Steven Adams And The Case Of The Luxury Tax Enforced Trade Rumours

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A little while ago there were some mad headlines in Aotearoa from a kiwi sports media whose understanding of the NBA scene is pretty sketchy once you get beyond a few specialist journos. Old mate Bill Simmons dropped some silly ponderous idea about trading Steven Adams because, you know, they lost in the first round of the playoffs with their best player struggling with injury and therefore of course the only thing to do is to absolutely shred it all to pieces and start again. That’s the American Sports Bubble in effect right there. Hot takes and overreactions.

But all the kiwi media outlets (except RNZ, it seems) picked up that story like it was a Woj Bomb and not just some idle speculation on a podcast. Silly stuff. However it ain’t that trading Steven Adams wasn’t an option, just that those particular rumours were dumb, and more recently we’ve had the kind of speculation that actually makes a lot more sense. The Thunder are working with a ridiculously expensive roster to have been bounced in the first round for the third straight season (three outta three since KD left). This is a small market team in a league where the profits of the top six to ten teams pretty much fund the rest of the teams so the Thunder paying that kind of money… it’s not that they’re averse to it, clearly not, but it’s definitely a consideration.

Back in the day, trading James Harden had a lot to do with avoiding paying him and going into the luxury tax. That’s not the complete narrative because ultimately they were reluctantly willing to do that however Harden wanted to be a starter on a team that already had Russell Westbrook at PG… and that woulda been a pretty dodgy backcourt defence to be honest. Anyway, the haul they got back for Harden was a bit mud but one piece did turn out to be something useful: the 12th overall pick in 2013 that soon became Steven Adams.

So it’d be ironic if they then traded Adams for luxury tax reasons but that’s basketball for ya. As it stands the Thunder are projected for a $146.9m salary roll next season, almost $15m ahead of the projected tax line a year after paying the biggest luxury tax bill in NBA history to do nothing particularly interesting. And this is before free agency begins with the Thunder looking well short of three-point shooters and a defensive lock or two. Adams will make $25.8m next season and $27.5m the season after that. Dennis Schroder has two more years of $15.5m each and Andre Roberson is entering the final year of his contract with $10.7m owing. They are third to fifth on the wage charts for OKC, beneath the monster deals they gave to Russell Westbrook and Paul George the last two years. Put simply, trading Steven Adams has to be an option… and it’s one that Sam Presti didn’t deny.

That’s not to say that they will trade Steven Adams but for the first time we’ve passed the tipping point to where his contract is a bit of a burden. And this is the Thunder’s fault, like, who amongst us thought that Adams would get the dollars they offered him at the time that they did? He’s two years into this contract, nowadays he’d be putting up a good case for solid dollars but at the time he signed that 4yr/$100m deal he was about to enter the last year of his rookie contract on the back of a then-career-best year where he averaged 8.0 points and 3.9 rebounds per game in 25 minutes a night. He wasn’t an imminent free agent and he wasn’t getting that kind of money anywhere else even if he was.

You can’t really sugar coat that. They overpaid for a solid starting centre who even after three more years in which he made significant strides each time (excluding the last couple months of this latest one where he was at the very least sore, at the most legit playing through injury), he still isn’t at an All Star level yet in terms of raw salary he was the 29th highest paid player last season and the seventh highest paid centre behind Al Horford, Nikola Jokic, Anthony Davis (if you wanna count him), Andre Drummond, Hassan Whiteside, and Dwight Howard. And Howard was bought out of that deal too – shots to Sean Marks. Adams is a great player. But that’s just not good economics when he isn’t even a leader of your team and, you know, surely you’d think he’d have accepted something in that 4yr/$80m range anyway.

Clearly Adams has a top notch agent. We already know that his agent goes hard though, don’t we? Dropping statements to NZ Basketball and everything. The Thunder paid for his potential when he was only ever going to be a side-piece next to Russell Westbrook… although this was after Kevin Durant left so there was a little bit of a void there. Westbrook had renegotiated but it’d be another year before he signed his super max deal – the implications of which looks a tad daunting considering his playoff record since Durant left. But they can’t trade him, first of all because of that contract and then also because he was the Star Who Stayed. And Paul George is their best player.

Which means that thanks to the implications of all these deals, trying to stay relevant after losing Kevin Durant, especially including the excessive deal they put on the table for Steven Adams, these are the things they now need to consider. Steven Adams is a key figure in that locker room and a defensive leader so they wouldn’t flip him lightly. They’d much rather get rid of Dennis Schroder and find a young guy or a cheap vet to run that second unit… but Adams is the more enticing player for other teams thinking of offering something. Dennis Schroders are a dime a dozen. Steven Adams… different story. He’s the one of that trio they’d most want to keep but that’s exactly why he’s the one that other teams most want to trade for.

Where could he end up, then? That’s a funky little question there, amigo. The Boston Celtics were linked from the get go but you never quite know with that pack of jokers. They had the most incredible haul of assets a couple years ago but the thing about the future is that it’s always just out of reach. The Celtics pumped on the Kyrie Irving trade which almost got them into contention yet that’s now gone downhill and at the same time they’re about to lose Al Horford in free agency as well… leaving them with their lovely core of young players but lacking a bit of direction at a time when those assets were supposed to be maturing into championships. And the team they gutted to get here, the Brooklyn Nets, are on the brink of nicking their best free agent (and maybe more). Let’s be honest, it’s hilarious.

