First-Round Epitaph: How the NBA’s Playoff Casualties Will Spend for the Future

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With the first round over, eight more teams can turn their full attention toward the offseason transaction bonanza — and the unprecedented climate of uncertainty around it.

Owners crowed about trimming the length of player contracts during the lockout, but with a bundle of those short-term deals set to fly off the books this summer, teams are grappling with the new challenge of keeping strong rosters together. Paul Millsap’s two-year, $19 million deal looked like a steal when he signed it. Now it is the symbol of how transitory success and team chemistry might be in the new NBA.

After years of hovering around $60 million, the salary cap is about to skyrocket — from $67 million next season to an estimated $90 million in 2016-17, and perhaps as high as $110 million the following year. Players will think about refusing long-term deals so they can reenter free agency again and again as more teams luck into massive cap space — found money they have to spend on someone.

This summer could be the first in a unique boom of roster turmoil. One thing could cut that boom short but also add another layer of uncertainty: a potential lockout after the 2016-17 season, when either the players or owners can opt out of the collective bargaining agreement in hopes of wringing concessions from the other side.

No one knows how this will unfold. Imagine a team this summer offers you a four-year deal for the full midlevel exception, a contract starting at about $5.5 million reserved for teams that are over the cap. Do you refuse, betting you can play yourself into a better deal as the cap jumps? Or do you sign, knowing the midlevel effectively won’t exist once every team is under the cap — leaving the largest free-agent pools in league history, including a bunch of max-level players, to fight over the same cap space?

The projections are all over the map, but every team is searching for ways to build continuity in a league in which the rules are increasingly slanted against it. Losing early in the postseason can push players and teams to think differently about their futures. Let’s look at how the eight fresh playoff victims fare in our unofficial uncertainty index, starting with the teams least affected by an early exit.

8. Milwaukee Bucks

A six-game battle royal with Chicago, culminating in a festival of cheap shots that should have embarrassed everyone involved, represented a delicious helping of gravy for a Milwaukee team that exceeded internal expectations. Nothing that happened in April or May was going to buck Milwaukee from its course. This is a young team game for the patient route; the Bucks aren’t going to splurge on some splashy free agent who will help them chase the no. 7 seed next season. That era is over.

Milwaukee should enter the summer with about $15 million in cap room, though Khris Middleton could start the three-day clock ticking on that room by signing an offer sheet with another team after the stroke of midnight on July 1. Middleton uses the same agency that represents Jason Kidd, and it’s possible he might hang out in free agency so the Bucks can strike. Milwaukee can crack open enough room for a max contract by trading one or two players,1 and it’s a borderline lock to move someone; bringing back Middleton and Jared Dudley would leave the Bucks with 16 players on the roster, one above the limit. Milwaukee could simply waive Jorge Gutierrez’s nonguaranteed contract, but if it can nab a second-round pick and some cap room with a larger trade, it should do so.

Milwaukee will be an interesting test for how urgently teams outside the nexus of free-agency glamour look to fill their cap space this summer. Milwaukee’s cap room might mean something now, when only about half the league’s teams could dangle a max-level contract.2 Just about every team will be able to do that next summer and in the summer of 2017.

Teams hate to spend for the sake of spending. They don’t want to look weak; agents feast on desperation. But Milwaukee should not be afraid to overpay a mid-career free agent it likes on a long-term deal. Contracts that eat 20 percent of the cap next season will only soak up about 15 percent in two years, and even less than that going forward. They’ll look like bargains, and finding a long-term partner for Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo would give Milwaukee a chance at building the sort of continuity that may become harder to engineer.

That is part of the reason rookie deals, and the first-round picks that produce them, are more valuable than ever. They are set at salaries that don’t rise nearly as fast as the cap will, and they are the best way — and maybe the only way outside of max contracts — for teams to keep a player for the long haul.

This is why Phoenix was smart to lock up Eric Bledsoe and the Morris twins to five- and four-year contracts, respectively, before this season — and before we knew that the Morris twins would face serious assault charges. The Suns understood that all of those contracts would look better with time, and that all of their young players could develop together into a whole that might eventually become greater than the sum of its parts. They paid a heavy price for Brandon Knight — heavier than I’d have paid — because they knew the deal came with the chance to sign him for a half-decade.

7. Boston Celtics

The Celtics didn’t set out to make the playoffs, and it’s unclear if one week of watching Cleveland toy with them was worth falling out of the lottery. Outworking Cleveland on a national stage gave Boston and Brad Stevens some amorphous free-agency buzz, but it also featured Kelly Olynyk ripping out the shoulder of Boston’s no. 1 prospective free-agency target.

The long-term course remains the same. Boston will target young free agents that fit its rebuilding timetable, and it’ll overpay second-tier guys if that’s what it takes to nab them ahead of the cap spike. Toss some interesting players atop a pile of first-round draft picks, including beauties from Brooklyn and Dallas, and Boston could cobble together an enticing offer to any team with a disgruntled star.

