Busting the cap, so to speak

Darnell Mayberry had a good piece in yesterday’s Oklahoman [warning: gratuitous autostart video] about bang for one’s NBA salary buck: the Thunder, for instance, won 50 regular-season games while spending $55.9 million, while the Lakers won 57, albeit with a payroll of $91 million.

And it’s actually worse than it sounds, since L.A.’s Purple Gang is well into the luxury-tax zone, so spending $91 million on payroll will actually cost them more like $113 million when all is said and done.

Shed no tears for the Lakers, though. One commenter on the paper’s Web site:

If the new CBA has a hard cap, then OKC would be in the same financial ball park [as] New York, Chicago, Boston, etc. But that ain’t gonna ever happen.

This current soft salary cap is ridiculous. It’s more complicated than the Federal Tax Code. And only benefits the Lakers of the world, who can sign any player they want and pay no attention to the cap.

Which is not precisely true, but an owner who’s willing to write extremely large checks does have more options than one trying to live on the NBA-recommended budget. The cap for this season was $57.7 million. Of thirty teams, twenty-eight were over the cap.

And there are lots of exceptions to the cap, which is why it’s “soft.” Even the low-budget Thunder have used exceptions on occasion: center Nenad Krstić was retrieved from Europe with the “mid-level” exception, which allows a team to sign a free agent to a salary no greater than the average NBA salary. (The NBA does not release salary figures, but Krstić’s three-year contract was worth approximately $15.5 million.)

The biggest prize, they say, in this year’s crop of free agents is LeBron James, who has an early-termination option in the fourth year — next season — of his approximately $60-million contract with the Cavaliers. No combination of exceptions will enable the Lakers to buy out LeBron. It is theoretically possible that Cleveland could re-sign King James and then immediately trade him, but there’s no reason to think that the Cavs would consider such a thing. (And incidentally, James wasn’t the highest-paid player on the team this past season: that was Shaq.)

Besides, the Thunder’s actual cap room is apt to be eaten up in the next few years as the younger guys get ready for their second contracts. For 2011-12, the price for Kevin Durant’s services, and for Jeff Green’s, will go up markedly; in addition, there are seven players whose options will either have to be picked up or dropped. At this time, the only player on the team who is definitely signed for that season is Thabo Sefolosha, who is under contract through 2013-14. Could the Lakers, or someone else, swipe Durant? Be assured that Thunder ownership will do their damnedest to see that they don’t.

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