How trading for Thornton was the kind of low risk deal the Nets needed to make
Sacramento Kings General Manager Pete D’Alessandro has been in the job for less than a year, yet has already pushed through great upheaval of the roster he inherited. After yesterday’s trade of Marcus Thornton for Reggie Evans and Jason Terry, the Kings now have only five players on their roster that were also there in the 2012-13 season: DeMarcus Cousins, Travis Outlaw, Jimmer Fredette, Isaiah Thomas and Jason Thompson.
Thompson, as described here, might not be on that roster for much longer. Despite his refusal to go away quietly in the midst of a sneaky good season, D’Alessandro’s decision not to exercise Jimmer’s contract option for next year may mean his days are similarly numbered. Outlaw only survives as an unrectifiable mistake of the Maloof era, not because he is in any way valued, and while Thomas is in theory a part of the core going forward, he also might not be. That leaves only the recently maxed-out Cousins as a piece D’Alessandro definitely wanted to keep, with everything else to be considered in limbo.
All of the turnover has, of course, had its effect on the court. Optimism within and surrounding the new era of the franchise notwithstanding, Sacramento continues to struggle on the court, noticeably on the defensive end. The process has barely started. However, with the Rudy Gay trade having worked out remarkably well to date, a definable core has begun to take shape, and there were few mistakes still to clear up. Trading Thornton makes for one less.
Marcus’ star once burned so brightly. Projected once as Chris Paul’s backcourt running mate for the indefinite future, Thornton now here finds himself being traded for two players of a combined 70 years of age, one of whom could not get off the bench for his team, and the other of whom mostly did so through obligation. Terry’s skills and effectiveness have vanished over the last two years, while Evans never added to his one trick, a nothing offensive player with aggressive yet not all that effective defense, a small minute no usage role player with no role to fill if the rest of the team is good enough. The return for Sacramento is indeed very low – in total, a salary saving of just over a million dollars, and very little returning basketball assets. When D’Alessandro says that Evans and Terry will bring “toughness,” “leadership” and “a wealth of experience,” he essentially is saying, “this is the best we could get with Thornton’s value so low.” There is a reason the incoming duo’s skills are not mentioned.
Things reached this point mostly on account of Thornton’s play. To say that Thornton is currently embroiled in a slump or is in the midst of a down year does not do justice to quite how ineffective and anomalous this campaign has been for him – a PER that ranked between a healthy 16.3 to 17.4 in his first four seasons has dropped to a mere 9.8 in this one, and his true shooting percentage of .484% is woefully insufficient from a player whose only ability, effectiveness and desire comes in scoring the ball. Thornton is receiving $8.5 million this season to do the job a D-Leaguer could be doing for $490,180.
Furthermore, Thornton has not been helped by the encroachment of Ben McLemore, D’Alessandro’s first draft pick in whom any trade interest is being firmly rebuked. Just as DeMarcus Cousins’ breakthrough season is rendering the skills of Jason Thompson somewhat obsolete, McLemore and Thomas are making Thornton obsolete – Thornton’s skillset and body type are incredibly ill-fitting in tandem with the shoot-first ball dominant Thomas, and the comparable but considerably younger McLemore is the player still fresh and underdeveloped enough to be sculpted into the versatile and efficient player Thornton never became. McLemore is the building block, and Thornton was his obstacle. The one skill he brought, occasional wing scoring, Rudy Gay brings much better.
Thornton could be, has been, and may again be, a quality role player. Ultimately, though, he needs the ball. Billed as a shooter, Thornton in fact struggles to get open off the ball and around screens, and when he does shoot from said situations, he is much less effective than when catching and shooting or shooting off the dribble. The way to make Thornton productive is to give him the ball, the license to shoot and a big vote of confidence, not entirely unlike the manner in which J.R. Smith or Nick Young do. Yet while Thornton is a chucker comparable to those two, this is not necessarily a good thing. It is also of note that those two combined still do not cost as much as Thornton.
It remains to be seen if Brooklyn can offer Thornton the role he needs. It is possible – this was somewhat like the role Terry was asked to, and could not, fill. The slow-paced, uninspired Nets could certainly use some dynamicism and scoring in bunches, which a confident Marcus Thornton can certainly provide. However, Thornton will again find his itch for touches go unscratched on a team already with so many dominant ball handlers. He is not a creative enough player or reliable enough in a team concept to have the ball in his hands as much as he seems to require, thus he needs to improve playing off of the ball. A trade that reinvigorates his confidence may yield decent short term results, but in the long term, Thornton has a lot of work to do.
Nevertheless, regardless of whether the relationship is harmonious, the cost is suitably little for Brooklyn to try and find out. Any analysis of a Brooklyn Nets trade will inevitably focus on the luxury tax ramifications that come with any acquisition, and of course there are some here. The trade will add approximately $3.5 million in luxury tax for the Nets this year, and circa $900,000 in salary next season, neither amount insignificant However, the trade must also be looked at in terms of the assets given up. Or more specifically, the lack of assets given up.
Selling low on two struggling veterans they did not need and who were not expiring has nevertheless seen the Nets able to buy even lower on a once highly touted and hitherto productive dynamic role playing scoring guard who is still only 26 years of age. The Nets’ problems to date have normally involved buying low on players whilst still overpaying in the process, yet it surely cannot be argued here that they have overpaid given that they have given up not a single asset of any quality. Realistically, acquiring Thornton may make only for a slightly prolonged and more expensive second round exit. And yet, with the financial cost of such a move negligible to the team with a blank cheque, and with the basketball cost absolutely minimal, the move represents the kind of no-risk, potential reward move that they needed to have been making prior to this week.
It does not need to be optimum to be worth it.
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