NBA Salary Cap Analysis, Part 1: Free Agents Over The Next Three Years

Let's quickly review how free agents and the NBA salary cap works... starting with this post by Cosellout, entitled "The Salary Cap Myth". How many premier free agents switch teams via free agency? According to Cosellout, less than one per season over the last decades. In fact, here's the entire list:

Allan Houston (NYK)
Shaquille O'Neal (LAL)
Steve Nash (Pho)
Tracy McGrady (Orl)
Dikembe Mutumbo (Atl)
Vlade Divac (Sac)
Carlos Boozer (Utah)
Gilbert Arenas (Wash)
Mehmet Okur (Utah)
Chauncey Billups (Det)
Rashard Lewis (Orl)

The most shocking thing, looking at that list? One, that Atlanta actually was once able to land a free agent... actually, twice, if you count the Joe Johnson sign and trade (notable only because it almost cost them Boris Diaw and their #1 draft pick last year).

But what does that list illustrate? One, to get another team's free agent, you have to realize that in almost all cases you have little chance. If that player is any good, then his team will almost certainly pony up the money to re-sign him. You can't outbid that team's current franchise. Understand that.

To clarify: You can't offer more money to another team's free agent than they can... they might choose not to top offer or even match your offer, but you can't "out-bid" them, in theory.

Now look at those free agents. They fall into one of two categories:

I. The Premier Franchise Guy. That's Shaq. That's it. That's a situation in which a premier franchise spent years planning their salary cap so they could offer him a maximum deal when he became a free agent, and lure him with the intangible, in this case the Los Angeles scene (that was Shaq in his "movie star/rapper" days, not in his "sheriff/undercover cop" days). This might happen again with LeBron James (and to a smaller degree Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh), which is to say that everyone is saving up space for their big free agent year (2010), with the hopes of "luring" them away from Cleveland and Toronto to a big market.

Again, the team bidding on LeBron or whoever (let's call them "the Nets") can't truly top Cleveland's max contract offer, but they can match it (or come close enough) and offer the appeal of... Brooklyn. Or MSG. Or "not Toronto". Especially now when getting paid in US money in Canada is a bad thing....

II. The Given Up Player: In almost every free agent circumstance above, the situation is that basically the player's team "gave up" on that player, making him a true free agent of sorts. For example, if the Magic this past offseason really wanted to keep Darko Mlilic, they could have. But they didn't feel he was worth the money, and salary cap room, especially when they were in the process of overpaying for Rashard Lewis (a good decision, but none the less they still overpaid).

Take a look at some of the situations: Gilbert Arenas and Carlos Boozer were both second-round picks that got unrestricted free agency earlier than most players drafted. They had both shown that they could be very productive players, but both franchises (the Kings and Cavs) were unconvinced that they were truly worth the money. Let's not forget that both franchises acquired them on the cheap, in the second round of the draft. So once they hit the open market, both got offers that exceed what the Kings/Cavs wanted to pay for them. And, in the Cavs case, there was some bad blood. So the Wizards and Jazz rolled the dice, and won.

Steve Nash was a 30-year with a bad back. Dallas was willing to match the money, but not the length of the contract. Especially not when they could spend the same money to sign a younger free agent point, namely Jason Terry. Phoenix rolled the dice, and won.

Free agents that aren't "worth it" to the original teams... they aren't always Jerome James, or Kenyon Martin. Sometimes they are Chauncey Billups.

Also in this category: The very rare, once a decade, "We're giving up talent because we're starting from scratch, and our fans don't care if we suck for three years because we're leaving town anyway", as in the Rashard Lewis situation. The Tracy McGrady signing falls around this category, too... the Raptors had to "choose" between Vince Carter and T-Mac as their franchise guys (they didn't want to go at it together), and they chose Carter (hence, the bidding for McGrady did not include "the home team", so to speak). Glad that worked out for them.

The larger point: Very rarely will you see a free agent get away for nothing, unless the original team doesn't believe in them, doesn't want them (and can't/won't sign and trade them, as in the Joe Johnson deal), or just can't match the "appeal" of the signing team (i.e. the Shaq situation, or the LeBron in 2010 situation).

