NBA's 10 Worst Salary-Cap Situations Ahead of 2018 Offseason

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistMay 24, 2018

NBA's 10 Worst Salary-Cap Situations Ahead of 2018 Offseason

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    You've seen the NBA's best salary-cap situations heading into this summer's free-agency extravaganza. Now we must slog through the worst.

    Brace yourselves. This will be a messy crash course in just how friggin' strapped most of the league is for cash. Bring your goggles. Put on your ponchos. The first 700 rows of audience members are going to get sopping wet.

    Around two-thirds of the Association will be capped out as of now. And that paves the way for some harrowing bottom-line estimates.

    So many franchises are on the edge of luxury-tax territory. A select few have left that $123 million threshold in the dust and are hoping against hope they can avoid a $150-million-before-taxes roster. This list will rank teams based on their increasing distance from the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception.

    Remember: Salary-cap projections are fluid. Free-agent departures and talent dumps will invariably shake up this pecking order. These forecasts are not gospel. They're predictive snapshots of the NBA's steepest, starkest, oft-darkest payrolls.

    Do not interpret every team's inclusion as an indictment. More than a few organizations will readily pick up their projected tabs. Title contenders and actual champions cost money. This totem pole is strictly about dollars and cents and access to breathing room certain squads can admittedly do without.

    And finally, although big-picture trajectories are fair game to discuss, they do not impact the rankings. We care about this summer alone and what type of impact these pre-draft cap sheets will have on every team's ability—or rather, lack thereof—to go about their offseason business.

Breakdown Guidelines

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Guaranteed Salaries: Taken from Basketball Insiders, this consists of all contracts guaranteed to be on the books in 2018-19. It also includes money from any partially guaranteed deals.

    Notable Free-Agent Holds: Pre-contract holds of expiring deals that incumbent teams will want to keep. This is the most predictive part of the exercise. If a player owns an opt-in but isn't a lock to explore free agency, his 2018-19 salary will be included. LeBron James, for example, has an option for next season he's expected to decline. We'll include his free-agent hold, even though the possibility of an opt-in-and-trade remains in play.

    Notable Non-Guarantees: Any non-guaranteed deals expected to stick with a team into free agency, including team options. Contracts that have partial guarantees included in the "Guaranteed Salaries" section will be listed with the balance owed. Just $500,000 of Cheick Diallo's salary is guaranteed for next season. That money will be calculated into the New Orleans Pelicans' starting commitments, with the balance ($1,044,951) settling in here.

    First-Round Pick Holds: Based on draft positioning after the lottery. Projected salaries come courtesy of RealGM and are slotted as 120 percent holds. Second-round selections will cut into cap space, but they aren't signed under the rookie scale and, therefore, don't have a cap hold. They'll be left out of this exercise. They typically don't earn enough to impact the bottom line anyway.

    Dead Money: Cashed owed to players who are no longer on the team because they were waived.

    Empty Roster Charges: Teams will be assessed a $831,311 roster charge for each open spot below 12 players. These placeholders are rare when surveying cap sheets before the draft.

    All-Inclusive Total: Sum of all the above categories.

    Amount Over The Cap: Subtracting the projected $101 million salary cap from the All-Inclusive Total. Trade exceptions, mid-level exceptions, bi-annual exceptions, etc. only count against commitments for teams under the salary cap. Every squad here is over the line leading up to the draft, so those won't be included in the final projections—and shouldn't need to be unless any teams make moves to duck under the $101 million benchmark.

10. Washington Wizards

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Guaranteed Salaries: $115,063,164

    Non-Guaranteed Salaries: $0

    Expected Free-Agent Holds: Jason Smith's player option ($5,450,000); Jodie Meeks' player option ($3,454,500); Mike Scott ($1,499,698)

    First-Round Pick Holds: No. 15 ($2,725,680)

    Dead Money: Martell Webster ($833,333)

    All-Inclusive Total: $129,026,375

    Amount Over The Cap: $28,026,375

    In the interest of full disclosure, the Minnesota Timberwolves' ledger includes roughly $500,000 more in forecasted commitments. But they'll have an easier time accessing the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception after Jamal Crawford opted out. Waiving Cole Aldrich's partially guaranteed deal would save them $4.9 million, and they can lop off another $7.5 million by renouncing Nemanja Bjelica (restricted).

