Strapped for Cash? Not So Fast: NBA Teams That Can Become Free-Agent Players
The summer of 2016 feels like forever ago.
Free agency was simpler then. The infusion of TV money created the most robust market in NBA history.
Around two-thirds of the league enjoyed max cap space. Extravagant contracts were handed out like body glitter at an EDM festival. Household names such as Mike Conley and Kevin Durant got paid, along with made-up MyPlayer characters like Bismack Biyombo and Allen Crabbe.
Two years later, the Association is about to collide with the complete inverse of that spending binge. About one-third of the league will have appreciable cap space as the market continues its correction: the Atlanta Hawks, Brooklyn Nets, Chicago Bulls, Dallas Mavericks, Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Lakers, Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings and Utah Jazz.
Everyone else's best financial weapon will be some form of the mid-level exception, valued at $5.3 million or $8.6 million, depending on whether a team is slated to pay the luxury tax.
Most squads will roll with this as their primary retooling chip. Some don't have another option; their salary obligations are too far gone. Others understand quality players who would typically net more than the mid-level exception will have to settle for less.
A handful of cash-strapped teams, though, have semi-feasible paths to carving out more than mid-level money or making a sizable splash. They'll need to stage a couple of salary dumps and/or hope a certain four-time MVP desperately wants to play with one of his BFFLs, but that's fine.
They're at least within fathomable range of meaningful wiggle room and acquisitions, which is more than can be said for nearly everyone else.
Waiting until 2019 to cannonball into the free-agency market is easier for the Denver Nuggets. Darrell Arthur (player option for 2018-19), Wilson Chandler (player option for 2018-19) and Kenneth Faried will all be off the books by then, and they hold a team option for the final year on Paul Millsap's deal.
But Nikola Jokic's contract situation allows—or perhaps begs—them to try some things now.
Declining his team option makes him a restricted free agent with a sub-$2 million hold. The Nuggets can float that hit, fiddle with their books, sign other players and then go over the cap to re-ink him. That same flexibility will be available to them next summer if they pick up his team option and delay his foray onto the open market, but he'd be an unrestricted free agent.
Working with him this offseason is exponentially safer—and also more expensive. As Danny Leroux wrote for The Athletic:
"The Nuggets' biggest challenge is timing because Paul Millsap is already under contract for at least one more season, Gary Harris will receive a raise thanks to a previously agreed-to extension while Wilson Chandler and Darrell Arthur have player options they appear likely to pick up. Ownership could decide to keep the team together and dip into the tax for one year or be cost-conscious and shed some salary. Their choice changes the way cap space teams value their flexibility and shifts the potential suitors for various free agents."
Giving Jokic the full $25.3 million he's eligible to earn next year vaults the Nuggets past $133 million in total salary if Arthur and Chandler stay put—more than $10 million above the luxury threshold. That doesn't account for Will Barton's next deal. Re-signing him would, depending on cost, carry them closer to the $145 million to $150 million range.
If paying Jokic is going to put the Nuggets in tax territory anyway, they might as well test the salary-dumping landscape. They can sweeten the pot to lop off expiring pacts for Arthur and Faried, and it shouldn't take much, if any, chasers to offload Chandler.
Using their first-round pick and an incumbent prospect—say, Juan Hernangomez or Trey Lyles—could be enough to jettison Chandler and Faried without taking back much, if any, money in return. That would free them to carry pre-contract holds for Barton ($6.7 million) and Jokic ($1.6 million) while wielding $14 million in spending power. That number could rise by close to $5 million, to almost $20 million, if they stretch Arthrur.
Burning through that money and then hammering out deals for Barton and Jokic still slingshots the Nuggets into the tax. But they'd be paying into it for a different product, rather than the exact same one.
This only qualifies as cheating if you don't believe the whispers.
Back in December, USA Today's Sam Amick reported the Houston Rockets held a "strong belief" they could land LeBron James (player option) over the offseason. ESPN.com's Zach Lowe confirmed this thinking shortly thereafter, noting general manager Daryl Morey would "likely" try to poach the 33-year-old.
