The inspiration behind the Cavaliers’ recent trade with the Memphis Grizzlies is now a 40-year-old journeyman who plays sparingly while sitting most nights at the end of the New York Knicks’ bench.
Kurt Thomas has played for nine teams in the league, including what is now his second tour with the Knicks. But in 2007, Thomas was making $8 million playing for a Phoenix Suns team headed to the playoffs and desperate to maintain their core players while avoiding the luxury tax — precisely where the Grizzlies were last week.
In one of the most unorthodox trades ever completed in the NBA, the Suns gave the Seattle SuperSonics two first-round picks just to eat Thomas’ contract and save the organization $16 million in salary and cap penalties. It helped jump-start a rebuilding effort that has since turned the Sonics (now the Oklahoma City Thunder) into one of the league’s most powerful teams.
For 2½ years, Cavs General Manager Chris Grant has been looking for his own Kurt Thomas trade. Last week, he finally found it.
Cut through all the complicated protections on the trade that brought Marreese Speights, Wayne Ellington and Josh Selby to Cleveland and the deal can be reduced to this: The Cavs are gambling that the Grizzlies won’t be a playoff team by 2017. Given the way windows of contention close and rosters turn over, it’s probably a pretty safe bet.
Provided the Grizzlies make the playoffs this year — a near-certainty given their place in the standings — the Cavs won’t get this pick before 2015. And if the Grizzlies are still a playoff team in ’15 and ’16, the pick rolls into 2017. It is only top five protected in 2017, so if the Cavs haven’t obtained it by then, they will get it in four years so long as it’s not in the top five.
The Grizzlies’ Big Three of Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Rudy Gay will all be free agents during the summer of 2015. It’s unlikely they’ll be able to retain all three, and since the entire trio is scheduled to hit free agency at the same time, it’s easy to see when a rebuilding project might begin, making it likely the Cavs could get this pick in 2016.
The Cavs believe they just spent about $7 million to obtain a lottery pick somewhere between No. 6 and No. 14 (the Grizzlies have top five protection on the pick every year through 2018).
Is that as good as the deal the Sonics/Thunder got for paying Thomas $8 million? That depends on whether you like quantity or quality.
The picks the Sonics/Thunder received became the 24th pick in ’08 and the 26th pick in ’10. The Cavs believe they just acquired a lottery pick for $1 million less.
Nearly every time he has stood in front of the media since being named the team’s general manager, Grant has pointed to the Cavs’ salary cap flexibility. This was the opportunity he has been waiting to find.
The Cavs entered the season with $10 million in cap space, more than any other team. The Houston Rockets and Suns also have cap room, but the Suns are still owned by tight-fisted Robert Sarver. It’s unlikely he would ever sign off on the type of trade the Cavs just completed, which worked to the Cavs’ advantage in negotiations with the Grizzlies. After all, there simply wasn’t a lot of places for them to go to shed the needed payroll.
The Cavs still have about $4 million in cap space, plus Luke Walton’s $6 million expiring contract if any teams want to plan ahead and start slashing payroll off next season, when the luxury tax stiffens.
As the stiffer luxury tax penalties take effect, Celtics coach Doc Rivers believes more financially driven deals like this could become the norm.
“The new tax is a big tax,” Rivers said. “I think there will be a couple teams that won’t worry about it, but I think the majority will.
“Usually you see the names trades. I think now you may see guys like, ‘What? Why would they do this trade?’ It’s an economic trade.”
The Cavs have now obtained six first-round picks since the summer of 2010, although they already used two of them to obtain Kyrie Irving and Tyler Zeller. The Cavs do not owe any other teams any of their draft picks, plus they have four first-round picks and three second-round picks owed to them in the coming years.
Similarly, the Thomas trade gave the Sonics/Thunder five first-round picks over a three-year span and seven over a four-year span.
The draft pick the Cavs just obtained will grow in value over the next couple of years as it gets closer to the time they can actually use it in a draft — and there remains an excellent chance they won’t ever draft a player with this pick.
If the Cavs return to contention in the next couple of seasons, this pick could be an excellent trade chip for a team trying to unload a star and expedite its own rebuilding process.
In now his third season as GM, Grant has developed a reputation as someone difficult to negotiate with in trades and contracts. Perhaps it’s because he always seems to win.
Grant turned Delonte West into Ramon Sessions and Sessions into Tyler Zeller. He turned Mo Williams into Kyrie Irving. His flimsiest deal was trading J.J. Hickson away for Omri Casspi and a first-round pick, but the Cavs were never going to pay a thick-headed Hickson the kind of money he was seeking in free agency. Now with his third team, he is finally starting to listen and play the way coach Byron Scott wanted him to play here. Only Hickson had to get traded and released before understanding what Scott was saying.
Now the Cavs believe they bought a draft pick somewhere between No. 6 and No. 14 for $7 million.
In an interesting twist, Steve Kerr, then the GM of the Suns and the man responsible for trading Thomas to the Sonics/Thunder, went on a San Francisco radio station shortly after the lockout was lifted a couple of years ago and blasted his own work.
“I made one of the worst trades in NBA history,” Kerr said. “I traded Kurt Thomas and two first-round picks to Seattle for nothing, to save $16 million for our organization.”
It’s fair to wonder if in four years, Grizzlies General Manager Chris Wallace will feel the same way.
Jason Lloyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Cavs blog at http://www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.