It was a compelling yet somewhat helpless 10-day period for those in the NBA community not named LeBron James.
One man controlled the entire free agent market with his decision, and when James decided to sign a four-year maximum contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the market began raining with signings, flooding what was a barren landscape.
What the current collective bargaining agreement has done is allow just a few standout players who deserve maximum salaries to control the markets for the mid- and lower-level players.
Paul Pierce had been waiting for more definitive interest for the past 10 days before reaching a two-year deal with the Washington Wizards, it was reported Saturday. The Brooklyn Nets, salary cap strapped, weren’t sure they want to pay Pierce’s $9 million-per-season demand to bring him back. His deal with the Wizards includes a player option in the second year.
Chris Bosh waited on James to determine whether to pursue a contract with the Houston Rockets or return to the Miami Heat. Bosh decided to return to the Heat, just hours after James committed to Cleveland.
The Sugar Ray Leonard-type flurry that ensued after LeBron’s decision was not surprising and it displayed his absolute power in the NBA. He is a once-in-a-generation type player, so much so that a handful of teams cleared their salary caps to have an opportunity to approach him during free agency.
“I think you guys have it worse than we do,” Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge told the media. “I see you guys updating your Twitter pages.”
The Rockets and Dallas Mavericks never had a chance to sign James, yet general managers Daryl Morey and Donn Nelson, respectively, were ready to clear their rosters to make room for LeBron. Even Phoenix Suns general manager Ryan McDonough made a presentation to James’s agent, Rich Paul, during the past week.
Miami’s four consecutive NBA Finals appearances convinced general managers that this remains a star-driven league, and while the San Antonio Spurs’ model has worked brilliantly over the past 15 years, retaining three standout players, all of whom are aging remarkably and remain productive, is as once-in-a-generation as James himself.
Teams are seeking stars in their prime to team with other stars in their prime. Ainge began this trend by using draft picks and younger players to acquire Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. It resulted in one title, another Finals appearance, and a return to respectability for the Celtics. James has become so adept at making teammates better and compensating for their weaknesses — as he did this past season with a hobbling DwyaneWade — that teams realize they can be championship level just with his presence.
Hence the frenzy that occurred this past week, when James shut down the free agent market like Justin Bieber visiting a shopping mall. Such power, whether intentional or unintentional, will become customary as long as the NBA has maximum contracts and tightened salary caps that allow little freedom for teams chasing big-name players. The Rockets were the biggest losers of the early free agency period.
Morey signed Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik to poison pill contracts with bloated salaries in the final years of their deals. While the duo was supposed to help the Rockets reach the NBA Finals, Morey eventually had to find takers for their $14 million deals to create salary cap space to chase Carmelo Anthony and Bosh.
Anthony never really considered Houston, and Bosh returned to Miami, leaving the Rockets to ponder matching a maximum salary offer by the Dallas Mavericks for swingman Chandler Parsons. Morey could have had Parsons return for $964,750 next season, which would have allowed him to become an unrestricted free agent at this time next year.
Instead, the Rockets, who shuttled Lin to the Los Angeles Lakers, now will have to match the Mavericks offer of more than $15 million per season to Parsons, who made it clear with posted photos with Mavericks owner Mark Cuban that he enjoys the idea of playing in Dallas.
The Lakers went after Anthony after briefly feeling they could entice James by allowing him to participate in choosing a coach. They ended up with Lin, Nick Young, and Jordan Hill.
The days of teams with plenty of cash in hand to chase a slew of players who could catapult their title hopes have dissipated. Instead, teams are securing salary cap space with hopes of acquiring one of the league’s premium free agents.
James passed on the extra cash of returning to Miami for the privilege of playing at home again. But he took his sweet time with the decision, directly or indirectly affecting most of the available free agents.
The Suns had little chance at James but they still waited on him before eventually deciding to do a sign-and-trade for Sacramento’s Isaiah Thomas.
While James angered fans with his televised interview to announce his decision to go to Miami four years ago and heartened fans with his humble return home Friday, his power over the free agent market soared during that time.
