Cap space can be overrated. It has a certain mystique to it—hopes of Super Teams, wild recruiting pitches and three-peats. But the truth is that cap room isn’t really that hard to obtain, presuming a team is ready to swiftly rip apart its roster, and it’s very hard to use properly. To make good use of available spending money, teams usually need three things already in place: a smart brass—you know, front office, coaches, etc.—an already-solid roster, and an intriguing home city.
Philadelphia is flush with cap room, for instance. It (1) has solid management and (2) plays in a city that cares about basketball. But the team is devoid of good basketball players, which will be a turnoff to a big free agent chasing a better situation. The Jazz have lots of dough to spend, too, and a legitimate young core, but lack the major-market appeal that elite free agents are usually drawn to. And so it goes for rebuilding teams and those in the wrong parts of the NBA country.
This summer’s free-agent market is about Carmelo Anthony for most teams, and maybe LeBron James for a few of the truly lucky teams who think they have a shot. Chris Bosh, Pau Gasol, Zach Randolph, Luol Deng, Lance Stephenson, Dwyane Wade, Kyle Lowry, Marcin Gortat and more could be out there, too.
We’ve seen Melo linked to a handful of teams—Chicago, Boston, Yellow LA, Red LA, Houston and, to a lesser extent, Miami, Dallas and Golden State. The focus is on the first five, as the latter three appear to be underdogs for the top FAs right now. Many of the same teams will be in the bidding for LeBron (if he hits the market) and heavily interested in the rest of the first- and second-tier guys as well.
All five have a great general manager, a great coach or both. All five have a tremendous fan-base and together corner the League’s most desirable markets outside of New York. Each is either an already formidable team or has a star in place who has been There before. Each hits all three destination credentials in those regards, and so the path to signing a Melo or LeBron should be clear.
Except that of those five teams, only the Lakers have any money to spend right now. The other four will have to jump through all sorts of hoops to get far enough under the projected $63.2 million salary cap to sign a major player. That doesn’t mean they won’t try to do it.
A max contract offer to a player like Anthony would pay him at least about $22.5 million in the first season. That’s roughly the amount of wiggle room to target for any team.
Let’s examine what these franchises would need to do to make a real run at Carmelo, LeBron and the rest of this strong 2014 free agent class.
Anthony is the apple of Chicago’s eye, and with good reason. The team has sorely lacked a reliable wing scorer throughout the Derrick Rose/Tom Thibodeau era, and Melo’s isolation game could take a ton of pressure off of Rose in his Return Season, Take II.
As it stands, the Bulls are locked into paying Rose, Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Mike Dunleavy, Tony Snell, Jimmy Butler and their two first-round picks (16 and 19) a little less than $66 million next season, and also owe Rip Hamilton roughly $330K. Essentially, they’re capped out.
For now, let’s assume that the Knicks don’t want to help the Bulls by giving them Anthony in a sign-and-trade (more on this later). Chicago will very likely use the Amnesty Clause on Boozer and immediately wipe his salary off the books. They’d sit roughly $15.5 million under the cap after waiving him—enough to begin thinking about bringing in big-name player. But Anthony could easily make $7+ million more annually somewhere else, so Chicago will have to move around some more money to land him.
The easy answer is to trade Gibson and acquire no money in return. Something like Gibson to Toronto or Charlotte for a protected future first-round pick would give Chicago about $23 million to play with. But Gibson thrived in his backup role last season, often playing over Boozer late in games. He’s ready to start for the team, and would be a key piece in the lineup next to Anthony.
The Bulls do have other options for creating cap room that would keep Gibson in the fold long-term. If they ship out Dunleavy’s palatable $3.3 million along with second-year man Snell for say, a pair of future second-round picks, they’d get payroll down to roughly $41.4 million. That’s about $22 million under the cap, but that’s before cap holds kick in.
