Ask the Charlotte Bobcats how they’ll narrow the talent gap between themselves and the Miami Heat, and management is likely to tout how much salary-cap room they can create this summer.
As much as $21 million, the Bobcats have often said of late.
That’s quite a tool, particularly in a time when the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement includes a more punitive luxury tax on the league’s biggest-spending teams. Except the Bobcats won’t be the only team able to absorb big salaries off other teams’ rosters.
By the estimate of Tom Penn, a former NBA executive and now ESPN’s salary-cap expert, as many as 14 teams – roughly half the league – can create $10 million or more in room this summer.
“If there were just one or two teams (with massive cap room) their phones would ring off the wall,” Penn said.
The Bobcats play the defending-champion Heat Friday night at Time Warner Cable Arena. At 18-57, the Bobcats need big upgrades to their roster to compete with the Heat and other contenders.
Center Gana Diop’s $7.3 million salary comes off the Bobcats’ cap this summer, and the team could use the one-time “amnesty clause” to release forward Tyrus Thomas (and be forgiven his $8 million salary cap number for next season). The Bobcats didn’t use the clause on Thomas last summer because they didn’t need the cap space.
Other contracts could also fall off the team’s salary cap this summer.
“Having that much cap space allows a team to make dynamic deals, and traditionally, NBA trades aren’t like that,” Penn, a former assistant general manger of the Portland Trail Blazers, said. “NBA trades tend to be dollar-for-dollar (salary exchanges) because most teams are over the cap.”
But salary cap space alone isn’t enough, Penn said.
“Cap room can’t rebound, can’t block a shot, can’t shoot,” he said. “You have to turn it into assets.”
There are basically three things a needy NBA can do with cap space: Recruit free agents, trade for talent, or accept a bad contract off another roster in return for compensation, such as a draft pick.
Bobcats president of basketball operations Rod Higgins and general manager Rich Cho set out on all three paths last summer, to mixed results.
• They pursued, but didn’t sign, free-agent power forwards Kris Humphries and Antawn Jamison, but did sign point guard Ramon Sessions, who’s proven to be a valuable backup to Kemba Walker. The Summer of 2012 showed it might be tough for the Bobcats to recruit impact free agents, who tend to sign with contenders or expect to be overpaid in return for coming to a struggling team in Charlotte.
• The Bobcats were unable to find a trade for talent that was to their liking.
• Charlotte traded for Ben Gordon’s big contract ($13.2 million next season) in return for a future first-round draft pick from the Detroit Pistons. There’s a good chance the Bobcats will have three first-round picks in 2014: Their own, the Pistons’ from the Gordon trade and one Portland owes them from the Gerald Wallace deal.
Trading for a high-impact veteran is hard, but the Bobcats could benefit from how the new luxury tax might force big spenders to make hard choices. The Memphis Grizzlies gave up Rudy Gay to the Toronto Raptors this season rather than pay a big luxury-tax bill.
The same kind of deal could happen this summer, Penn said. He points to the Los Angeles Lakers, who under punitive new rules that start next season could owe about $85 million in luxury tax for being $30 million over the salary cap.
Even the Lakers, with a billion-dollar local television deal, might not be able to stomach $85 million in tax without being confident they will contend for a title.
To avoid the tax hit, the Lakers could do something dramatic, such as amnesty someone such as 32-year-old Pau Gasol (a $19.2 million salary), or trade him to a team with enough cap room to absorb his salary.
The Bobcats could be a potential partner in that sort of creative deal.
“I’d describe their challenge as being patiently aggressive,” Penn said. “Be patient enough to explore a lot of options, but when you see that deal that can improve you for years to come, be aggressive enough to make it happen.”