The NBA trade deadline is not until February 20, 2014 at 3:00 p.m. EST, but an earlier deadline exists for the Cleveland Cavaliers, who have until 5:00 p.m. EST on January 7th to waive or trade problematic center Andrew Bynum or else they will be responsible for paying Bynum $6 million for the second half of the season.
Potential suitors were relatively scarce for the hampered center in the summer when the Cavs inked Bynum, and they are even less available now that Bynum has proven a locker room liability during his stint in Cleveland.
However, the Los Angeles Lakers, who have been continuously shopping All-Star power forward Pau Gasol for years, remain the most likely (and possibly only) trade partner.
Whether the deal gets made or not, trading an All-Star caliber (albeit aging) forward for an expiring contract may seem like a bad exchange for the Lakers, but the deal makes sense for both teams involved and puts each into a position to succeed in the upcoming years while making apparent the struggles of failing franchises and the caveats of finance in the NBA.
How the Trade Would Help the Cavs
Although the Cavs created a contract back in July when they signed Bynum that ostensibly safeguarded themselves from paying a useless player, the team finds itself days away from doing just that. The contract, a two-year, $24.79 million deal, includes a major caveat: only half of Bynum's 2013-14 salary is guaranteed if he is waived by January 7th.
The Cavaliers, then, provided themselves an out if the Bynum experiment failed but ensured themselves the league's former best offensive center at a discount.
In his All-Star season as a Los Angeles Laker in 2011-12, Bynum averaged career highs in points (18.7) and rebounds (11.8) while recording 1.9 blocks. During this season, he was coached by Mike Brown, now the head coach for the Cavs and a key backer in the Bynum signing.
The deal made sense in many ways because it allowed Bynum to reunite with Brown, gave the Cavaliers a much-needed offensive post player to relieve All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving of the scoring burden, and ensured the Cavs multiple points at which to break off the deal if Bynum proved unfit.
Bynum eased into the rotation this year and averaged 20.0 minutes per game. He averaged 8.4 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks in 24 appearances through December 26.
On December 28, the Cavaliers dismissed Bynum from the team for conduct detrimental to the team, penalizing him his $110,000 game check for the night, a 103-100 loss to the Boston Celtics. Bynum has not played since, and he has been excused from all team activities. The Cavs, now, are left with what they tried to prevent when they signed the problematic center who missed the entire 2012-13 season with knee problems.
The Cavs are currently a dreadful 10-21, but remain only three games out of the playoffs in the weak Eastern Conference. Fighting for a playoff spot, the Cavs are attempting to find success this season. Additionally, Cleveland finds itself $10 million under the salary cap, so receiving Gasol's contract is only a minimal hit for the team, a team willing to spend to win now.
Cleveland now must either waive Bynum and get nothing in return, or try to flip his unique expiring contract for any player they can.
How the Trade Would Help the Lakers
As mentioned before, the Lakers have been looking to trade Gasol for years. He even got packaged in the infamous vetoed three-team deal in 2011. The trade would have moved Gasol to the Houston Rockets, Chris Paul to the Lakers, and the package of Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, Goran Dragic, Lamar Odom, and a first-round pick to the New Orleans Hornets.
Gasol, of course, remained a Laker and, despite having turned 33 in the offseason, has experienced an increase in per-game averages of points (15.1), rebounds (9.2), and blocks (1.3) over last season (13.7, 8.6, 1.2). This production comes during a minutes reduction; Gasol is playing 30.2 minutes as opposed to 33.8 last season.
Gasol's usage rate in 2013-14 is 26.4%. It was 20.5% last season. Being the focal point of the offense now that Kobe Bryant has been off the court with injuries, Gasol is proving that he can still be an impact player on the post.
Through January 1, though, the Lakers find themselves in peril. They are six games out of the playoff picture at 13-19 after having lost six straight, and have been devastated by injuries. With the league's fifth-highest payroll and an impending luxury tax expenditure for the seventh year in a row, an inexcusable penalty for a non-contender, the Lakers need to make a move either for cap relief or for a playoff push. The former is much more plausible given the financial state of the team. Swapping Gasol's contract ($19 million) for Bynum would save the team $20 million in salary and luxury taxes and would make the rest of the season for the Lakers a mere formality in terms of wins and losses.
If the Lakers received and waived Bynum, then the team would enter the offseason with only three players under contract: Bryant, Steve Nash, and Robert Sacre. Nick Young has a player option for 2014-15. This salary cleanse would reduce the Laker payroll to just over $35 million, giving them room enough to seek free agents and rebuild.
