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NBA PM: Cap Flexibility is a Must in the NBA

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In today’s NBA, cap flexibility is key for teams to have success. Teams are very wary of heavily leveraging future assets and signing players to ill-advised long-term contracts.

A perfect example of a team that risked it all in order to have immediate success is the Brooklyn Nets. As Nets fans know all too well these days, the team traded several high draft picks under the watch of former general manager Billy King in order to make an immediate run to at a championship.

As we sit here today, that championship run obviously never quite panned out and the team is still paying for King’s mistakes. Most notably, King executed a trade to acquire Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry from the Boston Celtics in exchange for three future first-round picks and the right to swap picks back in June’s draft.

In all, King traded 11 first-round draft picks during his five-and-a-half seasons on the job and changed head coaches four times. Additionally, the Nets spent over $100 million in luxury taxes alone with nothing to show for it. As King attempted to build his own super team, it serves as a reminder that not all super teams pan out.

While King ultimately took the fall for the Nets’ miscues, he is only partially to blame. With an ownership group that wanted to compete no matter the cost, King made moves he felt were necessary to put the team in a position to win. The moves didn’t work, and the Nets are now trying to pick up the pieces.

Teams know the window to compete for a championship is very small. With each team in the NBA improving every year, there are no guarantees that a team will return to the playoffs or even make a deep run to the Finals. The Golden State Warriors recognized that this summer and brought back several key roster pieces in free agency.

As teams navigated through free agency this summer, a few did so with an eye on the future. As the Los Angeles Lakers continue to work through life after Kobe Bryant, they could strike gold next season. While the Lakers have roughly $100 million on the books for the 2017-18 season, that number drops to around $41 million for the 2018-19 season.

The Lakers have positioned themselves to be a top free agent destination next summer. The team could have as much as $47.8 million in cap space to work with as players like LeBron James, Chris Paul, Paul George and Russell Westbrook will be among those that could be free agents.

With a new front office in place, Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka worked quickly to create cap space for next year. They traded D’Angelo Russell to the Nets in exchange for Brook Lopez’s expiring contract, and they also shed Timofey Mozgov’s long-term deal in the process.

They pounced on Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in free agency after he became an unrestricted free agent. Caldwell-Pope was signed to a one-year deal and could be brought back again next summer. By signing him to a one-year deal, the team’s cap space will remain intact.

While the Lakers are certainly positioned well for free agency, the Philadelphia 76ers are another team that appears to be in good financial standing as well. While they’ve been near the bottom of the standings for several seasons now, the team is attempting to change its image from bottom-dwellers to being an attractive free-agent destination.

The 76ers have a young core led by Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz and Dario Saric among others. The front office is hoping that group can be enough to convince some key free agents to help progress the organization forward. It seems to be working as the team recently signed free agents J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson and both were excited to play with that core.

In order to maintain their cap flexibility for next season, the 76ers signed both Redick and Johnson to one-year contracts. While most free agents prefer long-term deals, the 76ers have offered higher salaries on shorter deals to keep the flexibility and to persuade the player to take the deal.

As it currently stands, the 76ers are projected to have around $40 million in cap space for next summer. While it remains to be seen which players they could potentially sign, they’re hoping to have a strong 2017-18 campaign in order to lure some of those top free agents and prove the team is trending forward.

It could start becoming a trend to avoid locking up players on long-term deals. A team like the Orlando Magic also signed free agents this summer to short-term deals in a move that was likely designed to avoid having long-term money committed to multiple players.

By having cap flexibility, teams can set themselves up well for the future. Of course, while having the cap space is one thing, being able to use that cap space on a top free agent is another thing. We’ve seen in recent years that some players have opted to sign for less in order to join a contender.

But it’s better to have the flexibility and the chance to sign players rather than having no flexibility and missing out on these free agents.

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About Cody Taylor

Cody Taylor

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.