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Eight Questions for the NBA’s Silly Season

As the clock strikes midnight on July 1, the chaos of contracts overwhelms the world of basketball

Midnight on July 1 used to mark the start of the NBA’s crazy season: the opening of free agency, with GMs on doorsteps carrying fancy presentations, players taking late-night meetings, and someone signing a marginal free agent to an eight-figure deal.

But it seems like the NBA has been operating at ludicrous speed since July 2010, and especially since San Antonio wiped out Miami in the Finals. We’ve seen earlier-than-required opt-outs from star players, a handful of trades, and whatever the hell just happened between Brooklyn and Milwaukee.

It’s almost enough to make you worry that free agency, the NBA’s most addictive drug, might feel like a comedown. But that’s impossible in the new NBA, where contracts are shorter and half the league enters the offseason with serious cap space. Even if the stars stay put, the sheer number of players jetting around the league will make the first two weeks in July the most active period on the NBA calendar.

Click here for more on 2014 NBA free agency.

Here are eight big questions to ponder as we enter silly season proper:

1. What Are Those Dudes in Miami Up To?

LeBron James started by opting out last week, and Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, and Udonis Haslem soon followed suit. This appears to be a signal that the Heat will get the band back together, at a partial discount, and the Heat have never wavered in their confidence that they would retain all three stars.

It will be a bummer for lots of teams, especially Houston, Chicago, and Dallas, if the Heat stars are never really on the market. LeBron is LeBron, and some team would have hit Bosh with an offer at least in the ballpark of his max. Perhaps a half-dozen teams, including some unexpected ones, would have kept all of their free-agency business on hold to court LeBron — especially since they could chase Carmelo Anthony as a backup plan.

But if LeBron and Bosh have decided to stay home, Anthony might be the only (pseudo) franchise player on the market. That in turn could change the pace at which free agency unfolds, and how teams with cap room attack second-tier free agents.

The real story, of course, is how the Heat will retool around their three stars, and that will depend on the salaries those stars accept. As a rather important technical matter, the Heat won’t have any functional cap space until they either renounce Bird Rights1 on their outgoing free agents or re-sign them to cheaper new contracts. You don’t just get cap space when players opt out of contracts.

LeBron has already indicated he wants his max salary of around $20.5 million, according to several published reports. Let’s assume Bosh accepts a salary of about $16.5 million, and Wade swallows a $7 million pay cut — down to about $13.5 million. Haslem is doing the Heat a solid by opting out of $4.6 million, so you know they are going to bring him back on a multiyear deal that pays him at least that much over a longer period — something like three years for $9 million. Miami is going to make Haslem whole, if only for appearances.

Toss in Norris Cole, rookie Shabazz Napier, and cap holds for empty roster spots, and the Heat would be left with less than $4 million in cap space. You ain’t getting Kyle Lowry or Trevor Ariza for that.

The Heat can play around with the timing of transactions, a skill that has become crucial as the league’s cap mechanics get more complex. They could renounce Haslem to create more cap space, spend up to the cap, and then use the so-called “room exception” to bring him back on the cheap.2 They could open up some more space by dumping Cole into someone else’s cap room, and they pitched Cole-centric trades around the draft.

They also don’t have to go under the cap at all. If they stay over it, the Heat will have the full midlevel exception, which allows them to offer a contract starting at nearly $5.5 million per season. That might be larger than the cap space they’d open up, and thus a more attractive chip on the open market.

Bottom line: If LeBron is coming back, the Heat aren’t opening up serious cap space unless the Wade-Bosh combo takes a larger combined pay cut than most people expect. Maybe that will happen. It basically has to for Pat Riley to improve the roster in any meaningful way, but Bosh and Wade need to set themselves up to earn at least $55 million over the next four years in order to make opting out of $42 million over the next two even semi-rational. This could get awkward.

The Heat have big free-agency dreams — including Lowry, Ariza, and Marcin Gortat — but if those guys prove out of reach, the Heat might have to make do maximizing value along the fringes with some of the names I mentioned here. It’s un-sexy, but it might be the only available course for Miami.

But if LeBron is really off the market, his would-be suitors could read the tea leaves and move to Plan B: pursuing Miami’s free-agent targets ahead of the Heat. Daryl Morey, the Rockets’ GM, was in Philly after midnight to meet with Lowry, per Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo. We might see more of that.

