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Capital Punishment: The grim logic behind the Washington trades and what it means for the Raptors and Pascal Siakam

There were a swirl of trades before last night’s NBA Draft, most of them involving the Washington Wizards.

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Wizards are really going for it, aren’t they?

They traded Bradley Beal, Kristaps Porzingis and Chris Paul in about 48 hours and all of the deals are, to some degree or another, head-scratching.

The Wiz move Bradley Beal, a guy who has a 30ppg season his resume, is a three-time All-Star and has made an all NBA team, and all they got was a handful of seconds, and the right for Chris Paul to be pissed off at their young players? (Oh and Lanry Shamet - that’s right I left out the “d” just like he does).

Then they moved Kristaps Porzingis, the original unicorn, who was coming off arguably the best season of his career, and they got a back-up point-guard a second rounder and contract filler? Somehow the Celtics who GOT KP, also ended up with two first round picks?

These guys are buffoons! Idiots! Rob Babcook could run a better team!

Then Washington turned around and somehow traded a 38 year old making 30 million for a guy a decade younger, who has a 20ppg season on his resume(Jordan Poole), plus a prospect (Ryan Rollins), and protected first and second round picks?

Like, what? This was a guy the Phoenix Suns were talking about flat out waving two weeks ago!

Welcome to what looks like the early days of a significant shift in how NBA teams are looking at contracts in light of the new CBA.

Or, to paraphrase James Carville, - “it’s the contracts, stupid.”

(Very briefly, the new CBA makes going over the various tax thresholds increasingly destructive to a franchise’s ability to compete. It’s not just paying a tax to the other teams it’s losing the ability to combine player salaries into a trade for a player with a bigger salary, forfeiting certain exemptions useful for signing free-agents, and even foregoing the right to trade picks.)

Beal’s contract is so immense - averaging over $50m a year for four more years that even for a guy with his resume he was a negative asset. For the most part NBA fans seemed to understood that: good (but not great) player + horrific contract = mediocre return. While Beal’s no-trade clause didn’t help, even without it, it’s hard to see who was lining up for THAT deal.

With KP, his opt-in worked somewhat as his own veto - if he didn’t like a potential destination he could just choose free-agency, and leave Washington scrambling - but the bigger reason the Celtics got the value they did is because Marcus Smart has three years left on a deal that is seen as a significant underpay. The Grizzlies were willing to fork out picks because they get a player who’s a great fit AND cost certainty.

While the Celtics get a great fit themselaves in Porzingis, they also are going to have to wrestle with the idea of giving him a big extension in a year. Last year’s version of Porzingis is a fit on literally every team in the NBA (more on that later), but comes with significant injury risk. With the new CBA, signing a guy like KP to a $35m+ contract for any term carries some significant, even franchise crushing, possibilities. Even if Porzingis stays healthy, is he really a guy you can pay that much to? Especially, if you’re going to pay Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown a combined $100 million a year?

The Chris Paul deal flips this concept on its head. Yes, Paul is overpaid at $30.8m, but his second year is totally non-guaranteed. Meanwhile, Jordan Poole is going to pull in $128m over four years. Between his disappearing act in the playoffs and the defensive issues he presents even when he is scoring, Poole’s contract aged like milk almost immediately after he signed it, with some NBA observers calling it one of the worst in the league.

Again, in a league where running deep into the luxury tax is no longer just about money, but losing important team-building levers, can a contending team afford to have that kind of deal on its books? The reason the Wiz did so well in the Paul deal is because for the Warriors the answer was “no”. They were willing to move draft assets to both get a player in Paul they thought would help more now, but also to clean up their cap sheet going forward.

It’s crazy to think that less than a year ago today, the Minnesota Timberwolves shocked the NBA world when they shipped out players and four first round picks to the Utah Jazz for All-NBA player, Rudy Gobert.

At the time the deal was seen as a potential overpay. Now, it seems like a catastrophic bad timing, like buying an apartment building as an investment property in Chernobyl in March of 1986.

