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The Clippers Traded Sam Dekker to the Cleveland Cavaliers: Why?

Ok, cool, but like... why?

Los Angeles Clippers Media Day Photo by Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images

On Sunday afternoon, Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the Clippers had traded Sam Dekker to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Tuesday morning, we finally got the details, courtesy of Yahoo! Sports’ Shams Charania: the Clippers are sending Dekker, cash, and the rights to Renaldas Seibutis to to the Cavaliers in exchange for the rights to Vladimir Veremeenko.

We don’t know exactly how much cash the Clippers sent to Cleveland, but I’m guessing it’s around $1.25M—the difference between Dekker’s $2.76M salary and the $1.51M veteran’s minimum.

As far as the other players involved, neither has any prayer of an NBA future. Both are well into their 30s and never came close to making an NBA team after being second-round picks long ago.

So the Clippers wrote a big check to get rid of a guy they were going to cut anyway, and the Cavs are going to pay a well-above-minimum salary to a guy who they could have signed for cheap. Why?

The Clippers: There was never really much chance that Dekker would be a Clipper next season because of the roster spot crunch that had been looming all through last season. As Sam repeatedly proved himself inferior to the Clippers’ other rotation options at the forward positions, and was routinely outplayed by minor league call-ups, it became obvious that he’d be a casualty of cuts this off-season.

The Clippers could have avoided this mess last October had they declined their team option for Dekker’s 2018-19 salary, but the nature of rookie contract options is that the team was forced to decide on Dekker before they had a chance to see him in action during the 2017-18 season. While guaranteeing Sam’s $2.76M salary for 18-19 obviously didn’t pan out, it was a worthwhile risk to maintain long-term control over a recently acquired prospect.

So, the Clippers had resolved themselves to getting rid of Sam. If they had released him, they’d be on the hook for his 2018-19 salary of $2,760,095. It’s not a significant burden to Steve Ballmer’s wallet or the team’s cap sheet, but it’s present nonetheless. The Clippers, pre-Dekker trade, were less than $2 million away from the luxury tax threshold, leaving them in a tricky situation if they add salary as part of a mid-season trade. In a year when the team figures to be non-competitive, they’d love to avoid the tax and finally reset their repeater clock, which could potentially save ownership hundreds of millions of dollars over the course of the next half-decade.

By trading Sam instead of releasing him, they shift that $2.76M cap hit from their books to Clevelands’, over doubling their wiggle room under the luxury tax line (the outgoing cash doesn’t count as team salary). And, while Ballmer has to pony up the (estimated) $1.25 million to Cleveland, it’s more than made up for by the $2.76M salary that he no longer has to pay out to Dekker this season.

In the end, the Clippers saved their owner $1.5M right now, created additional flexibility under the luxury tax this year (which could save their owner hundreds of millions going forward, in turn making the front office’s job easier), and got rid of a player they were going to get rid of anyway. Additionally, the team created a $2.76M trade exception for Sam’s outgoing salary. It isn’t a very substantial exception, but it’s just another marginal asset that can be used to facilitate a deal during the next calendar year.

The only downside is that the Clippers had to use a portion of the finite amount of cash they’re allowed to send out in a given season. Each team is allowed to send and receive a maximum of $5,243,000 during the 2018-19 season (July-June). The Clippers sent $50,000 to the Dallas Mavericks in exchange for Johnathan Motley earlier this summer, and now I estimate they’ll send $1.25M to the Cavaliers in this trade. Limiting their movable cash assets could be a roadblock in future deals—but it’s unlikely.

The Cavaliers: There’s one really easy and obvious way to explain this trade for the Cavaliers: they like Sam Dekker. Of course that explanation begs a couple more questions, like:

1) Why?

2) Couldn’t Cleveland have just waited until the Clippers cut Sam, and then signed him?

The first question is an excellent one, as Dekker didn’t do much last season to demonstrate any sort of NBA skill. But he showed some promise during the 2016-17 season with the Houston Rockets, and it’s possible that people in Cleveland’s front office liked him ahead of the 2015 draft. It isn’t unheard of for an executive to like a guy going into the draft and then buy low on him a few years later if he’s been underwhelming. Still, I don’t think that really matters—the Cavs could have as little interest in Sam’s play as the Clippers did, and acquired him with purely financial motives.

That’s why the second question is probably a little more relevant. The answer is “probably.” If the Clippers had cut Sam, he would have first hit waivers, a 48-hour period when any team with the flexibility to claim Sam’s current contract could have done so . Such a claim would have relieved the Clippers of their obligation to pay Sam, but I think it’s very unlikely that he would have been claimed. The Cavaliers are one of teams that could have claimed Sam, using the same trade exception that they used to acquire him, but then they would have been on the hook for his whole salary without the cash relief from LAC. It’s more likely that the would have let him clear waivers and then attempted to sign him to a $1.5M minimum-salary deal.

There’s two downsides to that avenue. The first is that Sam would have become an unrestricted free agent, meaning that he could have signed with any other team extending a minimum-salary offer. The second is that Sam’s $2.76M salary has more utility as a filler for salary-matching in future trades. For a team like Cleveland that is above the cap but has plenty of headroom below the tax line, paying someone like Sam more than the minimum actually increases flexibility for future trades.

Keeping that above-minimum salary on the books is especially important for Cleveland’s flexibility because the exception that they utilized to acquire him (part of a $5.8M TPE created in last summer’s Kyrie Irving trade) expires on August 22nd. A potential asset for salary-matching was going to turn into nothing in a couple of weeks, and now the Cavaliers have turned that TPE into a movable salary that, while smaller, has more possible uses because Dekker’s contract can be combined with other salaries in future trades while TPEs can never be aggregated.

By proactively making this trade with the Clippers instead of waiting for Dekker to hit waivers and/or free agency, the Cavaliers were able to talk the Clippers into sending them some cash to cover part of Dekker’s cap hit. This makes no significant difference in terms of flexibility, but allows the Cavs to save ownership a little bit of money.

Coming together on a deal: The Clippers could have tried to screw the Cavaliers over by waiting until after the Irving TPE expired to release Dekker, but that would have been a self-defeating move: without another team trading for Sam or claiming him off of waivers, his contract would have stayed on LAC’s books. That gave LAC incentive to make the move while there was a destination for Sam’s cap hit, and the aforementioned potential flexibility available to Cleveland by paying Sam more than the minimum gave the Cavs incentive to make a move now to acquire his contract before paying the minimum.

The only question is where negotiations landed on the amount of cash the Clippers sent to Cleveland. My $1.25M estimate is based on the cost differential between the Cavs acquiring Dekker’s current deal or signing him to a minimum deal in free agency, which is pretty standard practice. However, if the Cavs wanted Sam, the Clippers may have been able to get away with giving them less, or if Cleveland had no intentions of signing Sam to a minimum deal and only wanted his above-minimum salary as a trade asset, the Clippers may have had to pay Cleveland a little more. The potential marginal deviation from my estimate is worth taking note of so that we know how much cash LAC has to use in subsequent trades, but isn’t likely to end up mattering in the big picture.

All in all? It’s a trade where both teams save their owners cash and marginally improved their flexibility going forward. It’s the kind of move NBA fans get most excited about: a win-win trade in which neither side gained or lost any players with on-court utility.