NBA Free Agency Guide Part 2, Poor(ish) Players

Title: NBA Free Agency Guide Part 2, Poor(ish) Players
Date: July 5, 2008
Original Source: Hoops Addict
Synopsis: This was a Hoops Addict article focusing on some players that may be forced to take pay cuts given the lack of available cap space across the NBA.

In my Hoops Addict debut back in early March, I wrote that most teams would have trouble spending money this offseason because of the strong salary cap crunching facing the majority of the league this offseason. In fact, I wrote, “Thirteen teams are above the cap. Another seven are within the expected mid-level exception figure. Only three teams could offer a player a maximum contract, and each of those teams has at least one high-profile restricted free agent to re-sign. On top of this, teams have draft picks to sign with no negotiating room, since the NBA utilizes a rookie contract scale.”

This remains true today, four months later, and it will have a grave impact for the current crop of free agents available on the market.

While I won’t go into great salary cap detail in this article (you can refer to my Hoops Addict debut linked above, or the Salary Cap Guide I wrote for my site for more detail), I will lay out the following: Teams who own the rights to players face a cap hold until that player is signed or renounced, and teams also face a cap hold for exceptions like the Mid Level Exception, whether they plan to use them or not. This means, then, that there are very few teams with room to offer players much more than the Mid Level Exception (the league’s average salary, give or take a few dollars).

What’s worse for free agents is that the teams with cap room to spend above the MLE are largely those at the bottom of the standings, meaning most higher profile free agents are facing the decision of competing for the playoffs (or a title) or taking a big pay day and hoping their new franchise can build a winner quickly.
Sure, there are exceptions like Elton Brand and Baron Davis, who have both received offers from Golden State and the Los Angeles Clippers (not respectively, both have offers from both teams). But for every Elton Brand or Baron Davis, there is a Corey Maggette. Maggette faces the unique situation of being an extremely valuable asset to any team but having very little demand for his services, in the financial sense. Any competitive team will likely jump at the chance to sign Maggette at the Mid Level amount (in fact, the Spurs and Celtics have reportedly tried to do so already), but Maggette’s value is probably closer to the $8-10M range, not the $5.5-6M Mid Level Exception. So what’s a guy to do?

There is the option of signing a one-year deal at the MLE and hoping there is more money floating around the league next season, but this requires a leap of faith in one’s ability and the market. There is the option of signing at or above your value with a lesser team and hoping that they put the right pieces in place, but this requires faith in a currently bad franchise and risks sending a bad signal about your aspirations as a baller. And there is the option of signing a multi-year deal at the MLE, foregoing money in the short term but increasing your value via winning seasons and re-acquired Bird Rights, though this requires faith in your long-term sustainability and the market a few years from now.

None of these options are terrible, but none of them are ideal. Maggette is the shining example as the third or fourth best unrestricted free agent on the market (there are really only four marquee UFAs in Maggette, Brand, Davis, and Gilbert Arenas), but this quagmire extends to restricted free agents, too, to a lesser degree.

Restricted free agents have the benefit of additional options – they can sign one year qualifying offers and become unrestricted free agents next year, or they can use their Bird Rights (if they have them) to sign more lucrative deals with their current teams. Still, the free agent market currently works such that very few teams have the excess money to offer a restricted free agent much more than the MLE, meaning there are few teams bidding to drive up the price that the current team would have the right to match. For players like Andre Iguodala, Monta Ellis, Andris Biedrins and Emeka Okafor, whose teams have plenty of cap space, this doesn’t matter. But for players like Ben Gordon, Luol Deng, Josh Smith, Josh Childress, Jose Calderon, J.R. Smith and many more, 2008 is not a good summer to be a free agent.

I told you this was coming back in March, and I hope this summer’s moneyless free agent period (unless, of course, the world goes crazy with sign-and-trades, which it probably won’t) signals to teams and players alike that the market won’t always be bullish, and both sides of the Collective Bargaining Agreement need to prepare for more offseasons like this in the future.

Oh, and the cap-saving many teams are doing for Free Agent Frenzy 2010 doesn’t help, either.

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