So, where does this leave the Raptors?

Honestly, in a tricky spot. The Raptors best trade asset is Pascal Siakam, but given the Wiz deals how valuable should he be?

Pascal Siakam is a very good NBA player, honestly, he’s underrated in his home market. He’s a category stuffer, who plays hard on defense, is incredibly good, like 5th most efficient in the league good, in the post, and has already proven he can produce on the biggest stage.

And yet...

Remember, any team that trades for Siakam, isn’t just trading for the player, they’re trading for the obligation to sign him to a long-term extension.

As good as Siakam is, in this new environment, teams need to be very careful about how much money they offer. Unlike Porzingis, Siakam isn’t guaranteed to fit in every situation. Because KP can shoot and protect the rim at a high level there isn’t a system he won’t work in. If he were in Phoenix instead of Beal he could space the floor and protect Kevin Durant and Devin Booker on the other end.

His fit in Boston is just as seamless and it would be on any contender you can think of.

Siakam? While he is unquestionably the better player, we have ample evidence to say that he is not a good enough offensive player to be the lead creator on a title team. He would be an awkward fit in Phoenix because he doesn’t space the floor, and his considerable on-ball skills would be wasted as the third guy. Miami could badly use that on the ball juice, but can you really play Bam Adebayo, Jimmy Butler and Siakam together? When Siakam is the best three-point shooter of the bunch?

The point here is that Siakam is in a strange in-between world, absolutely good enough to demand a massive contract, and yet a specialized enough player that most NBA teams wouldn’t, or shouldn’t, give it to him.

It’s why the rumours around the Atlanta Hawks’ offer is both intriguing and depressing. On one hand, the Hawks are exactly the kind of team that should want Siakam. Siakam screening in the pick and roll for Trae Young would be almost un-defendable. If Young gets space he can take Siakam’s man to the tin, or bury a step-back.

If not, then whoever switched on to Siakam is going to get mashed in the post. Send a double on either, and both are more then good enough passers to send the ball pinging around the perimeter - it would be a devastating combination. Atlanta also has two potential shot blocking centres to anchor a defense, although they would need to find a way to import more shooting (Kevin Huerter would look good back there in this scenario).

Since Siakam is such a great fit for Atlanta (or Portland, or Sacramento - my favourite Kings deal would see them get Siakam, and then move Sabonis in a separate deal to get the #10 pick so they could take Dereck Lively II - the kind of bouncy rim-protector that could quickly anchor a playoff defense), you’d expect Atlanta would be offering a major bounty.

But not really. Not when the key asset coming back is supposed to be Dejounte Murray who is also a free-agent in a year and offers a similar problem to Siakam in that, as good as he is, his major weaknesses (three-point shooting, efficient scoring), mean that you have to build a very specific type of team around him. Which means making him the sort of contract extension he undoubtedly, and understandably, thinks he’s earned could hamstring you in building that team. And that’s before worrying if Toronto would have to pay some sort of ‘Canada Tax’ to get him to stay.

It’s why O.G. Anunoby is likely a better trade asset - he would fit on any team in the NBA and his contract demands are capped by the league’s understanding of his role. It’s why Fred VanVleet might not find the bag waiting for him in free-agency. If Orlando isn’t 100% enamoured with the idea of Fred being their missing piece, who else is looking to tie up their meaningful cap space for the next 3-4 years on an excellent, but undersized guard who can’t pressure the rim?

Maybe Atlanta or Portland get desperate enough to give in to what is reported to be a “sky high” Toronto asking price, but if they stay patient the pressure flips to Toronto. Even if the Raps do take a step forward this year, will they think a $35-40 million dollar a year deal makes sense for Siakam? Or will it effectively price them out of any other team-building options and saddle them with the type of player and contract combo that is destined to yield a subpar trade package in this new NBA.

Before they realize it, it could be Toronto fans watching as a face of the franchise is sent away for what seems like pennies on the dollar.