The Memphis Grizzlies did the improbable over the last month, entering the playoffs as the West's eighth seed and toppling the San Antonio Spurs, then giving the Oklahoma City Thunder all they could handle in the second round before finally facing defeat in Game 7 of the Western Conference semi-finals. What's even more impressive is that the Grizzlies did it without their best player, as Rudy Gay was sidelined for most of the second half of the season with a shoulder injury. Anticipating the Grizzlies' penny-pinching owner, many have wondered if Gay might now be on the trading block as management tries to keep the core from this playoff run together.
Earlier this week Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley went on the record saying he won't trade Gay, even saying the mere speculation of such a move is ticking him off. In one conversation he proclaimed his allegiance to Gay, said he would probably keep Marc Gasol, and even assured Grizzlies fans that prized reserve Shane Battier would be back, as well.
That all sounds great, and fans in Memphis have to be elated to hear their owner give his team such a vote of confidence. At the same time, they have to be wondering about the math.
As of today the Grizzlies have roughly $37.5 million committed in salary for next season. Considering the NBA is talking about imposing a $45 million salary cap next season, that's a pretty good place to be. Of course, that number doesn't include restricted free agent Marc Gasol or the aforementioned Battier, both of whom will garner significant interest in the free agency market this summer. Gasol is likely to command somewhere in the $15 million range beginning next season, as he is expected to be the most sought-after big man in the class. Battier is more of a glue guy, but will also command a decent amount, perhaps as high as the $7 million he made this year.
So let's take a conservative stand and say Gasol gets $12 million and Battier $5 million. That would put Memphis over $57 million for next season, some $12 million over the NBA's targeted cap, and with only 11 players under contract. The obvious fact here is that Memphis can't afford to keep this group together as structured. It simply can't be done, and that's ironic, given that for the first time ever their owner is actually willing to spend the money it takes to compete for a championship.
The next question we have to ask, then, is just how realistic it is that the league will get a $45 million cap from the new CBA? The vast majority of NBA teams are well over that mark, with no easy way to get under. There is a lot of talk about an amnesty clause, which would allow a team to buy out their biggest contract and then waive the player, as the Dallas Mavericks did with Michael Finley a few years back, but for most NBA teams - especially playoff teams - that's a drop in the bucket.
Let's say, for example, that the Orlando Magic decided to waive their worst contract off the books. Gilbert Arenas makes more money than Dwight Howard, if you can believe that, and he would be gone so fast he would think he was on the new Harry Potter ride at Universal Studios. "Expecto petronum!!!!" And he's gone. That would still leave the Magic with roughly $56 million in contracts . . .and only nine players on the team. Teams like Boston and Miami would face even bigger challenges, as the bulk of their money goes to their top three players. Who will you waive, Chris Bosh? LeBron James? The Celtics could get to $45 million if they waived Kevin Garnett, but that would leave them right at the cap with only seven players under contract (including the two O'Neals).
If the NBA insists on a hard cap of $45 million we may be watching the last NBA games we'll see for a very long time. We're talking about forcing every star player in the league to take a retroactive pay cut just to allow teams to have the minimum numbers of players required to field a team. Coming back to our original subject, it creates a very hard position for the Memphis Grizzlies, even as their owner is finally willing to open up his wallet. To start with, it probably means Marc Gasol is available.
"Basically, I'm not going to sit and pay a contract which everyone says is ridiculous," Heisley said Monday. "But my intention is to bring Marc back. If he wants to be here, he will find I will be very, very receptive."
If he wants to be there? Marc Gasol wants to be on the team that will pay him the most to play basketball. It sounds to me like Heisley is preparing his exit clause, and that's music to the ears of teams like the Houston Rockets, who covet Gasol.
But then again, under the new CBA teams may not be able to afford to add players . . .and Gasol may have to go back to Spain to find a job.
The NBA's proposed solution to all of this is for everyone to take a tiered paycut. Players who make less that $2 million lose something in the neighborhood of 15%. Players who make $5 million would lost something like 20%. Players who make more than $5 million a season would take something like a 25% cut. In other words, it would be a tiered reduction based on size of contract.
The end goal would be to achieve an across the board reduction to the tune of about 23% on all existing deals, so that could change the Gasol discussion or at least complicate it.
For more on how the owner's structured their latest proposal, be sure and check out HOOPSWORLD's Steve Kyler's piece on the subject here!
How open will players be to taking such a pay cut? That very much remains to be seen.
It's going to get grizzly, NBA nation. Very, very grizzly.