Pulling off a five-team trade in the NBA is difficult.
Like a tense game of Jenga, one wrong piece comes out and the whole structure collapses.
When the Washington Wizards acquired Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Spencer Dinwiddie and Aaron Holiday in the offseason, Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard just didn’t pull off a magic trick in a five-team deal that involved sending Russell Westbrook from Washington to the Los Angeles Lakers.
The deal was months, even years, in the making because relationships matter even in a cutthroat business with everyone trying to win a title.
A good GM is canvassing his counterparts throughout the season, learning what they want out of a deal so that when the times comes, they can put together a trade that works for all parties.
Sheppard was prepared, several front-office executives and agents told USA TODAY Sports. They requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the trades Sheppard made.
The deals that netted those five players is heralded as one of the premier offseason moves, a deal that has elevated the Wizards.
Washington is 11-6 and along with All-Star Bradley Beal, the new players are playing pivotal roles in Washington’s ascent in the Eastern Conference.
By the time deal was completed, the focus was on Westbrook going to the Lakers and what that did for their championship aspirations. But with Washington’s early-season success and the Lakers’ struggles, the focus is now also on Washington’s end of the bargain.
“I will go on the record and say that the Spencer Dinwiddie-Kyle Kuzma-Aaron Holiday-Montrezl Harrell-KCP trade will down as one of the great transactions in the last 20 years,” ESPN front-office insider and former Brooklyn Nets assistant GM Bobby Marks tweeted. “A credit to Tommy Sheppard and his front office in Washington.”
As the Wizards evaluated their 2020-21 season and looked ahead, they determined they needed more players and more depth. They were a top-heavy team with Beal and John Wall and then Beal and Westbrook. The roster called for more balance.
If the Wizards continue to win like this, Sheppard will be a serious contender for executive of the year with competition from Chicago’s Arturas Karnisovas.
Tommy Sheppard’s relationship-building
The same kind of words surfaced when other execs talked about Sheppard: honest, genuine, respected, authentic, no BS, hard worker, grinder and not an executive trying to pull one over on another team, but simply trying to make the Wizards better.
In his extensive time in the league — and his work with USA Basketball as a press attache — Sheppard has crafted relationships throughout the league.
By the time the 2021 NBA Draft arrived — just ahead of free agency — Sheppard had a good idea of what teams wanted, and a good trade is one where each team gets something they want.
A five-team trade is rare – this was just the second in NBA history – and this one had complications involving a star with a $44 million salary for this season, nine players, a sign-and-trade, a first-round pick and five second-round draft picks. One person involved in negotiations said the deal should be studied by salary cap enthusiasts for its intricacies.
How the big trade got started
The deal began on draft day, July 29, and the entire package wasn’t finalized until Aug. 6.
The Lakers sought another star to put alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis. The Wizards had that player in Westbrook. This is where relationships come into play. In 2019, when the Lakers acquired Davis from New Orleans, the Wizards joined as a third team to make it work, acquiring Isaac Bonga, Moritz Wagner, Jemerrio Jones and a second-round draft pick from the Lakers.
The Lakers had three players whose salaries would facilitate a deal for Westbrook who has $44.2 million on his contract for this season. Those players: Kuzma, Harrell and Caldwell-Pope.
The Wizards sought length on the perimeter and help in the low post. The Lakers may have been the only team in the league who wanted Westbrook and had three players who could help the Wizards.
Part one done.
The Pacers drafted Aaron Holiday, the younger brother of NBA players Jrue and Justin, with the No. 23 pick in the 2018 draft and was on and off trading block since his rookie season. Holiday had an inconsistent role with Indiana, was not really embraced by the Pacers, and when the team signed T.J. McConnell in free agency, it spelled the end of Holiday’s time with the team.
Holiday worked out for the Wizards pre-draft, and Sheppard maintained his interest. The Wizards acquired a solid guard who has started this season both at point and shooting guard and has been a great fit on the court and in the locker room. The Pacers received a 2021 first-round pick (Isaiah Jackson from Kentucky at No. 22).
Part two done.
The Wizards sent Chandler Hutchison to San Antonio, avoiding luxury tax payments and creating cap space, and the Spurs received a 2022 second-round pick.
Part three done.
