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NBA AM: Never Too Early To Think About Cap Space

It’s never too early to look ahead to who might have real cap space to play with next summer.

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Never Too Early To Look Ahead

Salary cap management is a cornerstone of longevity in the NBA. As much as teams (and fans) may want to see heavy spending on free agents, managing the cap beyond the current season is increasingly important, especially for teams that are not competing for a spot in the NBA Finals. As the 2017-18 NBA Season gets geared up, there are a few NBA teams that may already have run into the proverbial iceberg of cap hell before they have started to play. Several other teams have set themselves up nicely if they want to make a run at the 2018 NBA Free Agent class, though, which could include the likes of Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, and even LeBron James.

Let’s take a look at some of these teams and how they are structured.:

Woefully Capped Out

Capped Out Teams

Miami Heat $117,444,952
Charlotte Hornets $112,749,409
Washington Wizards $111,854,534
Toronto Raptors $107,232,001
Portland Trail Blazers $105,364,918

*** Guaranteed 2018-19 Salary

Looking at the guaranteed salaries on the books for teams in the 2018-19 season, the albatross of the bunch is the Miami HEAT, sitting at $117.444 million in guaranteed 2018-19 contract commitments. Assuming the 2018-19 salary comes in around the $102 million many are projecting, the HEAT are already $15.44 million over the cap, mainly due to the balloon years of Tyler Johnson kicking in. By way of the poison pill contract the Brooklyn Nets offered him in 2016, Johnson’s salary will balloon up to $19.245 million. The HEAT has tried to move Johnson a few times, and unless he really blossoms into a star, you may see the HEAT try and renew those efforts.

Miami has several tradable players including big man Hassan Whiteside and point guard Goran Dragic. Last year, the HEAT resisted the temptation to trade into the bottom, opting to see how far their squad could go after an impressive run.

The HEAT should be a team to watch, especially if they struggle. It’s unlikely that anyone is going to go out of their way to help the HEAT with the Johnson contract unless it includes another inducement from the roster.

Some of the other notables on the way above the cap list include the Charlotte Hornets ($10.749 million above), the Washington Wizards ($9.85 million above), the Toronto Raptors ($5.232 million above) and Portland Trail Blazers ($3.364 million above)

Keep in mind these teams have pending free agents that will add cap holds to these figures, so these values are simply the guaranteed dollars on the cap and not inclusive of player options that could swell them even further.

A Little Space To Work With

As of today, there are ten teams that project to have some cap room depending on how they handle their own free agents. Some of those teams could have just a sliver of room below a $102 million 2018-19 salary cap.

There are a few mirages in this list, like the Golden State Warriors. Kevin Durant holds a $26.250 million player option, which brings the Warriors guaranteed salary under the cap line, but there is no imaginable scenario in which he’s not going to be on the roster next season at a number larger than his contracted $26.250 million. In fact, he’ll likely cash that number in on a nifty new deal starting at $35.7 million.

A Little Space

Golden State Warriors $99,601,388
Boston Celtics $96,337,559
New Orleans Pelicans $91,577,138
Memphis Grizzlies $90,659,551
Detroit Pistons $90,555,702
Milwaukee Bucks $82,361,935
Houston Rockets $78,123,448
Orlando Magic $77,847,322
Cleveland Cavaliers $75,902,175
Minnesota Timberwolves $73,340,187

*** Guaranteed 2018-19 Salary

The Boston Celtics could also get to a sliver of space under the salary cap, but that would require passing on team options on players like Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier (which is not likely at all), as well as not get a deal done with Marcus Smart, also very unlikely.

The New Orleans Pelicans could get to cap space next season, but only if DeMarcus Cousins walks away as a free agent. The Pelicans have actually done a nice job fleshing out their roster with one-year deals, meaning if Cousins doesn’t stay, they are not married to a ton of their roster. The Pels still carry the dreadful contracts of Omar Asik and Solomon Hill and owe E’Twaun Moore some $16 million of two years beyond this season.

Believe it or not, the Memphis Grizzlies, who have spent like drunken sailors the last few years, could get under the salary cap. The new two-year $17 million deal for JaMychal Green is basically valued at the mid-level exception; it will count against the Grizz’s cap next season but still get them slightly under the cap assuming they let their expiring deals fall off. The Grizzlies got hammered pretty hard in the profit-loss department, so if this season does not yield a return to the top tier in Memphis, they do have the means to get cheaper if they wanted to and slide in under the cap slightly.

The Houston Rockets could get way under a $102 million salary cap if they wanted to, mainly because the deals on Chris Paul and Trevor Ariza expire. Assuming the Rockets are what they hope they’ll be, Paul will ink a new deal in Houston starting at $35.7 million, erasing any shot at cap space. Ariza is going to carry a $12.868 million cap hold. Paul’s hold will be $36.899 million. So unless Paul walks away, the Rockets won’t have much to work with, despite having just $78.123 million in guaranteed deals.

Two other fun names on the middle list are the Cleveland Cavaliers and Minnesota Timberwolves. Cavaliers get here because of the $35.607 million Player Option on LeBron James. If he opts out and walks away, the Cavs get way under the cap because of James and pending Free agent Isaiah Thomas both coming off. Amusingly, Thomas’ cap hold is only $11.896 million, meaning if James walks as many have suggested he might, the Cavs could play the cap game with Thomas’ hold and sign others to the cap line and then exceed it using his Bird Rights to flesh out a new team around Thomas.