One aside: Boston and Denver discussed Ty Lawson deals before the deadline, and the Nuggets justifiably demanded a high return for a borderline All-Star on a friendly long-term contract. The talks fizzled, and Boston snagged Isaiah Thomas at a cheaper price. The relationship between Lawson and the Nuggets may be souring beyond repair, per the Denver Post, and the Nuggets are now faced with a thinner trade market. Boston, Detroit, Miami, and Milwaukee traded for point guards at the deadline, and though two of those players3 are free agents this summer, both are likely to re-sign with their current teams.

That leaves fewer suitors for Denver. Sacramento has been an obvious landing spot since the Kings’ Wheel-O-Coaches landed on George Karl, but unless the Kings are willing to move their first-round pick, they don’t have a ton to offer. Houston stands as an intriguing possibility. A team with James Harden dominating the ball doesn’t need a pick-and-roll ace at point guard, but that hasn’t stopped Daryl Morey from sniffing around Rajon Rondo and others. Morey has signed several undersize point guards in the past, and he’s a believer that elite talent trumps fit issues.

And Lawson could fit in a secondary role next to Harden. Houston wants to run, and Lawson might be the fastest player in the league. He’d probably shoot better from deep on the diet of spot-up looks Harden would feed him, and the Rockets could use another guy who can work off the bounce. There might be some slippage on defense, but Houston has done fine on that end with Jason freaking Terry, and it has the trade assets to entice Denver: the Pelicans’ pick in this draft, plus two young bigs in Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas.4

But don’t count out the Celtics just because they have Thomas — a warning that should apply to lots of teams with established starting point guards. Lawson is really good, and Denver’s thinning trade market presents opportunity for a surprise suitor to strike. Denver will need a point guard if it deals Lawson,5 and the Celtics acquired Thomas in part because his cheapo contract is so easy to trade. The Hornets should absolutely gauge how much they’d have to attach to Kemba Walker in order to land Lawson — or whether they could acquire Lawson and flip Walker someplace else for extra goodies.

Lawson has off-court issues, and teams should be wary about paying his next contract. But Lawson is a real get under his current deal.

6. Brooklyn Nets

Hopefully Brooklyn fans enjoyed a two-week distraction from the team’s wretched long-term reality. Thinking about ways to defend Kyle Korver was a wonderful respite from the existential emptiness of bloated tax bills and lost draft picks. The Nets can’t sniff contention, and they can’t tank. They are stuck, and the only path to getting unstuck until they recover all of their own draft picks — in 2019! — is to somehow lure multiple star free agents once their awful mega-contracts expire.

Good news: Only Deron Williams will be left in 2016-17, and with the cap estimated at $90 million that season, the Nets could re-sign Brook Lopez, Thaddeus Young, and Mirza Teletovic this summer for something like $30 million combined6 and still have max-level room in July 2016. That’s when Kevin Durant will hit free agency, and you know what, let’s just not finish that thought. It’s too cruel.

Adding one All-Star to a mix of Williams, Lopez, and whatever else won’t turn Brooklyn into a contender. Adding two All-Stars could bring the foundation of a good team, and carving out that kind of cap room in advance of July 2016 would give players and agents time to plot partnerships. But the Nets can’t open fire with a double-barreled max if they keep Williams and sign multiyear deals with the Lopez/Young/Teletovic trio — players they will need to remain competitive next season and avoid the humiliation of coughing up a lottery pick to Boston.

Brooklyn could try to coax those guys into one-year deals this summer, though Lopez will surely seek long-term security given his history of foot troubles. Using the stretch provision to waive Williams would solve a lot of issues, even if it would leave a $9 million annual dump on Brooklyn’s cap sheet through 2019-20. It would help the Nets squeeze under the tax line next season without sacrificing any outgoing free agents or salary-dumping Jarrett Jack, which would cost them at least a second-round pick. The Nets have paid the tax in each of the last three seasons, meaning they would be the first team to face the dreaded repeater penalty if they bust into the tax again next season — a fate the Nets would prefer to avoid.

Stretching Williams would conjure about $13 million in extra cap space for the summer of 2016. It’s not a cost-free move, but you’re fooling yourself if you think Nets officials won’t seriously consider it.

By the way: There’s some internal turmoil going on in Brooklyn. The Nets did not pick up their option for next season on Bobby Marks, a cap whiz who has been with the franchise for 20 years, per Mike Mazzeo of ESPN New York. There are also serious rumblings that GM Billy King is on the verge of a contract extension, but Nets officials are mum on the matter.

5. New Orleans Pelicans

It feels like these guys should rank higher, given Anthony Davis’s potential free agency a year from now, questions about the surrounding parts, and new rumors that Joe Dumars could still arrive in some supervisory big-picture role above GM Dell Demps — rumors that don’t appear to be heading anywhere for now.

