RJ to the Spurs… Bucks get Pistons’ Amir Johnson

Amir Johnson, 22, brings the D.With only 11 players signed for next season and very little room under the luxury tax threshold to fill a full roster, Bucks GM John Hammond did what he had to do — and traded forward Richard Jefferson. RJ went to the Spurs today for backup forward/center Kurt Thomas (age 36) and the expiring (nonguaranteed 2009-10) contracts of defensive specialist Bruce Bowen (age 38) and Fabricio Oberto, another backup big.

What's that you say? Couldn't the Bucks have done a little better in trading perhaps their most marketable healthy player? Well, Hammond wasn't done. He then dealt Oberto to the Pistons for forward/center Amir Johnson, Journal Sentinel reported a couple of hours ago. That's better.

True, Johnson's not a bonafide starter in the NBA but is just 22 years old and has already made some strides. Unfortunately, he wasn't coming along fast enough in Detroit, where his slow progress (as well as that of forward Jason Maxiell) was a contributing factor to the Pistons plunge to mediocrity last season.

Here's the Bucks press release and comments from GM Hammond:

“The trade we made today provides us with much needed options in both the short and long-term planning for our franchise. We acquired a young, long, athletic forward in Amir Johnson, along with two proven, tough-minded veterans in Bruce Bowen and Kurt Thomas. The trade also provides us with additional opportunities, both now and in the future, to consider adding more pieces to our roster.”

At the end of the day, the Bucks got older but added two pretty good big men, Thomas and Johnson; about $6 million in payroll relief; and one of the best defenders in the league, Bowen.

Bowen's $4.1 million contract, however, is a team option that the Bucks don't have to pick up. This means that Hammond has created enough room to pay their draft picks (the 10th pick is set to make $1.8 mill; the 2nd round pick would make the league minimum, about $800,000) and Ramon Sessions AND Charlie Villanueva — though it still seems unlikely that the Bucks will sign both.

With defense at a premium for coach Scott Skiles and Michael Redd a big question mark coming back from knee surgery, it's in the Bucks best interest to keep a guy like Bowen around — 38 years-old and all — rather than invest in a player like Charlie V who probably isn't in the long range plan. Bowen, a forward-guard, brings a lot of toughness and can guard nearly anybody on the court — forwards who were RJ's covers as well as guards that would be Redd's covers. There's no doubt that Bowen is a Scott Skiles kind of player who would be a great fit in the new Bucks culture. He'd certainly fill Jeffferson's leadership role and be an even better defensive coach on the floor.

For me, the bottom line is that, if you had to trade Richard Jefferson, far better to bring in a guy like Bowen who can help continue the work with young players like Luc Mbah a Moute and Ramon Sessions than it would be to cut Bowen loose. Veteran leadership, as we saw in the Finals, has great value in the NBA. 

Here's how the Bucks payroll looked prior to the deal with Detroit — $62.8 mill before the deal for Johnson. The only real difference there is that the Bucks are on the hook to pay Johnson next season, while they could have cut Oberto loose to create more cap relief.

The salary cap and luxury thresholds haven't been released yet, but it's safe to assume that the luxury tax limit will be static — about the same $71.2 million it was last season, although the new limit may be slightly lower.

Add the salaries for the draft picks and the Bucks are left with a 15-man roster and about $5 or $6 million to pay Sessions OR Villanueva — plus flexibility with Bowen and Salim Stoudamire's non-guaranteed contracts.

Here are the players involved and their money, and some notes for review:

RJ was set to make $14.2 million next season and $15.2 mill the following season.

Kurt Thomas – $3.8 mill next season.

Bruce Bowen – $4.1 mill next season, not guaranteed.

Amir Johnson – $3.66 mill next season.

Bucks current payroll: $62.8 million, with about $5 mill (Bowen and Salim Stoudamire) the Bucks can opt out of.

Cost of the 2009-10 draft picks: $2.6 million

Estimated room under luxury tax limit: $5-6 million

Estimated room under luxury tax limit if Bowen is released: $9-10 million

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