If James stays, the Cavs still can go way over the cap to re-sign Thomas if they want to pay the luxury tax that would come with it.

The Timberwolves look like they can get under the cap today, mainly because the extension for Andrew Wiggins is not final. The Wolves have all kind of option years to manage next summer so while their guarantee number is enough to get under the cap, in reality, they are likely going to clock in as a near luxury tax team if they can get the Wiggins deal inked.

Max Slot and a Little More

Possible Max Space

New York Knicks $68,004,397
Utah Jazz $67,839,543
Phoenix Suns $62,735,430
Denver Nuggets $58,287,262
Brooklyn Nets $57,408,907
Los Angeles Clippers $56,217,995
Oklahoma City Thunder $53,557,222
San Antonio Spurs $52,637,778
Sacramento Kings $51,556,390
Atlanta Hawks $49,767,209

*** Guaranteed 2018-19 Salary

There are currently ten teams that could get to at least a maximum salary slot if not more. Some of these are mirages too, for example, the Oklahoma City Thunder have just $53.557 million in committed salary for the 2018-19 NBA season, mainly because Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony all have Player Options. Westbrook has a new max level extension on the table and George and Anthony could either opt in to their deals or sign a new deal in OKC ending any shot at cap space.

The Denver Nuggets make this list mainly because they have seven rookie scale options they have yet to pick up and Player Options on Wilson Chandler and Darrel Arthur. The Nuggets have been talking with Garry Harris about a hefty contract extension that would all but erase any possible cap space. So while technically they only have $58.2 million in guaranteed money, they may end up closer to $100 million when everything is settled if not significantly more.

The LA Clippers have $123.6 million in commits this year, but only $57.12 million next season mainly because of DeAndre Jordan ($24.119 million) and Austin Rivers ($12.6 million) have player options. Add in player options on Milos Teodosic ($6.3 million) and Wes Johnson ($6.134 million) and the Clippers cap is riddled with option years creating the appearance of cap space. Unlike some of the mirages on the list, the Clippers could see a few guys opt out, although it seems unlikely that Jordan could command more than the $24.1 million owed him in 2018-19 in a league pivoting away from traditional centers.

Some of the real players on in this section are the Sacramento Kings, the Atlanta Hawks, the New York Knicks, the Utah Jazz and the Phoenix Suns. All of these teams could get very close to a max contract slot, if not more, without much issue.

The Make It Rain Teams

Possible Two Max And More

Los Angeles Lakers $41,306,960
Dallas Mavericks $41,269,318
Indiana Pacers $35,007,844
Chicago Bulls $31,749,466
Philadelphia 76ers $18,655,796

*** Guaranteed 2018-19 Salary

Every NBA offseason, there are a couple of teams with more cap space than they know what to do with. This summer there looks to be five NBA teams with the ability to get to two full max salary slots.

The LA Lakers are the team everyone is talking about in terms of 2018 salary cap players, but there is a reality that to get to two full max slots the Lakers will have to dump some money, notably the remaining two years and $36.81 million owed to forward Luol Deng beyond this season. It also means players like forward Julius Randle and possibly new signee Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s days are numbered. The Lakers are set up pretty nicely in any eventuality. If the stud free agents they covet opt for other options, the Lakers can always re-sign Pope and pending free agent Brook Lopez if everything plays out well this season.

Unlike previous years where the Laker leadership bet the house on free agency, this Laker regime has multiple options, with what could be as much as $60 million in cap room, depending on how they play their hand.

The Dallas Mavericks will find themselves with a ton of cap cash after not reaching a long-term deal with Nerlens Noel. That situation could re-surface next summer, but given where things seem to be with Noel and the organization, he may not be in the long-term plans unless he really blossoms this season.

Like the Mavericks, the Pacers and Bulls will find themselves with lots of cap cash to play with, by way of tear down trades made this summer. The Bulls continue to be mentioned favorably because of the market size and perceived marketability of the marketplace.

As has been the case for several seasons now, the 76ers could open the 2018-19 free agency period with just $18.655 million in committed cap money. Keep in mind that does not include option years on players like Ben Simmons, Jahlil Okafor, Dario Saric, Richaun Holmes or Justin Anderson. All of those options are going to get picked up, so that is roughly $19.38 million combined. The 76ers will also carry a $27.6 million cap hold on the one-year deal to J.J. Redick and a $13.2 million hold on the one-year Amir Johnson deal.

The Sixers also have two pending free agents in Joel Embiid and Nik Stauskas they have to consider. Word around the NBA is the 76ers and Embiid are talking extension, which could eat into the 76ers space.

Regardless of how the details ultimately play out, the 76ers have plenty of options should a marquee-level free agent want to join the band. In fact, the 76ers could make things interesting for the Lakers if their current young squad actually makes the playoffs, because the 76ers have the money to spend in a Conference that isn’t exactly loaded.

If you are a salary cap junky, you need to make sure you bookmark the Basketball Insiders Salary Cap pages. Our own Eric Pincus powers the most in-depth salary resource found anywhere. We have recently re-designed the tables and pages to make them easier to consume on a tablet or mobile device.

Simply click this link: NBA Team Salaries – By Team. Click the team name in the table for all the team details.

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Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.

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