In a surprising move that was decided upon at least a week ago but which only came to light yesterday, the Cleveland Cavaliers have signed former Tennessee swingman Scotty Hopson to a deal for the remainder of the season and through 2015, for an amount far, far larger than the minimum salary. This is in spite of Hopson being a rookie who has never played in the NBA before.
Hopson graduated from Tennessee in 2011, averaging 17.0 points, 3.3 rebounds and 1.3 assists per game as a senior. In the three years hence, he has played in Greece, Israel and Turkey, with a summer league stint with the Miami Heat last summer thrown in. A long and athletic wing with good size, a streaky jumpshot and occasional spurts of defensive effectiveness, Hopson looks the part of the NBA swingman on first glance, and is one of many candidates in the endless carousel of players at the end of roster or just on the fringes of the NBA that are mostly interchangeable with each other.
There is logic to the move. The cap room exception which Cleveland used to perform this signing expires at year's end, and thus the signing of Hopson sees them get something for it. The amount of money paid to Hopson for the remainder of this season, $1.3 million, is almost three times more than the rookie minimum for a full season, let alone a tenth of it, yet it allows Cleveland to add on another season at a comparable amount that is unguaranteed.
Teams can start making trades again from the date their season ends - which, in Cleveland's case, will not be very long - and while they cannot trade players who are going to be free agents this summer, or who could be via an option, they can trade players with unguaranteed or partially guaranteed seasons of future salary. On the surface, then, Cleveland are using an exception that is about to expire to sign an asset for the future, even if that asset is not a player. The cost is high, but if the man signing the check says it is not prohibitive, this need not matter.
Almost all mid-season signings are done for a prorated amount of the minimum salary, as the vast majority of players worthy of more than that have long since been signed. There are exceptions to be found, of course - after being waived this season, Caron Butler and Andrew Bynum both received an even $1 million from the Oklahoma City Thunder and Indiana Pacers respectively for a part-season of work, while J.R. Smith signed for the prorated remaining amount of the cap room exception partway through the 2011-12 season after returning from China. (As an amusing aside, while it is invariably 100% the case in practice for obvious reasons, there is no rule which states that 10-day contracts have to be for the minimum salary. You could in theory sign someone to a 10 day max.) Nevertheless, the minimum salary abounds, and at this point in the season, future unguaranteed seasons are often tacked on to these minimum salary deals.
In doing so, teams control the player's future for longer. If they want to keep the player, they have them tied down for multiple seasons at the cheapest possible expense, something they are able to do with the leverage that comes from being a mid-season pickup. In recent years, these extra seasons are getting longer and longer - this season has seen Chris Babb, Chris Johnson, Mike Muscala and others all signed for three subsequent seasons after this one, using cap room or mid-level exceptions that would otherwise go unused. The addition of future unguaranteed seasons is also done in this fashion for trade purposes.
Last season, for example, the Memphis Grizzlies signed Donte Greene for the final two days of the season with two extra years attached so that they could use the $1,027,424 unguaranteed salary they gave him in 2013/14 salary as a trade piece in the summer, which they later did in the Fab Melo deal. And in 2011/12, the Knicks signed Dan Gadzuric for the final few days of the season with a $1,352,181 unguaranteed salary for the next one, a trade chip which subsequently became the foundation of the otherwise unviable Raymond Felton sign and trade. Hopson's deal in this respect, then, is not entirely unique.
It is not clear why the Cavaliers have chosen to utilise this strategy on Hopson, a marginal NBA player. The aforementioned initial eye test does not do full justice to Hopson as a player, who has missed the NBA to date for a reason. Despite his physical tools and shotmaking talents, Hopson has long been failed for not consistently playing hard, especially on the defensive end, where he has the tools to be effective in a manner that he just too often is not.
Furthermore, Hopson was recently released by his Turkish team, Anadolu Efes, on account of his style of playing being too individualistic and not sufficiently team-orientated. In short, Hopson does not pass enough. His raw numbers this season - 170 points on 104 shots in 370 minutes of Euroleague play, the highest standard of club basketball outside the NBA - might make it appear as though Hopson is the next Anthony Parker-style diamond found in the European rough. In reality, he is the latest in a long line of Tarence Kinseys.
This is not to say Hopson is not an NBA player. He can perform his flawed but effective brand of basketball on NBA floors quite readily, as he may get a chance to demonstrate down the stretch of this season. Rather, it is to say that Hopson is merely one of the dozens of players in this position, on the cusp of the NBA, no noticeably worse than dozens of those just about in it yet not having the same opportunity or luck to get a spot.
Hopson, essentially, is a replacement level wing who is now earning a significant chunk of change for far less than significant contributions. And while the calibre of player on which the mechanism is used is not the most important thing here, it would nevertheless be beneficial to sign the best player they can.
More important are the specific details of the contract. In them, however, we find only more questions and baffling decision making.
The contract itself is big. Unnecessarily big. Brian Windhorst reports that Hopson is signed to a deal worth $1.45 million next season. That, as we have seen, is the point of the signing, to have that amount available for trades down the road. However, the unignorable fact is that Cleveland did not have to spend $1.3 million to do that. They could instead have just done a Gadzuric.
The minimum salary contract for a 10-plus-year veteran next season is $1,448,490. Cleveland could have signed a nine-plus-year veteran to a minimum salary contract for the final few days of the season, just as the Knicks did with Gadzuric, and had that same $1.45 million unguaranteed next summer. Had they signed that someone yesterday instead of Hopson, they would have had to pay them only the prorated minimum salary for the remainder of the season instead of the $1.3 million they gave to Hopson.
With 17 days left to go in the 170 regular season, this meant they needed spend only one tenth of the minimum. They have spent $1.3 million in order to have a $1.45 million unguaranteed contract, whereas they could have spent $131,681 to do the same. Or, if they had just waited until the final day of the season, that amount could have been even smaller, a paltry $7,746. Instead, they will be giving $1.3 million to a fringe NBA player for a pseudo-audition lasting less than three weeks. They gave a barely NBA calibre player $1.3 million dollars in order to use him as a $1.45 million trade chip, when they could have spent a tenth of it.
Furthermore, by signing Seth Curry to a ten day contract before indulging in this practice, and thus having to wait until March 31st before signing Hopson, the Cavaliers have now made it impossible to use this new trade chip on draft night. Players signed as free agents cannot be traded for three months after signing - Hopson, therefore, cannot be traded per this rule until July 1st. The moratorium starts on that date, however, and thus Hopson cannot be traded until after it ends.
He cannot therefore be traded until mid-July. Had he signed three days previously, he would have been eligible for draft night deals and still tradable in the 2013/14 season. Yet due to the need to give Seth Curry 13 total minutes, he now will not be. It is true that deals can be (and often are) agreed to at draft time and not completed until after the moratorium with some regularity, but the loss of this flexibility is bewildering in how avoidable it was.
In conclusion, then, an NBA team signed a non-NBA calibre player to an enormously oversized contract, ten times bigger than it needed to be to achieve the same purpose, for the purposes of creating a summertime trade chip that they cannot even use during one of the most important parts of the summertime trade season.
Don't shoot the messenger.