The most important question facing fans in the wake of the NBA lockout deal reached Saturday morning is pretty basic: how does the deal affect my team? As it turns out, given that clubs have similarities with others based on top-level considerations, we can boil the impacts of the deal down based on the class of teams we're looking at.
We've broken the 30 NBA teams into seven groups of varying membership levels to assess the deal's impact on the clubs' futures. Then we note any specific considerations facing each team, the "I am a special snowflake" impacts that will affect, say, the Pacers but not the Bucks.
The groups are laid out in the following chart and explained below that. I apologize in advance for any insult felt by Sex in the City fans and Satan worshippers.
THE MONEYBAGS CREW:, Heat, Knicks, Mavericks, Celtics, Warriors, Nets and Magic
There are eight current teams that make a lot of money and spend a lot of money. Well, there are seven, but there's one team that makes no money that will soon start to make a lot of money. We'll deal with them shortly.
These teams are the ones who will feel the wrath of the new luxury tax rules. Luckily for these teams, that pain is largely delayed until 2013. There is some intermediate pain -- the priciest of these teams will be limited to the mini mid-level exception worth $9 million over three seasons instead of the full mid-level, worth more than $20 million over four seasons. But more punitive tax penalties and sign-and-trade restrictions, as well as the repeater tax, are delayed until 2013.
Eventually, payrolls must come down. Even Mark Cuban won't be able to stomach persistent $40 million tax bills. These owners still want an advantage, so expect them to (when they are contending for a title) however around $80 million, assuming a $70 million tax line.
Here are some special considerations.
* The L.A. Lakers will absolutely chase one of the two massive free agents to be (Dwight Howard and Chris Paul) now that the Melo Rule has been killed. But it won't have to be by the 2012 in-season trade deadline: since sign-and-trades are permitted for high tax teams until 2013, the Lakers could wait until next July and work out a sign-and-trade with Orlando or New Orleans. The delay on the punitive tax and continuance of the soft salary cap means that those doomsday scenarios in which Kobe Bryant would need to be waived via amnesty to allow the team to fill a roster will not materialize. The 2013-14 season may be tough, but that's a long way away.
* The New York Knicks are in a similar position: they'll chase the big names now and later, and they'll get away with it. The timeline for the new rules fits the Knicks' team-building schedule perfectly. Almost too perfectly.
* The Dallas Mavericks and Boston Celtics can continue to spend big over the next two seasons with little danger of extra penalties in the future. When Dirk Nowitzki and Boston's Big Three hang up the boots, the teams can either rebuild traditionally or retool on the fly, dropping below the tax line and restocking the cupboards for another run. The two-year delay is huge for Dallas' free agent plans (Tyson Chandler, J.J. Barea) and Boston's salary cap sheet.
* The Miami Heat will be able to use the full mid-level exception without waiving Mike Miller, and keeping Mario Chalmers shouldn't be a problem either, as Brian Windhorst detailed over the weekend. An NBA Finals team getting better and losing no one of value? Sounds good to Mickey Arison!
* The Golden State Warriors are a high-revenue club expected to soon start spending like crazy. But the team isn't ready to go nuts just yet -- the Warriors weren't close to playoff contention last season -- so when Golden State rises it will be in the new environment where spending well over the cap comes with a price. I'd expect the Warriors to follow the Boston model: spend as much as you can bear when the window is open, fall back to reasonable levels otherwise.
* The Orlando Magic could be dropping back down to the ranks of the cheap quite soon, depending on what happens with Howard. Owner Rich DeVos is filthy rich and the new Amway Center is a huge revenue driver for the club. But the roster is painfully thin behind Howard, and there's no sense in paying the tax for a fully rebuilding club. Let's hope Howard sticks in O-Town and Otis Smith conjures some magic to fix that mess of a roster.
* And finally, the New Jersey Nets. We know Mikhail Prokhorov will spend. We know the team will be a huge moneymaker in Brooklyn, beginning in 2012-13. That creates a carbon copy of the Knicks. The only difference: unless the Nets make a big splash in free agency or trades in the next month, the Nets won't be a top contender in the East until 2013 at the earliest ... and that would require keeping Deron Williams locked up. Unless the Nets can pull Howard or get really creative, it's unclear they'll be able to firm up the roster before restrictions kick in two years from now. It'll be really interesting to see what the club does between December 9 and the trade deadline.
THE CARRIE BRADSHAW: Blazers
There's one more team intent on spending as much as possible seemingly every season: the Portland Trail Blazers. Paul Allen is among the richest men in the world. But Portland is a small market with limited revenue streams (despite a rabid fan base), and nothing can change that. How revenue sharing shakes out could determine how feasible the long-term commitment to spending big remains. Will Portland get money from the high-revenue clubs, bankrolling Allen's desire to grease every deal with cash and swallow bad contracts like medicine? That seems like a dangerous relationship. We'll see. We remain in the dark about revenue sharing.
