As free agency drags on, it appears possible, if not likely, that the Nets are maintaining cap space, rolling it into next season and summer. For a team unable to sign impact free agents given it is hundreds of miles from contention, that is a prudent approach.
One reason it is prudent: nearly one third of the NBA is deep into the luxury tax. As of now, the Cavs, Blazer, Warriors, Thunder, Wizards, Bucks, Rockets, and Clippers are staring at a tax bill. The Warriors will stomach it given how great they are.
However, after that, teams may try to evade the tax by dumping money and giving away assets for free, or close to it. Just look at the Demarre Carroll trade. The Raptors gave the Nets a first round pick, a high end second rounder, and Carroll — who started for them and has a pulse — for nothing. All they acquired in return was Justin Hamilton, and they waived him on arrival.
We cannot know which teams WILL seek to evade the tax — we are not in the war room with ownership and management. But we can read tea leaves. The Blazers are in tax hell and Paul Allen may not stand or it. The Thunder may look to slash money if Paul George is leaving, or may do so regardless. The Wizards committed to Otto Porter and may seek tax avoidance in other ways. The Bucks are a potential tax team despite being somewhat mediocre (unless Giannis takes another leap), and have dead money in John Henson and Spencer Hawes, and Greg Monroe’s large deal, on the ledger. The Cavs figure to make another run around LeBron, but if they decide, during the season or after the finals, to start shedding role players (either in an attempt to surround LeBron or save money if he leaves), the Nets can come calling. The Clippers, too, may decide the tax is not to be paid for mediocrity.
Do teams make deadline (or summer) deals to evade the tax? It feels likely. And the Nets should be at the phone waiting. They need as many assets as they can obtain.
A second reason it is prudent: a bubble is bursting in the NBA. The salary cap in 2015-2016 was $70 million, and expected to spike over the coming years because cap smoothing was not agreed to. The cap then did spike, to a whopping $94.1 million in 2016-2017. Teams in 2016 assumed the cap would continue, and therefore they did not hesitate to give out big contracts. Inking players then, felt smart long term. When the cap spiked later, players locked into deals under the lower cap would be bargains, as they would earn a lower percentage of the cap in the future. So players like Jon Leuer signed $42 million deals. And Kent Bazemore at $72 million, or Chandler Parsons at 4 years, $94 million. If you simply scan the signings from last year, you will see how hefty the commitments were, as a whole.
However, something funny happened this year. The cap stopped spiking, unexpectedly. It rose to just $99 million for 2017-2018, and will level off going forward. As a result, deals inked in 2015 and 2016 at elevated figures in reliance on the coming cap spike are not going to age well due to assuming lower cap percentages — rather, those deals are mostly albatrosses.
All of this relates to 2018’s star studded free agency class, built around LeBron, Durant, Russ, Paul, George, Cousins, and more. The group is loaded, and deep. Typically, teams target such loaded free agency classes, and tons of teams enter the summer with droves of cap space, to make headway.
However, due to the excessive spending of 2015 and 2016 in reliance on a cap spike that never really came, a majority of the league lacks max space to chase the cadre of max players available in 2018. Teams spent less in 2017 to mitigate the damage they did in 2015 and 2016, but they still, by and large lack the type of cap space they will want in 2018.
Enter the Nets. In 2018, STILL without their first round pick, and likely coming off another unavoidable subpar season, the Nets are not going to be a free agent destination. They would be better served helping others get cap space (and as for whether those teams succeed at getting free agents, who cares), than hoarding space for themselves to use on the C level pieces they can sign.
Once again, we cannot know, outside of the war room, what teams will desire shedding deals to pry open 2018 space, but tea leaves can be read. The Lakers dream of two max slots but lack them as constructed. They may look to deal a piece like Deng or Clarkson to get there. The Spurs will lack max space in 2018 (after a quiet 2017 summer) if Aldridge, Green, and Rudy Gay opt into their deals. With the cap flattening, opting in is more appealing to free agents than it was; the Spurs may make a deal to avoid that scenario. The Nuggets have Kenneth Faried, Trey Lyles, and a hoard of 4’s. A deal from surplus to open flexibility to reconfigure may be out there.
The Pelicans are interesting. Their best chance to surround Brow, Cousins, and Holiday with more talent is to add someone before they resign Cousins in 2018, while he is under his low $18.9 million cap hold. They may aggressively shop pieces like Solomon Hill, Omer Asik, and Alexis Ajinca to open up the space to do just that.
Other options exist, too. Maybe the Wolves relent and dump a first to dump Cole Aldrich. Maybe Alec Burks is an odd man out in Utah, for a similar price. Maybe the Sixers are ready for a big strike but need to dump Jerryd Bayless to get it done. Maybe the Knicks, Pistons, and Heat deal to obtain cap space.
With so few teams in position to strike on the 2018 market, the Nets can acquire assets to help others take a plunge.