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Why NBA Free Agency 2019 Could Resemble the Wild Spending Summer of 2016

The Kent Bazemore–Evan Turner trade was an exchange of bloated contracts from 2016 that hamstrung the teams involved. Could we be heading into another summer of cap-related mistakes? And how could these deals affect marquee free agents this summer, and in the near future (we’re looking at you, MVP Giannis)?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Monday, two artifacts from the NBA’s summer of 2016 were exchanged: the Atlanta Hawks sent Kent Bazemore to the Portland Trail Blazers for Evan Turner. It’s a forgettable trade that recalls an unforgettable summer, a gluttonous time when teams recklessly handed out big contracts like free samples at Costco. A new, lucrative television contract caused the salary cap to boom by $24.1 million, and teams had a collective $568 million in cap space entering the offseason. Mistakes were made across the league, ones that many teams would like to forget. Turner and Bazemore are entering the final season of their own four-year, $70 million contracts signed in 2016. Many other deals—such as the Memphis Grizzlies’ addition of Chandler Parsons, the New Orleans Pelicans’ signing Solomon Hill, and the Hornets’ re-signing Nic Batum—are still gumming up cap sheets today.

In years to come, we might look back on the summer of 2019 in the same way. The cap is expected to rise from $101.9 million to about $109 million, a moderate amount compared with the leap in 2016. But many of the bad deals signed then are up coming up now, and the NBA is swimming in money. Teams will enter the summer with a projected total of $474 million in salary cap space, which is more money than the past two offseasons combined—$176 million in 2018 and $154 million in 2017—according to data provided by salary cap guru Keith Smith.

There’s a lot of cash out there, and players fortunate to be hitting the market will benefit. The NBA title is as up for grabs as it’s been since Kevin Durant signed with Golden State, and agents and executives across the league are expecting an arms race this summer. With so much money available, and so much incentive to spend it in pursuit of a title, some wild stuff could happen in the next couple of weeks.

The winners will land difference-makers. The losers will commit the same type of desperate blunders we witnessed in 2016, which will hamper their flexibility. Bad contracts limit a team’s ability to build a competitive roster. Most teams have clearly defined themselves as contending or rebuilding, but after this summer, we could see several franchises opting for the latter path if their summer roster-building doesn’t pan out.

The summer of 2016 serves as an instructive recent history lesson. Choices made during that free-agency period reverberate today. We had a group of players in ascendance, and their teams felt pressure to build around them. The Hornets thought they had something going back then with Steve Clifford in charge and Kemba Walker on the rise. They finished the 2015-16 season with a 48-34 record, which was good enough for the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. They lost a seven-game first-round series against Miami, but there were enough encouraging signs that Charlotte decided to pay for continuity. Batum was the main beneficiary and was rewarded by the Hornets with $120 million over five years. He hasn’t offered Walker any help since, and now Walker has a chance to walk in free agency with multiple contenders expected to pursue him.

The Grizzlies signed Parsons because they wanted to extend their window while Mike Conley and Marc Gasol were in their primes, but Parsons wound up playing only 95 games through the first three seasons of his deal. Gasol declined. Conley got hurt and played only 12 games in 2017-18, which was sad for him, but fortunate for the team in terms of draft position. The Grizzlies won only 22 games, ended up with the no. 4 pick, and drafted Jaren Jackson Jr.—arguably the game’s most promising teenage big man. The Grizzlies were old and capped out, so they didn’t really have any choice but to rebuild. They wound up dealing Gasol to the Toronto Raptors for Delon Wright and spare parts, then watched their beloved Spaniard win a championship. Last month, Conley got sent to the Utah Jazz for a large trade package. Memphis owes Parsons more than $25 million this upcoming season.

This past season, the Grizzlies tried to compete so they could convey the protected first-round pick they owe to Boston, but didn’t win enough. They landed the no. 2 pick, which they used to select Ja Morant. Now that Jackson, Morant, and Brandon Clarke are joining forces in Memphis, the team has an athletic and smart core whose players complement one another. My Ringer NBA Show cohost Chris Vernon is happier now than he’s been in the three years that I’ve known him, and it’s all because the Grizzlies said farewell to the past, and along the way got lucky.

In that same Summer of Parsons, the Pelicans signed Hill for four years and $48 million, only for him to become another deadweight for Anthony Davis to carry. They then made a series of short-sighted moves—signing Hill, trading Buddy Hield for DeMarcus Cousins, and dealing a first-round pick for Nikola Mirotic (whom they dealt one year later for a minimal return). You can’t blame them for trying to build around a potential all-timer like Davis, but it didn’t work out at all. Fortunately, they won the 2019 draft lottery and selected Zion Williamson, and the Lakers got the no. 4 pick, which bolstered their offer for Davis.