But barring a trade, the Pelicans are locked into this roster for another year. They won’t have much cap room even if Omer Asik and Norris Cole leave, and all indications are the Pelicans would like to re-sign everyone. That would allow them to stay over the cap and use the full midlevel exception to sign another veteran cog.

They should also have a huge home-court advantage with Davis in the form of the “Rose Rule” allowing teams to offer super-max contracts to players who meet certain criteria over their first four seasons. Remember how the Pacers were lukewarm about Paul George potentially making an All-NBA team last season, since it would cost them money?

That is not the case here. New Orleans is rooting like hell for the Brow to meet super-max eligibility, and the All-Star start or All-NBA appearance he needs next season should come easily. Pull that off, and the Pelicans could offer him a five-year deal worth something like $145 million. That’s about $30 million more than New Orleans could offer in a normal max deal, enough to blow away what Davis could make by leaving New Orleans early — no matter how he might work that theoretical exit.

Davis would forfeit about $20 million even if he signs his qualifying offer in 2016-17, inks a max deal with another team, and finally opts out of that contract to re-sign with yet another maximum deal after his seventh or eighth season — when he’d be eligible for the larger veteran max contracts.

There are real questions about the supporting cast, but as long as Davis is here, the Pellies will have the best one-man starting point in the league over the next decade. Still: The current roster, even with Eric Gordon’s resurgence and a strong campaign from Tyreke Evans, isn’t good enough to grow into a title contender. The Pelicans have to clean up some clutter and nail free agency down the line, and they should have plenty of cap flexibility in July 2016 — along with everyone else.

4. Toronto Raptors

Their situation is covered in this postmortem of Toronto’s playoff no-show against the Wizards. Everything will be on the table.

3. San Antonio Spurs

They are clearly no. 1 for reasons that transcend current trends, but since we’ve already addressed them, we’ll stick the champs here. One additional note: If Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili come back on cheaper deals, it will nip away at San Antonio’s ability to offer LaMarcus Aldridge or anyone else a max contract — to the point that the Spurs might have to deal a player with a midsize salary, like Boris Diaw or Patty Mills, to absorb any max-level free agent who agrees to go there.

2. Portland Trail Blazers

Speaking of Aldridge! He will be a fascinating test case for the power of the fifth year only the Blazers can offer him — and of Portland’s stomach for keeping this core together. Aldridge is about to turn 30, and the Year 5 salary in the five-year max deal the Blazers can offer — something approaching $25 million — is likely more than Aldridge could earn on the open market in five years as a free agent approaching 35. Aldridge could lose serious money on both ends signing the smaller four-year max with another team. Given his recent health and injury history, Aldridge may want to lock in every guaranteed dollar he can. He’s not a physical freak like LeBron James, and he’s not 26 like Kevin Love, a prime candidate to cycle between one- or two-year contracts before his shoulder injury.7

But that fifth season, once such a tasty carrot, might not hold as much sway with the cap about to balloon. Aldridge might be able to have the best of both worlds by signing a four- or five-year deal with a player option in the last season — on time for him to opt out at the end of his prime and lock in one more long-term deal under the higher cap.

It would also give Aldridge and his agent, Arn Tellem, more leverage to push for a trade should Aldridge become disenchanted in Portland. The Blazers looked like a fringe title contender before injuries unraveled their season, and the future is cloudy after the overmatched remnants took only a game from the Grizzlies. Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez are also free agents this summer, and Nicolas Batum’s deal expires after next season. The Blazers were hard proof of intangible chemistry, with a starting five that got deadlier and more efficient as the players learned each other’s quirks. That continuity, a rare and precious thing, is in jeopardy.

Portland could bring back the whole gang and feel confident it’d be a mid-rung playoff team every season. But it has to face the question of whether it could really be anything more than that as the team ages. Aldridge’s game will age well, but it will still age. No one knows how Matthews will recover from an injury that has devastated almost everyone who has suffered it — including two players, Elton Brand and Chauncey Billups, whom Blazers GM Neil Olshey watched struggle up close during his time with the Clippers. Damian Lillard needs one more All-NBA appearance to become eligible for the Rose Rule super-max, and Batum’s next contract will be a big one.

Pay everyone, including Lopez or a new center to replace him, and the Blazers could face limited flexibility, even amid the cap jump. They could lock themselves into “very good” status, but perhaps without the upside of title contention.

The Blazers are prepared to pivot another direction if Aldridge leaves — which is 100 percent in play, according to sources across the league. The timing of their contracts isn’t an accident; Portland could be flush with cap space if Aldridge bolts, and if it doesn’t sign-and-trade him, the Blazers could fill that space with youngish free agents on long-term deals — contracts that will age well.