(Cap holds are the enemy of cap space and easy math. Essentially, each team needs 12 guys on the roster, and if it has fewer than that at any time, it gets penalized. Each empty roster spot costs the team the minimum wage—roughly $500K next season. Once the spot is filled, the fee goes away. A year ago, I wrote lots more about cap holds and other cap/tax-related stuff here.)
With only Rose, Gibson, Noah and Butler left on the roster, the team would have two holds for their first-round picks (totaling about $2.6 million) and six more for empty roster spots, costing them roughly another $3 million. Tally it up, and the team could only offer Anthony a starting salary at around $16 million to join a roster with a dominant starting-five but only their two rookies coming off the bench. They’d later fill out the reserve unit with low-tier free agents. It’s unlikely that would be enough to get the All-Star forward.
Chicago could ship out Butler and the first-rounders for future picks, which would clear out about $3 million to add to the Anthony offer. Or they could select European players with the picks—as long as the players stay abroad, they’re off Chicago’s cap sheet. But those are three assets Chicago would absolutely need this season if they they’d already dumped half of their roster to scratch together some money. Simply, Butler and the picks are worth a ton more than $3 million in cap space.
And so a Gibson deal remains Chicago’s best bet to land Melo. If the Raptors, Bobcats or another team bit on, say, Gibson, Dunleavy, Snell and the 19th pick for a future No. 1, the Bulls could squeeze in Anthony’s max contract and move forward with a core of Rose, Noah, Melo, Butler and the 16th pick in Thursday’s draft. They’ll also have Nikola Mirotic coming over from Spain eventually.
They’ve done a great job of keeping their own picks going forward, and would be able to bring in new players each summer, including this one, using salary cap exceptions like the Mid-Level Exception and Bi-Annual Exception.
PS: Let’s revisit the dream scenario hidden underneath all of this for the Bulls (featuring two bonus trade proposals!)
STEP 1: Send Boozer’s Expiring Contract, Snell and the 16th and 19th picks to New York in a sign-and-trade for Carmelo. If New York is positive Anthony is gone, this would be a good place for them to start recouping some value. New York will not have money this summer no matter what. Boozer would fit in with Amar’e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler and Andrea Bargnani as another huge contract coming off the books a year from now, when the Knicks’ can finally reboot. (What a loaded frontcourt in the meantime!) The Bulls would be fleecing the Knicks in a vacuum, but the League doesn’t operate in a vacuum. There are many other factors at play that could push a deal like this into happening. Don’t forget that LeBron and Bosh were technically sign-and-traded in 2010 for similar packages.
STEP 2: Send Gibson, Mirotic, Butler, Dunleavy and future first-round picks (they own a medium-protected Sacto selection) to Minnesota for Kevin Love. This is a mediocre deal for the T-Wolves, but the team seems hell-bent on staying in contention in the short-term, and they’d be getting three players who can contribute right away as well as a slew of future building blocks. A similar package has reportedly at least enticed Minnesota, and Mirotic seems to be the best player in Europe whose rights are owned by an NBA team. Again, in a vacuum it would fall short, but Minnesota doesn’t appear to have many better offers on the table. If Chicago can’t pull this off, the team would do just fine with Rose, Butler, Anthony, Gibson and Noah starting going forward, along with a full compliment of picks and, someday soon, Mirotic.
Boston will shed about $18 million worth of Kris Humphries and Keith Bogans when free agency kicks off, as both of their contacts expire in July (Bogans has no guaranteed money left on his deal and will be waived).
They’ll push forward with Rajon Rondo, Gerald Wallace, Jeff Green, Brandon Bass, Vitor Faverani, Kelly Olynyk, and Jared Sullinger on the roster to begin. Joel Anthony is incredibly likely to accept his $3.8 million player option, and the team has Avery Bradley in restricted free agency. Assuming they extend him a qualifying offer—giving Boston the rights to match any deal that comes his way—Bradley will carry roughly a $6.3 million cap hold until he signs a new deal, which will likely pay him about the same money annually.