    Similar logic applies to the Miami Heat. They duck the Washington Wizards' estimate by under $100,000 and aren't flush with non-guarantees or expendable free agents. But Wayne Ellington shouldn't fetch his full early-Bird hold ($8.2 million) in this summer's bare-bones market. 

    Reconciling the Wizards' cap statement is far more difficult. Their proximity to the luxury tax is at the mercy of Jodie Meeks and Jason Smith, both of whom are opt-in locks.

    Taking a buzzsaw to the payroll will earn priority over talent acquisition. The Wizards are too close not to try crawling under $123 million in obligations, and John Wall's extension makes it almost impossible for them to dodge the tax in future years. Bradley Beal, Otto Porter and Wall will cost a combined $92.2 million in 2019-20, and their collective hit only goes up from there.

    Pawning off the the two years and $31.4 million left on Ian Mahinmi's agreement would help the Wizards cobble together cleaner bills on the margins. But that type of dump requires a sweetener they don't have. Kelly Oubre Jr.'s impending restricted free agency in 2019 will scare some suitors away, and the No. 15 pick is too crucial to controlling the cost of the supporting cast.

    That leaves the Wizards to take a long, hard look at the Beal-Porter-Wall trio. Dismantling this tricycle looms as a palatable, if necessary, option over the summer. Washington can perhaps carry their aggregative salaries into 2020-21, but the cost devolves into unsupportable as Beal (2021) and Porter (player option for 2020-21) near their own new deals.

    Divesting one of them—likely Beal or Porter—into picks or prospects and cheaper role players gives the Wizards a puncher's shot at vacating this list next summer. Whether that then compromises their standing in the Eastern Conference is a risk they may have to take. 

9. Boston Celtics

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    Brian Babineau/Getty Images

    Guaranteed Salaries: $104,557,909

    Non-Guaranteed Salaries: Jonathan Gibson ($1,699,698); Daniel Theis ($1,378,242); Abdel Nader ($928,242); Semi Ojeleye ($476,277)

    Expected Free-Agent Holds: Marcus Smart ($13,614,060); Aron Baynes ($5,193,600); Shane Larkin ($1,499,698)

    First-Round Pick Holds: No. 27 ($1,640,400)

    Dead Money: Demetrius Jackson ($92,857)

    All-Inclusive Total: $131,080,983

    Amount Over The Cap: $30,080,983

    After staging consecutive summertime coups, the Boston Celtics' cap sheet is officially not pretty. And they could not care less. Nor should they.

    This team is worth cannonballing into the luxury tax. The Celtics have scrapped their way to the Eastern Conference Finals without their two biggest offseason additions, who also happen to be their best scorers, in Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving. They don't need wiggle room leading into free agency. Hayward and Irving (to a much lesser extent) qualify as add-ons after missing so much time.

    Tough decisions still await the Celtics—mainly Marcus Smart's restricted free agency. He should end up costing less than his cap hold on an annual basis, but both Irving (player option) and Terry Rozier (restricted) will require raises in 2019. No way can they afford to pay all three guards.

    Al Horford also has a player option for 2019-20. Boston has to start thinking about that. And it'll have to evaluate his future against Hayward's player option, Jaylen Brown's restricted free agency and Jayson Tatum's extension eligibility that following summer.

    Whatever, though. That's future Danny Ainge's problem. Present-day Danny Ainge gets to continue basking in the afterglow of his best-ever rebuild.

    With co-owner Wyc Grousbeck hinting that the franchise will stomach tax bills to keep this nucleus intact, Ainge's biggest problems, for now, consist of retaining Aron Baynes (non-bird) and assembling enough salary-matching tools to keep the Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard speculation factories in business.

8. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Sean Gardner/Getty Images

    Guaranteed Salaries: 92,790,622.00

    Non-Guaranteed Salaries: DeMarcus Cousins ($27,095,775); Darius Miller ($2,205,000); Emeka Okafor ($2,445,085); DeAndre Liggins ($1,795,015); Cheick Diallo ($1,044,951)

    Expected Free-Agent Holds: Rajon Rondo ($3,960,000); Ian Clark ($1,499,698)

    First-Round Pick Holds: $0

    Dead Money: $0

    All-Inclusive Total: $132,836,146

    Amount Over The Cap: $31,836,146

    DeMarcus Cousins is the difference between the Pelicans being here and avoiding this list altogether. They won't have oodles of cap space if they renounce him, but they'll have worry-free access to the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception. That'll mean something in a market devoid of big spenders.

    Bidding farewell to Cousins profiled as the Pelicans' worst-case scenario just a few short months ago. His Achilles injury warps everything. These setbacks are always career-altering and can entirely derail professional arcs. Cousins is a particularly hard study. Past precedents don't exist. No one with his blend of brute force and nimble footwork off the dribble has ever been here before.

    Moving in a different direction is no longer New Orleans' nightmare come to life. Anthony Davis' best position remains the 5, and the Pelicans outpaced opponents by 10.7 points per 100 possessions when he played beside Nikola Mirotic. They can sit tight, let that frontcourt partnership marinate and pitch Davis on free-agent pursuits next summer, one year out from his 2020-21 player option and likely just in time for him to sign a designated veteran extension.

    And yet, peacing out on Cousins from the get-go isn't a legitimate game plan. The Pelicans gave up actual value to land him—most notably Buddy Hield, a first-round pick that became Zach Collins and a second-rounder the Sacramento Kings parlayed into Frank Mason III. They owe it to themselves, Davis and common sense to float Cousins' hold until it becomes clear a return is out of the question.

    How much leverage the Pelicans have in this situation depends on the market. No team should be offering Cousins a multiyear max, but hey, it only takes one over-eager admirer to put the free-agency process on tilt.

    As if Boogie's vacuum value isn't complicated enough, New Orleans has to figure out whether he even wants to stick around. In the last week and change alone, he's unfollowed the team on Instagram, citing general grow-upness and a whoops-a-daisy snafu; "liked" an Instagram comment that claimed the team needs to offer him the max; and posted a picture of himself doing Pelicans shorts.

    Get ready to regularly burn the midnight oil, New Orleans. Your handling of Cousins will define your immediate outlook, the long-term cap sheet and, potentially, Davis' interest in signing another deal. Good luck.

7. Toronto Raptors

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    Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

    Guaranteed Salaries: $125,197,790

    Non-Guaranteed Salaries: Alfonzo McKinnie ($1,378,242)

    Expected Free-Agent Holds: Lucas Nogueira ($8,841,915); Fred VanVleet ($1,699,698)

    First-Round Pick Holds: $0

    Dead Money: Justin Hamilton ($1,000,000)

    All-Inclusive Total: $138,117,645

    Amount Over The Cap: $37,117,645

    Replacing head coach Dwane Casey is not the Toronto Raptors' only offseason project. Team president Masai Ujiri must find a way, again, to duck the luxury tax.

    Crossing the $123 million threshold shouldn't be seen as taboo for a 59-win squad. But the Raptors' implosion against the Cleveland Cavaliers prevents them from spinning substantive reinvestments in the status quo.

    Renouncing Lucas Nogueira is a good place to start. Toronto has plenty of bigs with Serge Ibaka, Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam and Jonas Valanciunas on the payroll. But that alone won't be enough if keeping Fred VanVleet (restricted) remains a priority. His next deal will take them back into the $130 million-plus range.