The main reason for having all those draft picks and young players is to get you in the mix for superstar acquisitions, either by developing one or more likely through free agency or a trade. So naturally Danny Ainge’s Celtics have been linked with almost literally any relevant star player that’s been available in the last few years. Anthony Davis never wanted to go there but the yarns didn’t stop (which led to AD’s dad ripping Boston’s treatment of Isaiah Thomas as an example of why they suck). This is what Boston does, they air everything out through the media. Only the Lakers rival them for thirsty headlines. But Horford is a supremely skilled and adaptable centre who is about to leave and Adams is a defensive anchor and a legit starter who can chip in with 15ppg and he might be available. The dollars almost perfectly match, thanks to Mr Billy up there. It does make a lot of sense...although let’s ignore some Celtics arrogance here and remember that OKC want a proper haul back in return for him, he’s not a free agent and he’s not leaving on the cheap.

What do the Celtics have to offer in return? Gordon Hayward would be one option as he’s yet to get anywhere near the player he was before he broke his leg. A change might do him good… but there are some concerning Chandler Parsons vibes about all that so if OKC are gonna take that contract on then they’ll want some picks and they’ll want, say Jaylen Brown too and that’s just for starters. Marcus Smart would also be a nice fit for OKC. Based on recent times, it feels unlikely that Boston will be willing to trade away any of their young dudes and to be honest they can probably get a similar dude in Nikola Vucevic in free agency without giving up anything in return.

This is another one that would be nice and cyclical because the Celtics traded up to 13 in the 2013 draft and Steven Adams was picked at 12. The Celtics went home with Kelly Olynyk instead and that whole draft was a wonky old show but you do wonder if they’d perhaps have taken Adams had he been available, since they drafted a big fella anyway, or whether perhaps they were even specifically targeting Steven Adams with that trade up. Of course, if we’re redrafting that sucker than all fourteen teams that had the chance would rather have the 15th overall selection and reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. By the way, Victor Oladipo is the only player picked ahead of Giannis in that 2013 draft to have made an All Star team so far.

Another team that got instant interest was the Sacramento Kings… which sounds awful but they Kings were sneaky good last season with a solid crew of young players. Willie Cauley-Stein wants out and Adams is a big improvement on him anyway. Get him next to the likes of De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, and Marvin Bagley and see how things go, Adams is only 25 years old but could be a real leader and influencer on that team, picking up from the legacy of his vet Kendrick Perkins (who has become a really fun media presence, lately). However once again the Thunder were asking too much and the Kings have no interest in letting Bogdan Bogdanovic go.

The trick here is that the Thunder don’t strictly need to trade him and would probably rather trade Schroder and maybe even Roberson too, which they might be able to do by pairing them with draft picks. Maybe. Could also cost them one or two of their younger dudes here … you see the conundrum? They want to remain a contending team, getting better while also shedding salary… and that’s a compromise that doesn’t really work. Which is why, at a guess, I’d say Adams most likely remains in Oklahoma City next season, though only time will really tell.

What doesn’t help OKC’s bargaining leverage is that there are HEAPS of quality centres available all of a sudden, most of them as free agents. Nikola Vucevic. Al Horford. Brook Lopez. DeMarcus Cousins. DeAndre Jordan. Jonas Valanciunas. Robin Lopez. Even chuck in fellas like Dewayne Dedmon, Willie Cauley-Stein, Boban Marjanovic, Kevon Looney, Ed Davis, and old mate Enes Kanter as well if teams are interested in a cheaper option. It’s possible to get decent production from the five position without playing big bucks these days thanks to how hard that position has gotten with the quality of outside shooting in the modern NBA. Nerlens Noel is an interesting case too with a player option for less than two million which he’s already declined. That fella could nestle nicely onto the bench with, say, LeBron and the Lakers if he wanted.

Marc Gasol has opted in with the Toronto Raptors so that’s one team and one players off the board. We know that the New Orleans Pelicans are actively chasing a centre to pair with Zion Williamson. We know that the Boston Celtics and Sacramento Kings are chasing big fellas. Dallas Mavericks, they’re going hard at Al Horford according to rumours. Quite a lot of teams need big men but there are so many free agent big men, with at least three or four of them better players than Steven Adams, so if some team is going to get on the phone with Sam Presti then it’s going to probably require OKC getting in on the ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’ game. Because teams aren’t going to simply give things up for him when the market is flooded with other options. OKC probably aren’t getting under the luxury tax line in one fell swoop.

Whether that means a trade is still worthwhile… that’s up to Sam Presti. Maybe that’s why this idea has been floated publically, just to get the idea out there. But the Thunder don’t seem to want to trade him for less than value so it’s probably going to take until after most of those free agency dominoes fall in early July before anything happens. Some team misses out on their targets and really likes what Adams has to offer. They have an expiring contract they want off the books. Chats ensue. Even then they’ve gotta compete with Clint Capela possibly being available for trade too – a not dissimilar player on a not dissimilar contract.

For all those reasons and a few more, trading Steven Adams still feels less likely than unlikely at this stage, but you never know what might happen once those free agents start winding up places. It’d be a weird one to see Steven Adams in a different jersey but then it might not be the worst thing either. Adams in a new system, playing for a team that specifically traded for him, could be a huge boost to his career. His rebounding would skyrocket, that’s for sure. Might even get a few more touches in the paint outside of the first quarter. It might also go in the opposite direction but that’s the game, mate. Just gotta play it.

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