If Boston is serious about making a run at a free agent like Carmelo, they’ll likely look to move the expiring contracts of Bass and Anthony, which will otherwise clog up almost $11 million of valuable space. If another team with cap space absorbs the duo—with a draft pick thrown in to sweeten the deal—the C’s can get about $12.75 million under the salary cap, accounting for holds on Bradley, their two Draft picks (6 and 17) and empty roster spots. Moving Faverani and Olynyk for no cost would open up about $3 million more. That would put them in roughly the $16 million-range without moving Green, Sullinger or any of their relevant Draft picks.
That last part could be the key as the team remains firmly in the hunt for Love. If they could land the glass-eater for Green, Sullinger, the 6th and 17th picks and some future assets, the cap sheet wouldn’t change much. Swap in Love’s $15.7 million for Green’s $9.2 million, Sullinger’s $1.4 million and roughly $3.5 million worth of holds for the picks, and the team would look like this:
Rondo, Wallace and Love on the roster, Bradley treading water in restricted free agency and roughly $13 million to blow. They’d be about $10 million short of being able to offer a maximum contract, so they’d need to shed Wallace’s contract, conveniently priced at $10.1 million, to make room for one. That wouldn’t be easy, but even after a possible Love deal, the team should have some future picks to play with. They have one bonus selection from the Clippers (for Doc Rivers) and 16,149,124 from the Nets (for KG/Pierce) in their back pocket.
It would take a ton of moving and shaking, some help from bad teams with cap space (think Philly, Utah, Milwaukee, possibly Charlotte) and patience from Anthony while the necessary trades go down. Boston would also have to feel comfortable moving forward with Rondo, Love, Anthony, Bradley and very little else. But it can be done, and for now that’s all that matters.
The Rockets’ books are pretty funky. They have two guys at the top (Dwight Howard, $21.4 million and James Harden, $14.7 million), two guys in the middle (Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin, $8.4 million each) and a handful of players on rookie contracts or minimum deals. They also have the rights to Chandler Parsons, a restricted free agent.
Factoring in Parsons’ RFA hold, the team will start the summer between one and two million bucks under the cap—nothing relevant. However, as we all know, they’re trying to move Lin and Asik, and things could get interesting from there.
If Houston trades the duo to a team that can absorb the nearly $17 million hit without giving back a player in return, the Rockets will find themselves roughly $19 million under the salary cap. Holds cut into that slightly, but they’d immediately be relevant free agency players.
If they also move Donatas Motiejunas, Francisco Garcia ($1.3 million player option), Isaiah Canaan and their 25th overall selection in this Draft (or take a Euro-stash guy), they could open up a couple million more. That would leave them with only four players under contract, though—Howard, Harden, Terrence Jones and Patrick Beverley. Meanwhile, Parsons will need to lay off signing an offer sheet until the Rockets’ roster situation is resolved. Trading Jones would free up another $1 million, but he could start for them next season, and finding a starting-caliber power forward for $1.6 million is just about impossible.
So with a stripped down roster, Houston could offer Anthony, LeBron, Bosh or the next guy somewhere between $19-20.5 million in the first year. Once they sign somebody and cap themselves out, Houston could then go back to Parsons and use his Bird Rights to go over the salary cap to re-sign him—a key to the whole process.
From there, the Rockets would try their luck with a remarkable trio of stars supported by a defensive-minded point guard and sharp-shooting wing—likely a perfect fit. They could bring in veterans willing to take less like Boston and Miami have done in the past, and Houston’s collection of future first-round picks should remain in tact.
It’s a lot of work to do for a team which just won 54 games, and they’d fork over their flexibility and young talent. But, the Rockets would likely immediately jump into the discussion for the League’s best squad, assuming the Spurs slow down one of these days. (Note: do not assume the Spurs will slow down one of these days.)
LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
The Clippers lurk as the proverbial dark horse suitor for Anthony—a team in the biggest of markets with two stars in place, new ownership, a gaping hole at small forward and the ability to liquidate its roster quickly.
The eight guys they have inked for next year bring them closer to being a tax-paying team than one with any cap room. But that could change in an instant if they so choose.
DeAndre Jordan ($11.4 million expiring) could presumably fetch them a first-round pick from, say, the Mavericks—a team that’s trying to win now, has cap space but no center and typically drafts late in the first round. JJ Redick (3 years, roughly $21 million) might be harder to move, but an established team like OKC (Kevin Martin trade exception) or Washington (cap space, fear of overpaying Trevor Ariza) might take him on for free. If the team couldn’t find a suitor for Jamal Crawford (two years, roughly $11 million), they could waive him now and be charged only $1.5 million. Jared Dudley, Reggie Bullock and a pick (maybe the DeAndre one) could be packaged to one of the aforementioned bottom-feeders (Utah, Philly, etc.), as could Matt Barnes ($3.4 million expiring).
All of this to say that Lob City could get down to two players—Chris Paul and Blake Griffin—before you had time to realize what they were trying to line up. Here’s the discouraging part for Clippers fans, though (or maybe the encouraging one): even with just CP3 and Griffin on the roster, the Clippers’ best offer to a player like Anthony would fall short of a max deal. The two combine for nearly $38 million in salary, and more than $5 million would be tacked on in cap holds.
One possibility around all of this would be a sign-and-trade centered around Jordan and Anthony. But the Clippers owe Boston their first-round pick next season, and Jordan hits unrestricted free agency a year from now. In that sense, he’s not really a better asset for the Knicks than Chicago’s Boozer. If the Melo sweepstakes comes down to the best sign-and-trade offer, the Clippers don’t have a chance.
Lob City very nearly made the Western Conference Finals this season, and should run it back again next year.
LOS ANGELES LAKERS
The Lakers are ready to go right now. When free agency opens, they’ll have Kobe Bryant ($23.5 million), Steve Nash ($9.7 million), Robert Sacre ($915K), likely Kendall Marshall (team option for $915K) and a roughly $2.5 million cap hold for the 7th overall pick. They could also have two interesting restricted free agents if they extend them qualifying offers in Kent Bazemore and Ryan Kelly. Nick Young has a player option that he’ll decline.
Assuming they do make Bazemore and Kelly restricted free agents, the Lakers will have a little over $21 million at their disposal.
If LA has something up its sleeve and needs major cap room, it could carve out a couple million more by renouncing Bazemore and Kelly, declining Marshall’s option and sending Sacre somewhere. Trading their pick for a future selection would open up even more dough. Most of all, trading Nash’s expiring deal to a team like—you guessed it—Utah or Philly, along with a future draft pick, could net them the room they need to pursue two big names.
If they want to move Nash but can’t, the Lakers could use the Stretch Provision on him. Think of the Stretch as the Amnesty’s cousin. Using it, LA could waive Nash and ‘stretch’ his salary over a few years. The Provision allows teams to evenly spread the remaining money on a player’s contract—$9.7 million in Nash’s case—over twice the remaining length of the contract (1 year here), plus an additional year—three years in all. If they go this route, the team will save about $6.4 million this summer, but carry $3.2 million in dead weight during each of next three offseasons. Just something to keep in mind.
In all likelihood, the Lakers will keep their picks, restricted free agents, and Nash through the summer. They’ll have between $15-20 million to spend if they just play it out normally. If they want to maintain flexibility for next summer, when Nash will be fully off the books, they can either sign guys to one-year contracts now or simply not spend all of the money. Bringing in one good player at, say, $10 million annually (think Deng, Kyle Lowry-types) and allowing their rookie to develop while aiming for 2015 to pounce makes the most sense on- and off-the-court. Things are always different when Kobe’s involved, though.