HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — In some places they are the magic words, the path to a new future and, hopefully, championship glory somewhere down the line.
Go ahead, say it out loud. “Cap space.”
It’s all people talk about during free agency. Who has it? Who’s trying to get it or at least create a little more? And who is going to have it next summer?
The better question is when you do get it, can you make anything out of it? Because we’ve all learned over the years that cap space isn’t always what it seems, especially when it is misappropriated or even worse yet, unused altogether.
There was an estimated $300-plus million in cap space available across the league on July 1, the day free agency began. With Chris Paul ($107 million with Los Angeles Clippers), Dwight Howard ($88 million from the Houston Rockets) and Josh Smith ($54 million from the Detroit Pistons) chewing up the bulk of that cash, that left some teams flush with cap space scrambling to find an impact player to spend that money on.
The Dallas Mavericks, who struck out on their main targets for the second straight summer, and Atlanta Hawks stand out as the two teams who had their free-agent dreams dashed immediately. Howard choosing the Rockets and Paul deciding to stay with the Clippers days before free agency began, basically the moment Doc Rivers left the Boston Celtics for his new gig as coach and senior vice president of basketball operations for the Clippers, ended any parties before they began.
“That was the game-changer for free agency,” a Western Conference executive said. “The moment Doc made that move, anyone that was trying to find a way to lure CP3 away from the Clippers had to wipe their white board clean and start from scratch. Dwight was a wild card until he made his choice. And those were clearly the top two guys on the market. Once they’re off the board it becomes a free-for-all to get value out of that cap space. Given the circumstances, Houston pulled off a hell of a move by getting Dwight.”
The Hawks are a prime example of a team that spent the better part of the past year preparing to make a splash in free agency this summer only to get here and barely make a ripple.
They came into the process with champagne wishes and caviar dreams, Howard and Paul as a package deal, sporting in excess of $34 million in cap space and four Draft picks. They were fined by the NBA for tampering after mention those two impending free agents by name in a letter to season-ticket holders in June.
Instead of fine dining, the Hawks are trying to salvage their summer by grabbing a quality free agent in Paul Millsap but nothing else that sets off fireworks around the league. In fact, for all the resources the Hawks sported heading into the process, they are not a better team right now than they were when last season ended for them with a first-round playoff loss to the Pacers.
Champagne and caviar plans turned into a quick stop through the drive-thru. Al Horford is still stuck playing center, when his preference and natural position remain power forward. And two of the top players on the market, Smith and restricted free agent point guard Jeff Teague, who has signed a four-year, $32 million offer sheet with the Milwaukee Bucks yesterday, never got so much as a formal offer from the incumbent Hawks.
Two of Hawks general manager Danny Ferry‘s biggest potential assets could walk for essentially nothing, not even a second-round Draft pick. (The Hawks do have two days to match the offer sheet to Teague.) They’ll still have Horford as the face of the franchise and a player to build around, but they won’t be anything close to what they could have been, if all of these resources had been used differently.
Building for a brighter future is always the mantra of teams flush with cap space. And the Hawks, Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers and other teams that missed out this summer or are scheduled to have cap space a year from now will point to the loaded free agent summer of 2014, when LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade could all potentially be available. Those teams will also keep an eye on a stout 2014 Draft class that could include Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle, Jabari Parker, Aaron Gordon, Andrew Harrison, Marcus Smart and several other elite-level prospects.
The disappointment of the summer of 2013 has a silver lining in the daydreaming being done about the summer of 2014, as my main man Fran Blinebury of NBA.com pointed out recently.
But all of those teams need to beware. Cap space isn’t always what it seems … especially when you can’t find a superstar willing to take some of yours.