Counting the NBA's Dead Money

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 20, 2015

Philadelphia 76ers center JaVale McGee (1) reacts after missing a shot against the Miami Heat in the second half of an NBA basketball game in Miami, Monday, Feb. 23, 2015. The Heat won 119-108. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
Alan Diaz/Associated Press

It says something about the bizarre world of NBA salary-cap management when teams guided by the axiom that every dollar counts so often pay millions of them for absolutely nothing.

Buyouts and the more drastic stretch provision (which, you guessed it, allows teams to stretch the salary of a waived player over many years to ease the short-term cap hit) are commonplace these days. Paying significant cash for a contracted player to just go away is something that happens on almost every team.

And that's a strange thing when we've seen how an extra million dollars of cap space here or there can really matter—just look at how a minimum-salaried Matthew Dellavedova impacted the Cleveland Cavaliers' finals run last year.

This year alone, 10 NBA teams will pay out at least $1 million to players that aren't even on their rosters. In many cases, those players are collecting checks from (and playing for) other clubs. And all that money counts against the cap.

Here are the dead-money spenders this season:

The Dead-Money Specifics

Philadelphia's "Dominance"

76ers GM Sam Hinkie is lapping the field by paying $26 million in dead money this season.
76ers GM Sam Hinkie is lapping the field by paying $26 million in dead money this season.Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

You probably noticed the Philadelphia 76ers are blowing everyone out of the water by spending over $26 million on players no longer on the roster this season. This is proof that the Sixers operate in a separate financial reality than the rest of the NBA. It is also proof that even in a string of seasons where they've been the league's worst team, they can still be the best at something.

JaVale McGee and Gerald Wallace, both waived after coming over in trades, account for $12 million and $10.1 million, respectively. McGee's salary was essentially what it cost the Sixers to get a first-rounder from the Denver Nuggets; it can be viewed as a purchase price.

Wallace, on the other hand, was mainly acquired to help Philly reach the $63 million salary floor this season—which probably annoyed the rest of the players on the roster because any gap between the Sixers' payroll and the floor would have been split up evenly among them.

One of the best ways to field an awful roster is to pay players not to play. Naturally, the 76ers have exploited this practice.

And that's frustrating because that $10 million going to Wallace is what it would have cost to secure the intriguing K.J. McDaniels, whom Philly traded away.

Per Seth Partnow of Sports Illustrated:

After watching the saga unfold, with McDaniels eventually signing a three-year, $10 million deal with Houston, the question is why that sort of contract would have been anathema to Philly — either before the season, or especially once McDaniels proved himself to be a top-level NBA athlete with a fairly unique ability to protect the paint from a wing position? The Sixers are not only below the salary cap, but also below the salary floor. Again. The cap will rise over $30 million over the next several seasons. If McDaniels on a modest number wouldn’t 'maximize' asset value, what possibly could?

For the upcoming teams, we'll list players that could have hypothetically been signed using this year's dead money. But for the Sixers, who could have handed out more than a max salary, there's no point. They never would have signed anyone anyway.

Detroit's Housecleaning

Josh Smith (left) and Stan Van Gundy
Josh Smith (left) and Stan Van GundyAllen Einstein/Getty Images

Stan Van Gundy cut ties with Josh Smith in December in a bargain that will yield J-Smoove $5.4 million every year until 2019-20. Toss in another $2.2 million for Danny Granger and $1.3 million for Cartier Martin, both waived, and you've got about $9 million in wasted cash.

The Smith move felt hasty, but it was clear the Detroit Pistons didn't have a place for him (or any other non-floor-stretching big besides Andre Drummond) in Van Gundy's preferred style.

The Pistons are enjoying a legitimate bounce-back year after many seasons of futility, and it's fair to attribute that to Van Gundy building the kind of roster he wanted. But there are obvious holes in the perimeter-shooting department, and the bench could use a capable scoring threat. Imagine if that $9 million could have gone to Rodney Stuckey or Lou Williams, both of whom signed for three years and $21 million elsewhere.

The list could go on: Jae Crowder, Mike Dunleavy, Omri Casspi and Mirza Teletovic all signed for less than $9 million per season this past summer.

And hey, J.R. Smith inked a deal that only pays him $5 million a year. What if Detroit hadn't blown the chance to give him almost double that?

On second thought, maybe Smith is a bad example. Van Gundy probably would have just waived him this December.

Young Wolf Returned to the Wild

The Timberwolves waived Anthony Bennett in September.
The Timberwolves waived Anthony Bennett in September.Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Overall, acquiring Anthony Bennett was a good thing for the Minnesota Timberwolves, as it was part of the deal that brought in Andrew Wiggins and basically breathed life into a stagnant franchise.

But buying out the former No. 1 overall pick (who cleared waivers and signed for the minimum with the Toronto Raptors) cost Minnesota $3.65 million—more than the average annual salary Casspi is getting from the Sacramento Kings.

Casspi could seriously help a spacing-starved Wolves club that also needs secondary playmakers alongside Ricky Rubio.

Obviously, there was no trade market for Bennett. But his buyout illustrates a broader principal: Even throw-ins carry a significant opportunity cost.

More Wasted Cash to Come

Deron Williams
Deron WilliamsTony Gutierrez/Associated Press/Associated Press

There are plenty more particulars to discuss (such as the Brooklyn Nets paying Deron Williams $5.5 million a year to go away or the typically frugal Utah Jazz eating nearly $1 million by waiving the fully guaranteed Grant Jerrett), but you get the idea.

In closing, it's only fair to mention that teams paying out dead money sometimes derive a benefit. Maybe waiving a costly player opens up a chance for someone else to take on a bigger role, or perhaps it improves the locker room chemistry in some intangible way.

Still, no team pays and cuts loose a player unless it's a last resort.

Even if it means taking on additional bad contracts—as the Charlotte Hornets did to rid themselves of the wildly unproductive Lance Stephenson over the summer—that still beats the alternative of getting nothing tangible in return for an asset. Perhaps more importantly, waiving or buying out a player—especially one playing on a big contract—is an overt admission; it's a signal from the front office that mistakes were made.

And nobody likes admitting he or she was wrong, least of all when being wrong means eating millions of dollars.

Despite all that, we should expect more buyouts in the future, according to what one Western Conference general manager told ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst: "The stretch provision was something that was really being underutilized until pretty recently. I don't think some teams understood how it could be used as a benefit. I think we'll see it more in the future because with the salary cap going up, it will be easier to fit into your planning."

The stretch provision is so hot right now.

All salary data courtesy of BasketballInsiders.com.

Follow @gt_hughes on Twitter.

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