Fifty-eight million, six hundred eighty thousand dollars.
This is the one figure that looms largest in the offices of the NBA’s general managers: it’s the 2008-09 salary cap. A team is not permitted to exceed the cap. Theoretically. However, the cap is far from being rigid, and the GMs know all the exceptions, which is important if your team salary is $65,689,502, the approximate current figure for the Oklahoma City Whatevers.
“Team salary,” however, is a concept as stretchable as the cap itself. The Whatevers have four free agents; they’re not under contract, but they’ll take up $12 million or so in team salary until such time as they are signed, either by OKC or by a rival team. (As I was polishing this up, word came in that center Francisco Elson will be signing with Milwaukee, freeing up $3.9 million.)
And being $7 million over the cap doesn’t prevent making deals, either: there are exceptions for trades, exceptions for acquiring free agents, exceptions for retaining free agents, exceptions for signing first-round draft picks, exceptions for acquiring players at the minimum league salary, even an exception to obtain a replacement for a player who’s injured and won’t be back soon. Which is why, above the cap, there is something informally called the “luxury tax,” which this season kicks in at $71,150,000. Should team salary rise above that amount, the team must remit one dollar to the league for every dollar of overage. Last year eight teams were subject to the tax. (Dallas and New York have been over the tax limit since 2005, when the current rules were adopted.)
The cap rules have resulted in one interesting phenomenon: players whose contracts are about to expire are often desirable in trades because those contracts are about to expire. Consider the imaginary trade posited yesterday: Ridnour, Wilcox and Petro to New York for Zach Randolph. Salaries balance out within a million or so; but Randolph has a three-year deal, while Wilcox and Petro have expiring contracts. As a result, the Knicks would save some serious money after the first year, the only way you could persuade them to give up a marquee player like Randolph.
Of course, expiring contracts help your side too. Darnell Mayberry notes:
All told, [GM Sam] Presti cleared enough cap space for Oklahoma City to have around $20 million in cap room next summer and roughly $40 million in the summer of 2010 based on projections of the league’s salary cap increases.
Some of that will have to be set aside for the current core: assuming the team picks up Kevin Durant’s option and why wouldn’t they? he’ll be due about $11 million over 2009-10 and 2010-11, and a qualifying offer to retain him after that would have to be close to $8 million.
If this sounds complicated, well, you should have seen it before I oversimplified it.