And while we can blame James for his lack of regard for the rest of the basketball community by taking 10 days to announce his decision, we also have to criticize many of the league’s general managers who halted their business to wait on a player they had zero chance of signing.
Morey is likely shaking his head because he missed on all of his targets and traded the two players — Lin and Asik — he fought so feverishly to sign two years ago. The NBA has been reduced to big-game hunting for more large-market teams and until astute coaches devise new methods to haul in championships, the pursuit for the megastar will continue — and we will wait impatiently for him to make up his mind.
Prior deal put Celtics in position for trade
When the Celtics acquired Marcus Thornton, Tyler Zeller, and a 2016 first-round pick in the three-team deal with the Nets and Cavaliers, and gave up nothing more than a conditional second-round pick to Cleveland, they used something called a trade exception of $10.3 million that was acquired in the Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett deal with the Nets a year ago.
Since so much money was exchanged in that deal, the Celtics picked up two valuable trade chips: the nonguaranteed contract of Keith Bogans and the trade exception they had one year to use that actually would have expired Saturday.
That allowed the Celtics to facilitate the trade using that exception as a salary holder, like trading a $10.3 million player without actually sacrificing anyone from their roster.
Trade exceptions, which can only be used by teams over the salary cap, are rarely used and are generally allowed to expire because there aren’t the right trades to apply the exceptions to during the time frame. For example, the Celtics own two additional trade exceptions: $283,216 from the Fab Melo trade to the Mavericks that is set to expire Aug. 15 and is likely to go unused, and a $2.09 million exception they acquired from the Grizzlies in the Courtney Lee deal that will expire on Jan. 6, 2015.
“If you look around the league, a lot of trade exceptions go by the wayside,” said Danny Ainge. “You can’t force trades. You’ve got to find a partner and we found one [for the Thornton] trade. Again, it was a good deal for us.”
Some teams pass on sizable trade exceptions, such as the Oklahoma City Thunder, who allowed a $6.5 million exception to expire Friday that was gained from the Minnesota Timberwolves and Milwaukee Bucks in the three-team Kevin Martin trade.
Trade exceptions can reap stunning benefits. Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti helped build the Thunder by using a trade exception acquired when sending Rashard Lewis to the Orlando Magic in a sign-and-trade in 2007.
Presti, then with the Seattle SuperSonics before the franchise moved to Oklahoma City, acquired veteran center Kurt Thomas and two first-round picks from the Phoenix Suns for Seattle’s $8 million exception in the Suns’ haste to clear salary cap space. The first of those two first-round picks became defensive-minded center Serge Ibaka.
The most egregious example of a team allowing a trade exception to expire is the Magic, who received a $17.8 million reward in the four-team Dwight Howard deal in 2012. Because Orlando had so much salary committed to players such as Gilbert Arenas, Al Harrington, and Quentin Richardson, who were no longer on the team, general manager Rob Hennigan did not want to pick up additional players to count against the Magic’s salary cap.
Ainge capitalized on the Cavaliers’ desire to clear cap space and realized that a $10.3 million trade exception was too good to allow to expire.
This time, Villanueva hopes to find best fit
It’s the prohibitive lesson in money-chasing. Tens of players are signing bloated contracts as teams look to fill salary cap space and edge out competition for valuable role players that could lead to postseason success.
Charlie Villanueva was one of the emerging standouts who signed a lucrative deal five years ago with Detroit, a five-year, $35 million package from then-team president Joe Dumars, who was ever-anxious to rebuild the Pistons into a contender.
The contract turned into a regrettable one from nearly its inception, with Villanueva, tabbed as a stretch-4 for his shooting prowess along with his 6-foot-11-inch frame, hardly playing his past three seasons. That’s one of the reasons Dumars resigned in April.
Villanueva is a free agent now, considered an afterthought in a market dominated by stars. At age 29, Villanueva wants to continue playing in the NBA. He wants to dispel the perception that he lost his passion after signing that contract and that his stint in Detroit was a combination of injuries, poor luck, team mismanagement, and four coaches.
