We’re just three days into free agency and after a flurry of early signings, there are three teams left with the realistic potential to have more than the mid-level exception in cap space for the 2018-19 season. All of Brooklyn, Dallas, Indiana, the Lakers, Philadelphia, and Phoenix have blown through most of their cap space in the first 72 hours of free agency, which leaves just Atlanta, Chicago, and Sacramento has the remaining teams with significant space. None of those three have done a single thing over the past three days to lessen their flexibility and as the summer wears on and the cap space around the league continues to dwindle, the three-way inactivity standoff between the Hawks, Bulls, and Kings rages on – who will blink first?
Along with Brooklyn, these three teams are the only franchises in the league who at this point have active designs on being bad next season. The other teams at the bottom of the league last season are either capped out (Memphis, Orlando, New York) or used their cap space to get better in 2018-19 (Phoenix, Dallas, Los Angeles). The Nets fired their shot before July even began, trading for Dwight Howard and buying him out (though technically those deals won’t go through until Friday), but the remaining trio haven’t moved an inch since the calendar flipped to the new league year on Sunday, opting to save their bullets to plan for the future beyond 2018-19.
The rebuild began in earnest last summer, when the team hired Travis Schlenk to burn the roster to the ground and start over. Schlenk delivered in Year One, taking on Jamal Crawford’s contract for a first-rounder from the Houston Rockets. The plan is similar this season – the Hawks want to use their $20+ million in cap space to take on another bad contract and pick up an asset for their trouble. The right trade hasn’t come along quite yet, though it seems likely that Schlenk and his office were in on talks for Denver’s Wilson Chandler, who instead was routed to Philadelphia to give the Nuggets some tax relief. They’ll be looking to do another deal to duck under the tax completely in 2018-19 and the Hawks will certainly be in those discussions. I wrote a bit about what how a Hawks-Nuggets trade would take shape over at Peachtree Hoops and while that piece published before the Chandler news, a majority of it still holds with respect to the two teams involved.
Of the three teams with space left, the Hawks are the only team who have clearly made their intentions known with regards to trading for a bad contract. Chicago and Sacramento have flip-flopped over the last few days, with smoldering interest in going after a restricted free agent (including the Bulls’ own Zach LaVine) perhaps conflicting with a potential trade. Atlanta and Schlenk have been as clear as they can be without outright saying the “T” word: 2018-19 is not about winning basketball games and they’re wholly uninterested in bringing in players who will significantly alter that path. They’ll be active in making calls around the league to teams with contracts in the high teens or low 20s and onerous tax bills in an attempt to procure more first-round picks for their war chest. The Hawks could have as many as six picks in the 2019 draft, depending on the results of the season, and will be looking to add more across 2019 and beyond.
The Bulls are the only team remaining who can truly clear a gargantuan amount of space, but they have enough cap holds on their books to actually bring them over the cap until they decide to duck under. With just $64.4 million in guaranteed salary for next season, Chicago can generate as much as $37.5 million to play with in trades or free agency but so far have been entirely inactive other than a report or two about an impasse in negotiations with LaVine and David Nwaba. They’re in a unique cap position, as they were at this time last year – the Bulls can stay over the cap as long as they please, using the $10.5 million cap hold for Noah Vonleh and another $10.4 million across a pair of traded player exceptions to technically stay over the cap while retaining all the benefits of under-the-cap teams should they choose to go that route.
Chicago can go many different directions with their summer – they’ve been linked to restricted free agent Jabari Parker in what would be a homecoming for the forward – but they’ve chosen the patient approach thus far. It comes to no surprise that they’re hitting the brakes on signing LaVine and Nwaba to extensive contracts, as the Bulls have mostly been reticent to overpay for any player. With roughly $21.2 million in usable space, should they choose to renounce free agents and other exceptions to get under the cap, they would do well to make some of the same calls Atlanta is making. Chicago has all their own first-round picks through 2025 but doesn’t have anything to add on top of that. With a pair of top-10 picks on the roster from the last two drafts, the Bulls are looking to turn the corner toward contention in the next few years, at which point picking up extra draft assets will be difficult and having picks already in their possession will smooth their path toward trading for a star or simply adding cost-controlled talent to the roster once they cycle back toward the top of the league.
Nobody ever has any idea what the Kings are doing, but after a 2017 spending spree resulted in the same old Kings last season, reports and rumors out of California’s capital indicate that they’ve learned their lesson on that front. Sacramento is already out their 2019 first-rounder in what will go down as one of the worst trades of the decade, so using their remaining space this summer to get back into next year’s draft would be a prudent use of resources. They’re currently sitting on $16.8 million in space, with the ability to cut Nigel Hayes and pull the two-way qualifying offer for JaKarr Sampson to get close to $20 million in available money.
The Kings have been connected to the aforementioned LaVine and Parker, but precious little else has leaked out of their camp. While they’re always a risk to go full KANGZ, Vlade Divac and his staff have clearly taken a more measured approach to free agency this year. More than Atlanta or Chicago, a trade makes sense for the Kings – should the Lakers be interested in moving Luol Deng’s two-year, $36.8 million contract, Sacramento would do well to push themselves to the front of the line in order to pick up at least two first-round picks from Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka. Other trade targets include Portland’s Evan Turner, Miami’s Tyler Johnson, and New York’s Joakim Noah. All of these teams have multiple first-rounders to trade over the next few years to restock the depleted Sacramento reserves in that area.
There are more bad deals than there are teams with the financial flexibility to take on those players, which may explain some of the inactivity on all fronts with regards to the Hawks, Bulls, and Kings