Summer 2009: An NBA Free Agent's Nightmare

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Summer 2009: An NBA Free Agent's Nightmare
(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Kobe Bryant can opt out of his contract this summer. So can Hedo Turkoglu and Carlos Boozer.

And Ben Gordon, Jason Kidd, Rasheed Wallace, Allen Iverson and Ron Artest headline the list of stars who will be free to seek new suitors when free agency rolls around.

But if those stars have green on their minds, they'll forget about how nice the grass looks on the other side.

While most of The Association's clubs have worked diligently to ensure that their salary cap stars are aligned for the 2010 Armageddon, this summer's cap space situation is a bleak affair across the board.

That means players dreaming of a new home and new income bracket are going to have to choose between one or the other.

What’s driving the impending squeeze?

For one, the salary cap, which is based on the previous year's revenues, is expected to fall from about $58.68 million this year to somewhere in the $57.3 million range for 2009-2010.

That's not a huge drop—it just makes the overall pie a little smaller.

The real issue is that almost nobody has any cap space this summer in the first place.

There are a handful of ways to express just how messy the NBA’s big-picture cap situation is, but how about this one: Even if the salary cap somehow doesn’t drop, the league on the whole has more money locked into salaries for 2009 ($1.79 billion) than it has in cap space ($1.76 billion).

That's right—the average NBA team is already about $1 million over the cap before a single free agent hits the market.

It should be no surprise, then, that just eight of the league's 30 teams have the potential for cap room in 2009, based on the team-by-team salary work of ShamSports.com.

A couple of caveats in the Collective Bargaining Agreement’s fine print (special thanks to crack CBA researcher Larry Coon) make that short list of clubs even shorter

First, rookie salaries, which are determined on a slot-by-slot scale, count against a team’s cap as soon as a player is drafted (more on the rookie salary scale here).

Every team’s mid-level cap exception—about $5.8 million in 2008—counts against the cap as well. This is designed to prevent teams from "double dipping"—using their cap room to sign one free agent, then using the exception to the cap to sign another.

Teams can always waive the exemption if they have a boatload of cap space, but that only helps if your cap room exceeds the mid-level figure.

For a real-life example of how all of this adds up, consider Minnesota’s situation. The Timberwolves are on the books for $50.8 million in salaries in 2009, which would give the club a little less than $7 million in room under a $57.3 million cap.

But the Wolves have the No. 6 overall pick in the draft this year, a slot that commanded $2.8 million last year (that’s not to mention the team’s No. 18 and No. 28 selections).

That cuts Minnesota’s cap space down to the $4 million range. Add in a mid-level exception of $5 million-plus, and the Wolves don’t have any cap room at all.

Knock out the Wolves and the Clippers (whose modest $1 million or so in potential cap room gets wiped out by draft picks and the mid-level as well), and you’ve got six teams with cap space in 2009: Portland, Sacramento, Oklahoma City, Atlanta, Detroit, and Memphis.

For a free agent with a glamour destination or a ring in mind, that's not an encouraging lineup.

Indeed, the franchises that can offer the biggest paydays are in such sad shape that they might want to think twice about the priorities of a player eager to don their colors.

In other words, if you're the Grizzlies, you might want to be skeptical of a player willing to commit to five years and $75 million with the Grizzlies.

Not that Memphis will actually spend that kind of dough: Given that the Kings and Grizz are two of the league’s poster children for franchises going broke fast, the $33 million in cap room the pair have to offer in ’09 ($21 million for Memphis, $12 million for Sacramento) is likely to sit largely untouched.

So if you’re a player looking for a big payday in a new uniform, you can hope the Blazers want you, pretend that Atlanta has a shot in the East, roll the dice that the Pistons aren’t making a bee-line for the lottery, or hitch your wagon to the Thunder.

Who could ask for anything more?

Of course, there are other options for players who want to test the waters. The mid-level exception is going to be the real jackpot this summer—and as one of the few ways for teams to revamp their rosters in a meaningful way, pulling down the entire exception from a club will be an impressive feat.

Sign-and-trades are always on the table as well. If you can find two teams that aren’t desperate to shed payroll immediately (in today’s NBA, that might be harder than it seems), a player can re-sign with his current team for more than he can get as a free agent, then ship out to his new club in exchange for contracts that match.

This means that high-priced studs like Boozer and Turkoglu—both of whom currently make more than the mid-level exception—can seek new teams without taking a pay cut, if they’re so inclined.

But when all is said and done, the only place most players are going to find a fresh stash of cash this summer is with their own teams.

If you're looking for big moves this summer, don't hold your breath: 2009 is shaping up as the year when would-be free agents stay put.

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