    Shedding a larger salary would be ideal—and much easier said than done. Ibaka isn't an asset with two years and $45 million left on his contract. Valanciunas is owed a somewhat-reasonable $34.2 million over that same span, but few teams have the space to soak up his salary without sending back too much money.

    DeMar DeRozan will be a popular trade-machine subject in the coming weeks and months. He's still an awkward fit for how the Raptors are trying to play. But he's owed $83.2 million through 2020-21 (player option). He isn't someone they can offhandedly unload. He'll have to be part of a larger deal that, in all likelihood, won't trim too much money from the bottom line.

    And this presumes they find a suitor. One league executive told Sporting News' Sean Deveney the market for DeRozan won't be too robust, because "you'd have to adjust your whole offense for him. You can't just stick him on the Pelicans, for example, because he wouldn't pair up with Anthony Davis well. There's too many obstacles.”

    Keep an eye on Norman Powell instead. His playing time cratered following an early season hip injury, and he doesn't have a clear path back to the rotation with DeRozan, VanVleet, OG Anunoby, C.J. Miles and Delon Wright monopolizing minutes at the 2 and 3. Though his four-year, $42 million extension is set to kick in next season, at least one team will be ready to absorb a wing entering his age-25 campaign.

    Moral of the story: The Raptors are not in an enviable position. They have obvious holes despite sewing up the East's No. 1 seed, but this offseason figures to be more about saving money than acquiring talent. For once, it doesn't look like Ujiri can do both.

6. Houston Rockets

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    Bill Baptist/Getty Images

    Guaranteed Salaries: $77,509,743

    Non-Guaranteed Salaries: Aaron Jackson's team option ($1,378,242); Zhou Qi ($1,378,242)

    Expected Free-Agent Holds: Chris Paul ($35,350,000); Trevor Ariza ($12,868,634); Clint Capela ($7,003,585); Gerald Green ($1,499,698); Luc Mbah a Moute ($1,499,698)

    First-Round Pick Holds: $0

    Dead Money: Troy Williams ($122,741)

    All-Inclusive Total: $138,610,583

    Amount Over The Cap: $37,610,583

    The Houston Rockets won't flinch at this inclusion. They closed the regular season with the NBA's best record and are testing the mettle of the reigning-champion Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. They'll gladly—or at least not begrudgingly—belly flop into the luxury tax to keep their current window open.

    Things get messy if, for some reason, the Rockets aren't sold on leaving this group untouched.

    Parting ways with Chris Paul wouldn't even arm them with anything more than the non-taxpayer's midlevel-exception. Remove his max hold from the equation, and they're still looking at more than $100 million in commitments. That number will fall assuming Trevor Ariza signs for less than his hold, but the overall point stands: Houston will be capped out.

    This might not matter. The taxpayer's mid-level could get the Rockets a nice player if they spend it all in one place. And they'll be a hot spot for ring-chasers if Paul puts pen to paper on a new deal.

    Anything on a larger scale will have to go down via trade—like, say, the arrival of LeBron James.

    As USA Today's Sam Amick noted in December, the Rockets fancy themselves a legitimate destination for the four-time MVP. But their plan isn't to sign him outright. It can't be. They won't have the room for his max, even if they purge the roster of everyone except Paul and James Harden.

    Relocating to Houston mandates James opt into the final year of his contract and force a trade, similar to what Paul did with the Los Angeles Clippers last summer. Other than that, the Rockets should be in for an uneventful offseason—unless they become bent on sweetening a Ryan Anderson salary dump or wind up scrambling to replace Luc Mbah a Moute.

5. Golden State Warriors

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Guaranteed Salaries: $102,691,280

    Non-Guaranteed Salaries: $0

    Expected Free-Agent Holds: Kevin Durant ($32,500,000); Kevon Looney ($2,227,081); Patrick McCaw ($1,699,698); JaVale McGee ($1,499,698)

    First-Round Pick Holds: No. 28 ($1,630,200)

    Dead Money: Jason Thompson ($945,126)

    All-Inclusive Total: $143,193,083

    Amount Over The Cap: $42,193,083

    Golden State is another team that should be comfortable with its monstrous payroll. Sort of.

