to absorb Jordan outright—just as they have clearly shown that they’re able to create the cap space to sign him should he opt out. Jordan can pick up his option on June 29th, and as soon as the moratorium lifts in early July, the Clippers can send him into Dallas’ cap space for a couple fringe assets without needing to take on any extra money. A future second-round pick, second-year big man Maxi Kleber, and a $24.1 million trade exception is probably less than the Clippers could get for Jordan if they held on to him and shopped him at the 2019 trade deadline, but we already detailed their difficulties to find a good value trade that doesn’t involve taking on long-term salary, and by agreeing to this deal the Clippers don’t need to risk Jordan opting out and leaving for nothing in free agency. A second-round pick and backup big is fair value for facilitating an opt-in-and-trade for a team that would likely sign Jordan anyway.

But if the Mavericks were willing to accept that deal, it would probably already be done. Instead, they’d much prefer to do a trade where the Clippers take back Wesley Matthews, creating additional flexibility for Dallas to pursue another free agent in July after slotting Jordan into Matthews’ salary slot. Such a deal would be somewhat damaging to the Clippers—Matthews is an expiring, so he doesn’t impact their long-term plans, but his $18 million expiring contract provides less utility as a trade chip than a $24 million trade exception would. Additionally, the Clippers have to actually pay him, cutting those massive checks for a backup who isn’t part of their future and finding themselves dangerously close to the luxury tax again in a year where they’d certainly like to stay far beneath it and fully reset the clock on their repeater status. Wesley Matthews has negative value due to his contract, and his presence damages the Clippers’ finances and flexibility, while his absence would be a huge benefit to Dallas’ summer plans.

So if a 2nd round pick and Kleber is fair value for the Clippers facilitating the opt-in-and-trade and giving Dallas Jordan’s bird rights, and Matthews is a negative asset, why would the Clippers agree to help Dallas with Jordan and help them with Matthews for such marginal compensation? The answer is that they wouldn’t. If the Clippers were willing to swap Jordan for Matthews, Kleber, and a 2nd, then the deal would already have been done.

The truth is that while Matthews has negative value because of his contract, he is actually the kind of negative value that the Clippers would likely be willing to absorb, so long as they were fairly compensated. His deal, while ugly, is expiring, so he wouldn’t hurt the Clippers’ cap space for the summer of 2019. Adding a large expiring deal like Matthews’, and helping a team like Dallas open up cap space this summer, is exactly what the Clippers should look to do with the large TPE they would create from a Jordan trade. Another option would be Kenneth Faried’s expiring deal in Denver, with the Nuggets hoping to stay out of the luxury tax while giving Nikola Jokic a maximum contract this summer.

Teams will pay a premium to offload salary in these money-saving moves. Recently, we’ve seen two examples (though both were rumored and neither became an actual deal), with the Nuggets reportedly dangling their 14th overall pick in last week’s draft to dump Faried’s deal, and the Memphis Grizzlies seeking to attach their 4th overall pick to Chandler Parsons’ albatross deal. It was suggested that both teams were looking for something in return, not simply giving away lottery picks to save money, but simply willing to move back in the draft order to save money.

If the Mavericks want to give the Clippers Kleber and a 2nd for Jordan, that’s fine, but if they also want the Clippers to be the team that takes Matthews off of their hands, it will require additional compensation—and unlike the fringe assets that are standard value for the Clippers’ facilitator role in sending Jordan to Dallas, this kind of cap-clearing move needs a real asset attached (think the Lakers giving third-year prospect and recent 2nd overall pick D’Angelo Russell to the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for taking on three years and $48 million worth of Timofey Mozgov).

The Mavericks, frankly, are short on the kind of asset that represents typical value for this kind of cap-clearing move. Their only trade-eligible players with real value are the aforementioned pairing of Smith Jr. and Doncic, both of whom are significantly too valuable to be considered in this kind of deal. Beyond that, Doug McDermott and Nerlens Noel could both be considered, but they’re both going to be unrestricted free agents next week. The Clippers could simply pursue those players in free agency instead of a trade, and even if they tried to work out a sign-and-trade deal, it reduces the Mavericks’ role to facilitator. That limits their compensation in the same way as the Clippers’ facilitator status in the Jordan trade limits the compensation the Mavericks are willing to give them.

