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The $7 million question hanging over the Pistons’ offseason

What can a $7 million trade exception get you in 2018?

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Minnesota Timberwolves Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Pistons have a Boban Marjanovic-sized trade exception left over from the Blake Griffin trade - one of the few ways the team can make changes this offseason.

This leads to a lot of questioning by fans about what can and should be done with the $7 million exception. However, before fans get too out there with their pet trades, we should establish the “Cans and Cannots” of trade exceptions, so we know what the rules are. (All information via Larry Coon’s invaluable CBA FAQ and Danny Leroux’s Vox-Esque explainer.)

The Pistons CAN:

  • Use this exception at any time between now and January 29, 2019 (the one-year anniversary of the Blake Griffin trade)
  • Split up the exception into smaller, more digestible trade exceptions (using the $7 million trade exception to trade for a $3 million player leaves them with a $4 million trade exception)
  • Ignore the luxury tax - for now (Trade exceptions count against the salary cap but not against the luxury tax - despite the Pistons operating perilously close to the luxury tax, they have nothing to worry about, tax-wise, until the exception becomes an actual player)

The Pistons CANNOT:

  • Combine the exception with more salary in a trade (sorry, everyone trying to package Jon Leuer, Langston Galloway, and the exception for Kawhi Leonard)
  • Add to the exception by trading away more players (If you trade Ish Smith’s $6 million expiring deal into another team’s cap space, you don’t get one $13 million trade exception, you get two exceptions, one for $7 million and one for $6 million)
  • Use the exception to sign a player not under contract (it’s a TRADE exception, not a free agent exception. You’re thinking of the Mid-Level Exception, which is different)

The Pistons are currently set to be over the salary cap but under the luxury tax (which is, as I’ve said before, a feature - not a bug - of the Stan Van Gundy-helmed front office). However, they are close enough to the luxury tax that using the full trade exception would bring them into the luxury tax. Depending on the salary cap numbers we get in June, such a move could even bring them over the luxury tax apron, which would restrict them from using their full mid-level exception this offseason.

However, if your name is Tom Gores and you’re concerned about the on-paper profitability of the team, recall that the luxury tax is calculated based on the team’s salary obligations as of their last regular season game; meaning you can trade away players to evade paying the luxury tax. How much salary you need to trade away, what assets you need to attach to make said trade, and how such a trade impacts the on-court product are always open questions. Operating as a luxury tax team until the 2018-19 trade deadline, seeing what this team looks like with additional pieces, and then deciding if paying the luxury tax is worth it is a path teams commonly take - if you really think the player you’re getting with this trade exception is worth paying the luxury tax for, and they prove that during a successful season, then paying the tax isn’t a crippling thing.

So what’s a $7 million trade exception actually worth? The answer, as always, is “it depends.” There are some interesting guard trade targets in that price range (Quinn Cook now that he’s on a multi-year deal, Shabazz Napier if you can work something out with Portland regarding his restricted free agency, Patrick Beverley on a fully non-guaranteed deal coming off of microfracture surgery, Jonathon Simmons if the Magic decide to clean house), but as you’d expect, there’s not a lot of franchise-altering players out there for under $7 million.

However, this front office’s best moves have been trades, from trading Marcus Morris and Reggie Bullock for nothing to the Ersan Ilyasova > Tobias Harris > Blake Griffin straw millionaire chain. It would not surprise me if this trade exception proved to be a pivotal piece of a louder-than-expected offseason in Detroit.