Sadly, the Villanueva-for-Landry deal from a few weeks back seems dead (if it was ever really alive in the first place), and the latest rumor isn't quite so exciting. Ronald Tillery of the Memphis Commercial Appeal reported today that the Grizz have discussed a deal that would send disappointing second year point Mike Conley to the Bucks in exchange for Ramon Sessions and Joe Alexander--with other pieces possibly being involved. To add some fuel to the fire, Tom Enlund today also alluded to the continuing possibility of a deal involving Sessions or Villanueva, which is interesting given how rarely JS throws out trade rumors (I always think back to the Mike Hunt article saying Ray Allen should be traded, only a day or so before he was shipped to Seattle).
As much as I'm painfully aware of the Bucks' luxury tax concerns next summer, I can't say I like this deal unless there are additional players/picks heading to the Bucks. Conley was well-liked by the Bucks two years ago when he went fourth overall to the Grizz (and Dave Babcock is still around), two spots before the Bucks claimed Yi Jianlian, but he's been an unproductive player in Memphis and recently lost his starting gig to Kyle Lowry. He's lightning quick, strong, and has worlds of defensive potential, but the Grizz--who aren't exactly in a win-now mentality--don't seem particularly interested in giving him many more chances. I haven't seen enough of him as a pro to speculate on the likelihood he eventually figures things out, but the murmurs from Memphis are hardly encouraging. Yes, he's about 18 months younger than Sessions, but as Ty points out, there's very little comparison between the two right now when it comes to productivity. Sessions right now is a pretty good player, Conley is not.
Also consider that Tillery alludes to Memphis' recent hopes of getting Travis Outlaw for Conley straight-up, so why would he be worth both Sessions and Alexander? Outlaw's a nice sixth man who plays the same position as Rudy Gay, while Sessions alone is already a very productive NBA player at the age of 22. Alexander meanwhile has much to learn, but the Bucks knew from the start that his development would be slow and minutes limited with Richard Jefferson in town. Luc Mbah a Moute's emergence certainly makes Alexander more expendable than he was a few months ago, but it wouldn't seem that using him as throw-in to acquire a fellow lottery disappointment adds up.
As for the Bucks' cap concerns, let's start with a couple clarifications. Tillery incorrectly states that Sessions will be an unrestricted free agent this summer; he's not. Like Charlie Bell two summers ago, Sessions will be restricted since he'll have played three seasons or fewer in the league. That means the Bucks will have the right to match any offer sheet Sessions signs and that the first year of the deal cannot be for more than the mid-level exception (the Gilbert Arenas rule). The MLE will probably in the $6 million range, but at the moment I don't see Sessions having the leverage to get that kind of deal anyway--unless he goes bonkers in the final 40 games of the season, which perhaps isn't so crazy. Philly's Lou Williams would seem to be the most obvious comparable--he was a good scoring combo off the bench for Philly last year and got himself $25 million over five years.
Secondly, Enlund says Mo Williams and Bell both signed offer sheets as restricted free agents two years ago, but Williams was actually an unrestricted free agent (he had played four years at that point). Because they were over the cap, the Heat could only offer him a full MLE deal (five years, about $32 million) but he instead got six years and $52 million from the Bucks. Mo never signed an offer sheet with Miami--he just got a regular contract offer and used it as leverage to scare the Bucks into giving him much more. Had he signed with Miami he would have been gone and the Bucks would not have had the right to match.
As a result, the MLE effectively forms the upper bound of any offer Sessions might get next summer. Though technically there could be a big jump in his salary after two more years (see the CBA FAQ), it's worth remembering that most good RFAs (Josh Childress not withstanding) simply end up signing for something of a discount with their old teams. Enlund also mentions this:
As its stands, the Bucks' payroll is probably about $5 million below the luxury tax figure that is projected for the 2009-'10 season.
That would make retaining the two players difficult, if not impossible, without venturing into tax territory.
In other words, all a team would have to do is offer Villanueva a deal starting at $5.1 million, knowing the Bucks would not match because it would take them over the luxury-tax figure.
I'm not sure which numbers Enlund is using here, but I think he's slightly underestimating how much room the Bucks have, though he's right in the more general sense that the Bucks could be in trouble.
- If you take only the players with guaranteed deals and no options the Bucks next year are standing at $61.4 million for eight players. Those players would be Redd, Jefferson, Bogut, Gadzuric, Ridnour, Bell, Alexander, and Mbah a Moute.
- If you assume that Malik Allen and Francisco Elson pick up their player options (unfortunately that's probably their best move) that number balloons to $64.4 million for 10 players. I didn't have a big problem with those signings when they happened, but in retrospect the Bucks made clear mistakes in giving both players options for next season at more than the minimum.
- That would leave the Bucks needing at least three more guys, with RFAs Sessions and Villanueva being unsigned plus whatever picks the Bucks have in the draft. The luxury tax this year is $71.15 million, and it's grown an average of 5% the last three seasons. I'd guess it grows by less than that next summer given the economic slowdown, though it sounds like the effect on the NBA will be dampened because sponsorships and season ticket sales were locked in before the season. But if it grows by 5% again, it'd be at $74.7 million.
- If you use this year's tax and the 5% projection as lower and upper bounds for next year's tax, the Bucks would have between $6.7 million and $10.3 million at their disposal before the tax kicks in.
- Villanueva has a qualifying offer worth $4.6 million, which means he could play one more year for that amount and become an unrestricted free agent the following summer. He'd also have the right to veto any trade during the season, which would obviously impinge on the Bucks' ability to package him for someone else. That's basically what's happening now in Chicago with Ben Gordon. If the Bucks were dead set on keeping CV for the QO, they would then have between $2.1 million and $5.7 million to re-sign Sessions and one or two more players (ie draft picks). Lou Williams' deal is for $4.5 million this season, so you can see that they're skating on thin ice.
Either way, the Bucks are indeed looking at a very sticky situation if things don't change. Given that a million or two here or there could make a big difference, John Hammond and company are likely looking at every possible way they might be able to move players like Bell, Elson, and Allen, all of whom are fairly cheap but expendable. The Bucks could also be in the unfortunate situation of having to sell picks in the upcoming June draft, though you'd hope that it doesn't come to that. This is also why the Landry deal would have been so perfect: the Bucks get a guy of comparable talent to Villanueva with a guarantee of not having to pay him more than $3 million per season for the next two years.
The Bucks could feel forced to move Villanueva or Sessions in a tax-induced deal if nothing changes, but given we still have over a month before the deadline I would hope they're looking for better value than Conley for Sessions and Alexander. In fact, if Sessions were getting a deal like Lou Williams, they'd hardly be saving any money at all with Conley, who has yet to prove he can be better than Sessions, much less than Sessions and Alexander. To make the deal work on talent, I'd at least hope the Grizzlies would throw in rookie PF Darrell Arthur and some type of pick.
Personally I'd prefer the Bucks try to sell high on Villanueva. He'll be much harder to get value for after the deadline and it doesn't seem like he'll ever be a preferred starter for Skiles. Beyond that, his inconsistency makes giving him a long-term deal a somewhat scary proposition, more so than Sessions IMO.