The Cavaliers made yet another trade on Wednesday, the fifth of the 2018-19 league year and the fourth since the regular season began in mid-October. The song remains the same for Cleveland, who have now picked up two first-round picks and five second-rounders for a combination of their veteran players and willingness to take on salary past this season. This move was no different, as general manager Koby Altman and his staff agreed to a deal with the Sacramento Kings and Houston Rockets that sent Alec Burks to the Kings, Nik Stauskas and Wade Baldwin to Houston, and brought back Brandon Knight, Marquese Chriss, and a lottery-protected 2019 first-round pick, all courtesy of the Rockets. For their part in the trade, Houston sent a second-rounder to Sacramento and the Kings sent former Cavalier Iman Shumpert to the Rockets.
Burks had barely gotten past his two-month salary aggregation deadline before he was on the move again — Cleveland picked him up in late November from the Utah Jazz in the Kyle Korver trade. Burks came with two second-round picks for the Cavaliers’ trouble, because if it doesn’t net them a draft pick, Altman and his staff probably aren’t interested in it. Ten weeks later, Burks is on his way out the door again, this time to a Sacramento Kings team that overhauled their roster on trade deadline eve and look poised for a run at the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade. Like Korver, Burks was traded to a team competing for the playoffs, where he can be an integral part of his new team’s rotation as they make a postseason push.
To say that Burks himself fetched the first-round pick from Houston is slightly misleading. The Rockets were prepared to attach a first-round pick to get off of Knight’s salary in any deal; Burks was just what it took to match salary with Knight in order to save Houston a significant sum of money while upgrading their wing rotation. Still, there were plenty of teams in the league who could have capitalized on the opportunity to lift a first-rounder from the Rockets to take on Knight’s $15.6 million salary next season, but Cleveland was able to convert on the deal.
This move is the latest in a line of strong asset plays Altman has made in his first rebuilding season in charge of the Cavaliers’ organization and further proof that he and owner Dan Gilbert understand exactly where their club is in the league’s hierarchy. A less patient owner-management combination might have pushed a rebuild down the line, no matter how badly the team was doing on the floor, but Altman and Gilbert have steered into the skid to ensure that they bottom out and pick up as many draft assets as possible along the way. The cupboard was completely barren in the wake of the LeBron James era, but Altman has done an admirable job in restocking.
This particular pick is protected in case the Rockets miss the playoffs this season, but that seems exceedingly unlikely at this point. However, Houston’s performance thus far this season doesn’t have them in as strong a position as preseason expectations would have dictated — they’re currently the fifth seed in the Western Conference and would hand the No. 21 overall selection to the Cavaliers if the season were to end today. They haven’t proven themselves to be clearly better than any of the teams above them, save for the Indiana Pacers, who may fall out of things after the injury to Victor Oladipo all but sapped their hopes for contending this season. If things hold relatively steady in the standings and Cleveland adds a pick in the 21-25 range, in addition to their own pick at the top of the first round, then it will have been a very successful season for their rebuilding efforts.
The remaining aspects of this deal are of very little consequence to the big picture in Cleveland. Nik Stauskas and Wade Baldwin hadn’t even had a chance to introduce themselves to their new teammates after arriving just two days prior this deal being agreed and were quickly repackaged to Houston in order to match salary on Knight and Chriss. Knight’s inclusion in this deal has more to do with his money than his skill on the court, but he may actually get a few minutes here and there for a Cavaliers team that doesn’t have a ton of quality guards. Chriss is a free agent at the end of the year and has likely seen the last of his meaningful NBA action upon his exit from the Rockets. There’s a chance he’s a minimum player somewhere next season, but the safer bet is that he’s out of the league altogether.