On the surface, Monday's trade of center Byron Mullens by the Oklahoma City Thunder was a routine deal that shed salary cap space and freed up a roster spot.
But look beyond the immediate benefits and you'll see layer upon layer of byproducts.
First, the Thunder netted an unconditional second round pick in 2013 by shipping Mullens and cash to Charlotte. Before we go any further, it's important to note exactly how much value that alone could be for Oklahoma City.
Essentially, the Thunder obtained a high second-round selection in exchange for a third-year center whose value was diminishing by the day and figured to plummet if given another season of sitting the bench. The Bobcats won 34 games last year and are in full blown rebuilding mode. A crummy year by Charlotte next season would mean the selection owed to OKC could be among the first few in the second round, but more on that in a bit.
In the meantime, the deal clears Mullens' $1.28 million contract off the Thunder's payroll this season. It's not the biggest wad of cash. But, remember, All-Star forward Kevin Durant's extension kicked in this year and it contains the 5 percent bump allowed under the “Derrick Rose Rule,” which pays Durant more than the franchise envisioned. Additionally, with the Thunder now free from its $2.2 million obligation to Mullens next season, that coin can be set aside to absorb All-Star guard Russell Westbrook's impending extension.
Beyond the financial freedom, the Thunder also received roster flexibility both in the short and long term.
The move left the Thunder with 15 players under contract, the maximum allowable under league rules. But one of those players is Nate Robinson, who has agreed to not join the team this season and is expected to officially part ways the Thunder soon. Robinson's spot can — and perhaps likely will — be filled with rugged forward Ryan Reid. Or, if Reid becomes the final camper cut, the spot can be left unfilled for greater flexibility down the line. For example, if the opportunity for a mid-season trade arises that calls for the Thunder to take back two players and send out only one, having an additional roster spot would allow that type of deal to go through.
Something else to keep in mind is that the Mullens trade now extends the time the Thunder has to find a solution for Robinson. In other words, rather than be forced to iron out a buyout with Robinson before Saturday's 5 p.m. deadline for rosters to be set, the Thunder could retain him into the season and wait for a more attractive trade offer to come along. For that to happen though, Oklahoma City must cut Reid, which seems an unlikely scenario considering league rules state the Thunder would forfeit its rights to the 57th overall pick out of Florida State now that he's participated in training camp.
While those decisions play out, the Thunder added another trade exception to use at its discretion. In a nutshell, trade exceptions allow teams to make trades for up to the amount of the exception without matching salaries with another team. Because the Thunder is not taking back a player, league rules allow Oklahoma City to receive a trade exception of approximately $1.38 million, which is Mullens' $1.28 million contract plus an additional $100,000. The exception is good for one calendar year and will expire on December 19, 2012.
Although an extreme example, Thunder general manager Sam Presti executed a deal while in Seattle that illustrated how valuable trade exceptions can be. Rather than retain Rashard Lewis, Presti agreed to a sign-and-trade deal that sent Lewis to Orlando. In exchange, Presti landed the Sonics a second-round draft pick and a $9 million trade exception. He then used a portion of the exception to acquire Kurt Thomas and two future first-round picks from Phoenix — a deal then-Suns president Steve Kerr, now a television analyst, recently called “one of the worst trades in NBA history.” Presti then traded Thomas to San Antonio for two players and another first-round pick. The three first-round selections eventually became Serge Ibaka, Byron Mullens and Cole Aldrich.
While the much smaller exception obtained in the Mullens deal shouldn't be expected to net the same return, we've quickly learned to never underestimate the creativity of the Thunder's front office. Which is why the 2013 second-rounder from Charlotte shouldn't be overlooked either.
Rewind to the 2010 draft. The Thunder made out like bandits in swapping the 32nd overall pick (originally belonging to Minnesota) with Miami in exchange for Daequan Cook and the 18th overall selection. Two years from now, a similar coup could again characterize Oklahoma City's draft night.
Even if the Thunder stands pat with the Bobcats selection, it could turn out to be the biggest byproduct of the Mullens deal. With the luxury tax set to become even more punitive in two seasons, and Durant, Westbrook, James Harden, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins potentially all playing on extensions by then, it will be vital for the Thunder to be in position to add cheap labor at that point. And picks 31-35 historically have offered steals that require only minimum contracts early on.
Add it all up and there's a ton of value to be found in the routine deal that flew under the NBA radar Monday.