The Detroit Pistons could have a bigger Big Three.
The buzz for the past few days has been over Russell Westbrook and the reported interest by the Pistons and Miami Heat as potential trade partners with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The Thunder and Westbrook seem poised to pursue a trade, most likely to a team and situation that would be most amenable for Westbrook. Initially, Westbrook expressed interest in going to Miami. Houston, Chicago and Minnesota also have been rumored to have some interest in acquiring the former league MVP.
The idea of Westbrook joining Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond is an enticing concept — one that potentially could vault the Pistons into the top tier of Eastern Conference contenders. But any potential trade comes with issues – money issues.
Maneuvering around the salary cap and avoiding the luxury tax are the major obstacles to a potential trade with the Thunder, who are looking for relief from Westbrook’s $38.2 million in salary next season. Here’s a look at some of the difficulties:
The cap and the tax
After using both their midlevel and bi-annual roster exceptions, the Pistons are now hard-capped, according to the rules of the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement. That means they cannot go above the luxury-tax threshold — called the tax apron — of $138.9 million under any circumstances.
The luxury-tax level next season is $132.6 million, which the Pistons also would like to stay below. If they exceed the tax line by up to $5 million, they would have to pay up to $7.5 million in penalties; if it’s between $5 million and $10 million, the tax penalty could escalate to $16.25 million.
According to ESPN front-office insider Bobby Marks, the Pistons are roughly $1.9 million under the luxury-tax level and $8.2 million below the tax apron.
Teams have until the final regular-season game to amend their salaries to get below the tax line, so if things got really hairy, a team could waive and stretch the salary of a high-priced player to get to the desired level.
Both the Heat and Pistons are hard-capped, so they will have to tread lightly in any trade proposals to ensure that they don’t take on much more salary than they are sending out so that they don’t exceed the tax apron. The complication is that the Thunder reportedly are looking to bring in less salary in a trade because they’re trying to get below the tax line themselves.
In the Heat’s case, after acquiring Jimmy Butler from the Sixers, they are over the tax line by $3.7 million and have a potential tax penalty of $5.5 million. They have just $986,000 of room remaining under the tax apron, meaning they would have to send multiple players and have a minimal net difference in salaries in a potential Westbrook trade, to closely match Westbrook’s number of $38.2 million in outgoing salary.
According to Marks, the Thunder are $3.8 million over the tax, which would have them in line to pay $9.7 million in tax penalties. They already have 15 players under contract on their main roster, which means they’re not necessarily looking for multiple players back in a trade, which likely would point to the fact that they’d have to make another trade to clear roster spots. Deonte Burton and Abdel Nader are on non-guaranteed contracts so they could be expendable, as well.
What could the Pistons offer?
Given those constraints, the Thunder could be hard-pressed to come up with a trade partner. The Pistons have expiring contracts, which could help facilitate a deal.
ESPN experts floated six big Russell Westbrook trades they'd like to see and the suggestion for the Pistons is sending to Oklahoma City Reggie Jackson ($18 million), Langston Galloway ($7 million) and newly-acquired Tony Snell ($11.4 million), along with a 2020 unprotected first-round pick, a pick swap in 2021, and a 2022 unprotected first-round pick. That's an exorbitant asking price, but the salaries match closely enough, given there would be $36.4 million going out and $38.2 million coming in (Westbrook's salary).
That difference of $1.8 million wouldn't be enough to get the Thunder out of the luxury tax, so there likely would be more pieces involved in a potential deal.
The most likely option would be involving a third team that could alleviate some of the salary roadblocks. That third team would have to be incentivized for its trouble, probably with draft picks or a young potential star player.
There are myriad more complicated ways that a potential deal could work, but it likely means giving up several players to match salaries, young players to satisfy the Thunder, or a third team and future draft picks.
That’s the price of doing business for a potential centerpiece in Westbrook.