Welcome to one of the great accidents in sports history -- a one-time mega-leap in the salary cap that will unleash an orgy of confused spending. This is Year 2 of a three-year earthquake during which the NBA's salary cap will nearly double from $63 million to around $110 million, with almost half of that bump coming in this single outlier free-agency period.
Teams still aren't quite sure what will happen or how they might exploit the chaos. A year ago, with most of the jump still looming, they could at least be sure almost every long-term contract would soon look like a bargain. That might no longer be the case; the league projects a smaller increase next summer (from $94 million to $107 million, though most expect it to go higher) before the cap flattens in 2018 and beyond -- pending a potential lockout in 2017, that could upend parts of the collective bargaining agreement..
A bad long-term deal signed this summer could still look bad two years from now. Teams have to be more choosy even as conditions require they spend boatloads to reach the minimum payroll of $85 million.
The boom will have some predictable consequences, but the tremors will shake the NBA landscape in ways we can't anticipate. Here are five things to watch as we enter the free-agency Thunderdome.
1. Timing, and the Marvin Williams/Dwight Howard conundrum
In the past three years, the Pistons and Blazers have beaten the market with aggressive deals for Jodie Meeks and Al-Farouq Aminu right after the midnight opening bells. Given the glut of cap space, team executives expect more insta-deals for second- and third-tier free agents.
Every capable rotation player will choose among rich offers. If you like, say, Solomon Hill or Mirza Teletovic, you might as well unload a dump truck of cash on them right out of the gate while a half-dozen teams are waiting on Kevin Durant.
The length of deals might end up being more interesting than the money. The stars are going to get whatever they want -- at least four years for Nicolas Batum, Al Horford and Mike Conley, plus whichever path Durant chooses between long-term security and the one-year option that would maximize his salary.
For the middle class, we might have reached a point at which factors push both teams and some players toward shorter-term deals. Beyond 2017, teams see a flattening cap, glitzy free-agent classes and a potential work stoppage -- though I'd still consider it unlikely that a lockout costs any part of the 2017-18 season. They have incentive to keep their powder dry.
At the same time, they have tens of millions to burn before even reaching the salary floor. They might approach an intriguing player with some gargantuan one- or two-year deal and hope the money is so eye-popping that the player takes it.
Normally teams don't get much upside from one-year deals; the Kings purchased six months of stat-hoggery from Rajon Rondo, and can now either let him walk or overpay him based on inflated numbers. It's like choosing between cauliflower and lima beans. You don't even get a player's Bird rights, meaning that once he hits free agency again, you don't have the right to go over the cap in re-signing him; you have to use precious cap room instead.
But teams can make one- and two-year deals work for them. If the salary is hefty enough, the limited version of Bird rights you do get is usually enough to cover whatever raise the player might seek the following season -- meaning the team can fill its cap space on other dudes, and then re-sign its guy.
For players, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. A lot was made last summer of how most players opted for long-term security over one- and two-year deals. But a bunch of guys chose the short-term route: Greg Monroe, Jeremy Lin, Amir Johnson, Jonas Jerebko, Paul Millsap, Arron Afflalo, Derrick Williams, Bismack Biyombo, Teletovic, Rondo and a couple of others all bet on themselves to varying degrees.
Boston's deal for Johnson still generates lots of chatter: The Celtics paid Johnson an annual salary -- $12 million -- well above what he would have received on average over a longer contract, and in exchange, he signed a one-year deal with a fully non-guaranteed second season. Johnson is now a trade asset with a relatively low cap number, and he'll get to test the market again during another cap spike.
Teams could offer these sorts of deals both at tipoff, as well as when free agency dies down in mid-July, when GMs with leftover cash are looking for that last-call hookup. The players' union is even encouraging guys to sign contracts that decline over time so they get as much cash up front as possible, sources say.
But older players are risk-averse, and if they are staring at rival one- or two-year deals, a lot of them will leverage the bidding into an extra year. That third season could become the breaking point.
Take Marvin Williams: He's 30, coming off a career year, and he brings a positional versatility that could help any team. It would not be preposterous for someone to offer him a two-year, $38 million deal. (Seriously, get ready, everyone.) But if Williams hungers for more guaranteed cash, which team will bend and offer something like (gulp) three years and $50 million?
The answer should be: a good team that views Williams as the player who takes it into the 55-win range. The third (or fourth) year might hurt, but it's the cost you pay to enter the contender's circle. A middling team or a bad one should pass, and sift for gems on shorter contracts.
Dwight Howard might be the thorniest test of willpower. Teams are turning up their noses at even a two-year guaranteed deal for Howard anywhere near his max. But progress, real and imagined, can make teams do funny things. The Blazers have a gazillion in cap room, and they want to hold the line in a Western Conference that will be better almost across the board. They could use a defensive anchor at center, and they will absolutely look at Howard, per several league sources.
Boston has a Dwight meeting on the books already -- stock up on candy, guys! -- and could use a rim protector.
