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Who Is Feeling the Squeeze Under the NBA’s New, Lower Salary Cap Projection?

The cap is no longer exploding, and some teams are particularly affected

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

Four words, five if contractions aren’t for you: It’s ruining the league. The expression is like your uncle’s favorite prayer at Sunday dinner, brought up even before the food can be eaten, and it’s similarly recycled by studio analysts every year. Who, or what, ruins the NBA changes — from The Decision to Steph Curry’s outside shooting — but there is always something ruining the league. Kevin Durant and his superteam were the culprits this season, and a 16–1 run to the championship later, you’re thankful that your uncle isn’t on Twitter to see the latest league-breaking news, announced late Wednesday: The NBA’s projected revenue dropped due to the short playoffs, and because of that and other reasons, the 2018 salary cap is now projected to be $99 million, about $2 million lower than its April projection of $101 million.

Though it will not, in fact, ruin the league, a lower-than-expected salary cap might ruin some individual team plans. Golden State does have to pay Curry and Kevin Durant while keeping the rest of its winning roster together, but this is a larger threat to other teams, either ones squeezing salaries to invite a superstar or subpar squads stuck in commitments from last summer, when the cap was still dramatically exploding. Which teams will this cap dip hurt the most?

Portland Trail Blazers

If there was ever to be another I Know What You Did Last Summer reboot, the protagonist could be the Portland front office. Everyone — C.J. McCollum, Allen Crabbe, Evan Turner, Meyers Leonard, Moe Harkless — was paid last offseason, and now the Blazers owe nearly $133 million guaranteed to 12 players next season. That’s $33 million more than the Warriors paid out in salary altogether last season.

Maybe Portland’s confidence was an overestimation of future TV inflation money; maybe it was an overestimation of talent. Either way, the Blazers were already in trouble, projected to be $14 million over the tax this year, a sum higher than Steph Curry was paid in either of his MVP seasons. With the lower cap comes a lower tax projection, down from $121 million to $119 million. That, my friends, is being unable to run in a horror movie.

Armed with three first-round picks in this year’s draft, the Blazers will need to dump a few salaries just to avoid paying an additional $10 million in luxury tax on rookie deals (an estimation that could vary with the new cap limit). For a team already trying to bob and weave out of the "repeater tax" penalty (think of a parking ticket, and then its price multiplying after you forget to pay it for three months — that’s the repeater tax; except, you know, over years, and in millions) the stakes are particularly high. Granted, some of those picks will likely be packaged to lure said salary dumps away, most ideally Crabbe ($75 million over four years) or Turner ($70 million over four years). Before, a return other than space was probably necessary, as both are fine players who will now be defined less by any sensible on-court development and more by living up to that money, but now Portland will be more desperate just to get wiggle room.

San Antonio Spurs

San Antonio is the only squad on this list that has championship aspirations. (Forgive me, Bucks fans. Your time is coming.) If Kawhi Leonard had never crossed paths with Zaza Pachulia’s foot, the Spurs could’ve taken Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, and maybe more. (Zaza jeopardizing the cap would be the ultimate dirty play.) But even at above-average good, the aging Spurs are still stuck on a tier below Golden State.

Tuesday’s announcement that Pau Gasol would reportedly opt out of his contract to sign a longer, cheaper deal was the first sign that San Antonio was really pushing to clear the space for someone like Chris Paul, a free agent linked to the Spurs like Kawhi is to his braids (I’ll never be fooled again, Twitter).

Figuring out how the Spurs would realistically cut enough space to entice Paul, who would have to pass on what was a projected five-year, $205 million deal (what the Clips can offer now also drops with the lowered cap, by around $700,000) was already going to be a stretch. Moving LaMarcus Aldridge or [shields self from San Antonio’s wrath] Tony Parker was the only realistic way to clear enough for a max contract. When every thousand matters, every million really does, and the Spurs now need to wipe an additional $1.3 million for the possibility of Paul.

Boston Celtics

Boston seems to have a seat at every free agent’s table this offseason, but the salary cap decline might bump them from the head chair. While max contracts inked this offseason will now be lower (since they’re determined as a percentage of the cap), clearing the money is still more difficult. The reduction hurts more than it would for say, Miami, which has been linked to some of the same free agent targets, but still has around $35 million to spend. The Heat are still maimed by it; they could offer a max deal to Gordon Hayward or Blake Griffin, but then would have only $5.7 million left, not enough to re-sign James Johnson or Dion Waiters. But with a few minimalistic roster shifts, Miami could stretch their leftovers to around $9 million.

Boston saved around $1.4 million when it traded the rights to the first overall pick to Philly, a fun byproduct of Danny Ainge believing he’ll still get the best player at no. 3. But the Celtics are now pushed into territory they’ve long avoided, and have to choose whether give up players who were previously off the market. Cap guru Nate Duncan suggests that renouncing Kelly Olynyk, trading Terry Rozier and Demetrius Jackson, and not bringing in Ante Zizic and Guerschon Yabusele would be enough to sign Hayward or Griffin.

Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks neared ever closer to the luxury tax Wednesday when Greg Monroe reportedly opted in to his $17.9 million player option. His uptick in production off the bench last season took the sour taste away from seeing his salary, the second highest on the team, go onto the books for another year.

Milwaukee’s been smart with its money, signing stud Giannis Antetokounmpo to a discounted four-year, $100 million extension last September, rather than the five-year max deal he was eligible to receive if the Bucks had named him their designated player. They dealt away Miles Plumlee’s absurd contract this past season just months after inking it (which, depressingly enough for Dwight Howard’s career, was later used as a dump again in Plumlee’s trade to Atlanta for our fallen Superman). But the Bucks are still paying around $40 million for reserve big men, and are edging sneakily close to the luxury tax for a team that still needs to make moves to get to the next level.

If Spencer Hawes decides to also opt in to his $6 million for next year, the Bucks will be paying over $108 million. That figure excludes Tony Snell’s contract as he hits restricted free agency. The team has been open about its wish to keep Snell, and retaining him pushes the estimated bill more around $117 million this 2017–18 season. That’s just 2 million and some change short of the new luxury tax estimate, rendering them almost immobile in free agency without trading excess weight — not an ideal position when Jabari Parker hits restricted free agency after this year.