The last part was the most difficult part. Dinwiddie sought a significant deal but the market for point guards dried up as Lonzo Ball went to Chicago, Kyle Lowry to Miami, and Devonte’ Graham to New Orleans.
The Nets could have let Dinwiddie walk, but that would’ve meant losing him for nothing. They could’ve executed a sign-and-trade separate from a larger deal but the Wizards didn’t have salary cap space to give Dinwiddie a three-year, $62 million deal with multiple trade partners.
They had a non-taxpayer mid-level exception ($9.5 million per year) but Dinwiddie sought a bigger deal. For that large of a contract, the sign-and-trade had to be part of five-team trade to make all the outgoing money and incoming money just about equal, as required by cap rules.
Here’s another angle where the human element comes into play. Dinwiddie played on discounted deals with the Nets and helped recruit Kyrie Irving to Brooklyn. The Nets, who acquired an $11.5 million trade exception in the deal, wanted to do right by Dinwiddie, and they also knew that might help sometime down the road with Dinwiddie’s agent, Jason Glushon. Goodwill was involved.
Part four done.
A good deal for all five teams
In the moment, five teams got what they wanted.
In hindsight, would the Nets have made the deal had they believed the Wizards might be potential contender and strong competition to their title pursuit? Nothing Brooklyn GM Sean Marks can do about that now.
The other five-team trade? In 2005, Miami, Memphis, New Orleans, Boston and Utah pulled it off with the Heat acquiring Antoine Walker and Jason Williams who played key roles on the Heat’s 2006 championship team.
The blockbuster deal has worked for Wizards so far. They are No. 8 in defensive rating and No. 19 in offensive rating and in fourth place in the Eastern Conference.
Harrell is the team’s second-leading scorer (17.5 per game) and rebounder (9.0 per game). Dinwiddie averages 15.2 points, 5.4 assists and 4.9 rebounds, and Kuzma, now playing regular minutes, averages 13.5 points and a team-best 9.4 rebounds. Holiday shoots 43.8% on 3-pointers, and Caldwell-Pope has made an impact defensively and averages 10.0 points.
This is a deep Wizards team that goes 11 deep, and that’s without Rui Hachimura and Thomas Bryant, who are both recovering from injuries.
Making use of a deep roster
Wes Unseld Jr. had been hired as a coach of the Wizards a week before the draft – another strong move by Sheppard – and began plotting the best way to make use of the roster.
“We used a lot of September to say, ‘Alright, these are some of the things we like,’ ” Unseld said. “You look at the team they’re coming from. What did they run there? How did those (teams) use them? Implementing some of those pieces and dynamics on a conceptual level and then you play it out. I said early in the preseason, we don’t really know what we have. It’s kind of taken on a life of its own.
“We’ve seen it grow, and now we’ve molded it in the direction we like. It doesn’t change our philosophical ideas of how we like to play but how do we implement those things – certain sets, certain concepts – which I think has played out well for us.”
The deals also have long-term implications for the Wizards who have some flexibility in free agency next summer and want to keep Bradley Beal, who can be a free agent following this season.
These Wizards might be the best team in Beal’s tenure with the franchise.
Sheppard, who played college football at New Mexico State, is an NBA lifer. In his 28th NBA season, Sheppard started out in public relations with the Denver Nuggets and worked his way into basketball operations. He joined the Wizards in 2003 as vice president of basketball operations and was then-Wizards GM Ernie Grunfeld’s top lieutenant.
When the Wizards parted ways with Grunfeld following the 2018-19 season, Sheppard got the top job and helped reshape the Wizards front office, strengthening its data technology, health and wellness and scouting departments.
He drafted Hachimura, Deni Avdija and in quieter moves, he traded for Davis Bertans and Daniel Gafford and was instrumental in claiming Bryant off waivers.
Now, the Wizards have a deeper, better team, and an NBA coach told USA TODAY Sports they he wished the Wizards still had Westbrook because they were an easier team to play.
It’s impossible to say the Wizards fleeced the Lakers because the Lakers have plenty of time to figure it out and contend for the title.
But that doesn’t deter how much better the Wizards became by trading a future Hall of Famer.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How Wizards won five-team trade that sent Russell Westbrook to Lakers