Will these teams have the discipline to fold when the bidding gets heated? Signing Howard introduces a wild card into a team's culture, and for the Blazers, it would change the way they play. Howard isn't as nimble as Mason Plumlee, and not nearly as comfortable a passer in space; could he punish teams that trap Damian Lillard the way Plumlee does with artful drive-and-kick plays?
Someone is going to cave on these guys.
2. Who slides back?
After years of Tankapalooza, the NBA has reached a point at which almost every team -- and maybe literally every team -- wants to win more basketball games. What a concept!
The NBA is a zero-sum game. A team that wants to win will fail, and by failing, net a prize in a loaded draft lottery. The path from the playoffs to the top half of the lottery is clear.
Some swing teams to monitor:
The Hawks are reluctant to offer Horford the fifth year only they can dangle, and if they hold firm, they are at grave risk of losing him for nothing, per league sources. (Watch out for the Pistons on Horford; with Wednesday's trade of Meeks, they are one tiny move away from being able to fit his max. They are working to schedule a meeting with Horford over the first 48 hours of free agency, sources say. Horford's fit alongside Andre Drummond is another question entirely.)
Atlanta already traded Jeff Teague for a rookie. Kent Bazemore will have suitors everywhere, including in Milwaukee, Memphis and Brooklyn, sources say. If Bazemore and Horford walk, the Hawks will be at a fork in the road: rush to fill the gaps with high-priced talent or trade Millsap and race to the bottom?
Seriously: How many teams are worse than a Hawks team without Horford, Bazemore and Millsap? Three or four, if that? Mike Budenholzer's role as as both coach and GM is the wild card; coaches vomit at rebuilds, but his title also provides the job security to survive one.
Dallas dreams of luring both Mike Conley and Hassan Whiteside on max deals, per ESPN BlackBerry maven Marc Stein, but absent a series of salary-sloughing trades, the Mavericks can't open up the requisite $49 million in room with Chandler Parsons' cap hold sitting on the books. Rumors have already burbled that the Mavs don't want to offer Parsons a max after his knee issues, and that Parsons could seek his payday elsewhere.
The Mavs have whiffed on every big-name free agent since they let Tyson Chandler walk, and they will have a ton of competition for Whiteside and Conley; the Grizzlies are almost as confident about re-signing Conley as they were with Marc Gasol last offseason.
The Mavericks can keep Parsons' Bird rights as they negotiate with bigger fish to hedge against the nightmare scenario of losing out on everyone, though Parsons can torpedo that by signing someplace else right away. Teams are terrified about Parsons' knees and crow they will hold firm at a number below his max. But Parsons is eligible only for the lowest-tier max deal, starting at about $22 million, and a GM on thin ice with chambered cash might bite that bullet -- especially if he can persuade Parsons to take a shorter deal.
Parsons might want to lock in as much moola as possible now; he knows his knees better than anyone, and the uncertainty of a revised collective bargaining deal looms.
Regardless: Dallas again faces serious downside on the treadmill of mediocrity. Dirk Nowitzki doesn't want to leave, but he's also tired of losing in the first round.
Houston should have no trouble hanging in the 40-plus-win range as long as it surrounds James Harden with a few guys who fit, but ownership has championship expectations. It's unclear how the Rockets approach that level again.
They are not getting a meeting with Kevin Durant. They offered both Trevor Ariza and Patrick Beverley before the draft in hopes of snagging one or two first-round picks, though sources insist they also wanted a veteran back in any such deal. Those two are snug fits next to Harden. If you're dealing them and missing on Durant, what exactly is the path back into the West's upper echelon next season?
Knowing Houston, it will involve pitching every big-time free agent who might listen; Stein reported on my podcast the Rockets have some interest in Conley, continuing their quixotic quest to flank Harden with a ball-on-a-string point guard, and Daryl Morey, the team's GM, has always erred on the side of chasing top talent and figuring the rest out later.
What happens if Houston misses on Horford, Conley, Batum, Whiteside and others? Remember: Morey let Parsons walk two years ago because he didn't want to tie up max money on a third option. Given the pressure to win, will he pass on someone like Ryan Anderson for the same reason? Power forward is a giant question mark given Houston's free agents there spent last season either pooping the bed (Terrence Jones) or in street clothes (Donatas Motiejunas).
Philadelphia and Brooklyn will be bad, but early indications are that both will go hard after young-ish free agents with untapped upside. They have enough cap space to make it rain with offer sheets, and at worst, they will drive up both prices and the pace of business in restricted free agency -- bad news for a team like the Warriors, who might need to wait out Durant before making a choice on Harrison Barnes.
(This might not matter; teams can't lavish offer sheets until the moratorium ends July 7, and incumbent teams have three more days to match. Durant will likely have made up his mind by then). Brooklyn has strong interest in adding some character veterans, including Jared Dudley, sources say.
Philly might kick the tires on glossier moves, including Barnes and the East Coast relocation of Waiters Island -- though reports of the Sixers' interest in Dion Waiters during former GM Sam Hinkie's administration were always bogus, per several league sources.
