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I’m old enough to remember when cap space mattered, when the words “max room” were enough to get your team’s fans giddy over the possibility of All-NBA superstars stepping onto the court for the home team next season .
At least there was the instant thrill of being in the game, right? Just being one of the teams selected to hold a meeting on July 1st in a hideaway by the beach felt special.
Now? We only had one All-Star trade this summer in free agency – one-time All-Star Fred VanVleet. Only two players – Kyrie Irving and VanVleet – got the max. James Harden, a Hall of Fame player who scored 42 points in a road playoff game six weeks ago, generated so little interest that he opted into the final year of his deal. So did Kristaps Porziņģis for that matter.
It wasn’t for lack of money sloshing around. Eight teams entered the offseason with max or near max money to spend in free agency: Detroit, Houston, Indiana, Orlando, Oklahoma City, Sacramento, San Antonio and Utah. Three others (Charlotte, Washington and the Lakers) could have jumped in as well if they had wanted to by waiving their own free agents. That’s more than a third of the league! While several of those teams were rebuilding, they also had ambitions to take big steps forward this summer.
And yet, the net result of all that cap space was a truly jarring free-agent move (VanVleet to Houston), followed by … some stuff. Let’s just say that when the word “max cap space” came up this spring, Detroit fans didn’t envision Joe Harris.
I must emphasize what a change this represents.
As recently as 2019, seven All-Stars changed teams in free running in a single summer. Kawhi Leonard jumped from the Raptors to the Clippers with cap space. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving did the rare and spectacular “double max” to team up in Brooklyn. Kemba Walker left Charlotte for Boston’s cap space. Jimmy Butler left Philly even though he wasn’t in cap space, but when he did, the Sixers had enough cap space to sign Al Horford away from Boston and into the void. D’Angelo Russell might not be your idea of an All-Star, but it was the seventh when he left the Nets as the outgoing part of a sign-and-trade for Durant.
The initial instinct is to blame the Big Bad New CBA for this, but the real culprit is last CBA. The loosened restrictions on contract extensions and especially the arrival of the supermax extension have massively reduced the pool of star talent that ever hits free agency in the first place. That summer of 2019 — which also featured Paul George, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook being traded — was sort of the last gasp for the old-fashioned model of free agency.
With that in mind, take a look at what our friends in cap space have been up to this summer. I understand we’re not quite done yet, and a few restricted free agents in particular remain on the market and could receive offer sheets. Nevertheless, there isn’t one player in that group that could hold a candle to our 2019 class, so I think the point will hold regardless.
• Houston was the only team to pursue the “old model” that launched into a feeding frenzy that saw the Rockets sign VanVleet, Dillon Brooks and Jeff Green while trading three former first-round picks. Everyone else went a different way.
• Detroit, with near-max cap space and clear marching orders for improvement, turned its nearly $30 million in cap room to Harris and Monte Morris while getting a second-round pick.
• Oklahoma City had even more room than Detroit; The Thunder used it to A) pay $33 million to move up two seats in the draft by taking Davis Bertans, B) taking a second-round pick for Victor Oladipo, and C) signing Vasa Micic to a contract that would fit into the cap space exception if they ever actually used the rest of their cap space.
• Indiana turned its cap space into a short-term overpayment on Bruce Brown — at least this one had one on the field — and a trade for Obi Toppin. We’ll talk more about the Brown deal in a moment.
• Orlando would have had to give up players like Gary Harris or Markelle Fultz for max cap space and chose not to; Still, the Magic’s only real move was filling the slot with Joe Ingles for a year.
• Sacramento broke new ground by using cap space to overpay its own player instead of someone else’s, with a $217 million renegotiation-and-extension for Domantas Sabonis that I would describe as player-friendly.
• San Antonio volunteered as a dumping ground for Cedi Osman and maintains significant cap space to absorb whatever pieces James Harden and Damian Lillard’s inevitable trades produce.
• Utah used the majority of its cap room to take on someone else’s problem contract, turning Rudy Gay into John Collins. The Jazz still have enough cap space left to renegotiate and extend Jordan Clarkson or take on another bad contract.
• Charlotte and Washington could have entered the fray but never really had the guts to jump in. The Wizards made an odd choice to (over)pay Kyle Kuzma; The Hornets’ situation remains unclear pending restricted free agents PJ Washington and Miles Bridges, but they haven’t been a player in unrestricted free agency thus far.
• Even the Lakers — Lakerspeople, the free-agent destination par excellence for decades now—took a look at the options and decided “Nah, we’re good.”
So, in total, $30 million or so in cap space gets you … a few seconds? That is it???
Looks like things have really changed. You just don’t get an elite player for free anymore; teams have become too savvy and it has become too easy to extend players. On the flip side, no one is stupid enough to just spend the money on random people because they have the money; Deng-Mozgov summers are probably a thing of the past.
In fact, the smartest plays I’ve seen on the board have come from teams like Orlando and Indiana, who have adopted something of a hybrid strategy by essentially turning their cap room into both a utility player and a trade exception.
Bruce Brown is overpaid by $45 million over two years, but with a second-year team option, he basically serves as a trade exception. If a deal comes along to get the Pacers a truly difference-making player, they have the big expiring deal they need … and that’s true at any point in the next two years if they pick up the option. Meanwhile, they landed a really useful player to help out in the backcourt; this is way higher up the food chain than absorbing a pay dump.
Orlando had a similar concept with half the money; Ingles isn’t on Brown’s level, but having his deal on the books allows the Magic to pivot quickly if a trade opportunity presents itself.
For teams like the Magic and Pacers who are still figuring out what they have, I thought this was a particularly smart use of their cap room, and I was a bit surprised that more teams didn’t go for it short-term overpayment as a means of rolling over the cap space.
One thing’s for sure: Cap space isn’t cool anymore. The dream of an All-Star free-agent signing is impossible if none of them ever become free agents in the first place. As a result, teams will have to think much more strategically about what max-type cap room even means anymore and what options are truly viable for franchises in that position. Many of them got 50 cents on their cap room dollar this year, and with so few true stars hitting free agency, I’m not sure the ROI will improve much in the coming seasons.
(Top photo by Fred VanVleet: Cole Burston/Getty Images)