The Heat and Pistons are currently eighth and ninth in the Eastern Conference, straddling the line between a playoff berth and a lottery berth, and separated by a game and a half in the standings. The East being what it is, it’s possible for a team to be very close to the playoff race and also very far from serious contention, but while teams are still able to make trades, there’s always the opportunity to radically remake a rotation, for the purposes of ascending in the conference hierarchy or triggering a rebuild.
Wednesday afternoon the Heat engineered a trade to send Tyler Johnson and Wayne Ellington to the Phoenix Suns in exchange for Ryan Anderson. Johnson and Ellington are rotation-grade guards; Anderson is a flabby past-his-prime bench-warmer shooting 20 percent from beyond the arc. Mostly this trade is the shifting of flotsam, for dreary salary cap reasons—the Heat want a trade exception for moving Ellington, and the Suns are likely waive him—but Johnson instantly becomes Phoenix’s best point guard, and Ellington is very likely to wind up playing minutes on a playoff team. Flipping those two for Anderson is not the kind of thing that should earn the Heat a lot of credit. And yet:
The Pistons, just behind the Heat in the standings, worked two trades this week, dealing Reggie Bullock to the Lakers for Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk and a second-round draft pick, and later dealing Stanley Johnson to the Bucks for Thon Maker. Bullock started 44 games for the Pistons this season; Johnson was Detroit’s sixth man. Thon has fallen out of Milwaukee’s rotation, and Mykhailiuk has played 420 total minutes in the NBA. The Pistons are taking a flier on Thon, but trading a couple rotation players for a flier and salary savings is, again, not the sort of thing for which a team should garner a lot of praise:
Here it should be pointed out that there’s no real prize for a team getting under the luxury tax, much less for reducing without erasing an anticipated luxury tax bill. It doesn’t mean more or better players, or happier players, or better coaches, or cheaper tickets—it doesn’t accrue in any way to the benefit of the team on the court or its fans. It’s just a thing general managers have to do to appease their bosses. These two teams made themselves actively worse in order to save their billionaire owners some money. Teams that resist spending over the luxury tax threshold do so because their owners are cheap, and for no credible basketball reasons. Don’t celebrate it!