With that in mind, here are your free agent classes for the next three years:

2008 Free Agents:

The Big Dawgs (note: if you see player option, followed by... "50/50": that means we figure the odds at 50/50; if you see "unlikely", that means that the player is unlikely to opt-out, meaning the next season is too much money for them to turn down; if you see "likely", that means the money isn't enough, and they are likely to opt-out):

Baron Davis (player option, 50/50)
Corey Maggette (player option, possible)
Elton Brand (player option, unlikely)
Shawn Marion (player option, likely)
Ron Artest (player option for 08/09, 50/50)
Antawn Jamison
Gilbert Arenas (player option for 08/09, 50/50)

The Restricted Expiring Rookie Contracts (note: very unlikely to sign somewhere else, because they often sign an extension before their rookie contract totally expires; in 2008, though, several teams have failed to sign their rookies to extension, making for some very interesting dealings this off-season):

Josh Smith (restricted)
Josh Childress (restricted)
Emeka Okafor (restricted)
Ben Gordon (restricted)
Luol Deng (restricted)
JR Smith (restricted)
Andris Biedrins (restricted)
Shaun Livingston (restricted)
Stromile Swift (restricted)
Sebastian Telfair (restricted)
Nenad Krstic (restricted)
Trevor Ariza (restricted)
Andre Iguodala (restricted)
Kevin Martin (restricted, extension on way)

Young Filler Material, with some potential (The Chauncey Billups Grouping):

Matt Carroll
Andres Nocioni
Chris Duhon
Daniel Gibson
Eduardo Najera
Mickael Pietrus
Matt Barnes
Monta Ellis
Bonzi Wells
Kwame Brown
Jason Williams
Ricky Davis
Boki Nachbar
Antoine Wright
Beno Udrih
Fabricio Oberto

The "They're Still Around?" Group (a.k.a. The Detroit Pistons Bench):
Antonio McDyess
Lindsay Hunter
Ronald Murray
Joe Smith
Michael Finley
Sam Cassell
Alonzo Mourning
Penny Hardaway
Theo Ratliff
Jamaal Magliore
Chris Webber
Aaron McKie
Kevin Ollie
Steve Blake
Mikki Moore
Brent Barry
Robert Horry
Michael Finley
Kurt Thomas
Andray Blatche

2009 Free Agents:

The Big Dawgs:
Drew Gooden
Allen Iverson (almost certain to re-sign with Denver)
Rasheed Wallace
Baron Davis (if he does not exercise the opt out in 2008)
Elton Brand
Lamar Odom
Kobe Bryant (option)
Jason Kidd
Stephon Marbury
Jamal Crawford (player option for 09/10 and 10/11 - 50/50)
Eddy Curry (player option for 09/10, 10/11 - 50/50)
Hedo Turkoglu (player option for 09/10, unlikely)
Andre Miller
Steve Nash (player option, unlikely)
Grant Hill
Steve Francis
Ron Artest (can opt out in '08)
Mike Bibby
Carlos Boozer (player option for 09/10 unlikely)
Mehmet Okur (player option for 09/10 unlikely)

The Rookie Contracts:
Marvin Williams (restricted)
Raymond Felton (restricted)
Jason Maxiell (restricted)
Luther Head (restricted)
Danny Granger (restricted)
Andrew Bynum (restricted)
Hakim Warrick (restricted)
Andrew Bogut (restricted)
Charlie Villanueva (restricted)
Rashard McCants (restricted)
Chris Paul (restricted)
Nate Robinson (restricted)
David Lee (restricted)
Channing Frye (restricted)
Jarrett Jack (restricted)
Francisco "Paco" Garcia (restricted)
Deron Williams (restricted)

Young Filler Material, Given Up, With Potential:
Marquis Daniels (team option, unlikely to be picked up)
Desmond Mason
Chris Wilcox

They Still Living?
Eric Snow
Brevin Knight
Damon Stoudemire
Smush Parker
Juwan Howard
Antoine Walker (player option for 09/10, 10/11 - likely)
Jason Collins
Bobby Jackson
Malik Rose
Raef LaFrentz
Wally Szczerbiak

2010 Free Agents:

The Big Dawgs:
Joe Johnson
Ray Allen
Ben Wallace
LeBron James (player option, likely)
Dirk Nowitzki (player option, unlikely)
Josh Howard (player option, likely)
Marcus Camby
Rip Hamilton
Stephen Jackson
Tracy McGrady
Shaquille O'Neal
Dwyane Wade (player option for 10/11, unlikely)
Michael Redd (player option for 10/11, likely)
Tyson Chandler (player option for 10/11 - 50/50)
Eddy Curry (player option for 10/11 - 50/50)
Amare Stoudemire (player option for 10/11, unlikely)
Brad Miller
Manu Ginobili
Chris Bosh (player option for 10/11, unlikely)

The Rookie Contracts:
Shelden WIlliams (restricted)
Rajon Rondo (restricted)
Adam Morrison (brah ha ha)
Tyrus Thomas (restricted)
Rudy Gay (restricted)
Kyle Lowry (restricted)
Randy Foye (restricted)
Marcus Williams (restricted)
Josh Boone (restricted)
Renaldo Balkman (restricted)
Mardy Collins (restricted)
Brandon Roy (restricted)
Sergio Rodriguez (restricted)
LaMarcus Aldridge (restricted)
Quincy Douby (restricted)
Ronnie Brewer (restricted)
Andrea Bargnani (restricted)

