In: 46th overall pick in the 2012 draft, the $13.95M owed to Rashard Lewis
Out: Trevor Ariza, Emeka Okafor
This was a straight salary dump; that much is unassailable. But while that's generally a pejorative term, it shouldn't be here. Trevor Ariza was due $7.3M this year and $7.7M next season under a player option and Emeka Okafor $13.5M this year and $14.5M next. New Orleans had been looking to move both in smaller deals for a while. Though Dell Demps denied the rumor that the Hornets were willing to dump the 10th overall pick to get rid of one of the two contracts, it's clear that the team (and the majority of the league) viewed both contracts as hindrances and not assets.
And that's what makes this Wizards deal so stunning. New Orleans went from potentially moving the 10th pick in order to dump Ariza or Okafor to shipping out both Ariza and Okafor without losing the 10th pick. I won't get into the deal from Washington's perspective, though in my mind, it's borderline nonsensical. They improve in the short term (Wall/Beal/Ariza/Nene/Okafor should challenge for the 8th seed next year), but they've locked themselves into basketball purgatory. Rebuilding around Wall, Nene, and MKG really seemed promising; adding on $42M worth of marginal contributions to that core feels foolish.
Conversely, for the Hornets, it's an awesome deal.
The argument against cap space is an easy one - it's great to have the capacity to sign players, but what's the point if players don't want to sign with the team? This is an issue ostensibly exacerbated in small markets like New Orleans. The problem is that it's not a universally applicable argument. It certainly applies when a team has no assets on the roster, but when a star (Eric Gordon) and potential superstar (Anthony Davis) are on board, it's a different issue entirely.
In that latter case, cap space becomes the most important asset to have. Indeed, the league's top level star players might not come to New Orleans in free agency, but once the team's building blocks are in place, the ability to acquire solid, contributing role players is critical. And those types of players tend to be less discriminating. As the Chris Paul era swung away from embarrassment at the hands of Denver in 2009, re-direction was rendered impossible by the poor, longer term deals that had been issued. It's early yet, but Okafor and Ariza represented similar initial stumbling blocks for the Gordon/Davis era.
Here's the cap breakdown ,year by year:
Total - $36.2M
That leaves somewhere in the vicinity of $20M to fit both an extension for Eric Gordon as well as possible free agent additions. For those dreaming about a Deron Williams addition this summer - it would require the amnesty of Jarrett Jack.
Anthony Davis - $4.7M
Al-Farouq Aminu - $3.7M (team option)
Jason Smith - $2.5M ($1M guaranteed)
Xavier Henry - $3.2M (team option)
2012 10th pick - $2.1M
Gustavo Ayon - $1.5M (team option)
Greivis Vasquez - $2.2M (team option)
Even if Gordon is re-signed for the full initial max (starting at $12.9M), the Hornets would officially only have $20.9M committed to the 2013-2014 roster. Assuming the above role players are all picked up, that moves to $32M. With Okafor and Ariza on board, that would have jumped to $54M.
Essentially, heading into summer 2013, New Orleans will have on its roster a star, a (we think) superstar, a very solid bench, and THIRTY MILLION DOLLARS IN CAP SPACE. That combination... doesn't happen very often. And based on the way they allocate future deals, that cap space can be preserved at least another year out.
In the short term (2012-2013), New Orleans definitely got a little worse. Jack/Gordon/Ariza/Davis/Okafor would have been a strong contender for the playoffs, even in the West. I still think Okafor manning the paint would have allowed Anthony Davis to reprise his old, roaming, menacing Kentucky role. But in the long term, the front office is clearly thinking in terms of a future championship contention window.
The most sustainable method of title contention in the NBA is through the cyclic replenishment of supporting talent around star players; youth and flexibility are paramount. Ariza and Okafor provided neither, and so they've now been moved on.