“I’ve just been in a bad situation, in a situation that it seemed I couldn’t shake off. I don’t regret my decision in Detroit,” he said. “I haven’t really played much the past two years and injuries have not been a factor. I’ve still got a lot of gas left in the tank. I still have a lot of game left in me and whichever team I decide to go to will get a good player.”
Villanueva said Washington, Golden State, Dallas, and Houston have considered having him in for workouts. He averaged 16.2 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.8 assists in his final year with the Milwaukee Bucks in 2008-09, prompting Dumars to reward him with the contract.
Villanueva was solid in his first two years with the Pistons, averaging more than 11 points off the bench, but injuries limited him to 13 games the next season and then he was reduced to mostly a little-used reserve in the final two, playing only 20 games despite being healthy last year.
The Pistons ran through coaches — John Kuester, Lawrence Frank, Maurice Cheeks, John Loyer — while Greg Monroe, Josh Smith, and Kyle Singler cut into Villanueva’s playing time.
“When I first decided to go to Detroit, I felt like, with all the success they had in the past and just the history, I felt that was the right spot for me,” he said. “But once I got there, there were a lot of uncertainties as far as they were on the verge of selling the team. They still had the old regime [from the 2004 title team] there. We had a new coach [Kuester]. There was no stability, not knowing what to expect. It was hard.”
Villanueva said there was a lack of communication between the players and coaches, resulting in confusion about roles and playing time. And once each new coach took over, Villanueva became a reflection of the team’s past difficulties.
“I’ve never lost love for the game; I’m very passionate for the game,” he said. “I’m very determined. There was a lot of things that were happening in Detroit but I’ve always been a good teammate. I always accepted my role. Whatever they asked of me, that’s what I did. Perception in this league is everything and people have the wrong perception of me.”
When large contracts become mistakes and when players are traded or become salary cap nightmares, reputations are soiled and players sometimes regret taking the money over the right fit. A constant presence this past week at Orlando summer league was Ben Gordon, who just signed a two-year deal with the Magic. He joined Villanueva as part of Dumars’s spending frenzy, signing a five-year, $58 million deal with Detroit. He was traded after three seasons.
“I’m not chasing the money, so to speak, that was part of the business,” Villanueva said. “Being a fit and just getting the opportunity is the key. It just didn’t fit right in Detroit.”
While the salary cap increased 7.5 percent to $63.065 million and the tax level increased by 7.1 percent to $76.829 million, there is a collective anticipation for the summer of 2016, when the NBA’s television contract is up for renewal and ESPN, Fox, and TNT are all expected to increase their deals with the league. Since the recent collective bargaining agreement includes a 50-50 split of basketball-related income, if the owners make it rich with a lucrative new TV contract, the players will get an equal share. Also look for Fox to have a more prominent role in NBA telecasts . . . The Celtics announced the signings of Marcus Smart and James Young to their rookie contracts Thursday, meaning they are not eligible to be traded until Aug. 9. There was a perception that the Celtics may have kept Young out of the Orlando summer league to prevent an injury in case of a trade. The fact the Celtics signed both players means they are not going be included in any deals in the next few weeks. There is a definite reluctance for the Celtics to give away Young when he has so much potential and wasn’t allowed to display that during summer league . . . An interesting free agent story is the fate of Evan Turner, who is an unrestricted free agent after the Pacers rejected his $8.7 million qualifying offer. Turner quickly fell out of favor in Indiana after being acquired in the controversial Danny Granger deal with the 76ers.Turner averaged just 7.1 points in 27 games and saw action in just 12 of the Pacers’ 19 postseason games. Turner is a former No. 2 overall pick but his game has been heavily criticized for being one-dimensional. He could be a nice addition for a club needing a swingman . . . Also on the open market is former Celtic Glen “Big Baby” Davis, who opted out of his contract with the Clippers for near the veteran minimum. It appears Davis, who played unevenly with the Clippers, is going to have to sign a shorter-term deal to prove his worth after coming off a four-year deal with Orlando.