He was salary match. In November, the Oklahoma City Thunder completed a draft-night trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves centered around point guard Ricky Rubio and the draft rights to Aleksej Pokusevski.
To acquire Rubio, owed $17.8 million, the Timberwolves sent the Thunder James Johnson. With an expiring $15 million contract, Johnson’s primary value was as a contract matcher — someone the Timberwolves, Thunder or a future team could use if they wanted to create a trade centered around a young prospect and a longer-tenured player.
That is, in part at least, the mindset the Dallas Mavericks had when they acquired Johnson from the Thunder as part of a three-team trade with the Detroit Pistons.
Here was the timeline:
- Nov. 18: Draft night. The Thunder/Timberwolves trade was reported.
Nov. 20: The trade was announced by the two teams.
Nov. 27: Oklahoma City announced Johnson had been traded to the Mavericks.
In exchange for Johnson, the Thunder received Ariza, Justin Jackson, a 2023 second-round draft pick (best of either Dallas or the Miami Heat) and a 2026 second-round pick (via Dallas).
The Mavericks received Johnson. The Pistons received Delon Wright.
Ariza never suited up for the Thunder, but as a longtime NBA veteran with playoff experience, teams around the league had interest. The Thunder received calls for services as the trade deadline approached.
On Wednesday, the trade was made official by the Thunder and Heat. Ariza would go to Miami. In exchange, Oklahoma City received a 2027 second-round draft pick and big Meyers Leonard, who will not report to the Thunder.
That’s a long-winded way of saying this: In exchange for James Johnson, who was on the team for a week, Oklahoma City received three second-round draft picks, Justin Jackson, and saved about $6.4 million (the difference in the contracts of Johnson and Leonard).
It’s just a crazy scoop for general manager Sam Presti, one that traces back to the Chris Paul deal (Rubio was acquired in that trade).
For those of you on Twitter trying to compare the Thunder’s trade of Ariza and the Houston Rockets’ trade of P.J. Tucker: don’t. They are two completely different trades for two completely different players and situations.
Tucker hadn’t been playing well on the struggling Rockets, but he has been one of the most coveted role players in the league for years. Ariza has been bad on three of the last four teams he actually played for — the Phoenix Suns, Washington Wizards and Sacramento Kings — before playing very well for the Portland Trail Blazers. He didn’t even join the Thunder, meaning their only leverage was that the Heat were afraid they wouldn’t secure him on the buyout market.
Rafael Stone got an incredible deal for the Rockets. That’s not debatable.
It’s also not debatable that the exchange Presti got for Ariza and, by extension, Johnson, is unbelievable. He pulled out three draft picks, a player, salary savings and a $3.4M trade exception for two guys who probably never even flew to OKC after their respective trades were made.
Once again, impressive work done by the Thunder general manager.
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