Then, in early March, The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor wrote that he's "consistently heard" the Rockets are one of four teams on James' wish list, joined by the Lakers, Sixers and Cleveland Cavaliers. Around that same time, odds were released on where he would sign this summer.
Houston and Cleveland laid the same exact line.
Ignoring this noise is for the unimaginative (and, rightfully, Cavs fans).
Sure, the Rockets cannot clear enough space to sign James outright. Toting holds for Clint Capela and Chris Paul while keeping James Harden would leave them well short of his max salary even if they sold off everyone else on the roster without receiving any money in return. But their relevance is not solely tied to James' accepting a pay cut to live a real-life buddy cop movie with Paul.
Wiping some money from the bottom line and banking on both stars to sign at a significant discount is an option—just not a good one. James isn't expected to play for anything less than the max, and rollbacks of $10 million or more per year are reserved for fringe stars past their prime who turn down player options to join a contender (and Kevin Durant).
Hashing out a sign-and-trade is similarly unlikely. It can be done, as Bleacher Report's Eric Pincus explained, but it would subject the Rockets to the hard cap, hamstringing their ability to take on salary and to fill out the rest of the roster.
Delivering an encore to last summer, when they mashed a bunch of spare parts together to snag Paul, is the Rockets' best option. James, like Paul, would opt into the final year of his deal and force Cleveland to move him.
Taking on some combination of Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon and PJ Tucker, plus future picks, won't sit right with the Cavaliers, but getting something for James' departure is better than nothing. They could use those draft selections to restock their future-asset cupboard, and the Rockets can incentivize their worst-case scenario further by finding third- and fourth-team facilitators that have more use for pricey veterans.
Yes, I'm well aware this binds Houston's free-agency clout to one player—not to mention one scenario that would technically need to unfold before July 1. But when that player is LeBron James, and that scenario involves pairing him with Harden and Paul, I'm fine with it. You should be, too.
The Milwaukee Bucks have the toughest hurdles to clear of anyone on this list. Their proximity to serious cap space lives and dies with Jabari Parker's restricted free agency.
Keeping him obliterates any chance they have of party-crashing the market. He definitely shouldn't cost as much as his cap hold ($20.3 million), but he's not Zach LaVine or Jusuf Nurkic. He'll have a fair number of suitors, and it'll cost a nice chunk of change to retain him whether he's agreeing to a short- or long-term pact.
Pulling the ripcord on a 23-year-old No. 2 pick with battle-tested offensive skills isn't something teams do. Parker could end the year fewer than 40 games in his return from a second ACL injury, but he's developed into a dependable spot-up shooter and legitimate off-the-dribble maestro.
Still, his fit with the Bucks is awkward. He compromises an already shaky defense, and interim head coach Joe Prunty has deployed him in inconsistent doses. Parker looks like he could be best suited to provide a punch off the bench, and Milwaukee shouldn't pay him upward of $15 million per year to be a reserve or ceremonial starter who doesn't always close games.
"Honestly, it's uncertain," Parker said earlier this month of his future with the team, per the Washington Post's Tim Bontemps. "I know that, just looking from afar, [the Bucks] will be fine. But I just have to see what's going to happen with my future, and that's uncertain. But I know for them, they'll be fine regardless. They've been doing well."
Renouncing Parker alone doesn't open up space for the Bucks. They'll remain slightly over the cap after accounting for this year's first-round pick and Mirza Teletovic's stretched salary ($3.5 million), which cannot be purged from their calculations until November at the earliest.
Trading two of Matthew Dellavedova (two years, $19.2 million), John Henson (two years, $20.3 million) and Tony Snell (three years, $34.2 million) gets the Bucks comfortably past $15 million in rainy-day money. They'd sniff $20 million depending on how many sweeteners it would take—Malcolm Brogdon, D.J. Wilson, whoever they draft, etc.—to cut bait on those other contracts.
Exhausting so many resources, including Parker's future, to dredge up modest flexibility may not be in the cards. But if they flame out in the first round of the playoffs and aren't sold on the current core to figure things out, exploring the salary-dump landscape would be a good way to strike in free agency before Brogdon (restricted), Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton (player option ) are all due new contracts next summer.
