Dan Clayton

Dan Clayton , 2019-06-29 16:10:32
Utah Jazz Tickets

Call it the spreadsheet before the storm, the math before the mayhem. 

We’ve never seen anything like the craziness that’s about to unfold when NBA free agency begins on Sunday evening. The sheer number of available players and possible outcomes makes this an unprecedented, complicated game of musical chairs that could leave the league looking completely different. Nearly half of the 450 players who finished last season on a roster are (or could be) free agents.

As this scattered free-for-all takes shape, it’s important to know where the money is. We’ve compiled a look at every team’s cap situation, sorted by the most flexibility teams can create without trading away salary, assuming a $109 million salary cap.

Of course, that caveat — max flexibility without trades — looms large. As we’ve repeatedly seen in the NBA marketplace, teams can get creative about carving out more flexibility than appears to exist, so never forget when looking at this list that “where there’s a will, there’s often a way.” 

The exact amount of flexibility a team will create depends on decisions they make regarding any non-guaranteed salaries on their roster, as well as their plans with incumbent free agents. If they want to keep the rights to re-sign players, they have to reserve varied amounts (called cap holds) on their salary sheet. But we’ll go through each team’s situation by the maximum amount of spending power they could hypothetically create by moving away from all of their free agents and non-guaranteed players.

We start with four high-variance teams whose cap situations are the most interesting. The short version here is that these four clubs would probably prefer NOT having cap flexibility, because if they have it, it likely means that they’ve lost star players. 

After looking at these four, we’ll check on the rest of the league’s spending power.

Golden State Warriors

The Warriors are one of those high-variance teams: they could wind up with a non-max salary slot (just under $20M) to spend, or they could wind up well over the tax and in fact with the most expensive salary-plus-tax personnel bills in NBA history.

The reality is, they’ll only have money to spend if everything goes wrong: that is, if Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson both decide to leave. And even if that happens, GSW would still have to waive Shaun Livingston by July 101, not bring DeMarcus Cousins back, and opt against keeping the rights to restricted free agents like Quinn Cook and Jordan Bell.

In all likelihood, the 5-time reigning West champs will operate above the cap this summer, but the fact that they could change gears depending on what Klay and KD decide makes their situation interesting.

Indiana

There are a lot of ways the Pacers’ cap situation can play out, with five key free agents whose cap holds are in the 8-figure range.

It sounds like they’re ready to move on from Thaddeus Young and Tyreke Evans, and Darren Collison somewhat shockingly announced his retirement on Friday. But Cory Joseph and Bojan Bogdanovic also both have cap holds in the teens. If both walk or if Indy cuts ties, they could create as much as roughly $35M in space. If they keep both at market-value they’ll be an exceptions team.

The Pacers also reportedly have some of that money set aside for Jazz free agent Ricky Rubio, whose market value will likely be in the low to mid teens. Landing Rubio and retaining even one of the Bogey/CoJo duo would dry up most of their spending power.

Milwaukee

The Bucks’ situation is interesting for the same reason as the Warriors: if things go the right way for them, they will be an exceptions team and maybe a cash-strapped team paying the tax.

The Bucks can get up to the mid-30s in cap space, but if they do, it means that all of Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic have departed. They already sacrificed George Hill to the salary cap gods – only $1M of his salary was guaranteed. That’s a huge chunk of the rotation that helped them to the league’s best record, so the best outcome for them would be to never sniff the hypothetical space and instead retain as many of their key roles players as possible.

Philadelphia

The Sixers are right there with the Pacers as one of hardest cap situations to predict. Butler, Tobias Harris and JJ Redick have cap holds totaling nearly $70M, so the fate of those unrestricted free agents could well be the difference between Philly having the option to carve out almost $60M in space – or being a tax team with almost no spending tools.

If those three starters leave them hanging, Philly can quickly retool their cap sheet and go after a marquee replacement. But until the fates of those players are decided, Philly’s resources are tied up in free agent holds.

Now let’s check on the rest of the league, in alphabetically sorted tiers based on potential spending power.

Potential Big Spenders

Brooklyn, Boston, Dallas, both L.A. teams, Memphis, New Orleans, New York and Sacramento can all create enough cap room to offer something very close to a max salary, or in some cases, multiple max salaries. These are the teams who will seek to control the market at the very top.

  • The Nets are a major cap space team, with the ability to create up to nearly $70M. Obviously the rumor is that some of that is earmarked for Kyrie Irving, and at least for now, they’re reserving $21M so they can retain matching rights on D’Angelo Russell.
  • Technically the Celtics can create as much as $35M by revoking free agent rights, but it seems unlikely they’ll renounce Terry Rozier (who’s restricted). Still, Kyrie Irving’s and Al Horford’s likely departures mean that Boston can get to $26M or so and still keep Rozier’s Bird rights) alive with a $9M cap hold.
  • The Mavs need to set aside $17M on their cap sheet to preserve the rights to restricted free agent Kristaps Porzingis, but if they cleared all other holds and non-guaranteed salary, they could still get up to nearly $31M in space.
  • The Clippers are going to play a big role in solving the free agency riddle this summer. They can spend as much as $57M if they renounce/cut everybody who’s not guaranteed, and obviously they are hoping to win the Kawhi Leonard sweepstakes. If they do, they’ll still have a decent chunk to spend, and if they don’t, they’ll be begging somebody to take that large pile of cash.
  • Now that the Lakers have dumped three small salaries and convince Anthony Davis to decline a $4M trade kicker that his contract entitles him to, they can create up to about $32M in space.
  • The Grizzlies will be a cap space player after the Mike Conley trade gave them the option of creating up to about $30M of space. However, if they decide to keep Avery Bradley and Kyle Korver, whose salaries are only partially guaranteed, they’ll only have about half of that.
  • The Pelicans can get to roughly $30M in cap space after they complete the trade with the Lakers on July 6, which is perhaps why they didn’t extend qualifying offers to make Stanley Johnson and Check Diallo restricted free agents.
  • The Knicks can create two max salary slots if they want to – or they could keep the rights to some of their free agents and non-guaranteed players and still have a boatload of available cash.
  • The Kings can get up to around $60M in space, but likely will opt to keep some player rights intact instead. Harrison Barnes’ large cap hold ($32.7M) should motivate them to negotiate a new deal quickly. If they get him tucked away in the low 20s, they can still create a max slot by renouncing all other FAs.

