Cap space isn’t what it once was in the NBA.
After an anticipated salary cap spike prior to 2016-17 season that saw the cap rise from $70 million to an unprecedented $94.1 million, teams doled out money with little regard for the landscape ahead.
You can poke fun at Portland for matching Brooklyn’s four-year $75 million offer sheet for Allen Crabbe or the Magic paying Bismack Biyombo $72 million over four years to come off the bench, but few saw the cap rising to just $99 million for the 2017-18 season, leaving those who spent big last summer without much capital.
Salary cap space, like it was in the early 2010s, is a rare commodity. Expiring contracts are more valuable for organizations looking to keep the books clean for next summer and teams are wary of acquiring contracts, even if they’re of market value and extend for more than one year.
It’s a reason why Carmelo Anthony remains in New York. The Knicks, and no one else, wants to take back Houston’s Ryan Anderson, who’s still owed $61.2 million over the next three years. The Trailblazers, another rumored Anthony suitor, can’t get anyone to bite on Meyers Leonard‘s contract, which will pay the backup center $31.7 million over the next three seasons.
Houston and Portland need to move those bloated salaries to fit Anthony into cap space, but aren’t finding any takers. Teams don’t want those contracts tying them down next summer, when a strong free agent class is set to hit the market.
But we’ve seen teams such as the Toronto Raptors get around a similar problem.
In a cost-cutting move this summer, Toronto sent DeMarre Carroll, who’s still owed $30.2 million over the next two years, to Brooklyn in exchange for Justin Hamilton. The kicker? The Raptors had to send a 2018 lottery-protected first-round pick AND a 2018 second-rounder.
That’s how much it costs these days to rid a contract such as Carroll’s. The 32-year-old is declining rapidly, averaged just 8.9 points on 40-percent shooting last year, but he can still fill a role on a playoff team. Toronto, however, needed the financial flexibility once they re-upped Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka. Similarly, the Lakers had to unload the second overall pick in last year’s draft, D’Angelo Russell, to get out from Timofey Mozgov‘s contract.
The Nuggets, while not as desperate to shed salary as the Raptors, still find themselves where they started the summer; They have just too many power forwards.
Denver has Paul Millsap, Kenneth Faried, Trey Lyles, Darrell Arthur and Tyler Lydon all under contract for next season plus Juancho Hernangomez who should log some minutes at the four. Four of those power forwards; Millsap, Faried, Lyles, and Arthur can play minutes on most teams in the league while Lydon will need some seasoning next year.
“It’s not a balanced roster,” Nuggets GM Tim Connelly said, after Denver took Lydon and traded for Lyles on draft night.
Then, the Nuggets signed Millsap, who plays the same position.
The most likely four-man to be on a different roster next season is Faried. He started 34 of the 61 games he appeared last season, but played his lowest minutes per game since his rookie year. That number will likely drop again with the addition of Millsap. Some of those minutes that came at the five won’t exist this season either, as the Nuggets still plan to retain backup center and restricted free agent Mason Plumlee.
Trading Faried, whose name has been in rumors for the better part of two seasons, won’t be easy. Still, the 27-year-old still has two more years left on the south side of 30, and he can be a valuable big man on a playoff team. He’s coming off his best defensive season in recent memory, and he really jelled with Nikola Jokic when the two shared Denver’s frontcourt.
But Faried is owed $26.6 million over the next two years. It’s a fair salary for Faried, but in the cap environment the league finds itself, that contract might scare teams off. Especially for a player likely to just come off the bench. There’s not much of an appetite for power forwards who aren’t lockdown perimeter defenders, rim protectors or don’t stretch out the floor.
Denver also doesn’t have the extra draft picks it once did to unload with a potential Faried trade package. They had to combine a future first with Jusuf Nurkic to trade the disgruntled center to Portland when there wasn’t much of a market for the Bosnian. The Nuggets have only their own first-round selections going forward. Denver has two 2018 second rounders (via Golden State and the less favorable of Portland and Sacramento) but based on what Toronto had to give up with Carroll, it’s tough seeing one of those picks being enough to get a deal done.
Denver could very well roll into next season with their current roster intact, or they could trade another one of their power forwards and bring Faried off the bench. The Nuggets won’t make a trade just to make a trade, so a scenario is there that sees Denver come into training camp with another imbalanced roster — a problem they faced at times last year.
The Nuggets will stay aggressive and continue to pursue ways to clean up their frontcourt rotation as the off-season continues. But the logjam at power forward could linger for the next few months.