Free Agency

The great big myth of Free Agency 2016

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The summer of 2016 is gearing up to be a very interesting one… but not for the reason most NBA fans are thinking.

There has been lots of talk and excitement about the vastly increased salary cap numbers that will come from the new TV deal. Early projections anticipate the current salary cap of $70 million to jump to $89 million for the 2016-17 season. There is the potential for 24 out of 30 teams looking to have an estimated $825 million in cap space. Many fans are wide-eyed by the idea of their favorite team having “lots of cap space” for the summer of 2016. After all, LeBron James and Kevin Durant are free agents next year.

Yet when you look closer… Beyond these two All-Stars, what is the talent level available? Will there be enough true talent for teams to spend at least $81 million?

That is the number teams need to spend to hit the minimum 90 percent of the salary cap. Will the summer of 2016 be the year of one-year contracts because of the lack of overall talent and depth?

Key players who will be vying for this pot other than the above mentioned superstars are Mike Conley, DeMar DeRozan (player option), Al Horford and Dwight Howard (PO). Yes, they are all genuine NBA stars, but can you make the argument that they are worth the potential max salary they could be paid?

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The next layer of the free agent class brings the aging stars. Kobe Bryant, Rajon Rondo, Deron Williams (PO), Joe Johnson, Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng, Pau Gasol (PO), Joakim Noah, Dirk Nowitzki (PO). Although some of those players certainly have some great moments left in their tank, are they worth another huge contract?

Go even deeper into the class and you’re looking at such starters as Jordan Clarkson (restricted), Eric Gordon, Timofey Mozgov, Nicolas Batum, Al Jefferson, Roy Hibbert, Gerald Henderson, and Chandler Parsons (PO). They will all have the chance to make big money due to the rising salary cap. Again, does the talent match the number?

Do rotation players like DJ Augustin, Brandon Jennings and OJ Mayo also cash in? Teams will be put in the difficult situation of hitting the salary cap floor of $81 million and filling out their rosters with the most competitive personnel possible. Early projections show that the average rosters of players under contract per NBA team in 2016-17 is 10.3 players.

If you think you can land a restricted free agent, think again. The summer of 2015 proved one more time that restricted free agents are hard to get. Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard agreed to terms on the first day with Chicago and San Antonio. The next prized restricted free agent, Draymond Green, agreed to terms the following day with Golden State.

After losing 4/5 of their starting lineup, Portland was the only club to put in an offer sheet on a restricted free agent. Not even a four-year, $70 million offer sheet with a trade kicker could get Oklahoma City to blink on Enes Kanter. The Thunder took three days as allowed and eventually matched, locking Kanter in for the foreseeable future.

Only one restricted free agent switched teams this summer. Brooklyn’s Mirza Teletovic landed in Phoenix and that was only because the Nets pulled the qualifying offer on the Bosnian forward. Once Teletovic became an unrestricted free agent, Phoenix jumped on the chance to land the 6-foot-9 sharpshooter.

So if you have dreams of landing a Bradley Beal or Andre Drummond, you might want to have a different plan in place. Only five players since the 2008 NBA draft have received offer sheets – Kanter, Gordon Hayward, Jeff Teague, Gordon and Batum. All five have been matched. Only two players – Greg Monroe and Kevin Seraphin – have gone the way of signing their qualifying offers. With the escalating salary cap, we are not likely to see this happen again.

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Can restricted free agents change teams in 2016? Of course, but are you willing to overpay Harrison Barnes, Terrence Jones, Jonas Valanciunas, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Donatas Motiejunas near max money to do so? That will be the only way to pry them away. If those are the players that fit your plan going forward, load up an offer sheet and hope that their current team don’t match. If they do, than you just tied up cap space for three days doing so.

The promise of obtaining a second-round restricted free agent isn’t too promising either. Since 1998, only five players – Chandler ParsonsOmer Asik, Wang Zhizhi, Mehmet Okur and Francisco Elson – have had offer sheets unmatched. Can a team put together a creative offer sheet and sign a Clarkson? With the Los Angeles Lakers close to $59 million in cap space it will be highly unlikely.

So who has the advantage going into next summer?

Teams that spent money either retaining their own free agents or landing a key player this past summer already have an edge going into 2016. For Golden State, Cleveland, San Antonio, Miami, Oklahoma City and the Los Angeles Clippers paying the luxury tax might prove expensive in 2015-16. However, all six teams will bring back the core nucleus of playoff teams next summer – especially with the likelihood of LeBron and Durant staying put with the Cavs and Thunder. The rise of the luxury tax threshold in 2016-17 to a projected $109 million will offset any taxes spent this season.

The free agent class of 2016 may end up being known as the summer of inflation. What no one is really talking about yet but should be is the class of the summer of 2017. That’s when the free agent class really overflows with talent. Stephen Curry, Chris Paul (PO), Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin (PO), Hayward (PO), Serge Ibaka, Rudy Gay (PO), Paul Millsap (PO) and Monroe (PO) just to name a few.

There will be much more talent to go around with a free agent class that is full of young stars with tremendous upsides. But can teams find a way to navigate the unpredictable waters of the much-hyped summer of 2016 to get the real treasure?

Bobby Marks was the Nets’ assistant general manager from 2010 to 2015. You can follow him on Twitter @bobbymarks42.

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