Potential Medium Spenders

Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Orlando, Phoenix and Utah all still have the means to create a significant chunk of cap room, but not quite a max slot.

  • The Hawks will operate as a cap space team, but they have already committed most of it by agreeing to take on Allen Crabbe and Solomon Hill. They can still create up to $15M or so in space if they renounce/waive all FA/NG guys.
  • The Bulls can create a non-max slot (just under $20M) by releasing rights to Robin Lopez and some minimum-salary free agents.
  • The Nuggets can get up to about $17M in space, but if they retain Paul Millsap (or if Trey Lyles gets a raise to stay) they’ll likely wind up an exceptions team.
  • The Magic can create non-max cap room of $19-20M, but only if they rescind Nikola Vucevic, Terrence Ross, Khem Birch and others. Since word is that they’re trying hard to quickly lock up Vooch (whose cap hold is $19M), we can presume that they’re planning to operate as an exceptions team.
  • The Suns will be a cap space team, but already committed small chunks when they agreed to acquire Aron Baynes and Dario Saric in draft-day deals. They can still get up to the low 20s in theory, although the $9.6M cap hold for restricted free agent Kelly Oubre Jr. will drop that number down into the mid-teens until they decide to sever ties.
  • The Jazz have committed their cap space in the Mike Conley deal, but even after swinging that deal, they could open up close to $19M by waiving all other non-guaranteed salary. They’re most likely not waiving Royce O’Neale or Georges Niang, though, so the realistic cap slot they can open without more trades is about $17-18M.

Exception Teams

Barring trades, Charlotte, Detroit, Minnesota, San Antonio, Toronto and Washington will be operating over the cap this summer, but all of them could hang on to their full suite of non-taxpayer exceptions, like the $9.2M mid-level, the bi-annual exception, any remaining trade exceptions and more.

  • Without a trade, the Hornets will be an exceptions team even if Kemba Walker bolts. They can technically create cap space in an amount close to the full MLE, but at that point it’s better for them to keep the MLE, various player rights, and their other exceptions – like a $7.8M TPE left over from Dwight Howard that they can use through July 6.
  • The Pistons will be over the cap, but could spend add as much as ~$15M to their current guaranteed salary without triggering the tax.
  • The Timberwolves are at the cap with just their top seven guaranteed salaries, so they will almost certainly operate as an exceptions team.
  • Even if the Spurs renounced all FA/NG guys, they’d still be close enough to the cap (within ~$5M) that it would be more advantageous for them to keep their exceptions.
  • Marc Gasol opting in ensured that the Raptors will operate as an over-the-cap team, even if they move on from all other FA/NG players. If Leonard stays put, that pushes them over the tax – but obviously that’s a tax bill the reigning champs would prefer to pay.
  • The Wizards will operate over the cap. After swallowing three salaries from the Lakers, the spending power they could create by waiving/rescinding guys is only $5-6M, or less than exceptions money. And they’d probably like to keep the rights to Tomas Satoransky and Bobby Portis anyway.

Strapped for cash

At least as it stands without trades, Cleveland, Houston, Miami, Oklahoma City and Portland all have very limited spending power. All are right at the luxury tax line or over, which means they’ll be operating with smaller exceptions and more restrictive trade rules.

  • The Cavs are flirting with the tax based on their guaranteed salary, so unless a trade is made, they’ll have only taxpayer exceptions to work with.
  • The Rockets are over the cap with just their five guaranteed salaries. They could technically use the full MLE, but doing so would hard-cap them. That said, this is one franchise that frequently finds ways to make stuff happen, even when it appears that their eyes are bigger than their stomach. That might be the case again this year, as they’re plotting to land Jimmy Butler via a sign-and-trade – an avenue that would also leave them with a hard cap for the next 12 months.
  • The Heat are above the cap and tax with their current guaranteed money. They could open up a little breathing room under the tax by stretching the $15.6M they owe Ryan Anderson, but that would have salary cap implications for 2020-21 and 2021-22. (Zach Lowe says this is another team that would like to construct a S&T to land Butler.)
  • The Thunder are over the tax by ~$14M with only 10 guaranteed players, so they will be functioning over the tax, barring a trade.
  • The Blazers’ 11 guaranteed salaries have them within $3M of the luxury tax, so they’ll be dealing with taxpayer exceptions this season, barring trades. And that’s before solving for key 2018-19 contributors like Al-Farouq Aminu, Rodney Hood, Seth Curry and Enes Kanter, all unrestricted free agents.

We’ll keep an eye on how things develop and update this list throughout free agency as we keep track of where the money is and how it could get divvied up to the more than 200 potential free agents this offseason.

 

Dan Clayton

Dan covered Utah Jazz basketball from up close for more than 10 years, including as a radio analyst for the team’s Spanish-language broadcasts from 2010 to 2014. The born-and-raised Utahn now lives in New York City.

Dan Clayton

Dan Clayton


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