The initial barrage of free agency is complete. While a few stragglers remain, most of the impact free agents are off the board.
LeBron James has yet to re-sign with the Cleveland Cavaliers, but that’s presumed to be fait accompli. Kevin Durant has relocated to the Golden State Warriors. The Los Angeles Lakers quickly locked in Timofey Mozgov.
Some teams still have spending power, like the Boston Celtics – who are still hoping to make a blockbuster trade – or the Brooklyn Nets with almost $19 million left in cap space.
A few franchises managed to stay above the NBA’s record $94 million salary cap, including the Los Angeles Clippers, Toronto Raptors and Cavaliers.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are in an either/or situation, presently over but capable of dropping under by as much as $14.4 million.
Of the many completed deals, a number jump out as particularly creative:
The Chicago Bulls invested in Rajon Rondo, but with a relatively cheap escape clause. The veteran point guard will earn $14 million for the coming season, then $13.4 million for 2017-18 – but only $3 million of that second year is guaranteed. Should the Rondo experiment go south, the Bulls can cut him, stretching out his salary over three season at $1 million apiece.
Rondo could also prove to be a trade asset, should a team want to come off a more expensive salary, looking for a cheap partially-guaranteed player to acquire and cut to clear cap space.
James Harden Renegotiate and Extend
The Houston Rockets had hoped to make a bigger splash in free agency than Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, but the team is happy with their summer acquisitions. More importantly, the team used their available cap space to restructure Harden’s contract from $16.8 million for 2016-17, to a maximum salary of $26.5 million – locking in an additional year (or two, giving Harden a player option for 2019-20) for their generosity.
The mechanics of Houston’s move was covered in May. The Utah Jazz still have just about enough cap room to do the same with forward/center Derrick Favors.
Moving Quickly Under Pressure
The Brooklyn Nets gave significant offers to restricted free agents Tyler Johnson and Allen Crabbe. Both the Miami HEAT and Portland Trail Blazers, respectively, opted to match – but they made sure to use up as much cap room as possible before they did.
The HEAT rushed to add in Derrick Williams, James Johnson, Wayne Ellington, Willie Reed, Luke Babbitt (via trade) and Udonis Haslem.
The Blazers made sure they locked in Evan Turner, Jake Layman and Festus Ezeli, before using Crabbe’s Bird Rights (with just a $2.7 million cap hold) to match his deal starting at $18.5 million.
Ezeli on the Cheap
While the Lakers gave Mozgov $64 million over four years, the Blazers landed Ezeli with a scant two-year deal worth $15.1 million. Ezeli’s second season at $7.7 million is only guaranteed for $1 million – potentially one of the best bang-for-the-buck contracts signed this summer.
Arenas Rule Offers
The Nets were not successful luring Johnson away from Miami, but their offer – which would have hit their books at a flat $12.5 million a year for four seasons – will cost the HEAT $5.6 million and $5.9 million over the first two years, then $19.2 million each over the final two.
Johnson was a restricted free agent with Early Bird Rights, making him an Arenas-rule free agent.
The Detroit Pistons also made a similar, albeit smaller, Arenas-rule offer to Boban Marjanovic. The San Antonio Spurs didn’t have Early Bird Rights for Marjanovic, and not enough cap room to match. The second-year center will earn $21 million over three years in Detroit.
Lakers’ Checkmark Contracts
Whether or not the Lakers invested wisely in Luol Deng, Jordan Clarkson and Mozgov is subjective, but the team clearly has an eye on cap room next summer.
The Lakers gave the trio of signings higher salaries for 2016-17, which then descend a year before rising again in seasons three and four. The team could have nearly $32 million in cap space next summer.
Los Angeles also used their cap room to add on a couple of second-round picks, and a veteran reserve point guard in Jose Calderon from the Chicago Bulls.
The team has held off on signing Tarik Black, Marcelo Huertas and second-overall pick Brandon Ingram, keeping an eye on what could be $13.6 million in cap room (assuming the team also waives and stretched Nick Young).
The Lakers do have an unnamed trade target in mind, but are also preserving space for another opportunistic Calderon-like deal.
Additionally, Los Angeles chose to give Clarkson a $50 million contract over four years, instead of letting the third-year guard find an Arenas-rule offer, which would have nearly doubled the salary cap hits in the third and fourth years of his contract.
Warriors Clearing Room for Durant
While it can be important to plan for future cap space, the Warriors showed that room can be generated on the fly.
To land Durant, the team shed a number of free agents, including Harrison Barnes and Ezeli, but the key move was finding a taker for Andrew Bogut in the Dallas Mavericks.
Conley Got Paid
Hats off to the Memphis Grizzlies for giving Mike Conley the biggest contract in NBA history. Right or wrong, it was a bold, unprecedented move with Conley benefiting from the unique economic circumstances of the summer.
Conley’s has an early termination option on his final season (2020-21) and, should he decide to finish his contract, “only” $22.4 million of his $34.5 million is guaranteed. Conley can lock in that full salary if he played in 55 games in either of the 2018-19 or 2019-20 seasons.
Both the Mavericks and HEAT got a bit extreme in the guarantees with rookies Dorian Finney-Smith and Rodney McGruder, respectively.
Finney-Smith has $100,000 of his three-year rookie deal locked in, but will get $150,000 if he can last to opening night, then $200,000 by Dec. 15. His salary for 2017-18, should he get through his various cut-down dates this year, has a similar schedule.
McGruder has even more milestones to get through, starting at a similar $100,000. He then steps up to $150,000 on Aug. 1, $300,000 by Miami’s first game and $400,000 on Dec. 1.
Both Finney-Smith and McGruder will earn minimum salaries over their three-year, $2.5 million deals. Both will be fully guaranteed for 2016-17 on the league-wide cut-down date of Jan. 10.
Rookies on Three-Year Deals
The New Orleans Pelicans have agreements with a number of free agents, but have held off on signing, making sure the franchise has the cap room first to ink Cheick Diallo (33rd overall pick) to a three-year deal.
The Houston Rockets made sure they had enough room to agree to a three-season contract with Chinanu Onuaku (37th pick).
In most cases, teams should have cap room to sign at least one rookie free agent for three years instead of two, establishing Full Bird Rights before inking their summer’s free agent haul.
The Warriors could have with Pat McCaw (38th pick), but either neglected to or McCaw’s agent wasn’t open to a longer contract.
Kings Win with Afflalo, Tolliver
Sacramento signed Arron Afflalo to a two-year, $25 million contract. Anthony Tolliver will earn $16 million over the same period.
Afflalo only has $1.5 million of his 2017-18 salary locked in, while Tolliver’s is slightly higher at $2.0 million.
Should the Kings look to package the pair in trade, the combined outgoing salary of $20.5 million, guaranteed for just $3.5 million combined, might be especially attractive to other teams in trade.
The Cavaliers paid $200,000 to the Milwaukee Bucks to generate a trade exception for Matthew Dellavedova, which they immediately used to take on Mike Dunleavy from the Bulls – enabling Cleveland to keep their $9.6 million trade exception for Anderson Varejao, which doesn’t expire until Feb. 18.
Cap room isn’t all about free agency. The Jazz were able to add on George Hill and Boris Diaw with cap room via trade, although the team did give up the 12th pick in June (Taurean Prince) to the Atlanta Hawks to bring on Hill (from the Indiana Pacers in a three-team deal).
Finally, the Philadelphia 76ers signed a favorable deal with Gerald Henderson, who will earn $9 million flat for two straight years, but his second season is only $1 million guaranteed.
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