In the realm of future draft picks, Dallas is extremely limited with what they can trade. It’s hard to imagine the Clippers (or any NBA team) biting the bullet on an $18.6 million salary for a collection of second rounders, and the protections that the Mavericks put on the pick they sent to Atlanta for Luka Doncic run until 2023. Technically, the seven-year rule allows Dallas to trade their 2025 first-round pick, but no protections can be put on it that may force it to convey any later than 2025. For the Mavericks, dealing an unprotected pick seven years ahead of time would be incredibly foolish for this kind of trade. There are other protection options that the teams can explore, however. For example, the pick could be Dallas’ 2025 first rounder, top-10 or top-14 protected, and convert into Dallas’ 2025 2nd round pick rather than roll over to a future year. It doesn’t guarantee the Clippers a first in the deal, but it is a compromise that the NBA’s rules will allow. Unfortunately, the likelihood that $18.6 million now becomes a mid-2nd round pick in 2025 isn’t the kind of investment I can see the Clippers signing up for.

However, due to the likelihood that Dallas’ owed pick to Atlanta conveys well before it becomes unprotected in 2023, the deal could be written that Dallas sends a first-round pick to the Clippers two years after their pick conveys to the Hawks (as required by the Stepien rule, which prevents teams from trading back-to-back picks). The pick Dallas owes to Atlanta is top-5 protected in 2019 and 2020, top-3 protected in 2021 and 2022, and finally unprotected in 2023. It is incredibly unlikely that the Mavericks are bad enough for long enough for that pick to ever make it to Atlanta. In fact, the Mavericks shouldn’t be a bottom-5 team next season if they’re able to add DeAndre Jordan. They could still potentially miss the playoffs (it’s rough out there—ask last season’s Clippers) and get a lucky ping-pong ball bounce in the lottery, but I’d say it’s more likely than not that the pick conveys to Atlanta next June, leaving Dallas’ 2021 selection available to the Clippers in a deal written as described above. Said pick could be similarly lottery protected for a set number of years before converting to second-round picks.

In my mind, the DeAndre Jordan and Wesley Matthews talks are distinct from each other in terms of value. The Clippers need marginal compensation to facilitate the Jordan opt-in-and-trade, and more tangible compensation to absorb Matthews’ contract. If Dallas really wants to clear cap space to sign Jordan in free agency, and if Jordan is willing to take that risk and opt out of his contract for 2018-19, then that’s fine. So long as the Mavericks are trying to force the Clippers to eat Matthews’ $18.6 million salary, I’ll happily call that bluff and push the chips across the table if DJ and the Mavs follow through.

The Clippers getting anything of serious value for DJ in this kind of deal is far-fetched (do you know how many fans have asked me if they can land Luka Doncic?). If Dallas was foolishly offering a valuable piece, the Clippers would already be all over such a deal. But it’s equally far-fetched to assume the Clippers will willingly pay Wesley Matthews $18.6 million next season and help the Mavericks clear cap space just for the heck of it. That’s the deal Dallas has been offering (and leaking), but the reality is that if the Clippers were game, the deal would be done so quick that the press release would have been in my inbox two days ago.

To recap, here are my two ideas for compromises, as outlined and explained thoroughly above:

1) Without Matthews:

DeAndre opts in to his contract, and the Clippers trade him into Dallas’ cap space in July. The Mavericks get Jordan’s bird rights to negotiate an extension before he hits free agency next summer, which they can’t get if they sign him in free agency. In exchange for those bird rights, Dallas gives the Clippers a couple of fringe assets—either two second round picks, or one second-round pick and Maxi Kleber. The Clippers also get a $24.1M trade exception to use at any point this off-season, at the trade deadline, around the 2019 draft, or in the opening days of 2019 free agency.

2) With Matthews:

With the deal above already on the table, and Dallas wanting to additionally clear Matthews’ contract so they can open up cap room to add a free agent after trading for Jordan, the Mavericks give the Clippers a future first with extremely complicated protections (likely that it will convey two years after Dallas’ owed pick to Atlanta, with the Clippers getting two lottery-protected shots at it before it converts to two 2nds, unless Dallas’ pick to Atlanta isn’t conveyed in time for that to fit under the 7-year rule, in which case they may only get one lottery-protected shot and/or one 2nd). In exchange, the Clippers take on Matthews’ deal instead of creating the massive 24M trade exception, allowing the Mavericks additional flexibility in this free agency period to either keep more of their own free agents (they wouldn’t have to waive cap holds to clear cap room for Jordan if they acquire him via salary-matching in a trade) or pursue another target with upwards of $15 million in cap space.