By John Hollinger
Coming into the season, we knew that the Oklahoma City Thunder would be able to demand a hefty price for the privilege of renting its salary cap space this winter, because so many teams found themselves in tight spots financially. We also knew that Carlos Boozer not opting out of his contract would likely cost the Jazz a player somewhere down the road.
Today, their destinies collided. A full two months before the trade deadline, the Thunder made their move when the Jazz dangled rookie point guard Eric Maynor as the prize for taking on the contract of soon-to-be-retired forward Matt Harpring.
Let's start with the obvious stuff: The Thunder used their strong cap position to purloin a promising young point guard. Maynor has played reasonably well for Utah in his first season and the next year of his deal, at $1.4 million, barely dents the Thunder's projected cap space for next summer. He fills a clear need as well. Oklahoma City desperately needed a pass-first point guard to back up Russell Westbrook and to occasionally play with him in small backcourts, especially with Shaun Livingston not working out. Maynor doesn't offer great upside, but he's going to be solid for several years.
Additionally, some subtle aspects of this deal make it particularly juicy for the Thunder. Harpring makes $6.5 million this year, but Oklahoma City is on the hook for only $1.78 million while insurance will cover the rest. And since Harpring has an expiring contract, the deal won't cut into their projected $10 million-plus in cap space next summer. Finally, the Thunder can trade Harpring again if they so choose, either alone or as part of a package: Teams under the cap aren't bound by the league's two-month rule on re-packaging acquired players.
Utah effectively donated Maynor to Oklahoma City because of the mind-boggling financial savings. The Jazz retain more than $10.46 million by removing $7.8 million in luxury tax payments, another $884,452 for Maynor's salary the rest of this year, and $1.78 million in payments to Harpring that wouldn't have been covered by insurance. The trade also opens the door for the Jazz to eventually slip under the luxury tax threshold entirely -- they're now only $4.8 million over. More on that in a minute.
Utah acquired the rights to German forward Peter Fehse in this trade, but he has no chance of ever playing in the NBA. He's only in the deal because league rules require both teams to receive something in a trade, and this was the least valuable asset the Thunder found in the recesses of their cupboards. In another bit of housekeeping, Utah will need to sign a 13th player at some point in the next two weeks to meet league roster rules.
The big question for Jazz fans, however, is whether this portends a trade of Carlos Boozer. The Jazz could conceivably slide all the way under the tax line by trading Boozer and receiving a player or players with non-guaranteed contracts, especially if Utah includes Kyle Korver's expiring contract in the swap.
To offer one such example (this is NOT a rumor, mind you, just an example), Utah could send Boozer, Korver, and C.J. Miles to Dallas for Drew Gooden, Erick Dampier, Rodrigue Beaubois and a 2012 first-rounder; the deal would save $3.5 million in salaries and another $2.6 million by cutting Gooden prior to Jan. 8, putting the Jazz under the tax threshold.
Another more plausible way is to deal Boozer or Boozer with Korver to get most of the way under the tax, and then pay a team to take Ronnie Price or Miles into a trade exception to finish the job. The point is that the Jazz now have paths available to avoid the luxury tax, something that seemed a long shot prior to the Maynor trade.
For other teams looking to dump salary, however, this deal is terrible news. Only a few doors remain open for dumping salary, and one of them just slammed shut. While opportunities remain available -- witness my Boozer example above -- the likes of Washington and New Orleans have to be disappointed that the Oklahoma City option is off the table.
That they took it off the table this early, prior to most of the serious horse-trading beginning, says something about the quality of the deal dangled before them. Boozer's opt-in proved costly for Utah, depriving the Jazz of Maynor's services while further strengthening a potent division rival. Meanwhile, Oklahoma City's inexorable rise continues apace -- today the Thunder nabbed a good young point guard, and because of the insurance provisions, they got him for peanuts.