MINNEAPOLIS, MN – APRIL 01: Evan Turner #1 of the Portland Trail Blazers dribbles the ball against the Minnesota Timberwolves during the game on April 1, 2019 at the Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
The free agent market in 2019, only a bit over two months away, will be highlighted by a plethora of stars including Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, Kemba Walker, Khris Middleton, Nikola Vucevic, amongst others. Marc Gasol and Al Horford (player options) can even be added to the field, if they decide to opt out of their deals.
The league’s 30 teams are well aware of the steep free agent class of this summer, and quite a number of organizations have prepared themselves financially, to the point where it’s easier to list the teams who undoubtedly won’t come into the summer with money to spend. Those teams are the Oklahoma City Thunder, Detroit Pistons, Cleveland Cavaliers, Portland Trail Blazers, and Houston Rockets. Others are projected to be over the cap, but team or player options yet exercised could theoretically change that. It is, for example, very likely the Miami Heat will find themselves on that list as Hassan Whiteside’s player option of over $27 million, and Goran Dragic’s option worth over $19 million, are both very rich and unlikely to be turned down.
In short: A lot of money will be available this summer for players.
This is good news for players, but NBA teams should tread lightly on July 1st as to avoid a repeat of the much-maligned 2016 summer where several teams locked up inconsequential players to full four-year contracts that have now become negative value for those teams.
The Portland Trail Blazers are still stuck with Evan Turner and Meyers Leonard, two players they dedicated a combined $111 million to that summer. In their just completed first-round series against the Thunder, Turner and Leonard combined for just 103 of the team’s 1,200 playable minutes. The size of Turner’s contract, worth $70 million, has effectively blocked the Blazers from adding a third star next to Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, and as it stands, the Blazers will have to wait one more year to clear his, and Leonard’s, salaries from the books, while Lillard’s and McCollum’s deals rise in value. The Blazers also matched Brooklyn’s offer sheet to Allen Crabbe worth four years and $75 million, trading him to the Nets a year later for Andrew Nicholson (who signed a four-year deal in 2016 worth $26 million). Nicholson was later waived via the stretch provision and will be on Portland’s cap until 2024 with a cap hit of more than $2.8 million.
The Los Angeles Lakers have now solved their 2016 missfires, when they signed Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov to deals worth $72 million and $64 million respectively. Mozgov was shipped to the Brooklyn Nets in 2017, but it cost the Lakers the inclusion of now All-Star D’Angelo Russell, which was always entirely avoidable had they not decided Mozgov was worth $16 million annually. Deng was bought out and stretched. He’ll remain on the Lakers’s cap sheet until the 2022 off-season at $4,990,000 a year. Deng played a total of 1,499 minutes for the Lakers.
Ian Mahinmi and Bismack Biyombo also signed large deals in 2016. Mahimni got $64 million from Washington and Biyombo signed for $70 million with Orlando, both on four-year contracts. Washington’s decision to sign Mahinmi has had similar consequences as the Turner signing in Portland, effectively preventing Washington to add a significant piece to their then-core of John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter. Wall himself is on a $170 million extension that kicks in this summer, which projects as the league’s worst contract, and Porter is in Chicago. Beal, who broke out as the sole star of the team, is rumored to be traded.
Orlando is still feeling the effects of Biyombo, now in Charlotte, as they traded him for Mozgov, thus exchanging bad contract for bad contract. They will have to make decisions this summer on Vucevic and Terrence Ross, both of whom will look for significant pay increases. Having Mozgov’s $16.7 million cap hit on the books does not prevent them from re-signing Vucevic or Ross, but it could prevent them from convincing either player to return, fully knowing that the team will have major issues upgrading the roster this summer.
Also noteworthy signings of 2016 that didn’t pan out, and are still hurting team’s salary cap include Nicolas Batum ($120 million over five years), Kent Bazemore ($70.5 million over four years), Jon Leuer ($42 million over four years), Ryan Anderson ($80 million over four years), Chandler Parsons ($94 million over four years), Solomon Hill ($48 million over four years), and Joakim Noah ($72 million over four years – later stretched and is on New York’s cap for over $6.4 million until 2022).
While the monetary value of these deals are all significant, the real killer lies in the amount of years. Teams can usually navigate around a bad contract that lasts for a year or two, but four or five-year contracts that hurt your cap sheet can make it impossible to plan ahead or adjust on the fly. They can sour a team’s relationship with its star player, because the bad deals prevent the team from upgrading the roster and providing that star with help. They can even prevent teams in retaining valuable players, as was the case for Memphis last season where Tyreke Evans was providing stellar production (19.4 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 5.2 assists) but the team couldn’t afford him due to Evans’s (fair) salary demands and the fact that they didn’t have Bird Rights on his contract. Had Parsons’s cap hit not been on the books, the Grizzlies could have kept Evans.
Going back to this year, and there is reason for concern. The balance of available talent to available money does not align, suggesting some teams will strike out on quality talent which will leave them with considerable money to spend and a pool of players that may not be worth it. To the league’s credit, it does seem like teams have gotten smarter in recent off-seasons, often settling for one-to-two year contracts, which provides organizations with more flexibility. Even so, it’s worth keeping an eye on spending this July, as just one four-year gamble can ruin a team’s immediate future.