Milwaukee Bucks v Phoenix Suns
Is Devin Booker at risk of becoming the next Kemba Walker?
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

There are potential analogs in 2019: players that teams feel compelled to build around, right now. Could Devin Booker and the Suns be this summer’s Walker and the Hornets? Much like Walker, Booker is a rising star who just signed a long-term deal with his middling team. The Suns already spent a lottery pick on Cameron Johnson (who is older than Booker), added Dario Saric and Aron Baynes via trade, and opened cap space by dumping T.J. Warren on the Pacers. They could generate around $20 million in space or overpay to keep Kelly Oubre Jr. Either way, we’ll know by the end of Booker’s contract in 2023-24 whether Phoenix is mired in chaos or bidding for contention.

Is there a Davis in 2019? Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks have gone further in the playoffs than Davis ever did, but with only two years left on the Greek Freak’s contract in Milwaukee, there is some pressure to maximize the cap space they have—roughly $20 million while retaining cap holds on their own free agents. Those free agents are all older (like George Hill, if he’s waived), have an injury history (Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon), or both (Brook Lopez). The Bucks already re-signed Eric Bledsoe, who was a dud in the playoffs, in March. The Bucks could have up to $34 million in cap space if all those players wind up elsewhere. The team would be wise to explore all available options and resist settling like the Pelicans did.

There is no aging core that mirrors Conley and Gasol on the Grizzlies, or a player with the injury history that Parsons carried, but there are risk-laden situations everywhere you look this summer. Are the Mavericks really sure that Kristaps Porzingis won’t keep getting hurt like he has every year since 2015? Will a team regret giving a four-year deal to a 33-year-old Al Horford? Will the Sixers overpay to keep Tobias Harris? Is it really in Philadelphia’s best interest to sign Jimmy Butler to a full max? Which role players will get overpaid like Turner and Bazemore: Is it Marcus Morris, Terrence Ross, or Dewayne Dedmon? The 2020 free-agent class lacks star power and depth, so teams could splurge over the coming weeks.

No fan wants to see their team trade a superstar, but the Grizzlies and Pelicans are now better positioned than most teams in the NBA. Same goes for the Kings after sending Cousins to New Orleans, the Bulls after dealing Butler to the Timberwolves during the 2017 draft (though head coach Jim Boylen’s love for push-ups and suicide sprints may suggest otherwise), and the Clippers following the 2018 Blake Griffin blockbuster with the Pistons. Fans are already chattering about the future of Giannis on the Bucks and Ben Simmons on the Sixers; even new Wolves head of basketball operations Gersson Rosas said they must maximize their window with Karl-Anthony Towns. If any of those teams screw up this summer, the gossip will only magnify. The same goes for the Suns and Booker, and any other team with a young player. One mistake can send a team down a path with unpleasant outcomes: a cycle of mediocrity or a full rebuild. Blowing it up is often the better decision.

The Hornets are in trouble because they didn’t press reset. Walker will be pursued by contenders this summer, so Charlotte could lose him for nothing. Even if Walker re-signs, the Hornets will come close to paying the tax this coming season, despite being just a fringe playoff team in the Eastern Conference. You can understand why the Hornets wouldn’t want to move on from Walker. Charlotte is one of the league’s smallest markets, and it’s not easy to find a star player who wants to be there and puts fans in the seats. Small-market teams struggle to draw interest. Forget the market size, though. Sometimes you just have to rip off the Band-Aid.

Consider the Toronto Raptors: Masai Ujiri admittedly tried to rebuild as soon as he was hired in 2013, nearly trading Kyle Lowry to the Knicks before James Dolan reportedly refused the deal. Over the years, Ujiri quietly explored the trade market for DeMar DeRozan, only to be met with the sound of crickets. In 2016, DeRozan was an unrestricted free agent, and much like Walker, there were persistent rumors he could leave for a market like Los Angeles. DeRozan stuck around, and eventually Ujiri got his wish to reshape the roster. But it wasn’t until a disgruntled, injured Kawhi Leonard unexpectedly hit the trade market. In San Antonio, Ujiri found a team that happened to embrace DeRozan’s archaic midrange style. The Toronto championship was built on exploiting opportunity.

The Hornets won’t be so lucky, because they don’t have the assets outside of Walker to make a Kawhi-level deal, to say nothing of a Gasol-level one. The Grizzlies and Pelicans—or even the Bulls and Kings—are in much better positions moving forward.

Entering this summer with so much money available, teams will hand out massive contracts and soon, we’ll know which teams will be the next contenders, and which teams will be forced to detonate their cores. As the past has shown, though, what truly needs to follow every bad moment is some good luck.