Big N.B.A. trades are always followed by a scramble to label players and teams as winners and losers, but every so often a unicorn of a deal comes together, and everyone involved seems to benefit.
One such deal was reached on Thursday, when the Oklahoma City Thunder agreed to trade Carmelo Anthony and a protected 2022 first-round draft pick to the Atlanta Hawks for Dennis Schroder and Mike Muscala, according to a person with knowledge of the deal who was not authorized to discuss it publicly.
In one fell swoop, the Thunder get huge financial relief (and an extra playmaker); the Hawks get long-term savings while clearing their backcourt congestion (and adding a draft pick); Schroder gets to play for a contender; and Anthony, after many twists and turns, gets to keep every cent owed to him in his contract.
For the coming season, Anthony, who will almost assuredly be released by the Hawks — the Houston Rockets will be front-runners for him once he’s a free agent — had opted into the final year of a contract he agreed to with the Knicks in 2014. With the trade, the Hawks will be responsible for his $27.9 million salary, which is made more palatable by the fact that they will be off the hook for the three years and $46.5 million left on Schroder’s contract.
The Hawks’ long-term savings are still nothing compared to what Oklahoma City saves by shedding itself of Anthony. Bobby Marks, the former vice president of basketball for the Nets who is now an analyst at ESPN, estimated that the Thunder would save $73 million this year because of the various luxury-tax implications of dropping Anthony and acquiring Schroder, combined with the expected follow-up move of trading Muscala to the Philadelphia 76ers for Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot.
The Thunder could have saved more money this year by waiving Anthony and using the stretch provision to distribute the loss over several seasons, but that would have resulted in a $9 million salary cap hit in each of the next three seasons. But now, for an extra $5 million a year, they will get Schroder instead of nothing.
With the long-expected trade behind him, Anthony, a three-time Olympic gold medalist and a 10-time N.B.A. All-Star, will be free to pick a new home. Should he choose the Rockets, he will be reunited with Coach Mike D’Antoni, with whom he famously butted heads during their time together with the Knicks.
Those troubles are, apparently, behind the two, but Anthony would still be an awkward fit on a team that was known for its elite-level defense last season: Houston would effectively be replacing a pair of tough team-first players in Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute with Anthony, a frequently disgruntled 34-year-old who is several years removed from his best basketball days. He seems to be unaware of his diminished ability, however, to the point that he insisted that he did not see a bench role in his future even after the Thunder were crushed in last season’s playoffs.
If Houston’s interest is genuine, it must mean they believe putting Anthony on a team with his close friend Chris Paul will bring the best out of Anthony, and that playing on a roster that is generally regarded as the second-best in basketball behind the Golden State Warriors could prompt Anthony to accept a lesser role.
The fit for Schroder is much more straightforward. The 24-year-old has played at a near-all-star level the last two seasons — he averaged 19.4 points and 6.2 assists a game last season — but had grown frustrated with the Hawks’ rebuilding process. He also became redundant on the roster after the team acquired the rookie Trae Young in a draft-day trade.
With the Thunder, Schroder can back up Russell Westbrook — potentially joining him in a dynamic playmaking backcourt at times — and have a chance at contending, which could smooth over any frustration over his being asked to accept a bench role.
In the end, this deal was largely about money for everyone involved (beside Schroder and Muscala). But there is a chance all of the players benefit from the change in scenery, as well, thus driving home its status as a true unicorn.
Marc Stein contributed reporting.