Apr 2, 2014; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Detroit Pistons forward Josh Smith (6) reacts during the first quarter against the Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

NBA: Cap space not just for free agents

As the NBA’s free agency period gets into full swing, the earliest reported deals have indicated that it’s a seller’s market out there.  With most teams having or being able to acquire cap space through unilateral roster moves or various exceptions, there could be as much as $300 million available for spending. Even though a lot of this space will be eaten up as the “max” dominoes like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony fall, there is still much more money than talent out there. Finding value in free agency this offseason will likely be extremely difficult.

Teams with money available should look to use their cap space in other ways to acquire talent at more reasonable prices. They can accomplish this by going after players already under contract. With salary flexibility not going out of style any time soon, getting out from under an uncomfortable multi-year contract will have value to many teams.  Even only a year into a newly signed deals, teams may be experiencing severe buyer’s remorse over players acquired last offseason. A savvy team might be able to acquire these “distressed” assets for very little other than allowing the present employers to get off the hook for the remaining years and dollars owed.

Consider the Detroit Pistons. In the 2013 offseason, they splashed out big money on Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings. To put it mildly, this did not work well. Smith was always miscast as a small forward alongside Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe, while Jennings own shortcomings in terms of shot selection and defensive effort contributed to the Pistons’ disastrous 2013/14 campaign.  Now with Stan Van Gundy installed to lead a new regime, Monroe up for a big extension right now and a massive contract for Drummond on the horizon, Detroit might well like to hit the reset button on the Smith or Jennings deals.

Mar 26, 2014; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; Detroit Pistons forward Josh Smith (6) talks with guard Brandon Jennings (7) during the fourth quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Cleveland won 97-96. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

With three seasons remaining under contract Smith could probably be had. Importantly, despite that oversized contract, Smith can still be a productive player, as there would be little point in acquiring him otherwise. Even in a horrific shooting year, he stuffed the stat sheet, averaging 6.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.4 blocks and steals.

As an example of a team which might be interested, the Dallas Mavericks have some money to play with after re-signing Dirk Nowitzki to an extremely cap friendly $10m per year extension. How would Smith look on a front line with Nowitzki and Tyson Chandler? Couldn’t he be a rich man’s version of what Shawn Marion gave them last year? More importantly, could Dallas get equivalent talent on the open market for the 3 years/$40.5m Smith has remaining? Possibly not. It’s not hard to imagine that playing under an inventive coach in Rick Carlisle and next to the sweet shooting Nowtizki, Smith would perform better in Dallas than he did in Detroit. Now, trading for a player like Smith wouldn’t be “free” as would signing him outright in terms of assets Dallas would have to send the other way, but if Detroit is looking to move on, Smith could be available for pennies on the dollar.

Incidentally, the ability to take on talented players into cap space is one of the best arguments against “just because” deals like the one Orlando gave Ben Gordon. Even though Gordon will be essentially costless in dollar terms to the Magic, sitting below the minimum salary as they do, it’s still $4.5 million they can’t use at the trade deadline to help facilitate another deal, or with which to take a questionable contract alongside of a draft pick from a cost-cutting team.

Smith is not the only potential “buy low” player under contract. Perhaps off-court issues have Milwaukee desiring to get out from under the 4 years/$44m owed to Larry Sanders under an extension kicking in this year. Ersan Ilyasova could similarly find himself no longer in tbe Bucks long term plans with the drafting of Jabari Parker.  Denver has several long term commitments they could wish to avoid if the Nuggets anticipate this season being as much of a struggle as last. Javale McGee (3 years and about $37m remaining) Danillo Gallinari (2/$22.5m) or J.J. Hickson (2/$11). If Anthony signs elsewhere, do the Knicks really want to pay Jose Calderon $22 million over the next three years? If Melo stays, might they package Iman Shumpert and/or a pick to a team willing to eat the final year of Amar’e Stoudemire‘s salary?

It’s possible some really big fish might be available for a combination of salary relief, young players and future assets. Indiana’s early moves this offseason indicate a possible shakeup of their core. As presently constituted they are in danger of being unable to compete in the bidding for Lance Stephenson due to luxury tax constraints. If one of their starters were to be available and desirable, it would have to be Roy Hibbert. Despite his mighty struggles down the stretch of the season, Hibbert remains one of the very best rim protecting big men in the NBA. If Indiana is looking to cut the nearly $31 million he will be owed over the next two seasons from their books, the ability to absorb some or all of that contract could allow an ambitious team to add a player only 4 months removed from an All-Star Game appearance for a dramatic discount.

Even players with shorter contracts could be available.  With Philadelphia seemingly renewing its commitment to lose as many games as possible, Thad Young might be available for a song. Largely under the radar, Young is an excellent player on an extremely team-friendly $9.4m contract. Even though he’s likely to become of free agent by exercising his early termination option after the 14/15 season, he might be too good a player for the 76ers to want to keep around this year.

Finally, those teams which win the sweepstakes to sign James or Anthony, or succeed in trading for Kevin Love might need some help to finalize the acquisition. To accommodate the salary demands or contracts of those star players, some other established player might have to be moved to open up that money. A team with sufficient room to absorb a larger contract could find themselves with a top player like Andre Iguodala or Andrew Bogut for a song, or a productive role player like Mike Dunleavy for nothing at all.

As teams continue to analyze who to pursue in free agency, they would be well served to remember the universe of available players isn’t limited to those currently without a contract. Sometimes the best choice for which player to sign to a deal is “none of the above” as the money spent could be better used as a trade asset rather than competing in an inflated free agent marketplace.

Tags: 2014 NBA Offseason Brandon Jennings Dallas Mavericks Danilo Gallinari Denver Nuggets Detroit Pistons Ersan Ilyasova J.J. Hickson JaVale McGee Jose Calderon Josh Smith Larry Sanders NBA

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