That may be a more attractive route than out-and-out tankery, since the Blazers don’t have a Sixers-level floor with Lillard, Batum, some nice young players, and spare parts. Slough off Batum in some present-for-future deal, and the picture changes; it’s not hard to plummet down the standings in the West, and there might be some appeal to taking their medicine while the Warriors, Spurs, Thunder, and Rockets own the West for a couple more seasons.

These are hard questions, but at least the Blazers know their current team is really good.

1. Dallas Mavericks

You can’t quite say that about Dallas. They are the kings of reloading and perhaps the first team to recognize that cap flexibility — and specifically plenty of room under the tax — would be crucial under the new collective bargaining agreement. But the Mavs are beginning to feel the pain of endless roster churn under the new regime of shorter contracts, and it’s unclear if they’ll ever again be able to rebuild a true contender around Dirk Nowitzki.

They have exactly zero drafted players on their roster after years of trading down, trading picks away, and flat whiffing. They owe Boston a 2016 first-rounder via the Rondo debacle, and they just don’t have any of those rookie contracts that are so key to building up continuity.

Their attempt to trade for an impending free agent who might re-sign8 into a long-term partnership with Nowitzki backfired as horribly as possible. Nowitzki is declining, Chandler Parsons just had knee surgery, and the defensive limitations of a Nowitzki-Parsons–Monta Ellis troika might be fatal to any title hopes.

Everything is in flux, again. Ellis is almost certain to hit free agency along with Tyson Chandler, and Dallas can only carve out max-level cap space by renouncing its Bird rights on at least Chandler.9 It would have to renounce both to even approach the dream of offering two max contracts, and even then, the Mavs probably have to cut more money somehow — by flipping Devin Harris, using the stretch provision to waive Raymond Felton, or even dealing their own pick (again).

And someone has to, you know, dribble the ball — especially since Nowitzki can’t carry the offense from the post anymore in the regular season. There may not be any great answers here. Dallas could let Chandler walk, sign someone like DeAndre Jordan to a max deal, and then bring Ellis back using his Bird rights. But that doesn’t fix the structural defensive issues or leave much room to do so — especially since the Mavs will need a good chunk of money to re-sign Al-Farouq Aminu, who earned a ton of admirers within the organization.10

They could arrange to bring Chandler back at a discount, let Ellis go, and sign three rotation players: Aminu, a pricey wing who can defend (Danny Green, Middleton), and a cheapo ballhandler to do the dribbling thing. But Chandler would have to leave a ton of cash on the table, and it’d be tough reorienting an offense built around Ellis’s ability to run the pick-and-roll amid pristine spacing.

The Ellis/Parsons project is just a hard wing pairing to build around. One bad matchup — say, Harden — and you’re toast. The ideal third perimeter guy next to Ellis and Parsons is a spot-up shooter who can defend both elite point guards and wings, so that the Mavs can hide Ellis on the least threatening offensive player every night. Good luck finding that sort of player. Knight comes to mind among this summer’s free agents, but Phoenix has the right to match any offer for him. George Hill would work, but the Mavs aren’t flush with trade assets.

It’s tempting to suggest the Mavs just punt the traditional point guard altogether, sign a Green/Middleton type, let Ellis run the offense, and have the new guy guard the toughest outside threat every night. But that plan has holes, too. Ellis would struggle chasing point guards, and bigger wings who occasionally defend point guards (like Green) would wear down doing so 50 or 60 games per year.

Jordan makes sense here on a lot of levels. He’s a younger, more explosive version of Chandler who should continue to smooth the edges of his defense. Jordan’s agent, Dan Fegan, is close with Mark Cuban. And Jordan is exactly the sort of player who might gamble on a short-term deal to reenter free agency again when the cap leaps. He’ll only turn 27 this summer, he never gets hurt, and he’s already banked more than $40 million from the Clippers.

Changing teams on a short-term deal would still cost him some money, but if he times things right, he could reduce the shortfall to the point that it wouldn’t hurt — especially given the tax advantages Texas has over California.11

Parsons can already opt out of his contract after next season, and Dallas could hoard enough cap space to offer multiple max contracts in either July 2016 or July 2017. That is the upside of constant turnover. They will get meetings with every big star; the Mavs have that kind of cachet. But Nowitzki is only getting older, and the Mavs’ cap space won’t have as much value when 29 other teams can offer the same thing.

The Mavs have been spinning their wheels in mud since the lockout, but more and more teams will face that kind of roster churn over the next two or three years. The NBA wanted a more robust transactional market; they know fans go bonkers over free agency and trades. Now teams just have to figure out how the hell to navigate that new reality.

Filed Under: 2015 NBA Playoffs, Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets, New Orleans Pelicans, Toronto Raptors, San Antonio Spurs, Portland Trail Blazers, Dallas Mavericks

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

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