Why the Upcoming Salary Cap Jump Is Going to Break NBA Free Agency

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When the NBA signed the paperwork for a television deal worth $24 billion back in October 2014, we wrote that the end result of this discussion was the extreme likelihood that a work stoppage (either a strike or a lockout, depending on how pedantic you are and who you ask). The NBPA, the players’ union, got royally hosed during the 2011 negotiations and was beset by infighting and other issues. That’s not the case this time around, as its new executive director, president, and vice president (that’d be Michele Roberts, Chris Paul, and LeBron James, respectively) are healthily entrenched in making sure that the players get a more even take from the industry that they, in a very literal way, built.

This is why the NBPA rejected the NBA owners’ proposal for “smoothing” the salary cap, in order to avoid a $20 million jump between the 2015 and 2016 seasons — the $63 million cap that’s in play now would boost to anywhere between $88 million and $93 million, depending on how charitably you chose to interpret the leap. In a league that pays players based on a percentage — which is why “max” contracts can be so tricky to discuss — of the available salary cap, this is a big deal. Smoothing was suggested so that the owners wouldn’t have to deal with NBA players deciding en masse to become free agents in the summer of 2016. Kevin Love? 2016 free agent. LeBron James? 2016 free agent. This isn’t an accident.

How does that impact the league this summer? It could lead to many players taking one-year deals in anticipation of 2016. Owing to the way that NBA salaries are set: where a player makes a percentage of the cap and then receives raises based on that first-year salary number, there’s no reason for a player or that player’s agent to agree to a contract made up of a percentage of $68 million instead of $88 million. That’s just good business.

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The owners pushed for smoothing because they’re also good businessmen. They want their players to be as underpaid as possible — the argument that athletes are millionaires so they should be quiet and enjoy is at worst moronic and at best oversimplified, by the way — and they want a dependable cap increase. They’re adverse to surprises, in other words, and the cap jumping so massively all but guarantees that there will be surprises.

This isn’t necessarily a given win for the players, though. At least, not all of the players. Just ask Larry Coon, the author of the entirely indispensable Salary Cap FAQ, broke it down thusly (condensed from tweets you can find here): “[The] most likely reason union didn’t want smoothing — it takes years to implement, and they’re going to opt-out in 2017. This way they get [a] big cap jump in 2016, then (assuming season not cancelled) a new CBA in 2017 that deals with the money in a way they’d consider to be fair. You know who gets screwed the most from this? Rank and file players who don’t have many years left in the league. Under smoothing they would have gotten a big shortfall check in 2016-17. But this way, all the 2016 money goes to 2016 free agents.”

In short, we’re about to see something that has no equal in the modern day world of NBA free agency.