is better than Jason Kidd
, but you'd never know it from their contract talks this summer. Despite averaging a double-double while shooting 54.9 percent from the floor, Lee ultimately may be forced to take a qualifying offer to play for barely more than the biannual exception.
On the other hand, Kidd turned down a hefty offer from Lee's current employer because he got a better one from Dallas, one that would pay him about 12 times as much as Lee's qualifying offer -- which is still the only concrete one Lee is known to have received.
Those two examples sum up everything you need to know about the NBA free-agent market, illustrating the three defining trends of this offseason:
1. Rumors of tightening wallets around the league have been greatly exaggerated.
2. Contending teams in particular are locked in a massive arms race.
3. Despite all of this, restricted free agents still can't get squat.
Let's start at the top, because NBA owners are a funny lot.
All through the season they pleaded poverty and talked gloom and doom about the tight wallets in the upcoming offseason. Then the offseason came, and they started spending like drunken sailors on whatever wares Charlie Villanueva
or Hedo Turkoglu
flaunted in the window.
Of all summers, this was supposed to be the one in which teams began holding the line financially. Faced with declining attendance numbers and a recession so steep that it might produce the unprecedented result of a $6 million decline in the salary cap a year from now, we were warned that a looming financial Armageddon would restrict free agency to a shadow of its former self.
Guess again. Already, moves by San Antonio, Washington, Orlando and Houston -- none of which have been huge spenders in the past -- have put them over the luxury tax for the coming season, though the Rockets may still be able to work their way under. Meanwhile, maneuvers by Dallas, Boston, Cleveland, New York and the Lakers figure to keep them well over the line, too, and it's possible the Nuggets and Heat will be joining them.
On the other side of the coin, the only team that seems to be actively cutting salary is Milwaukee, which traded Richard Jefferson
for spare parts and didn't make a qualifying offer to Villanueva. Phoenix, Utah and New Orleans could be in the same boat by the end of the summer, but at the moment those three teams also project to be well over the tax line for the coming season.
Put it all together, and Billy Hunter has to be doing a jig right now. It's hard for the league to plead poverty when potentially 14 of its 30 teams will be going over the luxury tax threshold, giving the Players Association some much-needed ammunition heading into the next collective bargaining negotiation -- one that should begin in earnest in the coming months, since the current CBA expires in 2011. (The league has an option to extend it a year but seems likely to decline.)
The spending stands out so much because this was supposed to be the year when teams would hold back. Given that only one current free agent played in either of the past two All-Star Games, and even that one player (Allen Iverson
) comes with a massive asterisk since he was voted in by fans, this hardly seemed like the summer for a big spending spree -- especially given the potentially star-studded free-agent class available in 2010.
Instead, teams are falling over each other to give A-list contracts to B-list players. Ben Gordon, Villanueva, Turkoglu and Kidd all agreed to deals for more than the midlevel exception. Even players with less extensive résumés (Trevor Ariza
, Marcin Gortat
) or more character flaws (Ron Artest
, Rasheed Wallace
) have been able to cash in for the full midlevel exception.
Which takes us to our second trend, because it's the contending teams that have been driving the bus on a lot of the spending we've seen. Sure, Detroit and Toronto have taken the lead in pursuing unrestricted free agents, but dig deeper into the trade and free-agent activity, and it's the prime contenders from last season that have done the most to add payroll.
The Spurs got it rolling by adding Jefferson in a move that put them over the luxury tax for the first time in eons, and things quickly escalated from there. The Cavs and Magic almost immediately followed with deals for Shaquille O'Neal
and Vince Carter
, respectively, and going into the luxury tax didn't slow their momentum one iota, either. San Antonio and Orlando both pursued Wallace, and the Cavs made a strong push for Artest; each has moved on to other targets with their midlevel exceptions.
Another team that was already looking at paying the tax -- Boston -- won the sweepstakes for Wallace, pushing the Celtics far beyond the mark even before the possibility of re-signing restricted free agent Glen Davis
. As for the defending champion Lakers, they've been one of the few beacons of fiscal sanity this summer, cutting extraneous salary at the end of last season and using their midlevel exception on Artest -- but only after waving goodbye to Ariza. Alas, even they are going to be well over the tax thanks to Andrew Bynum
's extension kicking in.
With the main players raising the ante so quickly, teams on the fringe of contention feel the need to splurge just to have a shot at contending. Detroit threw nearly $100 million at Gordon and Villanueva in hopes of regaining its perch at the top of the East, while Dallas made a similar push out West by offering a full midlevel deal to Gortat (he's expected to sign an offer sheet July 8) and re-signing Kidd to a $25 million deal. Even 19-win Washington got in the game, feeling it could threaten the East's elite with a couple of more pieces and going deep into the tax to add Mike Miller
and Randy Foye
Of the main contenders, only Denver has been quiet thus far -- but like all the others, the Nuggets are already in tax territory and will likely go deeper if they re-sign big man Chris Andersen
and use some of their midlevel exception. (Grant Hill
and Channing Frye
have already come up as targets.)
Which takes us to trend No. 3. Because as much as teams are spending in pursuit of unrestricted free agents, it stands in sharp contrast to those of the restricted free agents on the market.
Gortat struck a deal for an offer sheet from Dallas, but desirable commodities like Lee, Paul Millsap
, Marvin Williams
, Josh Childress
, Ramon Sessions
and Nate Robinson
have barely gotten a sniff.
Moreover, the market for those players to get anything above the midlevel exception is basically gone.
Unless they can persuade one of the above teams to join in the bidding, somebody like Lee or Millsap could end up settling for the midlevel exception or playing on a one-year deal for a scandalously low qualifying offer -- $1.03 million for Millsap, $2.68 million for Lee.
It doesn't get better for the others. Childress will likely have to head back to Greece if he can't work out a sign-and-trade with Milwaukee (it's possible, as a contract starting at $5.1 million in a sign-and-trade for Bruce Bowen and a draft pick works under the cap; the total value of a five-year deal with 10 percent raises would be $30.6 million), while Williams seems likely to play for the $7.3 million qualifier in Atlanta and try again a year from now. Robinson will likely have to leave New York and play for the midlevel exception somewhere, unless he gambles on playing for the $2.9 million qualifier and doing better next summer.
In turn, this has to be chilling news if you're Rajon Rondo
, Luis Scola
, Rudy Gay
, LaMarcus Aldridge
, Andrea Bargnani
, Ronnie Brewer
or Foye, all of whom will be restricted free agents next summer if they don't sign extensions by opening day. (Brandon Roy
, who is all but certain to get a maximum extension, needn't worry.) The restricted free agents in the class of '09 couldn't get a sniff of big money even in a very underwhelming free-agent market; what can they possibly expect a year from now when the likes of LeBron James
, Dwyane Wade
, Chris Bosh
, Dirk Nowitzki
and Amare Stoudemire
could be available unrestricted?
On the other hand, the unrestricted free agents could once again make out like bandits -- perhaps providing a carrot for the likes of Lee, Millsap and Williams to take the qualifier and play for a below-market-value price this season in hopes of recouping the difference next summer.
One thing is for certain: The spending spree of the past five days won't do the owners any favors in the next collective bargaining agreement. But with the remaining cap space essentially dried up and several productive restricted free agents still on the market, the rest of the summer could play out quite differently.