Jon Hamm: Covering the Thunder and NBA from a different vantage point

Jon Hamm: Covering the Thunder and NBA from a different vantage point

Inside a path to unconventional Thunder coverage that is now part of the Sellout Crowd network.

Jon Hamm

By Jon Hamm

| Sep 25, 2023, 5:00am CDT

Jon Hamm

By Jon Hamm

Sep 25, 2023, 5:00am CDT

I couldn’t understand this trade between the Orlando Magic and Washington Bullets. 

(That sentence should give you an idea of how far back we’re gonna go in this story)

In the summer of 1994, the Magic traded guard Scott Skiles to the Bullets for a second-round draft pick. But there was more to this seemingly pedestrian swap. The Magic also traded a 1996 first-round pick and agreed to swap first-round picks with the Bullets in 1998 as part of the trade. 

It was puzzling. Skiles had been a starter for the Magic until roughly halfway through the 1993-94 season. Still seemed like a productive player. But more than that, why did the Magic give up first-round picks in this trade? Why were they essentially paying the Bullets to take Skiles? If there had been a trade like this before, I don’t recall seeing it.

I would later discover, either through a newscast or newspaper, that Orlando’s main motivation was to “create room under the salary cap.” I had no idea what those words meant. Major League Baseball, the other sport that occupied prime real estate in my brain, had no such concept. Why couldn’t the Magic just do what baseball teams do and sign anyone they wanted?

The Magic’s free agent target was Chicago forward Horace Grant and they needed to jettison Skiles’ $2.25 million salary to sign him. That’s veteran minimum money these days, but back then it was a money boulder when the salary cap was a hair under $16 million (for reference: the Thunder’s Davis Bertans alone will earn $1 million more than that in 2023-24). The Bullets had cap space and leverage. In order for the Magic to get their frontcourt compliment to Shaquille O’Neal, they had to pay a premium to do so.

I can’t say for certain that this trade kicked off my origin story as an NBA salary cap analyst, but it’s the first one that comes to mind. Naturally it involves someone as pedestrian as Skiles, a hard-nosed and hard-living point guard nicknamed “Spunk.” Ironically, “Spunk” was last seen in the NBA seven years ago as the head coach of the very Magic franchise that dumped his salary on the Bullets over twenty years prior.

The ripple effects of that mundane trade fascinate me as well. The Magic immediately made the NBA Finals in 1995. The two first-round picks Orlando included in the deal were originally acquired from Golden State in a blockbuster Chris Webber/Penny Hardaway in 1993. The Bullets would eventually send those picks back to the Warriors in yet another Chris Webber trade. The push-pins-and-yarn of it all are a source of entertainment for me.

That’s just a small sampling of what I love about the NBA. What matters most is the game on the court and the people that are part of it. But the history, nuance, and salary cap rules are all bonus features that can tell you a lot about what you see on the floor.

My interest in the NBA’s salary cap hit a high gear way back in 1999 when I came into the good company of Larry Coon, a professor at UC Irvine. Coon wanted to write a digestible document addressing the most frequently asked questions about the salary cap. Coon mailed me a printed copy of the collective bargaining agreement. I read all of it, comprehending perhaps a percent or two of it. Notwithstanding the previous sentence henceforth, ad nauseum.

I spent entirely too much spare time studying the NBA’s history. I knew way more about Ed Nealy and Fennis Dembo than anyone should care to know. Those are names you can just plug into basetball-reference.com and stare at today. I learned about them and so many more by poring over the annual NBA Guide and NBA Register, which were tomes that covered every statistical and transactional detail of the NBA’s past.

All of this knowledge came in handy when the Oklahoma City Thunder were born in 2008. Three years later, a lengthy NBA lockout would significantly alter the NBA’s financial landscape and usher in many new limiting team-building rules. As terms like “taxpayer mid-level exception” and “designated rookie scale extension” became more commonly used, I was in a great spot to poke my head up and attempt to demystify the mysteries surrounding them. 

Understanding rules and how they are applied are only part of any well-rounded analysis. Historical knowledge adds depth. Context can take what feels like the worst (or best) thing ever and set it more proper.

Whether it’s the Scott Skiles Trade of 1994, the James Harden Trade of 2012, or the Paul George Trade of 2019 there are deep stories to tell. It’s my pleasure to have this opportunity to talk and write about those stories. Thanks for following along.

 

 

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