It has long been rumored that superstar Carmelo Anthony lists the Lakers as a preferred destination if he were to leave the Knicks after the season, and the allure of playing for the hallowed franchise gives the Lakers plenty of reason to employ this strategy. Bryant's monstrous new $30 million contract will hinder the hunt for superstar free agents, but still allows the franchise, which is not averse to the luxury tax, to seek marquee players.
The Gasol-for-Bynum swap, even while leaving the Lakers with only four players under contract for next season, provides the greatest chance of future success for the currently directionless Lakers.
The Potential Impact of the Trade on the Cavs
Burdened with young players and a noticeable lack of interior offense, the Cavaliers would benefit from Gasol who would become the team's interior presence and relieve Irving of the pressures of being a leader. The quiet Irving has struggled with vocal leadership since being drafted by the Cavaliers first overall in 2011.
The Cavaliers currently rank 28th in points in the paint per game, scoring only 36.7 per game around the rim.
Gasol has taken a secondary and even tertiary role in LA behind both Bryant and Bynum, a role to which he had to adapt after being the focal point during his stead in Memphis. Though he would remain the secondary offensive option, Gasol would assume the role of the veteran leader, the role newcomer Jarrett Jack adopted since joining the team this off-season.
Gasol helped mentor Bynum in Los Angeles and, if he could forge a similar relationship with Cavaliers youngsters Tristan Thompson and Anthony Bennett, then the Cavaliers could develop their own prospects into successful NBA players, something the team has struggled with year after year. Gasol proved capable of commandeering a franchise in Memphis and could change the culture for the perennial losers in Cleveland.
More immediately, the revamped Cavaliers would likely be able to improve on their 27th-ranked offense and find a way into the playoffs, a feat the team has not accomplished since LeBron James's last season on the team in 2009-10.
The duo of Gasol and Irving also could entice the return of James in the off-season. The potential signing of James has largely affected each transaction the team has made in attempt to have the available cap space to offer him a contract this summer, so the trade allows the Cavs to accomplish their short-term and long-term goals.
The Potential Impact of the Trade on the Lakers
Xavier Henry and Wesley Johnson have become productive NBA players in their increased roles this season, though Henry is battling a bone bruise in his knee. Most important, though, the trade would essentially force head coach Mike D'Antoni to grant his athletic power forward, Jordan Hill, more minutes.
Hill, the eighth overall pick in 2009 by the New York Knicks, is already experiencing a career high in minutes (20.7), points (9.6), rebounds (7.9), and blocks (0.8) per game. His production, extrapolated over 36 minutes, would be 16.7 points, 13.7 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks. The absence of Gasol would free up frontcourt minutes and allow the Lakers to see if Hill can sustain his production in a larger role or if he is best suited for energy off the bench. Understanding what type of player Hill can be will help guide the team's decisions and free agent targets in the off-season.
Developing young talent will be necessary for the Lakers. Retaining young, low-salary players like Henry, Hill, and Johnson will allow bigger free agency signings and help create the necessary core to surround Bryant when he returns to action.
Unsurprisingly, the Lakers are requesting an asset from the Cavaliers in the deal. The Lakers will lose their 2015 first-round pick to the Phoenix Suns unless it is a top-five selection, and the same applies to their 2017 first-round selection, which has been sent to the Orlando Magic. The Cavaliers currently own the rights to their own first- and second-round picks in the upcoming draft as well as second-round picks from the Magic and the Memphis Grizzlies this year.
Any number of Cleveland's young assets such as possibly disgruntled shooting guard Dion Waiters could satisfy LA's demand (as well as help the Cavs rid themselves of locker room pariahs), but this factor also remains the breaking point for the Cavaliers, who appear unwilling to part with any extra assets in addition to Bynum's expiring deal.
The future direction of the Lakers for years to come would be altered dramatically if the two teams agree to the swap before the deadline.
The Unfortunate Unlikeliness of the Deal
Multiple reports are suggesting that the deal will not be completed before the January 7 deadline if at all due primarily to the unwillingness from Cleveland to part with an asset and now also to the knee contusion Irving suffered a week before the deadline during a December 31 game against the Indiana Pacers.
If Irving is to miss an extended period, the Cavaliers seem unwilling to trade for Gasol and make a playoff push.
Though the future of two NBA franchises are primed to benefit from the swap, both might miss out because of an ill-timed injury.
Even if the trade crumbles, the proposed deal offers insight into the calculating business practices, the struggles of non-contending organizations, and the frailties of a franchise's future that currently exist in the NBA.