By the way: Spare me the dreck about how the Miami players are rigging the game by agreeing among themselves to take less collective salary. Stars have been taking less in order to win for years, including on the team that literally just beat Miami in the Finals. This is not new. And you can’t be ripping LeBron and Carmelo for seeking the max while at the same time lamenting how the Heat players manipulate the system by accepting less to chase titles. You can’t call players greedy and then whine when they sacrifice cash for the greater good. It just doesn’t compute.

It’s popular to suggest that the new collective bargaining agreement introduced a harsh luxury tax in order to stop stars from joining together in super-teams, and that the Heat stars would thus be subverting the “spirit” of the CBA (as if that document could have a spirit) by maintaining their partnership at a reduced rate.

But that wasn’t the primary goal of the CBA. The main goal was to shift money from players to owners, and, well, mission accomplished. The NBA trumpeted competitive balance during the lockout, but it took something less than half-measures to get there. It settled for making the soft salary cap a bit less soft, and it had decades of evidence showing that wouldn’t be enough to prevent stars from joining up.

Achieving balance in the CBA will require a drastic change, one that might fail to accomplish the stated goal while introducing a bunch of unintended consequences.

You can rant about “collusion,” but players are allowed to talk among themselves about career plans, and, again, there have been super-teams almost since the inception of the NBA. Rail about the transparency of Haslem’s wink-wink deal, but recognize that he’s opting out to make more long-term money, something dozens of players before him have done. Richard Jefferson drew the mockery of the world when he took this step in 2010, and he did it in part to help the Spurs stay under the luxury tax in the 2010-11 season.

The Heat feel novel, but none of this runs counter to NBA rules. That said …

2. Will the League Find Any Evidence of Rule-Breaking?

Tampering happens in the NBA, and we’re talking actual tampering, not silly stuff like optimistic season-ticket mailings and a new coach riffing at a press conference. But real tampering is both hard to police and poorly policed.

Still: Free agency is so much more complicated today than it was even five years ago, when only a few teams came into July with meaningful cap space. Free agency now features 15 or 20 teams juggling five balls apiece: leaving one or two of their free agents unsigned because doing so benefits the team’s cap number; prepping contingency trades; taking meetings with star players before even opening up the cap room to sign them; and counting on their unsigned free agents to hang untouched in the market.

Even the best front offices would be tempted to fall back on some unsavory agreements as the offers start to fly all over the place. Any deal negotiated between a team official and a player before July 1, even a verbal agreement, is against NBA rules. If Wade’s pay cut is huge, expect the league to do some heavy due diligence with Miami — due diligence the sharp-as-hell Heat will surely pass.

3. Who Wants to Screw Houston?

Houston could approach max-level cap room by dumping Jeremy Lin for nothing in return, a move that would put the Rockets in play for Melo, Bosh, or LeBron. But they can only maintain that cap room with the unspoken cooperation of Chandler Parsons, a restricted free agent who plays at a relatively weak position and will draw interest from lots of teams.

When free agency starts, Parsons will count for only $2.88 million on the Rockets’ cap sheet. That low number is key to Houston’s big dreams; they can let Parsons hang out in free agency, fill up their cap space with deals for other free agents, and then re-sign Parsons to a bigger number.

Parsons and his agents can blow all of that up by signing a big-money offer sheet with another team. The Rockets would have three days to match that offer, but the minute they do, Parsons’s cap figure jumps from $2.88 million to whatever his new salary might be. Good-bye, cap room.

A bunch of teams are thinking about whether it’s worth it to entice Parsons with an offer sheet, if only to screw Houston. The downside: The Rockets could wait the full 72 hours to match, tying up the offering team’s cap room on a doomed deal for Parsons as other teams gobble up all the best free agents. Again: Timing is everything, and every step is treacherous.

But Parsons is a good player, and teams with potential cap room and a need on the wing will mull it over; Toronto,3 Dallas, Detroit, Chicago, Atlanta, Cleveland, Phoenix, and the Lakers all fit the bill.

4. What’s the Price of Continuity?

Shorter contracts can be wonderful for teams: guys come off the books faster, meaning every team has a fast path to flexibility and the lure of cap space. Mistakes can only be so crushing; there are no six- and seven-year albatross deals left.

But there’s a flip side: If players can hit free agency sooner, that means teams have to think about the price of re-signing a player almost immediately upon acquiring him — or even before. We all lauded the Hawks for signing Paul Millsap to a two-year, $19 million contract last summer, but Millsap is really freaking good, and the Hawks might have been better served nabbing him for four years and $40 million.

