On a broad level, I understand everyone’s confusion. Bradley Beal isn’t worth a first-round pick, but Chris Paul is? Kristaps Porziņģis is not worth a first, but Marcus Smart is worth two? What sorcery is this? What happens here?
Let me tell you what the deal is: The key to every single NBA transaction is that it’s about contracts and not necessarily about players. I’ve said this before, but in the wake of an incoming CBA hammering on profligate users, I have to say it again, and more loudly. As much as we can will have it has to be about the players, because they are the ones who decide who wins and loses, once we get the balls on the field in the fall, the ability to manage the contracts of said players is the whole challenge in a salary cap league with countless rules to follow.
Beyond becoming a super duper star, mastering this byzantine structure called the collective bargaining agreement is what separates the smart from the crazy in NBA front offices and, in the long run, is usually what filters the winners from the losers.
Beal’s contract, with four years left to run and a no-trade clause, was arguably the worst of the contracts dealt in the Wizards’ recent string of transactions. He’s a good player paid like a great player, which is a hard way to thrive under the CBA unless you’re going to blow the entire salary structure out of the water (like Phoenix does).
In contrast, Smart, with three years left at a comfortable $20 million per for one of the league’s best defensemen, easily the best contract of any that was dealt. If you have a player like Smart under team control for three years at that price, you can fit a lot more talent into the same cap restrictions.
Everyone else falls somewhere in between or into a netherland where we don’t quite know it yet. Is Jordan Poole worth $125 million over the next four years? It looked that way when he was helping the Warriors win the 2022 title; less a year ago, when he developed into a revenue-boosting traffic cone.
Washington is figuring out the answer and got paid for its trouble with a future first, a future second and the rights to a quasi-interesting guard prospect in Ryan Rollins. (By the way, this deal can’t be completed until the new salary cap year begins in July. Yes, there’s a new salary cap year. We’re having a big party with kazoos and everything. This year, SZA is on stage. It’s going to be crazy.)
Why the Porziņģis-Smart trade is a win for all teams involved
Similarly, Washington walked away from the Porziņģis trade with just a high second-round pick because having him under contract at $36 million was enough to make many teams nervous. The best thing the Wizards got out of that deal was actually a more negotiable contract in the form of Tyus Jones — he may be valued enough at just $14 million for this year that Washington can take back a defaulted contract and a delayed contract. or protected first round pick.
As for Paul? I don’t love the pass on the court in Golden State; he’s a pick-and-roll point guard who goes to a system that’s all about cutting and moving. The contractual part of this is hard to ignore, though: After 2023-24, it’s pretty easy for the Warriors to secure themselves as the league’s most expensive team because Klay Thompson’s $43.2 million salary comes off the books and Paul’s $30 million is not guaranteed. Even if the Warriors are paying Draymond Green, they could operate below the tax line in 2025-26 if they wanted to.
Here’s the thing about good contracts, too: You can trade them again. While the Suns are likely to hang with Beal for the next half-decade, the Warriors have a lot of options with Paul. If there’s another deal they like for a high-wattage star, they can treat his $30 million as an expiring contract, possibly along with one of their young players or the 2028 first-round pick they still can exchange.
The incoming CBA’s anti-pooling and salary clawback rules for overtaxed teams make it more difficult, but for one year, in 2023-24, it’s not impossible. Golden State can trade Paul for someone who makes up to $34 million and can still collect salary to give him a player who makes more than that.
Again, much of the value is here contractwho is more mobile than Poole’s for the type of deal the Warriors would likely seek, and not necessarily player. Replacing Poole’s big contract with Paul’s non-guaranteed 2024-25 season adds massive flexibility to what had been one of the league’s least flexible cap situations.
Slater: Why the Chris Paul-Jordan Poole trade happened for the Warriors
What the Suns did, meanwhile, was the exact opposite, painting themselves further into a contractual corner and, in a masterful job of negotiating, reportedly handing over every second-round pick and first-round pick swap, they still owned.
We’ll likely see more of these types of moves as we enter the offseason frenzy. The Wizards still have several veterans on good deals (Monté Morris, Delon Wright) or very flexible contracts (Landry Shamet) that could yield more returns.
Meanwhile, the big spenders like the Warriors, Celtics and Suns are trying to win the CBA game in a different way: by filling their cap with as much money as possible now before the rules of the incoming CBA turn against them. The Clippers tried to do the same before bailing on version 1.0 of the Porziņģis trade; expect to hear more from them before July 1st as well, and don’t be surprised if the likes of Dallas and Miami join them.
Again, it’s about the game within the game. Beal is a better player right now than anyone else I mentioned in this column, but when it comes to NBA trades, it’s never just about the trades.
(Photo by Chris Paul and Jordan Poole: Cary Edmondson/USA Today)