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Next summer could be the wrong time to be an NBA free agent

Memphis Grizzlies owner Robert Pera, fresh off committing to a couple of maximum contracts worth a total of $247 million, fired off a tweet the night of July 1, 2016 featuring a black-and-white GIF of a toddler tossing stacks of cash out of a window. It was a funny, fitting image for the unprecedented NBA free-agency madness of last summer.

A year later, as the league's market corrects itself from the wild spending enabled by a historic salary-cap spike and adjusts to next season's cap and luxury tax coming in well under original projections, the stacks of cash aren't nearly as thick and windows aren't open so wide, if at all.

Pera's Twitter account has been silent this month, as this free-agency period has been a somber time in Memphis. The small-market Grizzlies, stuck in the middle as a team operating over the salary cap but determined to stay under the luxury tax, opted to let beloved face of the franchise Zach Randolph go instead of making a bid to compete with the two-year, $24 million offer he accepted from the Sacramento Kings. Fellow Grit 'n Grind mainstay Tony Allen remains unsigned.

Threatened by the luxury tax line which, like the salary cap, came in $9 million lower than projections teams used to plan entering the free-agency frenzy of 2016, Memphis has filled its roster with low-risk reclamation projects such as Ben McLemore (two years, $10.6 million), Tyreke Evans (one year, $3.3 million) and Mario Chalmers (one year, partially guaranteed veterans minimum).

"You had a lot of parties that were guilty of a gold-rush mentality. It's always going to come to an end."

A general manager, on the market correction hitting NBA free agency

The Grizzlies, like many franchises and their players, are feeling the effects of a steep market correction following the frenzy of spending last summer.

"If you're a team, you're sitting there saying, 'Well, I'm not going to negotiate off of someone else's mistake,'" a general manager from a team not linked to any of those players told ESPN. "That was the problem. Players were going to try to hold teams and agents to these comparisons. We're coming out of a bubble.

"You had faulty logic all across the league. The league and the players' association for a lack of smoothing, the teams that spent, the agents and players that thought that this was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that was never going to end. You had a lot of parties that were guilty of a gold-rush mentality. It's always going to come to an end."


Almost $5 billion flew into the hands of NBA free agents last summer. That was the result of the players' association's rejection of a smoothing proposal that would have gradually implemented the massive revenue increases from the league's rich television deal into the salary cap, which instead soared from $70 million to $94 million.

More than a decade's worth of normal inflation occurred instantly.

Twenty-seven teams entered that July under the cap. (Two teams without cap space spent big to keep their own stars, with the Cleveland Cavaliers maxing out LeBron James and the Toronto Raptors re-signing DeMar DeRozan to a nine-digit deal. The LA Clippers, the third over-the-cap team, were backed into a corner and had to overspend on bench players Jamal Crawford, Austin Rivers and Wesley Johnson, pushing the franchise into the repeater tax.)

This summer, only 14 teams entered free agency with cap space, and about $3 billion has been spent on free agents in this cycle, a figure that already includes $169 million extensions for James Harden and John Wall and eight rookie extensions signed before the Halloween deadline. Only 22 players have been signed with cap space, down from 60 last year.

The early projections for 2018-19: nine teams with cap space, and potentially 10 teams paying luxury tax.

"The real story is the nuclear winter for free agents coming next year," one team executive with authority to make personnel decisions told ESPN. "Teams planned the last two summers for the cap to be much higher. The fact that it went way down from the projections crushed teams."


"Nuclear winter," or summer, is probably a bit apocalyptic. Nevertheless, the consensus among several team executives was that the market correction would continue into next offseason. In particular, they projected the market to be tighter for the NBA's middle class in a star-studded free-agency crop.

"Free agents will get squeezed," a general manager said.

"What I see all the time is players not understanding why, 'This player got this, but I get that?' They want it to make sense and it just doesn't make sense. I think you'll see a lot of agents get fired.

"The top guys will always feed first and then the year of the cap spike, there was a lot left for everybody else to feed. Next year, the top players will still get theirs, and then there will be not much left."

Some agents, projecting plenty of frustrated clients in the near future, are second-guessing the union for creating this situation by not working with the NBA on cap smoothing.

"It forced teams to spend all their money and gave free agents false hope of what's to come," one agent said.

"If you weren't a free agent last summer, those deals aren't ever going to come again. ... They f---ed everybody. They f---ed the teams and f---ed the players."

