When evaluating the Nets’ agreement to acquire Joe Johnson on Monday, I wrote that Brooklyn could still try to restart trade talks with the Magic for Dwight Howard even though the deal with Atlanta — combined with the presumed re-signings of Deron Williams and Gerald Wallace — would make it difficult for the Nets to offer Orlando as much easy salary-cap relief as a few other suitors. But the Johnson/Wallace/Williams deals, none of which can be official until July 11, would not prohibit the Nets from pitching a sign-and-trade package built around center Brook Lopez, power forward Kris Humphries, shooting guard MarShon Brooks and multiple first-round picks.
And sure enough, Brooklyn is pitching that exact offer, according to ESPN.com’s Chris Broussard. The Magic are considering it, but according to both Ken Berger of CBSSports.com and Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski, the Magic are rightfully “meh” on the Nets’ offer and working the phones to see if they might be able to find something better from a team with both cap space and young assets.
And let’s be honest: That Nets offer stinks. The Magic are going to lose any Howard trade, of course. Howard is a transformational center on both ends of the floor, perhaps the league’s second- or third-best player when healthy and engaged. He’s coming off back surgery, which is a concern, but this is a once-a-decade sort of player who actually cares very much about defense. Howard alone props up a franchise. You lose automatically when you deal that kind of player.
But you really lose when the return amounts to a center (Lopez) who has proved effective at only one end of the floor, an intriguing, young wing player (Brooks) whose ceiling doesn’t appear all that high and three first-round picks that would almost certainly be in the mid-20s, a place in the draft that brings an underwhelming average return. And this does not even consider that bringing in Lopez at something like $12 million per season would make it tough for Orlando to carve out game-changing cap space until the summer of 2014.
You’ll note that I’m not even mentioning Humphries in the Magic’s future plans. Yahoo! Sports has already reported that the Nets are seeking a third team to absorb Humphries’ signed-and-traded contract in this theoretical scenario, even though that deal under league rules needs to carry only one guaranteed season. In other words: The Magic could take Humphries for 2012-13 and dump him without any cap hit the following summer. (It’s also worth pointing out that Lopez, a restricted free agent, and Humphries, an unrestricted free agent, would have to agree to be signed-and-traded.)
This is where the cap mechanics get very, very tricky, especially if the Magic want to unload forward Hedo Turkoglu’s contract (guaranteed $17.8 million over the next two seasons) in the deal. Howard and Turkoglu make more than $31 million combined next season, and under the league’s revised trade rules, the Nets, in any deal combining both Howard and Turkoglu, would have to send out about $23.6 million in salary. That wouldn’t be easy because of a stripped-down remnant of the old CBA that applies only to a circumstance that happens to be in play here: when a team signs-and-trades its own free agents, via Bird Rights, and gives those free agents a hefty raise.
In brief terms: The rule says those re-signed free agents count for much less than their actual new salary for purposes of calculating outgoing money in the sign-and-trade deal. The Nets could offer both Humphries and Lopez max-level deals to jack up the numbers, but under league rules, the combined salary of those two players could only count as something like $14 million or $15 million for purposes of counting outgoing money. And given that the Nets just agreed to deal all of their cap flotsam to obtain Johnson, it’s unclear where they are finding the leftover $8 million or so to trade.
There could be ways around this, cap tricks that the Nets’ front-office crew of Billy King, Bobby Marks and Milton Lee would know better than I do. One simple fix would be for Orlando to unload power forward Glen Davis or shooting guard Jason Richardson instead of Turkoglu; Davis and Richardson each will be paid about half of Turkoglu’s 2013-14 salary, making the matching mechanics easier. The Nets could untangle Howard and Orlando’s other players into two or three separate deals, since the new salary-matching rules get more liberal as you cut the amount of salary coming in and going out in each individual trade. That, too, is tricky, in part because only teams under the luxury tax get the benefit of those looser salary-matching rules. The Nets will be well over the tax if they consummate all of these transactions, but if they time them all correctly, it’s possible they could stay under the $70 million tax line long enough to keep the looser rules in play.
It’s also possible, as Mark Deeks of ShamSports pointed out on Twitter, for the Magic and Nets to both sign-and-trade other players in order for the math to work. The Nets also have a $3 million trade exception from the Wallace deal with Portland that would fit Orlando swingman Quentin Richardson’s salary as a sweetener, though not point guard Chris Duhon’s.
UPDATE #1: The Nets’ agreement today to sign Bosnian power forward Mirza Teletovic with the full mid-level exception makes the task of acquiring Howard exponentially more difficult. The new collective bargaining agreement includes an effective hard cap, set $4 million above the tax line, for any team that uses the full mid-level exception, which is worth about $5 million per season. The Nets have now reportedly put that cap in play with the Teletovic agreement.
Even assuming Wallace accepted a back-loaded deal that will pay him only $9 million next season, the sum of 2012-13 deals for Wallace, Teletovic, Howard, Johnson and a max-level $17.2 million deal for Williams would give the Nets about $70.5 million in payroll with only five roster spots filled. The Nets, in other words, would have only $3.5 million left to fill up to seven roster spots, for a per-spot price of just over the $473,000 rookie minimum salary.
Thus it would seem extremely difficult now for the Nets to trade for Howard unless either Wallace or Williams is willing to take much less money next season (and perhaps over the course of their contracts). And the Nets’ absorbing Turkoglu or Richardson along with Howard would seem to be out of the question now. League rules will prevent the Nets from dealing Teletovic or any of their new free-agent signings for several months.
UPDATE #2: The Nets have agreed to a three-year, $5 million contract with power forward Reggie Evans, who will join Brooklyn via a sign-and-trade deal with the Clippers. Brooklyn will use the aforementioned $3 million trade exception to take on Evans while sending Los Angeles a second-round pick.
The whole thing is extraordinarily complex, but there are always ways — even if it’s hard to imagine any Eastern Conference team helping Brooklyn turn itself into a powerhouse by absorbing Humphries or helping in some other fashion.
And the Nets, obviously, would be a powerhouse. The path there wouldn’t have been especially elegant, with the loss of the No. 6 pick in the draft in a needless deal for Wallace, and Howard’s help in insisting that he’d re-sign with only one team (Brooklyn) that trades for him. Filling the roster would also be challenging, but that’s a good problem to have.
The Magic would have to be disappointed at this return for Howard, and bitter that his refusal to consider re-signing with any other team after a trade has hurt the market for him. If the Magic can’t unload Turkoglu’s deal in this theoretical trade and they re-sign forward Ryan Anderson (an actual asset!), they’d have as much as $46 million or so committed to eight salary slots (including first-round picks and Brooks) a year from now. That amount includes nothing for shooting guard J.J. Redick, a free agent next summer, current free-agent point guard Jameer Nelson, Nelson’s potential replacement or any other quality players to supplement this Lopez/Anderson/Brooks/leftovers core. They could slice $6 million from that figure by buying out Turkoglu’s deal for 50 percent of its price, but they can’t trim any more via the amnesty provision, having already used it to wipe away the hideous Gilbert Arenas deal.
The Magic might still have cap space next summer in this scenario. But it’s not as much as they’d like and probably not enough to chase a max-level free agent — as if any such player would want to come to this (theoretical) Magic roster. Lopez is an efficient offensive player, but that is all the 7-footer has proved to be. That’s a nice asset to have, but the Magic understandably want more for dealing the second-best player in franchise history. And they’ll keep looking for it.