THE SOBER WAFFLES: Pistons, Sixers, Rockets, Suns, Wizards and Raptors
These six teams are in the NBA's middle markets. (Toronto is actually the No. 4 market, but because of a weird yet persistent distaste for Canada among NBA free agents, it manifests as a mid-rung market.) Their owners are either unproven as big spenders or not exactly rolling in excess dough. These teams will likely spend when necessary, but were never going to be Mark Cubans or Paul Allens anyway. The new rules hurts the Sober Waffles' competition's ability to spend insane amount, and that necessarily helps these teams.
* The Detroit Pistons and Philadelphia 76ers could rise up the spender ranks -- we haven't seen enough yet -- but the teams are firmly in the "slightly above average" ranks in terms of revenue creation. They'd be comparable to the current Magic or future Warriors if they do begin to regularly exceed the tax line.
* The Houston Rockets and Phoenix Suns have been quite similar in terms of willingness to spend. Robert Sarver has the misfortune of having overseen the destruction of everyone's favorite team to watch, while Leslie Alexander presides over a team that was during its heyday a bit painful to watch. (Thanks, JVG!) With these two owners in place, we likely won't ever see the teams flirt with the repeater tax, and we might not even see them exceed the stiffer tax at all.
* The Washington Wizards are in full-on rebuilding mode, so much so that using the amnesty clause on Rashard Lewis this year would force the team to add too much in new salary in a bad free agent class. But Ted Leonsis is wealthy, and the Wizards are a fairly strong squad in terms of revenue streams, so in the future the team should climb the salary ranks. In the meantime, Leonsis will appreciate the lower leaguewide salary levels.
* The Toronto Raptors are among the favorites to be the worst team in the NBA this season. That's probably a good thing: Jonas Valanciunas will join the club in 2012, and another high draft pick can't hurt. (Harrison Barnes would be a beautiful fit.) The Raptors won't need to spend for another three seasons or so (assuming everyone is comfortably rebuilding through the draft), and unless Maple Leaf Sports spins the club off, the Raptors won't be spending big enough even then for the new tax rules to matter.
THE BLACK SHEEP: Bulls
The Chicago Bulls rank right up there with the Lakers and Knicks in terms of income, and Jerry Reinsdorf is no pauper. But the Bulls appear to be set to remain a reluctant taxpayer, a team that will go over the threshold only when it appears to be the difference between a championship and no championship. The stiffer tax doesn't give Reinsdorf any extra incentive to loosen the purse strings, and we've already covered that the new bonus pool for young players only affects Derrick Rose as of now. This deal does not really help the Bulls in the near-term.
In the long-term, if it drops teams like the Heat and Knicks to payroll levels that Reinsdorf refuses to exceed, it will help on the margins. But that's an "if."
THE DONALD: Clippers
The L.A. Clippers are actually pretty lucrative, despite being perennially awful. It doesn't matter. Donald Sterling has never been interested in spending at anything close to the tax line. He opened up the pocketbook for Baron Davis, and look where that got him. The brightest hope for Clippers fans: that which the team snags in the draft (Blake Griffin, Eric Gordon, Eric Bledsoe, Al-Farouq Aminu, DeAndre Jordan, the Wolves' 2012 unconditional pick that the Clips own) is good enough to carry the club to the promised land of ... above .500.
THE MOUSY SPENDERS: Spurs, Thunder, Nuggets, Jazz and Cavaliers
The efficacy of the stiffer luxury tax all depends on these teams, the small market clubs who traditionally spend big when a deep playoff run or (gasp!) championship is in sight. Will the stiffer tax prevent these teams from keeping up with the high-revenue, big market teams? Or will it bring down the payrolls of those high-revenue clubs to create a sort of payroll parity? That's the essential question of this lockout deal.
* The San Antonio Spurs benefit from this deal in the immediate, because the delayed punitive tax structure doesn't force the team to waive Richard Jefferson. Instead, the Spurs can look for a deal to either improve the club for one last run with Tim Duncan, or to kick-start the rebuilding process. (If you think a completely tanked 2012-13 season for the Spurs is out of the realm of possibilities, you are ignoring history.) The long-term impact of the deal relies on the answer to the question above: will the tax structure create salary parity or create a wall for low-revenue teams?
* The Oklahoma City Thunder remain in good shape; that roster is basically set, and barring regression by Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka or James Harden, the team should have little trouble contending for the foreseeable future. All that's left to fear is a Kobe-Shaq episode, and I think that's about as remote as Neptune.
