NBA fans are obsessive. They scour Twitter for breaking news, rant about the decisions of front offices and always seem to know what’s best for their team.
Cap space is inevitably a big part of this. Fans obsess over which teams can afford to sign marquee free agents, and they are usually upset when their team isn’t one of them. But I’m here to tell you that cap space, while important, is overrated.
For years, many NBA teams would hoard cap space, often believing they could use that money to bring in a superstar. General managers seemed hellbent on preserving enough room for a max slot — the amount of money needed to sign a superstar to the most expensive contract possible.
Sometimes, this strategy pays off. While the deals were at a small discount, the Miami Heat used this strategy to land two star players in the summer of 2010. Similar situations occurred in 2019 when Kawhi Leonard joined the Los Angeles Clippers and Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving joined the Brooklyn Nets.
But more often than not, banking on landing a superstar in free agency is not a viable plan when it comes to team-building in the NBA. And teams have finally begun to realize that.
There are two main reasons for this: sign-and-trades and frustrated superstars.
Sign-and-trades are a type of transaction that involves a team signing a free agent and subsequently trading that player to another team for assets, rather than just watching them leave in free agency and getting nothing in return. Instead of keeping millions of dollars in available cap space, why not just use that money to sign players who can help now and possibly be traded for someone better down the line? It makes too much sense.
The second reason is also simple. In the past five years, there has been an unprecedented level of movement across the NBA. This includes LeBron James, Durant, Leonard (twice), Irving (twice), Chris Paul (three times), Russell Westbrook (twice), James Harden, Jimmy Butler (three times), Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday and Paul George (twice), just to name a few.
Of the 11 players I mentioned, nine were traded. Most of them forced their way out of unfavorable situations by demanding a trade. And in this era of player empowerment, they all got what they wanted.
Instead of hoarding cap space for the next superstar free agent, today, teams are hoarding draft picks and young players to trade for the next superstar under contract who is unhappy with his current team.
Still, cap space has its benefits. However, rather than hoarding it, teams have begun to use cap by doing something else: weaponizing it.
“Weaponizing” cap space means using extra money to take on contracts of players that other teams do not want in exchange for additional draft picks or helpful players. The Oklahoma City Thunder have become masters of this in recent years, netting additional first-round picks when trading for Chris Paul, Al Horford and Kemba Walker.
In the modern NBA, this is one of the most helpful uses of cap space.
While retaining some cap space is something teams try to prioritize, good teams often don’t have much of a choice in the matter. Take the Los Angeles Lakers, for example. By virtue of having stars like LeBron, Davis and, for now, Westbrook, the team does not have money left over to save for a later date, meaning they will almost never have cap space. Still, teams like the Lakers can always sign a free agent using the mid-level exception each offseason regardless of how much cap space they have, making hoarding cap space even less helpful.
Despite all these reasons, NBA fans will continue to calculate salary cap figures to predict which teams will sign a max player every offseason. But every year, those calculations are becoming less and less helpful. Yes, cap space in the NBA can be helpful, but having the extra money lying around is overrated these days. Just ask me, a Knicks fan.