Learning the NBA’s salary cap is like learning what constitutes a catch in pro football. It seems like it should be basic. Teams pay players; teams are limited in what they can pay players; that limit is determined by league revenue. But then come the other considerations. What did Ricky Rubio’s designated player contract have to do with Kevin Love’s deal in 2011? Why are the Pistons still paying Josh Smith? Where do cash considerations go when they grow up? Did the pinky nail survive contact with the ground before or after the ball was bobbled?
The cap is complicated, but fans also care more about its inner workings than they ever have before. Understanding a team’s salary situation allows fans to more intimately backseat-drive the decision-making of the real GM. A bunch of numbers and clauses help determine whether your team will be shitty just this year, or shitty for the next five. And that’s why fans read up on it, why Reddit threads do explainers, and why Bobby Marks has 124,000 Twitter followers. (The trivia slaps, too.)
So it’s not easy to explain how general manager Rob Pelinka and the Lakers front office neglected the salary cap ramifications of the Anthony Davis trade. On Wednesday’s episode of The Jump, ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne reported that L.A. just … forgot that the timing mattered. As it stands now, with the trade scheduled to be finalized on July 6, Los Angeles will have $27.7 million in cap space. If Davis collects his trade kicker, which he’s reportedly planning to, that lowers to $23.7 million. Had L.A. negotiated that the trade be completed on July 30, the Lakers would’ve had $32.5 million. (A quick explainer because of the aforementioned garble that is the salary cap: By waiting, L.A. would’ve been acting as a team over the cap and could’ve used the fourth overall pick that it traded to New Orleans as salary.)
“The way this trade was constructed,” Shelburne said, “this should’ve been first and foremost on their minds, as they were talking to the Pelicans in a way where they set themselves up. This was their plan: They want to have a third star. This should’ve been central to their conversations with the Pelicans, and my understanding is that it was not. That they went all the way down the road, and it’s been described to me [that] the Lakers called back about this.”
A brain fart might cost a title. (This has got to stop happening to LeBron.) Now L.A. has to scramble to dump salary, which is problematic because it no longer has the pieces or incentives other teams will want in exchange. Those all belong to New Orleans now. In addition, dealing Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, and Josh Hart (two of whom were starters for the Lakers last season) leaves the roster bare. I’d say the last thing L.A. can afford to do is trade away its cheap role players—Moe Wagner, Isaac Bonga, and Jemerrio Jones—but I’m not sure the Lakers can afford anything at this point.
There’s no reason for any team to cooperate with Pelinka. If the Pelicans wish to trade the fourth overall pick, then they can’t delay the deal’s completion date. If other franchises aren’t getting sweeteners, they won’t take on the Lakers’ salary dumps. If the money isn’t there, a player of the Kemba Walker or Kyrie Irving caliber likely won’t sign with the Purple and Gold. Especially in this free-agency window, which is beginning to feel like the second-coming of summer 2016. With a Raptors title and two devastating Warriors injuries, the league is experiencing parity shock. That one player made the difference for Toronto, and that winning is within reach now, is incentive enough to overpay a little. Before, the question for the Lakers was whether they should pursue a third max-level player, or a couple of solid role players. The latter might even be out of reach.
If Los Angeles fails to recruit (or can’t pay) Irving, Walker, or Kawhi Leonard, they probably won’t find the next tier of free agents, like Khris Middleton and D’Angelo Russell within reach, either. (Though a full-circle, fuck-you-Magic moment for Russell would be sweet.) There could be bidding wars over guys like Bojan Bogdonovic, Patrick Beverly, and Al-Farouq Aminu, and those are wars Los Angeles isn’t prepared to fight. The Lakers aren’t one piece away, even if they do miraculously sort out their cap gaffe. There’s an entire roster that needs filling, and L.A. is trying to carve space from an empty room.
Trading for Davis was the first move that the Lakers made since signing LeBron that indicated they were heading in the right direction. After so much public humiliation last February, when the team initially couldn’t pull off a Davis trade, it’s sad that the actual accomplishment can’t even be celebrated. Fans will rightfully point out how much work the Lakers still have to do just to fill out a basic NBA roster, especially after last summer’s bizarre signings of Michael Beasley and Lance Stephenson, among others. And as new mistakes are made in an effort to remedy the old ones, those errors are being called out. It’s the downside of the public’s intense interest in front office operations. I’m sure it must feel like fans think they know more than actual GMs sometimes. Sometimes, maybe they do.