The Summer of 2016: The Unrestricted Free Agents

Kevin Durant is going to be a rich man.

Durant and 2016 free agency have been fused together as a representation of one entity. One cannot be mentioned without an ensuing statement pertaining to the other. Pending an extension at some point in the next 11 months, Durant will become an unrestricted free agent on July 1 next summer and the extravagant courtship of his services will follow.

durant

Also coalesced with 2016 free agency has been the onset of the cap boom inspiring an avalanche of organizations dropping eight-figure expenditures with regularity. The cap will rise to $89 million next season with the tax threshold set subsequently at $108 million, and in 2017 the cap jumps another $19 million to $108 million with the tax at $127 million. For Durant, the bulging cap permits an even greater plethora of potential suitors as 24 teams are projected to have max cap space. However, Durant’s impending free agency was going to be a bonanza regardless, as he is a generational talent and franchise altering force of bucket-making. Wherever the cap eventually settled, plenty of teams would carve out max cap space while others sat idle, having already prepared in advance for their interview with Durant. With the cap currently projected at $89 million, Durant’s max contract will garner a starting salary of $25.1 million, while he fidgets on the cusp of an additional $10 million plus due to his years of service in the league. Durant will be the headline next summer, but on a league-wide scale, the impact of the increased cap will go far beyond an extra 15 teams or so making a run to pay a glorified superstar an additional $5 million in starting salary.

horford

The ramifications will allocate more money for stars, but it’s the underbelly of those highly-coveted free agents that will transform the league into a frantic scene of teams waving millions at less-qualified players. Only one team will lock up Durant (cough, OKC, cough), and after LeBron James re-ups in Cleveland for his new max of $29.3 million, the market will dissipate to the likes of Al Horford, Mike Conley and likely Dwight Howard[1]. Whether or not those guys warrant max deals resembling LeBron’s and Durant’s is a question for the market to determine. So, of course, they warrant max deals. As previously mentioned, 24 teams will have max cap space, and those organizations aren’t going to sit on their asses and watch a chance to land a player like Horford or Conley sail beyond them because they’re too stingy to shell out a max contract. The pressure will be on those players’ current teams to make the same financial sacrifice. Atlanta, Memphis and Houston are looking upon championship aspirations through the ever-changing window of opportunity, and giving Horford, Conley and Howard max or fringe max deals would certainly hamstring their ability to add complimentary pieces, but without the main cogs, those pieces are nothing more than spare parts.

Conley will be 28 next summer so a 5-year max with Memphis would take him through his age 33 season. His relative youth would ease a bit of the anxiety if Conley were to indeed merit the max. With Horford and Howard who will both be 30 and have noted injury history, the reluctance to hand out a max 5-year deal becomes more dicey, and Atlanta and Houston would likely try to convince them to take shorter deals preaching it’s to the benefit of the individual player as they will have the opportunity to reenter free agency sooner once the cap is projected to settle after the 2017-2018 season. Don’t expect Horford and Howard to be duped so easily, however, as a potential lockout looms, and each will be approaching their mid-30s by the time a 2-4-year deal expires. Also this summer’s free agency period was a premier showcase of how much players value long-term security over possibly dramatic pay raises under the higher cap, and that was with the lockout scare still out of sight. Agents are going to be pushing for longer, locked in deals, and if a player’s incumbent team isn’t willing to supply the requisite paycheck, they will urge clients to seek it elsewhere.

The tier of free agents lined behind Conley, Horford and Howard will prompt excess haggling over their respective value in both the short and long term. Where do veterans such as Joakim Noah, Dwyane Wade, Joe Johnson and others fit in on the market scale? And what about younger free agents like DeMar DeRozan, Hassan Whiteside and Chandler Parsons?

whiteside

After gracing Wade’s desires for a near max-level deal this season, the Heat will be working under the assumption of Wade accepting a hearty discount at the relief of a potential tax bill for Mickey Loomis next summer. The fiscal realm in which Wade’s contract falls will be dependent on the market demands for Hassan Whiteside, the prototypical outline for the modern NBA center. If Whiteside keeps his head on straight this season (no absolute given his checkered past), it is likely max contract offers with a starting salary of almost $21 million will encapsulate his phone line from coast to coast. However, due to their tight fiscal situation in the twilight of Wade’s career, Loomis and Pat Riley may try to persuade Whiteside to accept a lesser annual salary in exchange for a player option after the fourth year. But other organizations that strikeout on their main free agent targets may be willing to offer any contract structure to Whiteside to at least gain a consolation prize.

For the free agents beyond the geographic location of South Beach, wing players will point to deals this past offseason for guys like DeMarre Carroll and Khris Middleton as a baseline for negotiation with the $20 million cap rise as a bargaining chip in their back pocket. DeRozan, Parsons and other unrestricted free agents wings like Nicolas Batum, Luol Deng and Jeff Green will use the leverage of these deals, and with the league’s cap floor at $80.1 million all those teams unable to lure an upper-tier free agent like Durant, Conley or Horford will be looking to spend that space elsewhere. To simplify the prospect of the $80 million floor in comparison to the 2015-16 season, teams will have to exceed this year’s $70 million cap by $10 million just to reach the minimum team salary! In all, if the 24 potential teams do utilize their ability to generate max cap space, the league will be looking at an estimated $825 million in cap space to be devoted to player salaries next summer. Such a total will result in dripping saliva from even the lower class of the free agent market where players like O.J. Mayo, Jared Dudley and Ryan Anderson will be cutting fat paydays.

derozan

As the cap boom creeps closer and organizations scramble to place themselves into a vexing disposition for Durant, the aftereffects will be the most direct alteration across the league. As the top free agents come off the board, teams will be have gobs of space still available which will trickle down to the free agents without All-star and All-NBA status peppered on their respective resumes. And with the cap projected to leap another $19 million the following July, the incentive to cling to such space greatly deteriorates as even organizations that filled their space in 2016 will be able to carve out room for another max deal slot.

Despite a relatively weak overall free agent class in 2016, organizations will be overseeing stacks of coin needing to be shelled out. Durant won’t be only rich man when the hyped-up Summer of 2016 comes to a close.

[1] Howard has an early termination option (ETO) for the 2016-2017 season, which essentially works as a player option. Assuming a season of good health, Howard could earn more money entering free agency next summer.

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