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Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Louis Williams/Lucas Nogueira Trade

(originally published elsewhere)

In a trade agreed to last night, and perhaps already to have been made official by the time this sentence is finished, the Toronto Raptors agreed to trade John Salmons and his partially guaranteed contract to the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for Louis Williams and the draft rights to Lucas Nogueira.

Toronto were previously on the cusp of trading Salmons to Memphis on draft night, along with the #37 pick, in exchange for Tayshaun Prince and the #22, the theory being that they intended to draft Canadian guard Tyler Ennis with their #20 pick and then taking young project Bruno Caboclo at #22. But when Ennis was taken 18th by Phoenix, the plan was scuppered, and the deal pulled. The Raptors would instead choose to wait for a better spot in which to use Salmons's valuable unguaranteed contract. And they have now found it.

Nogueira, the #16 pick in the 2013 draft, had been shopped by Atlanta in recent times. Despite averaging a very solid 6.3 points, 4.1 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in only 16 minutes per game of Spanish ACB league option last season, the Hawks seemed to have other priorities, and have used those once-valued rights merely to dump some salary. Perhaps prompted to by Nogueira's ongoing tendinitis problems - which are worryingly recurrent and severe for a 21 year old center whose game is largely based on his athleticism - Atlanta soured on this potential piece for the future in order to prioritise their present.

They are not trading for John Salmons the player under any circumstance. Salmons has declined significantly, and despite a big minutes yield for the Raptors last season, he was mostly ineffective, shooting 36% on his way to a 7.6 PER. Nevertheless, his contract, which calls for a $7 million salary next season, is guaranteed for only $1 million if waived by the end of today. Whoever waived him then is guaranteed immediate savings, and while Toronto could always use those savings themselves, they are not overly threatened by the luxury tax and can exploit that in using Salmons's salary as a trade chip from those that are pressured by the tax, or who have cap space ambitions. If they have a bad contract, Toronto will take it for the right price, the price being an additional asset.

It would follow logically from here if Williams was a bad contract that had no benefit to a team. But this is not the case. Williams is a productive player, and always has been.

He is not, admittedly, as productive as he was. In January of 2013, Williams tore an ACL that ended that season, and seemingly heavily affected last season too. After scoring more than 20 points per 36 minutes in his previous two seasons with Philadelphia, with PER's over 20 both times, Williams was down to 15.6 points per 36 this year alongside a 14.2 PER. Very solid numbers, to be sure, but quite a way removed from where he was. He was restricted from playing back-to-back games at the start of the season, seemingly struggling at times with both the physical and mental hurdles of coming back from such a severe injury, and at one point, he was benched purely because Mike Budenholzer preferred the more conventional (and at that time, more effective) play of Shelvin Mack.

Truth be told, though, the drop in production had happened before the ACL injury did. And thus despite how automatic of an assumption it is to conclude that the ACL caused the drop-off, they cannot be tied exclusively together. In the 39 games of the 2012/13 season that he managed, Williams's numbers were already down (17.7pp36, 15.9 PER), as he began his transition from rim attacker to three point gunner. Never an efficient player from the floor (career 41.9% shooter) save for the anomalous 2009/10 season in which he shot 47%, Williams has slowly moved his game further and further away from the wing, beginning by first developing a short range floater, then taking more and more long two point jumpshots, and now taking a high volume of three pointers, attacking the rim and getting to the foul line less than ever. The ACL can be said to be why, but it was happening anyway. And as a low to mid 30% three point shooter at best, Williams is not even that good at his new found game.

Nevertheless, Williams is still good. The transition might not have helped his disruptiveness, but it has actually helped his efficiency - save for the 2009/10 anomaly, Williams's two seasons with the Hawks have been the two most efficient of his career. Never a good defender or a pure point, Williams has to constantly be on the attack to overcome his shortcomings, and he has not been so lately. But when he played like this consistently, he was so very good at it that he was a game changer off of the bench and a highly underrated player. Aged only 27, this player has not necessarily left us for good yet. It is still there in spurts, as Toronto will find out. They are not trading for a dead salary. They are trading for one definite asset and one who might yet be one again.

Atlanta are doing it because they have cap space aspirations of their own. Assuming the waiving of Salmons, and the renouncements of Cartier Martin, Elton Brand and Gustavo Ayon, Atlanta have a cap number of $47,075,564, a shade over $16.1 million in cap space, and $4.45 million more than they would have had were it not for this trade. That is enough for one or two quality players, better players than Lou Williams and Bebe Nogueira. The Hawks have traditionally struggled to lure big time free agents, yet they made one of the better free agent signings in several years last season in getting a heavily discounted Paul Millsap, and even if the arena is too empty, the team is nonetheless in a city NBA players (apparently) love. They have a chance of making waves with the cap space, even if it is from steals and asset acquisition rather than signing the stars.

Meanwhile, Toronto are already engaged in asset acquisition. They are not fundamentally changing the team, nor preparing for fundamentally changing it. Rather, they are just adding free assets. There was possibly some thought given to having Williams come in as an insurance in case Kyle Lowry leaves in free agency, but this trade does not change their intent to re-sign him. They also presumably intend to re-sign Greivis Vasquez, one of the league's best backup point guards to whom they just extended a qualifying offer. And they also extended offers to Patrick Patterson and Nando de Colo, with Patterson incredibly likely to re-sign and de Colo now a strong candidate with his guaranteed QO in toe.

To fit them all in and stay under the luxury tax just got a little more difficult. Waiving Tyler Hansbrough's unguaranteed $3,326,235 salary (guaranteed for only $1 million) would have helped, but the deadline on that was yesterday, and it did not happen. Nevertheless, the Raptors should be able to fit in new salaries for Lowry, Vasquez, Patterson and de Colo in, along with any new additions, keeping together a good team at good enough prices to keep the roster movement going forward nice and fluid. Ujiri has picked up picks and unsigned draftees for only the costs of eating some salary and unwanted pieces. It is going well so far. And if Atlanta can land someone significant with that cap space, or pull another Millsap deal, they win too.

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