Shorter contracts give players in certain situations a weird kind of leverage. Roster continuity has value; there is real evidence showing that teams that maintain a stable core over several years draw value from that consistency. But continuity can cost more in the new NBA.

The Wizards are the most obvious example. They could easily get within hailing distance of max-level cap room, and they have the kind of young nucleus that could intrigue a superstar free agent. But the odds would be against them in that pursuit, and the Wizards have two starters hitting free agency in Ariza and Gortat. The Wiz have been a perennial loser, and they don’t want to take a step backward after last season’s promising playoff run. That means keeping Ariza and Gortat, likely at almost any cost.

They could in theory both chase a star and re-sign those two cogs. They could simply leave Ariza and Gortat unsigned, meet with LeBron, and only renounce their Bird Rights on Gortat and Ariza if LeBron (or whomever) agrees to sign with Washington. If LeBron rejects them, the Wiz could activate Bird Rights and bring Gortat and Ariza back.

But it would be open season on Ariza and Gortat in the meantime, and all of those teams that might bid on Parsons could also rush toward Ariza (or Luol Deng, or Gordon Hayward) on the wing market. The Wiz are praying Ariza’s market peaks at the midlevel exception, but it only takes one frisky under-the-cap team to blow that market up toward the $8 million–plus range.

Players can also use the shorter-contract regime to rehabilitate their reputations and wring larger contracts out of teams that become desperate to keep them. Darren Collison and Mo Williams both emerged as key rotation guys on top-tier Western Conference teams last season after signing one-year deals with player options for a second year.

Both guys outperformed the value of their player options, and now the Clippers and Blazers, both capped out, have limited means to re-sign them without dipping into their precious midlevel exceptions. Collison and Williams have leverage, and more players might look to this model of contract when negotiating from an initial position of weakness with teams that lack cap flexibility.

Dallas went hard for Tyson Chandler in part because he is already familiar with its system; he is the rare trade target who also brings continuity. But the Mavs want to retain Vince Carter, Shawn Marion, and Devin Harris, and it will be interesting to see how much they are willing to pay — and whether they can rope those guys back in without compromising their pursuit of bigger fish.

Good vibes engulfed Toronto this spring with rabid crowds, GM F-bombs, and thousands of people gathered in Maple Leaf Square to watch a first-round playoff game. The Raps could theoretically clear about $13 million in cap space, but that includes nothing for Lowry, Patrick Patterson, and Greivis Vasquez — all valuable pieces. Lowry’s cap hold alone eats up most of that projected space, and the Raps would like to nurture this group along. And don’t dismiss Vasquez’s friendship with Kevin Durant as a factor here.

But the Raps have a clear need for a bigger wing player to defend Joe Johnson types, and they could make a run at one if they commit to free agency. That’s likely not worth losing Lowry, but it’s worth thinking about.

5. What Happens to the Second-Tier Guys?

This will be the most sneaky interesting story of free agency if LeBron and Bosh really make themselves available. LeBron alone could bring the market to a halt just by signaling a willingness to take meetings with other teams. This would force a choice upon cap-room teams outside the most realistic star free-agent destinations, such as Washington, Detroit, Cleveland, Atlanta, Phoenix, and others: Do we push for our own meeting with LeBron, or do we pounce right away on the Deng-Ariza-Gortat-Lowry-Parsons–Lance Stephenson types?

And would those guys sign right away, or wait to see which teams are most desperate after the top stars choose their teams? It’s unclear whether an early rat race would drive up the price for these sub-star free agents, or whether the glut of cap space across the league will do that on its own. The players’ union worried that the new CBA would squeeze middle-class players, but plenty of such guys got big contracts last season, and it’s unclear who exactly fits within the middle class.

6. Will Anyone Challenge the Floor?

The Sixers spent most of last season under the league-mandated minimum salary floor, and the penalty for finishing below that spending threshold is weak: A team just has to split the difference between its total salary and the floor among its players. Big whoop.

There are lots of rebuilding teams with cap room that plausibly wish to roll it over into the next offseason, including Orlando, Philly, Milwaukee, and Utah; the Magic opened up $6 million in additional space Monday by kindly waiving Jameer Nelson in time for him to work free agency.

Atlanta opened up about $4.5 million in extra space by swapping Lou Williams for John Salmons,4 and no one can figure out what the hell the Hawks are up to. But Atlanta values long-term flexibility, and if it whiffs on a star, it could fall back to one-year contracts or decide to forgo free agency in any meaningful sense.