New York Knicks
Enes Kanter may be on the verge of doing the New York Knicks a favor.
"You could say that, yes [I'm leaning toward opting out]," he told reporters at season's end. "I'm not saying I'm in or out 100 percent. I'm just saying I want to stay here long-term because it's always weird just having one year and then leave and come back. I'd rather stay long-term."
Kanter's opting-out would be huge for the Knicks' books—unless they intend to re-sign him. Trimming his $18.6 million salary from the docket gives them more than $15 million in room even if both Ron Baker (duh) and Kyle O'Quinn (who knows) exercise their player options.
In the event O'Quinn follows Kanter's lead, the Knicks would have more than $19 million to divvy up among free agents. That, in turn, would give them the money to land one of the bigger fish in the non-max division.
But the Knicks don't have to stop there.
Waiving and stretching the final two years of Joakim Noah's deal over the next five seasons would arm them with an additional $11 million(ish) to burn through, bringing their grand cap-space total to around $30 million.
Peddling that much cash turns the Knicks into a premier destination by default. But they first need to see if Kanter's opt-out is contingent upon getting a new deal and then decide whether going all-in for this summer is worth it.
Kristaps Porzingis won't return from his ACL injury until Christmas 2018 at the earliest. Owner James Dolan recently told the New York Post's Larry Brooks that he's heard the 22-year-old cornerstone could miss all of next season.
Reinvesting in the roster before Porzingis is fully healthy doesn't make a ton of sense. The Knicks aren't going anywhere without him, and his post-recovery performances need to be part of their sales pitch to prospective targets.
Spreading out the $37.8 million left on Noah's contract over the next half-decade for the right to sign free agents who likely won't turn their fortunes until 2019-20 is a waste of flexibility. The Knicks are better off delaying Porzingis' extension and re-evaluating the market in another year.
Of course, they're the Knicks. The plan is to conserve cap space until next summer—for now. That could change if the opportunity to join the cash-rich ranks presents itself.
San Antonio Spurs
The San Antonio Spurs' participation in this offseason's festivities will be determined by their incumbent free agents.
Tony Parker just wrapped up the last year of his deal. Kyle Anderson, Davis Bertans and Bryn Forbes are all entering restricted free agency. Rudy Gay ($8.8 million), Danny Green ($10 million) and Joffrey Lauvergne ($1.7 million) each hold a player option for next season. Brandon Paul's 2018-19 salary is non-guaranteed until the start of August.
Anderson, Gay and Green control the tenor of San Antonio's financial situation more than anyone. Pre-contract holds for Anderson and Green (if he opts out) will total $21.5 million. Gay will bring that collective commitment north of $30 million should he opt in.
Remove those salaries and holds from the bottom-line balance, and the Spurs are looking at more than $14 million in play money assuming they renounce Parker's Bird rights—a no-brainer knowing he won't fetch anywhere near his $23.2 million hold.
Eclipsing the $15 million benchmark will be an effortless exercise if the previous contract decisions tilt this way. Lauvergne's opting out would be more than enough, or San Antonio can bid farewell to some combination of Bertans, Forbes and Paul.
Climbing past the $20 million threshold demands more drastic measures—as in contract dumps.
Pau Gasol's $16.8 million salary is probably immovable on its own. A hypothetical Kawhi Leonard trade could save the Spurs some money, but head coach Gregg Popovich plans to spearhead a reconciliation attempt over the offseason, according to ESPN.com's Michael C. Wright. Plus, retaining Leonard is the only reason why San Antonio might be compelled to manipulate its books for potential upgrades.
Patty Mills and the $37.3 million he's owed through 2020-21 loom large here. Sending his salary into another team's cap space would ferry the Spurs right up against a $25 million purse.
Is that worth losing him, Anderson, Gay, Green and, most likely, a few others? Even if it's not LeBron James himself beckoning from free agency? Does any of this matter? Or will the Spurs be forced into a quasi-reset on the heels of a Leonard trade?
Whatever happens, San Antonio is in for an interesting, if not direction-defining, offseason.