NBA Teams with the Messiest Cap Situations

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterNovember 29, 2021

NBA Teams with the Messiest Cap Situations

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    John McCoy/Associated Press

    Which NBA teams have the messiest salary-cap situations? That isn't an easy question to answer. 

    If a team has a massive payroll but just won a title (such as the Milwaukee Bucks), that’s a success story. A different title hopeful could fall short in the playoffs, inadvertently alienate one of its best players and end up about as messy as an NBA team can get. Another might be a highly successful team hoping to recapture its glory days, willing to pay massive luxury taxes with no end in sight.

    Some teams have messy cap situations this season, but they'll gain some financial relief when undesirable contracts fall off their books next summer. Others have free agents whom they may feel obligated to re-sign, even if it just continues the walk down the pathway of mediocrity.

    The following are a handful of the worst offenders, with a few honorable (or dishonorable) mentions:

Philadelphia 76ers: Messy Only Begins to Describe It

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    Matt Rourke/Associated Press
    • Projected Tax: $9.8 million

    • Top-Dollar Contracts: Tobias Harris, Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid 

    The Sixers fell in the second round of last year's playoffs to the Atlanta Hawks. Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris and Ben Simmons are owed a combined $520.7 million over the remainder of their respective contracts, although Simmons no longer wants to be there.

    Harris' deal will end first, after the 2023-24 season. Simmons is done the following year, and Embiid’s wraps up with a projected $54.2 million player option in 2026-27.

    Simmons still has yet to make his season debut amidst an offseason trade request. Perhaps the Sixers can also clean up their books with the eventual resolution to the Simmons stalemate.

    Philadelphia was in luxury-tax territory last season, is over the $136.6 million tax line this year (at about $143 million in total payroll) and projects to stay over for the next two seasons.

Portland Trail Blazers: Reinvest in Mediocrity?

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    Steve Dykes/Associated Press
    • Projected Tax: $4.5 million

    • Top-Dollar Contracts: Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum

    Over the last few years, the Trail Blazers have tried to cycle through supporting players to help the guard tandem of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum win in the postseason. Finding the right balance between defensive-minded players who can't score or offensive-minded scorers who cannot defend has been a challenge.

    Can the Blazers win with $366.3 million invested in Lillard, McCollum and Norman Powell over the remainder of their respective contracts? Lillard hasn't pushed for a trade yet, but the franchise is well aware of his concerns after a turbulent offseason.

    Jusuf Nurkic, Robert Covington and Anfernee Simons (restricted) will all hit free agency next summer. Do the Blazers double-down and reinvest in their role players? If not, how do they replace them with their limited spending power?

    The Blazers also owe their 2022 lottery-protected first-round pick to the Chicago Bulls thanks to the deal that brought in Larry Nance Jr. from the Cleveland Cavaliers. Because the pick is lottery-protected through 2028, Portland won’t be able to send out any other first-round picks in trade without some creativity (perhaps renegotiating the protections with the Bulls).

Golden State Warriors: The Ultimate Tax Offender

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press
    • Projected Tax: $131.1 million

    • Top-Dollar Contracts: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, Draymond Green

    The Warriors are already a repeat luxury-tax offender after finishing above the tax line in three of the last four seasons, which results in steeper financial penalties. And Golden State projects to be well over the tax this year and for the foreseeable future.

    Steph Curry is under contract for $261.1 million through the 2025-26 season. Golden State also has three other players earning eight-figure salaries (Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andrew Wiggins). James Wiseman, whom the Warriors selected with No. 2 overall in the 2020 NBA draft, is an expensive prospect ($9.2 million) when factoring in taxes.

    Golden State could finish with a payroll above $300 million this season between salaries and luxury taxes, and that burden doesn't project to lighten any time soon.

    The recent championships, Thompson's imminent return from an Achilles tear and a hot start to the season may make that bottom line easier to swallow, though.

