One week ago the Washington Wizards agreed to send Rashard Lewis and the 46th pick to the New Orleans Hornets for Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza. For Wizards fans/enthusiasts/observers, the trade seemingly came out of nowhere. But this was brewing right beneath our noses, and we should have seen it coming.
This is not a trade breakdown (our fearless leader, Kevin Hine has already looked at some of the pros and cons in the wake of the transaction). Trade breakdowns attempt to look at what each side gave up and received – the pluses and minuses of a zero-sum game – and see how the team under analysis fared. No, this is an explanation of a process. A process that, in itself is not flawed, but one that the current taskmaster evidently has little interest in executing. Ernie Grunfeld is all about results. This latest transaction is a microcosm of his modus operandi. Before we can draw a parallel between this trade and Grunfeld’s entire regime, though, we must first, yes, examine the trade.
If you are reading this (hi, mom), you have likely already seen other analyses of this trade. If I had to sum up most of the local reaction to the deal – both by local media and fans – it would be: There is a general failure to grasp the underlying principles in evaluating a trade; too much focus on the result, and not nearly enough on the process. Make no mistake, this was a terrible trade. It is terrible, though, for reasons that have nothing to do with Emeka Oakfor, Trevor Ariza, Rashard Lewis, or the Player Who Becomes the 46th Pick as basketball players. Yes, with Lewis out and Okafor and Ariza in, it must be considered how the change in personnel affects the remaining core of young Wizards, lineups, and playing style; whether this places the team in the playoff hunt; and what the effect is on the salary cap and the long-term outlook for the team. But none of those things are really evaluations of the trade itself; they are evaluations of the aftermath or the results of the trade. It does not matter what you or I, Ernie Grunfeld, or even Ted Leonsis thinks of Okafor and Ariza as basketball players, assets, contracts, as professional, veteran mentors, etc. Trades are exercises in competitive negotiation. The Wizards brass, or even we as conscientious Wizards fans, only represent one side of that competition (naturally the team’s brass as decision makers, and the fans as observers); the New Orleans Hornets ownership/brass/fan-base represent the other.
The Hornets see themselves on the clock to draft a can’t-miss, once-in-a-generation player in Kentucky’s Anthony Davis, and in the driver’s seat to lock up their young, talented shooting guard in Eric Gordon to a long-term extension, with a coach, Monty Williams, who has proven successful at coaching effort and defense. With that immediate future they see their new core and the chance to build around them to set up contention for the next decade plus. Only they have a 29 year-old average-for-his-position player who is owed $27 million over the next two years who happens to play the same position as their new franchise player; as well as they have an overpaid wing player in his prime owed over $15 million in the next two years. Here is what matters: The Hornets did not see these players as part of their future.
The proof of that was evident in the rumors that had New Orleans willing to discuss giving up their other first-round draft pick – the 10th selection netted in their haul of Gordon from the Los Angeles Clippers for Chris Paul – as a sweetener just to get one or both of Ariza or Okafor off the books. These were not assets to the Hornets; these players were liabilities standing in the way of building around their new core from the ground up. That is where Washington’s conversation with New Orleans’ Hornets General Manager, Dell Demps, should have begun.
We don’t know who initiated the talks, but a savvy negotiator from the Wizards’ end should have approached it something like this:
Grunfeld: We are looking to get another pick in the first round. Would you be interested in moving the 10th pick? What would it take?
Demps: It would take you offering us some major cap relief, and possibly a young player or a lower/future draft selection. We have some contracts we’re looking to unload. Can you offer us that relief?
Grunfeld: We have the expiring, partially guaranteed contract of Rashard Lewis.
The conversation should have developed from there.
(In case you don’t feel like watching, the above clip is an excerpt from an episode of Seinfeld where Kramer has retained the services of lawyer Jackie Childs to seek damages from a corporation whose hot coffee Kramer had been drinking and in a spill, suffered some burns. Before Karmer and Childs enter the room, executives representing the corporation in a settlement, after discussing their leverage (they fear getting pounded in the media if it should go to trial), reveal among themselves that they are prepared to start negotiations with an offer of $50,000 and free coffee for life in all of their stores.. Once in the room and listening to the settlement offer, the executive leading the conversation can barely get out the first part of their offer – free coffee for life… – as Kramer exclaims “I’ll take it!” The executive looks stunned-but-elated to merely have settled for free coffee and no money. Kramer’s lawyer is, needless to say, pissed. Kosmo Kramer = Ernie Grunfeld.)