The NBA offseason has brought many changes to rosters, coaching staffs, and the list of championship contenders. As we draw closer to opening night, it's time to move our focus from the potential impact of each offseason event and onto the broader issues that figure to define this season. The BDL 25 takes stock of, uh, 25 key storylines to get you up to speed on where the most fascinating teams, players, and people stand on the brink of 2015-16.
No. I mean, of course not. Maybe.
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What we can all agree on is that this is some pretty unprecedented stuff.
The two biggest news stories of the 2014 offseason came in the form of LeBron James returning to what was a previously moribund Cleveland Cavaliers franchise, and the agreement on the NBA’s new television deal. James’ free agent move meant the Cavs would turn into instant championship contenders, and the TV contract means that the league’s salaries cap will shoot to around $90 million in 2016, and well over $100 million the following offseason.
This is why James intelligently decided to pen a series of short-term contracts with player options, so as to maximize his free agent takings in both the 2015 offseason and (most assuredly) the 2016 offseason. He’ll take the obvious route in attempting to at least approximate what his value would be in a free and unfettered market, making a Michael Jordan-level yearly salary. This salary would hit some two decades after Jordan made “a Michael Jordan-level yearly salary,” while MJ worked with a salary cap that was about a quarter of the size LeBron will be working in starting next summer.
That fact should tell you all you need to know about how convoluted and disproportionate the NBA’s salary cap system works for stars, and how it might cost LeBron’s championship chances even while attempting to prop up the salaries of players James needs to chase a ring. The sorts of players LeBron missed in Miami and returned to Cleveland to play with.
“The middle class,” is what we’re saying.
What’s off the table in most of North America is thriving in the NBA, thanks to a series of collective bargaining agreements that made damn sure that the league wouldn’t be littered with franchise players working alongside minimum-salaried helpers. It’s those sorts of helpers that will make or break LeBron’s time in Cleveland, as it did his first run with the team and as it went during his two-title turn in Miami.
And it will cost the team’s owner a whole hell of a lot.
The Cavaliers are stuck within an understandable impasse with reserve forward Tristan Thompson, who is reportedly seeking a five-year, $94 million deal to return to the team. His representatives are doing their due diligence in working through the press to label the Cavs as cheapskates, mindful of the fact that Thompson was a key force in the team’s injury-riddled run to the Finals last spring, well aware that he shares the same agent as LeBron.
The Cavs, however, are wary of spending more than they have to in order to merely bring back big man depth, and it isn’t as if Thompson is some sort of unheralded wonder that is beloved by those in the know. He is fantastic on the offensive boards and he can be crafty on the offensive end, but he’s hardly a rim protector of great renown and he isn’t some sort of perfect peg that Draymond Green turned out to be for the Warriors last season.
The Cavs have reportedly offered five years and $80 million to Thompson, not unreasonable for a player who will back up two positions while dealing with the frustration that comes from becoming a restricted free agent in an NBA climate that barely takes the time to bid for restricted free agents, a full year before the league’s cap jumps a record $21 million. Of course, Tristan can choose to play for a not altogether unreasonable $7.1 million this season (per his qualifying offer) and become an unrestricted free agent next summer, when the league will initiate an ungodly amount of dumb basketball moves with a massive new cap and the understanding that both LeBron and Kevin Durant probably ain’t going nowhere.
That leaves a few weeks (Oct. 1 is the deadline) for Tristan to figure out if he wants to bet on that nutso market, in-game insecurity and a life away from LeBron James up against slightly less than the maximum the Cavaliers can give him. As we’ve written several times, a torn ACL won’t dissuade teams from overpaying for an unrestricted free agent coming off of a QO season. Squads will line up for the chance to make Thompson their rehabilitation case, and the Mavericks just handed Wesley Matthews $70 as he comes off of his (arguably more frightening) Achilles tear.
That’s Thompson’s September decision. The Cavs have several more to suss out.
Within a year, even without the benefit of an NBA title, Brendan Haywood’s unguaranteed contract went from “awesome trade bait, we can grab even more depth!” to “deal this guy, holy lord we’re on the books for too much already.” Mike Miller, the reserve James was reportedly upset that Miami cut in a cost-saving move back in 2013, was also dealt to Portland with Haywood in a move that the Cavs received no on-court help from.
The deal was understandable from both a basketball and business swift-take. The Cavs did incredibly well midseason to acquire a badass starting center in Timofey Mozgov and swingmen Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith in two different trades; a major reason why Haywood and Miller combined to play just 67 minutes in 20 postseason games. On the business side – you don’t pay Brendan Haywood and Mike Miller eight figures’ worth of basketball money to play the sport of basketball in the Year of Our LeBron, 2016.
That figure – as those who are reading an NBA website in early September well know – is hardly representative of what the Cavs will play in luxury tax considerations. After re-signing LeBron and bringing J.R. Smith back at around a $1.5 million discount, the Cavs will still pay tens (to put it nicely) of millions of basketball dollars in tax penalties, which will only increase as the years move along – the day of the expanding cap can’t help them, in this regard.
The Cavs seemingly spent the whole of the summer arguing over important minutiae regarding Smith’s new contract – he opted out of just under $6.4 million, he can make $5 million next season and has until around the 2016 draft to tell the team if he’s picking up his $5.3 million option (which can be waived at a $3.2 million discount for Cleveland some two and a half months later and why are you still reading this) – and they don’t appear to be in any hurry with Thompson. That’s good, because even if a $14 million difference (spread out over five years) would seem to be insignificant, the rappelling luxury tax penalties the Cavs could sink into make every penny count.
LeBron James doesn’t want to hear this, but while he might not ever be paid what he’s truly worth, he can’t have his cake and eat it too in a team sport.
James did incredible work in making the Cavaliers competitive against the NBA’s best team in the Finals last year, working mostly without Kyrie Irving and completely without Kevin Love (who gave the Cavs a break in not taking a short-term, LeBron-styled deal) and Anderson Varejao (still on the hook for $9.3 million in 2015-16). The Cavs should start the season as, at worst, championship contenders and the team’s most prominent movers should consider themselves the favorites. LeBron is certainly owed as much money as legally possible within the NBA’s salary confines. At age 30, he’s under no such sportswriter-bred obligation to take less, as Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki have in recent years.
The team’s ownership group, however, is going to have to pay for a winner. Such is life while working with a force that could retire as the best player in NBA history on your side – in his prime no less. If Cleveland and Thompson eventually agree to a middle ground contract, the Cavs could have to sign off on a luxury tax payment that will vault tens of millions of dollars beyond what the league’s highest team payroll was last season. This will be some unprecedented stuff, even before James opts out and then back into a record-setting contract next July.
That’s sort of what you do, though, when you have LeBron.
Previously, on BDL 25:
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