* The Denver Nuggets have regularly nudged up against the tax threshold; that shouldn't change, so long as the club remains competitive. As such, the key parity-vs.-wall question applies here.
* The Utah Jazz will almost assuredly fall into true rebuilding now that Deron Williams has been traded. That said, the team went well over the tax line last season, and it's not going to be easy to get great value for the team's veterans while blowing up the roster. Kevin O'Connor is among the best GMs in the NBA. Don't rule out his opportunity to rebuild on the fly and get the Jazz back into playoff contention in a year or two. If that happens, read the Nuggets' blurb and apply.
* The Cleveland Cavaliers should be quite awful again, despite the additions of Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson. But Dan Gilbert has proved he'll spend when the time is right. We'll see if the new tax rules temper that enthusiasm when the Cavs rise again.
THE INSTITUTIONAL LAGGARDS: Hawks, Grizzlies, Bucks, Pacers, Hornets, Bobcats, Wolves and Kings
These are the poor unfortunate souls of the NBA, the raison d'etre of the 2011 NBA lockout. Blame them!
No, don't blame them. Blame the 1999 deal, riddled with unintended consequences, that created them. These teams are not luxury tax spenders, in some cases because their owners actually cannot afford it and in some cases because their owners don't have the stomach to spend it. These teams are in small markets or Atlanta, which is the littlest big market in the professional sports world. These teams either currently suck or have recently sucked, and the recent past was an awful time for NBA teams to suck, given rising salaries, shrinking attendance and ever-growing revenue imbalance due to local TV deals.
These are the poor unfortunate souls. Can they be saved?
* The Atlanta Hawks need very rich owners. Then this team can be normal, and that's all it needs. Where is Atlanta's Josh Harris or Tom Gores? Someone get Gucci Mane on the phone now.
* The Memphis Grizzlies have reached springtime, thank the heavens! Michael Heisley is finally spending like he means it because it finally matters what he spends. But it'd be a shock if he went over the tax line at any point -- this is a low-revenue team through and through -- and the questions we asked of the Nuggets apply here.
* The Milwaukee Bucks are perpetually in a really sticky spot. They needed this deal two years ago. As it is, John Hammond has been spendthrift but unwilling to exceed the tax; owner Herb Kohl doesn't have the stomach to exceed it for a sub-.500 team. That's understandable. When players argued that bad decisions got a number of small market teams into trouble, they were talking about the Bucks. The specifics of the deal -- amnesty, the stretch provision -- should allow the Bucks to snake out of salary cap Hell quickly while preserving the young core. But it's not exactly going to help the team add needed talent outside of the draft. Without really strong revenue sharing, this deal is no salvation.
We're going to repeat that a few times. Sorry.
* The Indiana Pacers have hemorrhaged money, but now have a clean cap sheet. But how are they going to add talent? It's going to take deft moves by Larry Bird and Kevin Pritchard to rebuild this team without the benefit of a drafted star. If this free agent class were better, I'd be brighter on the new deal's ability to fix the Pacers. But until the Pacers truly contend, the revenue stream will be too shallow to finance high payrolls without Herb Simon wringing his hands. Without really strong revenue sharing, this deal is no salvation.
* The New Orleans Hornets have rebounded from "moribund" to "salvageable" thanks to the NBA's crack marketing task force and the region's renewed commitment to pro basketball. But the long-term outlook is the same in New Orleans as it is in other tiny markets: without really strong revenue sharing and a strong roster, the team will likely lose money.
* The Charlotte Bobcats need to hit the draft jackpot. It could be the 2011 haul of Kemba Walker and Bismack Biyombo. It could be a 2012 victory. But without that and strong revenue sharing, the Bobcats will lose money and tread water at the bottom of the lake.
* The Minnesota Timberwolves have a rich owner, a crazy GM and the most intriguing roster in the league. "Intriguing" in no way means "good." Deep-fried Whoopie pies are intriguing. I cannot imagine that they are good. The Wolves are a lot like the Jazz, except traditionally terrible. If Minnesota's roster melds like a nice bouillabaisse, and the fans come back out, and Ricky Rubio is everything we dream him to be, then the Wolves can probably make a little scratch with robust revenue sharing. If the team remains the Timberwolves, the team remains doomed to red ink and dark skies.
* The Sacramento Kings are the league's true wildcard. They could remain the West Coast Charlotte Bobcats, albeit with some draft success (Tyreke Evans, DeMarcus Cousins). Or they could go bankrupt. Or the Maloofs could cash out after a new arena in Sacramento is approved around midseason. Ron Burkle has expressed interest. Ron Burkle is filthy rich.
West Coast Bobcats, or Trail Blazers South? Excuse me while I go sacrifice some animals on that pentagram altar over there.
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