NBA Free Agency Preview: What The 2016 Salary Cap Means For The 2015 Market

Mandatory Credit: Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports /

As the NBA season comes to an end and the celebrations in Oakland begin, the stage for 2015’s NBA free agency is only just being set. And while offer sheets and player option rumors continue to build, one reality remains clear: the NBA’s big payday is coming in 2016.

As many players and agents now know, recent NBA TV deals in the amount of $2.6 billion dollars and the rejection by the NBA Player’s Association of the salary cap smoothing proposal this past March now has experts projecting the salary cap to jump to near $90 million in the 2016-17 season, a 42 percent growth from this year’s $63.1 million.

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So how will the $90 million salary cap in 2016 affect this year’s free agency? There are three clear ripple effects we can expect in the run up to the jump.

Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports /

1. For the NBA’s top free agents, expect players to pass up the lengthy deals and go short term to line up contracts with the salary cap jump

Just this week, Doc Rivers, coach/general manager of the Los Angeles Clippers, suggested in a radio interview that players will opt for shorter contracts to align with the bump.

Look at the contract for LeBron James, the NBAPA vice president: a two-year, $42 million contract with a player option for this summer. LeBron likely won’t be opting out before following through on his promise for a championship for Ohio.

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The 30 percent of the cap he could be getting when he renews in 2016? At $27 million per year, James is still a bargain for the Finals performance he just put on.

But what if you aren’t the greatest player on the planet? Well, if they have enough demand, I can see players at a minimum slipping in a player option for 2016.

For the top unrestricted free agent, LaMarcus Aldridge, a max contract this year is all but a given. But a max in 2016 when teams have cleared space for the rights to players like LeBron James and Kevin Durant is even more tempting.

One could argue the competition for LMA will lies squarely in the Lone Star State, where a clear need and cap space exists for Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio (if Duncan were to retire). Cutting that kind of bidding war short would be tough, but an even wilder frenzy could be waiting if he is willing to wait out a season with the Portland Trail Blazers in 2015-16.

Meanwhile, two other unrestricted free agents, DeAndre Jordan, and Paul Millsap, have an even more difficult choice: go for a max or even leave money on the table to help their teams clear the cap. Cap space for the Hawks and Clippers could mean recruiting the talent they need to go the distance.

And a shorter term deal with lesser contracts could make sense if these players want a cut of the salary jump.

Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports /

2. Questioned players will take advantage of the limited free agency market

The poster child for this has to be Tristan Thompson. The Tim Horton’s spokesman is coming off a tremendous NBA Finals performance, grabbing 13 boards a game, and a near double-double throughout the playoffs (10.8 rebounds, 9.6 points).

His value may not always be apparent from outside the restricted area, but with the same agent as LeBron, we can expect the Cleveland Cavaliers will be hard pressed to re-sign Tristan at anything less than a max.

And here is the thing, signing Tristan to a four-year max deal before the cap goes up? It isn’t that bad. The four-year, $52 million deal he turned down in January–under a $90 million salary cap– would be the equivalent of a $9.2 million contract under the current cap.

A pay bump is affordable for a contract that will stretch into 2018, where the salary cap is projected to top the $100 million barrier.

The same holds true for questionable but talented role players such as DeMarre Carroll, Eric Gordon, Draymond Green, Reggie Jackson, Greg Monroe, and Rajon Rondo. Monroe’s poor pick and roll defense and Rondo’s terrible free-throw shooting will be worth the 40 percent discount later.

(Although, most teams won’t be questioning Draymond Green after his triple-double in game 6 of the NBA Finals.)

May 6, 2015; Cleveland, OH, USA; Chicago Bulls guard Jimmy Butler (21) in game two of the second round of the NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
May 6, 2015; Cleveland, OH, USA; Chicago Bulls guard Jimmy Butler (21) in game two of the second round of the NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports /

3. Players with options and restrictions will wait until the salary jump in 2016

This just really follows that if players have contracts expiring in 2016 and can afford to wait, they should just wait. This is certainly not without its risk. Just this past month, a ugly knee strain for DeMarre Carroll almost cost him his big break. But for the NBA’s top talent, the risk makes sense.

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  • Take Kevin Love. You’d be hard pressed to find a team in the NBA without some interest in the NBA’s rising power forward. A tumultuous year in the Cavaliers locker room, capped by a season-ending injury in the opening round of the playoffs, left many wondering if Kevin would opt in or leave Cleveland for a starring role with the Celtics, Lakers, or Knicks.

    While much remains a mystery, one thing is clear. Cleveland needs the kind of floor spacing and rebounding Kevin can provide, and Kevin’s best chance to make it back to the Finals lies squarely with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving on his team. And waiting to renew in 2016 makes just as much financial sense.

    Kevin Love won’t have much to prove to earn his max, but he can earn much more with a max if he waits.

    And Kevin isn’t the only All Star poised to play the waiting game. Yahoo columnist Adrian Wojnarowski reported Tuesday that restricted free agent Jimmy Butler plans to sign a short term deal. The Chicago Bulls All Star and 2014-15 Most Improved Player is considered one of the most valuable two-way players in the league.

    The Bulls staff will be highly motivated to sign Butler for the max, but with his talent, Butler has a bit of leverage himself, as Wojnarowski explains:

    "Butler could sign a three-year offer sheet that guarantees him $50 million, but allows for a player option on the third year that could allow him to move into unrestricted free agency and re-sign for a five-year, maximum deal worth as much as $190 million."

    I’d even argue Brook Lopez should consider opting into a $17 million contract with the Brooklyn Nets. The Nets’ star big man is expected to opt out and play the Bucks and Nets against each other for a max deal, but a year at $17 million as the focal point of the Nets system isn’t bad either. And even with foot troubles, the 7-footer could be worth much more in next year’s market.

    But keep in mind, players aren’t the only ones aware of the cap implications. While the added cash of 2016 will loom large on players minds when making choices for the near future, teams will be equally motivated to lock in long term deals. So don’t expect 2015 to be all wait and see. There are still plenty of huge contracts to iron out before the season can start again.

    I’d start with Marc Gasol and the Grizzlies, Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs, and Dwyane Wade and the Heat, just to name a few.

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