The first rule of NBA trades is "Follow the money." It's the only way to make sense of a seemingly lopsided deal, such as today's swap that reportedly sent Richard Jefferson to the Spurs for Kurt Thomas, Fabricio Oberto and Bruce Bowen, pending league approval.
For starters, understand that the Bucks painted themselves into a dark, ugly corner last season by trading for Jefferson and Luke Ridnour right as the economy was going into the tank. Those deals added more than $20 million in contracts for 2009-10 just as the luxury tax level is slated to decline.
That, in turn, had the Bucks slated to be well over the luxury tax line this year if they wanted to keep restricted free agents Charlie Villanueva and Ramon Sessions, both of whom are due large raises from their rookie-scale contracts. For a rebuilding team like Milwaukee, losing two of its best young players would have been disastrous, so money had to be saved someplace else.
This deal does the trick in a big way. Bowen is guaranteed only $2 million this year and will be waived in the coming days in order to avoid paying his full salary (Bowen becomes fully guaranteed on August 1). All told, the trade will save Milwaukee $4.45 million in payroll; it could save more if the Bucks can reach a buyout agreement with Thomas.
Additionally, Milwaukee made a side deal with Detroit to trade Oberto for Amir Johnson, putting another promising young forward on the roster should Villanueva bolt and supplementing the frontcourt even if he stays.
Detroit's incentive was largely financial as well -- the Pistons will gain an extra $1.5 million in cap space to pursue free agents this summer once they waive Oberto, who has only $1.9 million guaranteed provided he's waived by July 1. The Pistons gave up on Johnson after spending four years developing him since he was drafted out of high school, but he's only 22 and is on a reasonable contract, and even in last year's disappointing campaign his numbers weren't that terrible.
Milwaukee could have saved even more money by keeping Oberto and waiving him themselves, but they still created a fairly large buffer. With roughly $7.5 million in wiggle room now available under the luxury tax line, the Bucks are in a much better position to defend against offers to Villanueva and Sessions; should they take a point guard with the 10th overall pick in this year's point guard-heavy draft, that would further insulate them against a potential Sessions departure.
And even if re-singing both players briefly puts the Bucks slightly over the tax line, they'll have until the trade deadline to strip the extra dollars from the payroll and, depending on the cost for Sessions and Villanueva, might be able to shed a Charlie Bell or Malik Allen at that point to get back under.
So it's not such a head-scratcher after all from the Bucks' side: They basically just traded Jefferson for Villanueva and Sessions. They never should have put themselves in this position in the first place, but it was a pretty crafty escape maneuver.
As for the Spurs, it's another example of how their superior cap management allows them to make deals that aren't available to a lot of other teams. Because the Spurs had three players on short-term deals and two of them weren't fully guaranteed, they were able to send out three role players and get back a starting small forward. Jefferson should provide a dramatic upgrade from the Michael Finley-Bowen combo that manned the position a season ago, and he adds a desperately needed shot creator to take some of the heat off Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and the increasingly brittle Manu Ginobili.
That said, the Spurs took a larger risk on this deal than we're used to seeing from them. The deal basically takes San Antonio out of the 2010 free-agent market since Jefferson is owed $15 million in 2010-11 (he has an opt-out that he'd be insane to exercise), and one wonders if he's an ideal fit with the Spurs. Jefferson has been a high-volume scorer with middling efficiency, and really has been riding off his reputation a bit the past two seasons. At this point, he's one of the league's most overpaid players.
However, one thing that may have caught San Antonio's attention was his 39.7 percent mark on 3-pointers in 2008-09, a career high that he set by taking far more attempts than he'd taken in the past. The Spurs ask their small forwards to spot up in the corners as much as any team in the league, and Jefferson made 54-of-118 (45.9 percent) from those spots a season ago. If that wasn't a fluke and he nails it consistently, he can really make opponents pay for doubling Duncan, Parker or Ginobili.
The deal surprisingly also makes small-market San Antonio a tax payer, putting the Spurs $4.5 million over the tax line for this season without a real obvious remedy for getting back under. They could save some by trading either Matt Bonner or Roger Mason for a non-guaranteed deal, but at that point they'd be cutting into bone.
The other interesting wrinkle will be whether the Spurs try to re-sign Bowen or Oberto to minimum contracts once the Bucks waive them. Bowen in particular has been a huge part of San Antonio's defensive philosophy, and even in his diminished state he could have value as an elder statesmen and occasional rotation player. Oberto could probably make more money in Europe at this point, so it may be the last we've seen of him on this side of the pond.
Regardless, the big takeaway for the Spurs is that they just rolled the dice on Jefferson's potential to pry their championship window open for another year or two. The threesome of Duncan, Ginobili and Parker clearly didn't have enough help this past season. If Jefferson can make it a fearsome foursome and retain his improved 3-point touch from the corners, it could launch the Spurs back into the title hunt.
And the other teams in the West have to be shaking their heads, because at first it seems unfathomable that the Spurs could get a 20-point scorer for three spare parts. But follow the money, and it all makes sense.
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.