Previously I’ve discussed how John Wall and LeBron James could change the NBA as we know it this summer. Most of what those two change will be on-court dynamics.
But there are a whole lot of front office and league office issues that could be created this summer, starting with the massive crop of free agents.
For two or three years now, the NBA has been counting down to this summer, when three of the four All-Stars from the 2003 Draft Class, as well as a few other stars, will be available to switch teams.
In preparation for this, teams have been clearing salary across the board, and we’ve seen that players on expiring contracts have been almost more valuable than productive players who are locked up long-term.
The Knicks, Nets, Heat, Bulls, Kings, Clippers, Timberwolves, Thunder and Wizards are all projected to have more than $15 million in cap space for next year. That’s not even mentioning teams like the Dallas Mavericks or L.A. Lakers who have attractive trade options should they chase a free agent via sign-and-trade.
Of those nine teams with more than $15 mil in space, only the Bulls and Thunder made the playoffs this year, and have an upside even if they don’t sign a big free agent. The other seven teams have been fighting to keep restless fans interested, promising them a big free agent coup on the horizon.
Of the available free agents, there would seem to be only four that are capable of immediately changing a franchise’s fortunes. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Amar’e Stoudemire are the premium available players this year. In a second tier you could put players like Joe Johnson, Rudy Gay and Carlos Boozer, who can be good supplementary players.
That’s seven players that could legitimately upgrade whatever team they go to. But look at all the teams with cap space.
What happens to the New York Knicks if LeBron stays in Cleveland? What about the Heat if Dwyane Wade decides to leave?
Teams that are unable to sign one of the big four could likely end up signing someone like Johnson or Gay to a max deal. Can you see the Knicks doing something like that? I sure can.
While those two are good players, they certainly don’t deserve to be paid like the best player on a contender, because they never have been.
|Lowest Committed 2010-11 Payrolls|
|New York Knicks||$18.64 m|
|New Jersey Nets||$26.63 m|
|Miami Heat||$30.67 m|
|Chicago Bulls||$31.85 m|
|Los Angeles Clippers||$33.53 m|
|Sacramento Kings||$34.0 m|
|Minnesota Timberwolves||$35.17 m|
|Washington Wizards||$41.02 m|
This opens the door for the so-so free agents, such as Ray Allen, Rafer Alston, Tracy McGrady, John Salmons, Josh Howard, David Lee and Brendan Haywood. All good players, but all of them are flawed, and all of them could be way overpaid this summer by teams looking to satisfy their fans in the Summer of 2010.
But who cares, right? I mean, teams overpay mediocre players all the time. Erick Dampier, Gilbert Arenas, Rashard Lewis, Larry Hughes and many others have made amounts of money that are downright mind-boggling.
But with the dreaded summer of 2011 lurking, overpaying mediocre free agents could cripple a franchise for the rest of the decade.
The current collective bargaining agreement will expire in the summer of 2011, and Commissioner David Stern, after witnessing a decade of overblown, franchise-crippling contracts and teams hemorrhaging money, wants to make some big changes.
His first proposal to the union was called a slap in the face, as it drastically cut the money that could be paid to players.
A hard salary cap, shortening of max contracts (to three or four years), the loss of Bird rights (where teams can go over the cap to re-sign their own players) and mid-level exception, a 20 percent cut in the minimum salary and a cut in the first-round draft pick salaries have all been put on the table by Stern.
There are also rumors of provisions that contracts could only be half-guaranteed and that the player’s share of basketball related income would fall from 57 percent to less than 50 percent.
But here’s the biggest wrinkle as it pertains to our discussion: any contract signed before the new CBA takes place would not be grandfathered in, and instead would start counting against the team immediately.
That’s a huge red flag for these teams. Imagine if the Knicks sign Rudy Gay to something like five years, $70 million and Joe Johnson to five years, $85 million. That’s $31 million per year tied up in two players.
But with a hard salary cap, that leaves the Knicks will four years (starting with the 2011-2012 season) where they have to fill their roster with 11-13 other players making a combined $25-29 million.
What this really does is eliminate an NBA middle class, which is huge to teams with championship aspirations.
You have your superstars, and you have your bench warmers, but what separates champions from playoff busts is the role players.
For example, last year, the Lakers had Trevor Ariza, who outplayed Courtney Lee in the Finals. They had Derek Fisher, who hit bigger shots than Rafer Alston or Jameer Nelson.
The Celtics, during their championship run, got timely contributions from players like P.J. Brown, Eddie House and Leon Powe.
It would be very difficult for a team to add good role players at a competitive salary.
Now imagine a team like the Lakers, Celtics, Mavs or Cavs. Those teams had payrolls of $91 million, $86 million, $86 million and $84 million this season.
Now, given that those teams were championship contenders this season, you could argue that it was money worth spending. Add that to the fact that the Lakers and Celtics have won titles with those basic numbers, and the Cavs are trying to keep LeBron, they shouldn’t be faulted for getting out their massive wallets.
Under a new proposed CBA, those teams would basically have to dump salary to get under a hard cap. For teams like the Cavs and Celtics, that might not be hard, as they have big numbers coming off soon.
But what about the Lakers? They just inked Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol to more than $180 million in extensions the past few months. Those two will make an average $45-50 million between them until 2013-14. If the cap hovers around $50-60 million for the next few seasons, the Lakers simply put, could not practically fill a roster.
They would have to sign other players at around $1 million a season, and you can’t fill a roster with quality players doing that.
Their only other choice would be to dump Gasol or Bryant to clear up space, and while that helps the competitive balance of the league, the Lakers were basically forced to give up on a potential dynasty.
As you can see, overpaying a mediocre free agent this summer could really damage a franchise.
NBA players and owners have historically taken a “it hasn’t happened until it’s happened” mentality, and that’s much easier to sell to the fans.
But tell that to a GM whose job is on the line if he doesn’t make a splash. That GM isn’t worried about the franchise’s long term future, he’s worried about cashing his paycheck for next season. He just wants to be able to show that he did indeed try to make the team better in the present.
Now you take into account the numerous NBA teams that are famous for terrible decisions, like the Clippers, Knicks, Timberwolves, Wizards and Heat. The Wizards, Clippers and Timberwolves have space, aren’t run very well and are not premium free agent destinations.
That does not bode well for those franchises, especially, if after disappointing 2009-10 seasons, they feel the need to make a splash/atone for previous terrible decisions.
While a team that plays its cards right this summer could be positioned for a decade of dominance, a team that plays its hand poorly this year could be in for a lot more wasted money and seasons, and even worse, disappointed fans—fans who the team and league are counting on to open up their wallets.