    Ownership has to begin contemplating the dreaded repeater tax, which is currently on track to take effect in 2019-20. That doesn't have to impact the Warriors now; they needn't confront the cost of their Fantabulous Four until next summer.

    But this year is a natural brainstorming point. Klay Thompson is slated for free agency in 2019. Draymond Green is right behind him in 2020. If the Warriors have an inkling as to which one they'd sacrifice for the good of their cap sheet, they'll need to gauge said player's trade value.

    Opening that can of worms, even as a purely exploratory measure, would incite backlash galore if they're working off their second straight championship and third title in four years. It gets a little easier if they come up short and can play the "we're growing a little stale" card.

    Then again, these are the Warriors. They could luck into a workaround or 50, kind of like they did when Kevin Durant accepted $10 million under his max in 2017. Thompson is already open to signing an extension as opposed to entering free agency, which would save the team a boatload of money. As The Athletic's Marcus Thompson explained:

    "The most he could get in the first year of an extension is a 120 percent raise. With the highest annual increases allowed, that would put Thompson’s extension at four years and just over $102 million. Add the $18.9 million he is due to make in 2018-19 and Thompson is looking at a maximum five-year salary of $121 million should he sign an extension.

    "If Thompson were to play out his contract and sign a new deal with the Warriors before the 2019-20 season, the maximum he would be eligible for — based on current salary-cap projections — is five years, $188 million."

    Millionaire players giving discounts to billionaire owners. You gotta love it. (No you don't.) Anyway, even if the Warriors avoid having to ponder the dissolution of their superstar collection, they're in line for some noticeable change up front.

    David West could retire. Zaza Pachulia isn't getting another contract. Kevon Looney and JaVale McGee are also free agents. Jordan Bell should be ready for more regular work next year, but the Warriors will still have to be on the lookout for the next crop of discounted big men. (And also wings.)

4. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Adam Pantozzi/Getty Images

    Guaranteed Salaries: $63,038,678

    Non-Guaranteed Salaries: Patrick Beverley ($5,027,028); C.J. Williams ($1,378,242)

    Expected Free-Agent Holds: DeAndre Jordan ($33,963,525); Avery Bradley ($13,213,484); Austin Rivers' player option ($12,650,000); Milos Teodosic's player option ($6,300,000); Montrezl Harrell ($1,839,228); Tyrone Wallace ($1,337,872)

    First-Round Pick Holds: No. 12 ($3,179,280); No. 13 ($3,020,280)

    Dead Money: Carlos Delfino ($650,000); Miroslav Raduljica ($252,043)

    All-Inclusive Total: $145,849,660

    Amount Over The Cap: $44,849,660

    The good news, Clippers fans? Your favorite team's ledger could take a favorable turn. 

    DeAndre Jordan isn't a lock to decline his player option and explore free agency. It'll take him at least two seasons to recoup all of the $24.1 million he's owed, and the list of teams who need an expensive soon-to-be 30-year-old non-shooting big isn't especially long.

    Jordan may find value in punting on free agency now, playing out next year and re-evaluating the landscape in 2019, when more teams should have cap space. That'll spare the Clippers from toting his massive hold and rendering a verdict on his big-picture price tag. 

    The bad news? Skirting the luxury tax will prove difficult either way. Austin Rivers and Milos Teodosic aren't opting out, and Montrezl Harrell will net significantly more than his hold. Re-sign Avery Bradley without getting rid of Jordan, and forget about it. Los Angeles will be a tax team. 

    The best news? This expensive pickle will be temporary if the Clippers play their cards right. 

    Rivers, Teodosic, Patrick Beverley, Tobias Harris, Wesley Johnson and Boban Marjanovic will all be off the books by 2019. If the Clippers resist the urge to dole out long-term contracts this summer, they will on track for $60 million or more in space next July.

    Just in case you needed another reason to obsess over the outcome of Jordan's player option, there ya go.

3. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Sam Forencich/Getty Images

    Guaranteed Salaries: $105,364,918

    Non-Guaranteed Salaries: Wade Baldwin ($1,544,951); Jake Layman ($1,544,951); Georgios Papagiannis ($1,544,951)

    Expected Free-Agent Holds: Ed Davis ($12,069,809); Jusuf Nurkic ($8,841,915); Shabazz Napier ($7,084,080); Pat Connaughton ($1,839,228)

    First-Round Pick Holds: No. 24 ($1,819,800)

    Dead Money: Andrew Nicholson ($2,844,430); Anderson Varejao ($1,913,345); Festus Ezeli ($333,333)

    All-Inclusive Total: $146,745,711

    Amount Over The Cap: $45,745,711

    Sneaking under the luxury-tax line again won't be so easy for the Portland Trail Blazers.

    General manager Neil Olshey dragged them beneath it this past season, exhausting every last penny-pinching move within reason. The end result: The close call to end all close calls. The Blazers finished inside $1,000 of the luxury-tax marker. 

    Similar scrimping and saving won't get them by this time. Their books are too far gone. They need to renounce Ed Davis, Jusuf Nurkic (restricted) and Shabazz Napier (restricted) to comfortably deflate their salary obligations below $123 million. 

    That's not happening. Letting Napier walk isn't that huge of a deal if they're against busting up the Damian Lillard-CJ McCollum duo (they should be), but cutting ties with both Davis and Nurkic is a non-option. Zach Collins and Meyers Leonard, along with maybe Wade Baldwin and Georgios Papagiannis, cannot be their primary contributors in the middle.

    If it comes as any consolation, some of the Blazers' bottom-line warts are overblown. Davis won't cost anywhere near his $12.1 million hold on a multiyear agreement, and this projection includes cap hits for 16 roster spots, so they'll have to make changes anyway.

    Still, Portland isn't getting out of tax territory without incentivizing a jumbo-sized salary dump or two. Both Nurkic and Pat Connaughton (restricted) should command more than their holds, and this roster isn't sound enough to altogether table the mid-level exception.

    Perhaps the Blazers are open to funding a tax team—or at least beginning the season as one. They'll have all year to creep beneath the $123 million threshold. They can decide whether this core is worth its price point as they inch toward the trade deadline.

    In the meantime, the Blazers have a smattering of non-guarantees they can deep-six, and burning bridges with one or two (or more) incumbent free agents will keep them within striking distance of the sub-tax line.

    Barring a backcourt deconstruction, though, they'll need to gift-wrap Meyers Leonard (two years, $21.9 million) or Evan Turner (two years, $36.5 million) as a salary dump. They don't have another way of bypassing both the tax and a teardown.

2. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

    Guaranteed Salaries: $88,907,222

    Non-Guaranteed Salaries: $0

    Expected Free-Agent Holds: Paul George ($30,300,000); Carmelo Anthony's early-termination option ($27,928,140); Jerami Grant ($2,896,180); Josh Huestis ($2,243,326); Raymond Felton ($1,499,698)

    First-Round Pick Holds: $0

    Dead Money: $0

    All-Inclusive Total: $153,774,566

    Amount Over The Cap: $52,774,566

    Classifying the Oklahoma City Thunder's cap situation as restrictive would be a compliment. They'll soar past $150 million in commitments if Paul George stays.

    Brokering a divorce with Carmelo Anthony—assuming he doesn't exercise his early-termination option, which duh—ever so slightly softens the blow, but not by much. He's not one to voluntarily nuke his earning potential.

    LeBron James himself must be beckoning in a Rockets uniform for Anthony to get antsy enough to help Oklahoma City make a dent in its mushrooming ledger. That, or he could grow weary by midseason and concede a ton of salary to sync up with a contender or team that plans to milk him like the star he no longer is.