Young Filler Material:
Amir Johnson
Al Harrington
Cuttino Mobley
Tim Thomas
Derek Fisher
Mike Miller
Darko Mlicic
Brian Cardinal
Udonis Haslim
Quentin Richardson
Raja Bell
TJ Ford (player option for 10/11, unlikely)

Won't Be In The League Much Longer:
Mark Blount
Bobby Simmons
Troy Hudson
Jerome James
Darius Miles
Travis Outlaw
Kenny Thomas
Shareef Abdul-Rahim
Bruce Bowen
Matt Bonner
Luke Ridnour
Earl Watson
Damien Wilkens
Matt Harpring
Etan Thomas
Antonio Davis
Brendon Haywood

Non-rookie contracts that are past 2010:

Good Contracts, ValueWise (won't get traded, because the contract is too good):
Carmelo Anthony 10/11 $17.1
Chauncey Billups 10/11 $13.15 11/12 $14.2
Yao Ming 10/11 $17.7
Dwight Howard 10/11 $15.78 11/12 $17.15 12/13 $18.52 (player option, unlikely)
Tim Duncan 10/11 $18.7, 11/12 $21.3
Tony Parker 10/11 $13.5
Leandrinho Barbosa 10/11 $7.1, 11/12 $7.6 (player option, unlikely)
Caron Butler 10/11 $10.56

Bad Contracts, LengthWise (Pretty untradeable, other than as salary dump):

Kendrick Perkins 10/11 $4.4
Jason Richardson 10/11 $14.4
Kirk Hinrich 10/11 $9.0 11/12 $8.0 (good contract value wise, though)
Eric Dampier 10/11 $13.0
Kenyon Martin 10/11 $16.55
Nene 10/11 $11.36 11/12 $11.6
Nazr Mohammad 10/11 $6.88
Shane Battier 10/11 $7.35
Troy Murphy 10/11 $11.97
Mike Dunleavy 10/11 $10.56
Jamaal Tinsley 10/11 $7.5
Vladimir Radmanovic 10/11 $6.88 (player option)
Luke Walton 10/11 $5.26, 11/12 $5.68, 12/13 $6.10 (good value, but too long)
Dan Gudzuric 10/11 $7.24
Charlie Bell 10/11 $3.84, 11/12 $4.092
Antoine Walker 10/11 $10.87
Marko Jaric 10/11 $7.63
Richard Jefferson 10/11 $15.0
Peja Stojakovic 10/11 $15.34
Mo Peterson 10/11 $6.64
Zach Randolph 10/11 $17.33
Jamal Crawford 10/11 $10.08 (player option)
Jared Jeffries 10/11 $6.88 (player option)
Rashard Lewis 10/11 $20.514 11/12 $22.15 12/13 $23.8
Jameer Nelson 10/11 $6.72, 11/12 $7.31 12/13 $7.889
Samuel Dalembert 10/11 $12.2
Kyle Korver 10/11 $5.54
Reggie Evans 10/11 $5.08
Willie Green 10/11 $3.98
Boris Diaw 10/11 $9.0, 11/12 $9.0 (player option, likely)
Marcus Banks 10/11 $4.75
Joel Przybilla 10/11 $7.41 (player option, likely)
John Salmons 10/11 $5.81
Nick Collison 10/11 $6.75
Andrei Kirilenko 10/11 $17.82
DeShawn Stevenson 10/11 $4.15

Just The Right Length and Amount:

Kevin Garnett: 10/11, $18.8, 11/12, $21.2
Paul Pierce 10/11 $21.5
Gerald Wallace 10/11 $9.8, 11/12 $10.65, 12/13: 11.44 (player option)
Jason Terry 10/11 $10.65 11/12 $11.44
Chris Kaman 10/11 $11.30 11/12 $12.2
Pau Gasol 10/11 $17.82
Mo Williams 10/11 $9.30, 11/12 $8.5, 12/13 $8.5 (player option) (a little long, but good value)
Al Jefferson 10/11 $13.0, 11/12 $14.0 12/13 $15.0 (tough call, but could become a sweet deal)
Vince Carter 10/11 $17.3, 11/12 $18.0 (player option)
David West 10/11 $8.288 11/12 $7.525 (player option)
Tyson Chandler 10/11 $12.75 (player option)
Eddy Curry 10/11 $11.28 (player option)
Tayshaun Prince 10/11 $11.15

Okay, in Part 2 (coming on Monday), we'll look at the first 15 teams in the league alphabetically, and evaluate their franchises salary cap prospects for the next three to five years.