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What do teams do when all the big-name superstars have landed elsewhere? That’s a question hovering above this year’s intriguing, but, ultimately top-heavy free agency class. The biggest name available, Kevin Durant (sorry but LeBron opted out just for the extra $3.5 million he can get by re-signing another one-and-one deal with his Cavs), is likely to re-sign with the Thunder or head to one of the other Western Conference elites, San Antonio or Golden State. That leaves a rather large hole for new acquisitions and a whole lot of cash with the higher-than-expected salary cap raising the salary floor to an heretofore unheard of $85 million.
Teams are going to want to reach that minimum even though they don’t need to. The salary cap has risen by 34 percent this season and it’s expected to rise to around $107 million next summer, but that figure might even be low (we’ve seen it predicted as high as $110 million). That is a ton of money. In 2014-15 it was just $64 million. This past season it was $70 million. So a jump to $94 million and then as high as $110 million is astronomical and skews everything. Backup point guard Matthew Dellavedova making eight figures? Yeah.
That’s going to be a big problem for some fans to comprehend, especially when they realize they’re paying so much for someone who isn’t even a real first option for a playoff team.
Aside from LeBron and Durant, there’s no one among our top 15 most important free agents this summer who can lead a team to the NBA title as their best player. Sorry D-Wade and DRE fans. But that doesn’t mean they won’t get max money, and that’s where Twitter’s abrasive maw of discontent comes in. Teams have a bunch of money as we’ve mentioned with the increasing cap, so we’re going to see some guys getting deals that the average fan might find ridiculous.
Chandler Parsons could get the max. Harrison Barnes might get the max. DeMar DeRozan should get the max…if he stays in Toronto. Dwight Howard is looking for the max, and so is Mike Conley; although, Conley might take a pay cut in Memphis if it means they can add even more pieces, one of which may even be Chandler Parsons. And if that happens, we doubt Conley agrees to a pay-cut so Parsons can then get the max. And, to be honest, Parsons’ knee is the biggest reason the Mavs likely won’t offer him the max anyway, which is why he’s likely gone. Because someone probably will.
But all those guys aren’t going to win their new or old team a title as “the guy.” That doesn’t mean a near-max deal is dumb, it just means we’re in a weird moment for the NBA. It’s similar to America in the 1950s. Everyone has money, and the middle class is swollen. The income gap shrinks and there are more good times for a larger majority in the middle and upper middle class. The only ones getting screwed are the superstars, who, as we’ve pointed out before, continue to be the most underpaid people in all of basketball.
So here’s what you need to remember: figure out what the yearly pay for a guy is compared to the cap. Always compare it to the cap. Kawhi Leonard signed a five-year, $95 million max salary last summer that — if you average out his year-by-year pay to $19 million* — is a little over 27 percent of the $70 million cap for 2015-16. But because the new cap for 2016-17 is expected to be around $94 million, that means — even with his own raise for next season to $17.6 million — he’s making a much lower percentage of his team’s cap because of the spike (it’s around 18.2 percent for next season if that cap figured holds up during the moratorium vetting).
The surge in the cap isn’t the only reason we should expect astronomical salaries for borderline stars. Sometimes it’s just the best thing your team can expect. DeMar DeRozan isn’t good enough to lead his team to a title, especially considering the guy who beat him and Kyle Lowry in the Conference finals this past season. But he’s a better-than-average guard and he teamed with Lowry to lead them to a franchise record in wins and their greatest postseason run ever. That’s nothing to snort at just because their ceiling isn’t an NBA title.
DeRozan is a good, but not great player. He draws fouls (only James Harden drew more this past season), makes the defense bend with his herky-jerky changes of direction to get into the paint, and he gives a crap on the defensive end. But, perhaps most importantly, he likes Toronto and most reports have him staying in the 6. Unless he’s willing to take less — perhaps in an attempt to re-sign the postseason’s surprise breakout big man, Bismack Biymobo — then sure, sign him to a discount because he can’t shoot the three ball and you’re not going to win a title with him as your high-volume scorer. But if not, pay that man his money and keep a fun team together to get another crack at LeBron James and company next season.
In a situation like DeRozan’s the fact he wants to stay in Toronto, like Kyle Lowry two summers ago, is important. Canada has nationalized healthcare and their taxes aren’t easy to avoid. NBA players can hire accountants to take full advantage of America’s many tax loopholes, but it’s not so easy in Canada. That’s a big downside to playing north of the border; although some think it’s overblown. That’s forgetting to mention just how freakin’ cold it is above 43 degrees north latitude along Lake Ontario. But DeRozan is down for it.
DeRozan is just one example, but he’s still polarizing. Most smart basketball people would balk at paying him the max, but general manager Masai Ujiri isn’t dumb and he’s still thinking about doing it. It’s because he knows all those above factors come into play and not every team can be Golden State, San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Cleveland. And most teams can’t — even with the escalating cap — even fritter away money like the loaded Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks.
Harrison Barnes is another example, but he’s not even an All-Star like DeRozan has been. Golden State’s starting small forward — slash power forward in their small-ball lineup with Draymond Green at center — was heralded as a possible max player before this past season began. But a mid-season injury compounded by some dreadful play late in the playoffs, specifically those last three games the Warriors lost in the Finals, has many questioning whether he deserved that sort of pay hike. Shoot, not even Draymond Green or Klay Thompson are making the max after signing deals last summer. If he signed an offer sheet from another team for a max amount and the Warriors matched it, he would become the highest paid player on last season’s 73-win team.
Depending on how things play out with Kevin Durant, they still might do this. And it still might be the smart move! Barnes, to steal a phrase from Jack Winter, has no “wiggle,” and we don’t know if he’ll ever learn something that’s so intrinsic to the best stars in the game today. But there aren’t many players who can adequately defend 2-4 on the floor, know how to swing the ball, can knock down a three and can get you an isolation bucket in the post, so long as he’s got a mismatch. Like DeRozan with Toronto, Barnes also fits really well with the Warriors as presently composed.
But another team who strikes out on Kent Bazemore or DeMar or Marvin Williams or Bradley Beal, might offer up close to the max to see if the Warriors will blink. They might think he could learn the “wiggle” necessary to run a pick and roll at the NBA level. We have our doubts, but that’s where we’re at with today’s NBA.
Non-max guys like DeRozan are going to get the max, or close to it. Role players like Harrison Barnes might even get it when the rest of the free agency stock things out and teams are debating between the salary floor or a big offer on a project player like Harrison Barnes.
*Leonard, like most max contracts following a rookie deal where a team holds a player’s Bird Rights, is getting a 7.5 percent raise each year and he can’t make more than 25 percent of the cap in his first year; so he’s making $16,407,500 this year (which is around 23.4 percent of the $70 million cap), $17,638,063 in year two, $18,868,626 in year three, $20,099,189 in year four and around $21,329,752 if he chooses to pick up the player option he has for year five.