It was the lack of a smoothing deal that helped give the Golden State Warriors the financial flexibility to sign Kevin Durant on the heels of back-to-back Finals appearances.

It created a superteam that cruised to a title in 2017, but the Warriors' historical excellence has also influenced the motivation, or lack thereof, for some teams to spend in free agency.

"If Golden State is so dominant, what do other teams do?" one executive asked.

"You see a lot of teams work from the bottom up and not spend as much money simply because, 'Why?' You might as well go young so you can work your way into contending.

"Guys in the middle really get hurt. Unless you're an All-Star or somebody that can be a finishing piece [for a contender], it's going to be tough. It's going to be tough for free agents in that situation. If you're not on a contending team, why would you spend just to get a roster piece?"


Teams that managed their cap with an eye toward the future instead of prioritizing the present could benefit next summer. Rebuilding franchises with cap space are positioned to pounce on a potentially historic free-agency class, taking advantage of a system that will see the majority of teams over the cap, many hovering near the luxury tax or well into it.

The Los Angeles Lakers are the headliners of the group of teams who can aggressively recruit a free-agency class that could include All-NBA-caliber talent such as LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Paul George, Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins, DeAndre Jordan and Isaiah Thomas. The Lakers are projected to have $30 million in cap space and could create two max slots via trades and/or using the stretch provision.

The Chicago Bulls ($50 million projected space), Philadelphia 76ers ($40 million) and Atlanta Hawks ($40 million) are other franchises set up to be aggressive shoppers next summer.

On the other end of the spectrum, teams that haven't proved themselves as title threats such as the Detroit Pistons, Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers, Washington Wizards and possibly the New Orleans Pelicans (depending on Cousins) could be headed toward paying the luxury tax within the next two seasons along with contenders such as the Warriors, Cavaliers, Rockets and Celtics.

Oklahoma City could join the list of championship contenders paying the tax if the Thunder retain soon-to-be free agents Westbrook and George next summer.

The punitive nature of the tax could cause some teams to make cost-cutting moves: either salary-dump deals or using the stretch provision.

Portland is a good example of a blueprint that teams could follow next summer and for the foreseeable future, as the albatross of bad contracts signed in 2016 could either be stretched to alleviate a team's luxury tax penalty or traded to a team with cap space.

In Tuesday's deal between Brooklyn and Portland, the Trail Blazers, facing a luxury tax bill of $48 million, traded Allen Crabbe to Brooklyn in a move that could save Portland $60 million in combined luxury taxes and salary. Both Crabbe and Andrew Nicholson had signed multiyear contracts last summer.


Having so many teams in the luxury tax, commissioner Adam Silver acknowledged this month after the league's Board of Governors meeting, was not part of the NBA's plan.

"These systems are so hard to calibrate," Silver said, noting that six years remain on the current collective bargaining agreement.

"As the money has gotten bigger, it's becoming harder to project future cap and tax levels. I think those are all things that we continue to look at. I think our teams are smart. They find ways to compete. They work within the existing system but always with one eye on the next time we sit down at the bargaining table and are there ways of making it even better.

"It's too early to say concerned, but it's something we always look at."

Agent Mark Bartelstein considers this market decline a return to the norm rather than reason for alarm.

"There's an ebb and a flow to all of this," Bartelstein said. "Sometimes there will be years where the revenue comes in below projections and the cap a little tighter, and some years where it comes in ahead of projections and there's a little bounce."

Indeed, the spending this summer is in line with 2015, the final offseason before the flood of new TV money. A total of $3.2 billion was spent in free agency two years ago, a figure that could be reached this year as the remaining free agents strike deals.

Gordon Hayward, a Bartelstein client, signed a max deal worth $128 million over four years when he jumped from the Utah Jazz to the Boston Celtics this month. As an All-Star, Hayward is the kind of player executives expect to always command market value in free agency regardless of salary-cap projections.

But Bartelstein scoffs at the suggestion that there won't be a strong market for quality role players at any point in the near future, noting that league revenues continue to grow and the salary cap will eventually push past $100 million.

"Historically, there have been five to 10 teams [each year] that have true cap space to be able to compete for players above the midlevel exception," Bartelstein said.

"Last year was an anomaly in terms of supply and demand. Because of the huge flow of cap space, there were a record-breaking number of teams that could truly compete in the marketplace. ... That being said, I don't see any scenario at all where there is going to be dire straits."

Of course, if you are a rank-and-file free agent next year looking for a big payday, it might not be too early to be concerned.