Teams are worried Brooklyn will jump the market on unrestricted free agents with ties to new coach Kenny Atkinson (Lin, Bazemore), and some under-the-radar young guys.
3. Will we get any big trades?
A few months ago, it seemed as though the cap-space flood might grease the wheels for starry trades involving Kevin Love, Blake Griffin, DeMarcus Cousins, Jimmy Butler and a few others. That market has cooled. The Cavs are content, and Chicago has swatted away Butler inquiries since the draft (though Minnesota and especially Boston will still try).
Clippers coach Doc Rivers has talked publicly about keeping the gang together in Los Angeles, and even the much-discussed Griffin-Durant sign-and-trade is unwieldy; any player acquired in a sign-and-trade must sign for at least three seasons, meaning Durant would forfeit the one-year-deal route in agreeing to that arrangement.
The Kings are capable of untold horrors. Monroe is available, but Milwaukee can't wring anything good for a guy who could bolt in a year -- in part because this free-agency class market is packed with centers. The Pelicans have explored a Monroe-Anthony Davis partnership before, but they are hopeful Omer Asik will rebound after a dreadful season; they are in no rush to waive him via the stretch provision, allowing them to spread his remaining guaranteed money, sources say. Still: they will watch the market for centers, including Monroe.
The Wolves will likely waive Nikola Pekovic at some point, but they don't appear to be a Monroe destination. Portland, Atlanta and Washington have all shown interest in Monroe before, but none is eager to surrender a real asset -- not even a protected first-round pick.
One type of deal that could happen: teams getting off long-term contracts signed over the past two years. We've already seen that sort of deal with Tobias Harris, Robin Lopez and Thaddeus Young. In theory, teams shouldn't be eager to trade guys locked into affordable deals signed under the old cap regime, but someone will need to shed money in a roster pinch. Across the table, suitors should be willing to give up real stuff for guys on affordable long-term deals.
The Raptors will need to move at least one big deal to have any hope of retaining both DeMar DeRozan and Biyombo, and teams will call about DeMarre Carroll. Toronto has already approached Philly about a deal sending out a rotation player -- perhaps Terrence Ross, and other goodies -- in exchange for Nerlens Noel, who could then assume Biyombo's backup center role, according to league sources. The talks haven't gained much traction yet.
Phoenix seems ripe for a deal, though Chandler's contract is a bit of an albatross. The Pacers would probably like to dump Monta Ellis. Alec Burks will be expendable at some point soon for Utah. John Henson signed a four-year, $45 million extension last fall and barely played; if you're Boston, would you rather sign Howard to some monster one-year deal or flip a pick and a prospect for Henson?
4. How will restricted free agency go?
Good restricted free agents almost never change teams. Teams wield matching rights as a deterrent against suitors and can sometimes leverage a lack of interest into a bit of savings.
Perhaps not this season. There are a ton of teams with oodles of cap room and very little to lose. Tying up space for three days as the incumbent waits to match might cost you a player, but some teams have so much space that they could extend a max-level offer sheet and still chase targets.
Reaching for Barnes, Evan Fournier or Allen Crabbe isn't a disaster; they're young, you get them through their primes, and if they just follow an average development curve, they'll be movable down the line. In the worst case, you make their incumbent teams pay the full boat. Sometimes you just have to be mean. By the way: Orlando's acquisition of Meeks should have no bearing on its approach with Fournier. No one knows whether Meeks is healthy; the Magic need Fournier, badly.
Hell, even after a wasted season, someone should still throw eight figures at Jones just to see if he can sustain the flashes of canny all-around play he showed in Houston. The market will be chillier on most midtier guys, which increases the likelihood their teams will match; Meyers Leonard stands as perhaps the only realistic candidate to sign the one-year qualifying offer and enter unrestricted free agency next season.
Watch out for the so-called "Gilbert Arenas" restricted free agents with only one or two years spent in the league, especially Langston Galloway, Tyler Johnson and Jordan Clarkson. Rival teams can offer them only the midlevel exception (about $5.6 million) in the first year and a small raise in Year 2, but they can leap all the way up to the player's max salary in Years 3 and 4. (These are the trickster offers Houston used to pry away Lin and Asik four years ago.)
The bigger numbers should come into play only for Clarkson, though a team might offer a backloaded three-year deal to Galloway or Johnson.
5. Will we see more creative contract extensions?
Yes! Here's the deal: If teams have cap room, they can use it on raises for guys who signed their current contracts at least three years ago -- and tack more years onto the end of those deals. Denver did this last season with Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, and both the Jazz and Pacers seem like good candidates to try with George Hill and Teague -- provided they have the requisite space leftover.
If they play their cards right, the Pacers and Kings could start this process with Paul George and Cousins, respectively, in September. Derrick Favors becomes eligible a month later. The Wizards could engage with John Wall on the last day of July -- the third anniversary of the day he signed his extension.
Some of these talks won't materialize; teams will use most or all of their cap space to sign new players. But teams have spent the past few years lamenting the death of extensions for stars. The cap boom has resurrected them. Any time you get a shot to lock up a cornerstone for more years, you have to at least think about it.