    Even then, the Thunder aren't escaping the luxury-tax labyrinth. They'll live with that reality if it means retaining George and sussing out bargain-bin finds to complement him and Russell WestbrookFail to keep him away from Los Angeles and Philadelphia, and, well, they're up you-know-what creek with broken twigs.

    Wiping George's max hold from the books does not inoculate the Thunder against paying the luxury tax. They'll have a smidgeon over $123 million in various hits on the docket. That could drop if they buy out or, much less likely, trade Anthony. It could also rise if they keep him and re-sign Jerami Grant.

    Something will happen if George flees the scene. The Thunder would be too close to non-taxpayer's salvation, and another year of Westbrook's prime will be consigned to the gutter no matter what they do. Soldiering on with him, Anthony and Steven Adams as the roster's skeleton wouldn't amount to more than a low-level postseason bid.

    Junking 2018-19 isn't the end of the world. The Thunder will be leaner next summer, when Anthony comes off the books and the futures of Alex Abrines (restricted), Patrick Patterson (player option) and Kyle Singler (non-guaranteed) are all up in the air. They could look to reload in a year.

    Starting totally over without George also has to be in play. Westbrook is owed $205 million over the next five years. Effectively retooling around him will be difficult regardless of how long the Thunder wait. It could be 2021 before they enjoy any real flexibility after baking in the salaries for Adams and Andre Roberson.

    Certain people around the league already think Oklahoma City needs to detach itself from Westbrook and his mammoth deal, per's Zach Lowe. Calls for such a stark pivot will swell if George signs elsewhere. And the Thunder, in that scenario, would have to listen. Their salary-cap squeeze demands it.

1. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

    Guaranteed Salaries: $102,368,741

    Non-Guaranteed Salaries: Kendrick Perkins' team option ($2,445,085); Okaro White ($1,544,951)

    Expected Free-Agent Holds: LeBron James ($35,350,000); Rodney Hood ($7,160,593); Jeff Green ($1,499,698)

    First-Round Pick Holds: No. 8 ($4,033,800)

    Dead Money: $0

    All-Inclusive Total: $154,402,868

    Amount Over The Cap: $53,402,868

    Steep payrolls and outsized luxury-tax IOUs are staples of any LeBron James team. The Cavaliers will be happy to keep the trend alive if re-signs them this summer. They proved as much with their moves at the trade deadline. 

    Re-signing the ghost of Rodney Hood in tandem with James would lug the Cavaliers' raw salary obligations to around $160 million or more. All told, with minimum salaries and repeater taxes sprinkled in, they'd be fielding a roster that runs owner Dan Gilbert north of $300 million—more than half of which would come from their luxury bill, according to's Brian Windhorst.

    If this seems like an awful lot of money to pay for the rights to lose in the NBA Finals, that's because it is.

    Absurd still, Cleveland's operating costs could spike even further if burning through the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception is a condition of James' return. And its price tag climbs higher than that if the Brooklyn Nets pick is packaged with another player or two in exchange for a marquee name taking home more combined money.

    Gilbert will no doubt wonder aloud, more than once, whether James is worth all this trouble entering his age-34 season. He is. That shouldn't be up for discussion. The Cavaliers would be buried 24 feet under the NBA's scrap heap without him. They must suck up the seemingly untenable luxury-tax baggage that comes with him if he wishes to stay.

    Cost-cutting maneuvers are best saved for his potential departure (or eventual retirement). Dropping James' cap hold alone pulls the Cavaliers outside the luxury-tax realm. They'll dump more salary by renouncing Hood and sticking their remaining impact veterans on the auction block. (So, Kyle Korver, Kevin Love and maaaybe George Hill). The rest of their payroll fat will gradually dissolve as Jordan Clarkson, JR Smith, Tristan Thompson et al. turn into non-guarantees and expiring contracts.

    For now, without confirmation on James' future, the Cavaliers are in salary-cap purgatory. And knowing what must happen for that to change, they shouldn't yet be pining for an escape.


    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of or Basketball ReferenceSalary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders and RealGM.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.


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