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Basketball and Balance Sheets Part III: Distressed assets

Emmanuel Mudiay is terrible defensively and can’t finish at the rim. He’s also a high-reward proposition for Detroit.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Denver Nuggets Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

In Part I of this series, we held on to Reggie Jackson, in the hope that he returned to form and could lead the Pistons to the playoffs once more.

In Part II, we traded Reggie for nothing, in the fear that his knee would never be well enough to do what he did in 2015-16, and the hope that his departure would empower the team as a whole.

In Part III, we trade Reggie for the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things unseen.

If you trade Reggie, it’s obvious that you need a replacement for him some time soon, so it makes sense to try and trade for his long-term replacement. But part of the reason you’re trading Reggie is because of his high-dollar-amount, long-term deal, so you don’t want to trade him for another long, large contract, you want to trade him for a cheaper contract to maintain cap flexibility. But Reggie’s value is currently low, so you can’t get a lot of value in return.

So it sounds like we’re looking for a young, cheap, low-value, high-risk, high-reward point guard. Maybe a guy who his coach openly admits he was frustrated by, a guy who was benched for an extended period during this season, a guy whose (younger) replacement is already on the roster?

Enter Emmanuel Mudiay:

Reggie Jackson and Jon Leuer for Emmanuel Mudiay and Kenneth Faried

This trade helps the Pistons secure a potential replacement for Reggie Jackson and rids them of one of their slightly overpaid bench guys in Jon Leuer. However, it comes at a pricey cost - Kenneth Faried’s even higher salary (over a shorter period of time) and the possibility that Emmanuel Mudiay is Michael Carter-Williams 2.0.

It’s an admitted gamble, but one, I think, with upside for Detroit.

Basketball

Emmanuel Mudiay is still only 21 years old and has been relatively effective offensively in his short time in the league... but he’s been absolutely atrocious defensively, to the point where Mike Malone had him nailed to the bench after the All-Star Break. Trading for him, and handing him the backup point guard role (NOT a starting role - he hasn’t earned that yet) could pay dividends in the future for a team that wants to invest in him and his immense talent.

I’ve always been a fan of Mudiay because he combines prototypical point guard size (6’5, with a 6’8 wingspan) and scoring ability with above-average vision and passing ability. The reason he’s even available in trade, though, is because he hasn’t been a good finisher at the rim in the league (only shot 45 percent at the rim this season), is a career 31 percent three-point shooter, and is a turnover factory.

Not a turnover machine, a turnover FACTORY. A turnover factory made up of smaller turnover machines.

However, to me, these are all things that can be explained by Mudiay being a 21-year old point guard with no college experience. I would be willing to bet on Mudiay developing into a starting-caliber point guard. My resolve is only strengthened by Adam Mares’ excellent end-of-year explainer on Mudiay.

Mudiay still has two more season before restricted free agency - a team that trades for him has two full years to determine his worth. In the absolute worst case, you could even extend him his qualifying offer and then not re-sign him in unrestricted free agency (Pistons fans will know this move, it’s “The Greg Monroe”), getting three years of cheap pg play while scouting for his replacement.

Additionally, for Detroit, Faried next to Boban is an interesting proposition. Primarily, I imagine the bench would try to play in transition a lot with Mudiay, Stanley Johnson, and Faried. If the defense retreats in time to stop the break, the bench halfcourt offense would consists of “Toss it in to Boban, see what happens.” This isn’t marginally different from what the bench offense would look like now, but Faried is a much better rebounder and transition finisher than Leuer, and I envision him keying more transition opportunities than Jon.

For Denver, Reggie Jackson is a guard against Jamal Murray not being ready to start next year and Jameer Nelson turning back into a 35-year-old pumpkin. Reggie is a slightly better defender than Mudiay (believe it or not), turns the ball over much less, and (when healthy) finishes better at the rim. Healthy, Jackson is also just a better player than Mudiay at this point in their careers - healthy Reggie Jackson is the best player in this deal, without a doubt.

I think Reggie Jackson would be a more efficient player in Denver, because he’d be asked to do less. Playing next to Nikola Jokic, a big man that is actually efficient offensively out of the post, would relieve Jackson of some of the pressure he has to create offensively. He’d have about the same amount of spacing as he does now surrounded by Gary Harris, Wilson Chandler, and Danilo Gallinari, and we know he’d like to win running PNR every single time. However, turning the offense over to Jokic before transforming into a dynamic crunch-time guy isn’t a bad place for Reggie to be.

As for Jon Leuer, his more versatile offensive skill-set in the halfcourt (he can do things besides dunk offensively) plays much better next to Mason Plumlee and/or Jokic. Leuer is also cheaper year-to-year than Faried, which matters a lot to Denver. With the addition of Mason Plumlee’s impending RFA extension and Danilo Gallinari potentially opting out to look for more money long-term, Faried - and his heavier contract - have little place on the Nuggets.

Lastly, and this has no real bearing on anything because there’s no no-trade clause or anything, but Reggie Jackson is from Colorado and seems to enjoy being there. That’s an element that could be played up by the front office to the media as a way to make a Reggie trade seem less like an apology for giving him his deal in the first place. I have no evidence Stan Van Gundy and Jeff Bower think like that, but I’m also a cynic who’s seen that come into play coughcough*MELO*cough.

Balance Sheet

Detroit Pistons 2017-18 Salary Cap (Projected)

There are a lot of the same issues as Part II here: You’re still scraping up against the luxury tax for a team you’re not entirely sure is a playoff team in the Eastern Conference, but you have space for KCP’s post-rookie max extension. However, because you got Mudiay and Faried, this is, on paper, a better team for roughly the same price as a full contract dump of Reggie Jackson.

Denver might ask for this year’s lottery pick (or a swap of picks No. 12 and 13) in this trade, and I wouldn’t make this trade if the pick was included, so the pick’s salary is still there. However, I concede you’d have to think about that decision - the No. 12 pick in this year’s draft may not return a solid long-term asset. The pick’s salary is also relevant - a little over $2 million isn’t THAT much, but every cent matters to a team over the cap.

(This is the part where you remind me of the fiscal irresponsibility of stretching Josh Smith instead of trading him for pennies on the quarter, and I harrumph loudly and pretend I didn’t hear you.)

Again, sneaking in under the luxury tax offers the full mid-level exception, and I’d still be looking at backup shooting guards there. The same names apply: Jodie Meeks, Ian Clark, Ben McLemore. With Mudiay’s size, you could even ask him to guard bench SG’s and play him next to a shooting-guard-trapped-in-a-point-guard-body, Aaron Brooks-esque player. There’s no telling how (un)successful he might be in that defensive role, but it’s something you could do.

Having to pay Mudiay and Stanley Johnson in restricted free agency at the same time could be rough in 2019-2020, but if both of those guys are worth paying, the team as a whole is probably in a very solid place. That’s also the year Faried, Tobias Harris, and Marcus Morris come off the books - if Stanley proves himself ready to start at the small forward spot and Henry Ellenson proves himself ready to start at power forward, that’s about $17 million of cap space you can use to (re)build up the bench. A starting lineup of Mudiay, KCP, Johnson, Ellenson, and Drummond sounds enticing if the kids can play.

Ultimately, this is more of a “basketball” move than a “balance sheet” move - two playoff hopefuls swapping issues in the hope that they can be the team to flip the right switches and get the most out of the players involved. This trade personally appeals more to me than dumping Reggie Jackson for nothing, but is it better than holding onto Reggie entirely? Ask me in December, after we have 15 games of evidence on Reggie’s knee.