Dallas Mavericks: The Unicorn in the Room

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    Matt York/Associated Press
    • Projected Tax: None

    • Top-Dollar Contracts: Luka Doncic (starting with 2022-23), Kristaps Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr.

    The Mavericks have one of the brightest young stars in the NBA in Luka Doncic, whom they recently signed to a five-year extension worth a projected $207.1 million. But do they have the right pieces around him to win a playoff series?

    Their acquisition and investment in Kristaps Porzingis haven’t paid consistent dividends. He's under contract for two more seasons at $69.8 million, which includes a $36.0 million player option in 2023-24. Dallas will also pay Tim Hardaway Jr., Dwight Powell and Reggie Bullock a combined $40.7 million next season.

    Add in decisions on crucial rotation players Maxi Kleber ($9.2 million non-guaranteed) and pending free agents Jalen Brunson and Dorian Finney-Smith, and the Mavericks could quickly end up locked in as a luxury-tax team.

    Dallas also still owes a top-10-protected first-round pick to the New York Knicks for Porzingis. That pick should convey in 2023, but since the protection goes through 2025, it functionally locks up the Mavericks' trade flexibility with first-rounders until 2027.

Los Angeles Clippers: No Relief in Sight

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    John McCoy/Associated Press
    • Projected Tax: $93.4 million

    • Top-Dollar Contracts: Paul George, Kawhi Leonard

    The Clippers are coming off their best playoff run in franchise history, but Kawhi Leonard suffered a partially torn ACL that has him sidelined indefinitely. Over the past 12 months, they've also invested in Luke Kennard, Marcus Morris, Terance Mann and Reggie Jackson on top of the $352.5 million they owe Paul George and Leonard combined. (Both have $48.8 million player options in 2024-25.)

    The Clippers also traded several first-rounders to get George in a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder back in 2019. They still have three owed outright and two pick swaps remaining.

    L.A. doesn't have much upside this season unless Leonard returns. (Buzz around the league suggests he won't do so until the 2022-23 season.) Still, the Clippers may end up spending more than $260 million (including luxury taxes) on the current roster, with no apparent relief in sight.

    That price may not bother owner Steve Ballmer, but the team has limited flexibility in trades with no real first-round picks to offer. Eric Bledsoe is the Clippers' best trade asset thanks to his partially guaranteed contract, but cashing him out will likely add to their payroll.

Honorable Mentions: Plenty of Mess to Go Around

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    The Chicago Bulls are one of the best stories of the year. They made a sequence of moves over the past 12 months to give All-Star guard Zach LaVine a reason to re-sign when he becomes a free agent in 2022.

    Adding Nikola Vucevic (via trade), DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso has given Chicago a lot to celebrate early. It will all make sense if the team continues to succeed and LaVine re-signs next summer. 

    However, the Bulls dealt multiple first-round picks to acquire Vucevic and DeRozan, and they may lose another first-rounder if the league rules that they tampered in the Ball sign-and-trade from the New Orleans Pelicans in early August. If LaVine signs with another team in free agency, all of their wheeling and dealing may wind up being for naught. 

    Meanwhile, the Denver Nuggets have put their money into the players they believe in, including Nikola Jokic (a free agent in 2023), Jamal Murray (recovering from a knee injury), Aaron Gordon, Michael Porter Jr. and Monte Morris. They also owe protected first-round picks in 2023 to the Oklahoma City Thunder and 2025 to the Orlando Magic, limiting their trade options with first-rounders moving forward.

    The Nuggets may be a title contender when fully healthy. But with three max contracts (Jokic, Murray and Porter) on their books and Gordon having just signed a four-year, $80 million extension, they're going to vault into luxury-tax territory next year. 

    The Miami Heat have likewise made a significant investment in their players, which will be a wise investment if they regain the form they had throughout the 2019-20 playoffs. Early play this season suggests that they have.

    Finally, both the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets won’t have any flexibility if their big-money players (Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Kyrie Irving) either opt in or extend their respective contracts.

    Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.

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