7. Will the League Discover the Stretch Provision?

This little goodie in the new CBA has mostly lay dormant, but it could be a useful tool in the right circumstances. It allows teams to waive a player and stretch the cap hit over twice the length of the time remaining on his contract, plus one additional year. If a team owes a nonperforming guy $10 million over two seasons, it could use the stretch provision to waive him and spread that $10 million over five seasons at a paltry $2 million a pop.

Using the stretch provision trades some long-term cap-clogging for short-term relief, and there’s something to be said for just eating a sunk cost right away. But this feels like an underused tool. As Mark Deeks pointed out, Memphis could have used the stretch provision to slice Tayshaun Prince’s cap hit for this season from $7.7 million to about $2.57 million, opening up the possibility of Memphis both using the midlevel to sign another team’s free agent and keeping Ed Davis. As it is, they’ll have to choose one, and it appears they’ve chosen to cut ties with Davis.

Steve Nash has been the most popular stretch suggestion, but there are other possibilities out there should teams sense an opportunity to strike.

8. Who Are the Wild-Card Teams to Watch?

Here’s a quick gander at some teams we probably haven’t mentioned enough:

Los Angeles Lakers: They, like, literally do not have a team for next season. They have max-level cap room, they’re almost certainly going to strike out on the biggest free agents, and they voluntarily gave the league’s biggest annual salary to a lunatic competitor who is turning 36 and coming off two devastating injuries to important body parts.

Kobe Bryant and rebuilding do not mix well. The Lakers are in perhaps the league’s most desirable market, and they can load up on wacky two-year deals with an eye on being competitive in the years leading to Durant’s free agency.

It’s impossible to overstate how terrified other teams are of a desperate Lakers team with needs at almost every position.

Chicago Bulls: They’re not quite as cap flexible as people think. The Bulls can get their salary down to about $68.5 million after their draft-day trade for Doug McDermott and Anthony Randolph, which means using the amnesty provision on Carlos Boozer would leave them with “only” something like $12 million in cap space.

That’s nice, but it’s not enough to snag Carmelo. But that kind of flexibility could be handy in executing a lopsided salary sign-and-trade, and the Bulls are loaded with movable assets — at least one extra first-round pick, all their own picks, the rights to Euro stud Nikola Mirotic, a young stud in Jimmy Butler, and an affordable mid-career defensive beast in Taj Gibson. The Bulls can gore their way into any discussion, and if they come up without a big-name acquisition this summer, it will be a disappointment.

Charlotte, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Cleveland: With Washington likely to spend on its own guys, these are the four Eastern Conference sad sacks with money and motivation to splurge.

The Hornets squeezed open another $2.2 million in cap room by flipping Brendan Haywood (remember him?) to Cleveland for Alonzo Gee’s nonguaranteed contract, and they could enter free agency with as much as $19 million in space. That’s enough to toss a monster offer at Stephenson or some other wing player, even if they decide to keep Josh McRoberts’s cap hold on the books.

Detroit also has a need on the wing, and it could approach $15 million in space even with Greg Monroe’s cap hold lingering on the books. Cleveland’s cap figure is a bit more elastic, given the nonguaranteed portion of Anderson Varejao’s deal and the huge cap holds attached to Deng and Spencer Hawes.

But they could open up max-level space, and they do not expect to be back at the lottery next season.

The Bucks can hit double figures in cap space if they renounce their outgoing guys, and they took a step in that direction Monday by declining to make a qualifying offer to the forgotten Ekpe Udoh. Milwaukee may be fine tanking another season, but there is some veteran talent here, and the Bucks are in position to seize a chance they like.

Phoenix and Atlanta: Mostly covered above, and here, but if a star player wanted to go to a team that has both cap space and talent, these would be the most intriguing choices. Atlanta and Phoenix also seem unlikely to rush things if they miss out on their top targets.

There’s so much more to watch: the Pacers and Stephenson (covered in full here); the futures of declining old hands Paul Pierce and Pau Gasol; the Kevin Love situation; the Kings, the tax line, and Isaiah Thomas; the restricted free agency of Hayward and Avery Bradley; restricted free agency in general; the possibility of contract extensions for Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, Nikola Vucevic, Kenneth Faried, Butler, and Reggie Jackson; and so, so much more.

Enjoy your last hours of NBA peace, as if you’ve had any in four years.

Filed Under: NBA, NBA Free Agency, Miami Heat, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Udonis Haslem, Houston Rockets, Chandler Parsons, Atlanta Hawks, 2014 NBA Free Agency

Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ ZachLowe_NBA