The NBA free agency floodgates will open soon

Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

With so many teams boasting ample cap space, second-tier free agents may soon be cashing checks bigger than anyone expected.

As Paul detailed Wednesday, NBA free agency is mostly in a holding pattern until LeBron James decides what to do. After that, many of the top free agents will remain in that holding pattern until Carmelo Anthony decides what to do. The latter already met with the Bulls, Rockets and Mavericks and is meeting with the Lakers on Thursday before hearing one last pitch from the Knicks.

Eventually, though, James will choose a team — likely the Heat, followed by Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh signing there too — and Anthony will do the same. Two teams that have or will find the necessary cap space to sign the big names they wanted will indeed sign the big names they wanted.

But what about everyone else?

They weren't competing against actual offers. They were competing against something far more dangerous.

The losers of the James/Anthony derby suddenly have no obvious target that merits the leftover money they have to spend. Neither do the many teams that didn't even bother chasing the big fish or have no real shot at them, teams like Atlanta, Charlotte, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Orlando, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Utah. Throw in clubs like the Clippers, Thunder and Heat that can steal away top free agents by offering the chance for immediate contention, and there's a ton of money out there for second-tier free agents to rack up. With a little patience, players like Chandler Parsons, Gordon Hayward and Trevor Ariza can go to their suitors and play their desperation against them.

And there will be desperation, for two reasons. On the one hand, several of these teams want to make significant improvement next year. The Hawks have an affordable core and can become legitimate East contenders with one more big piece. The Hornets had their best season in years and an owner that publicly stated he wants to add another star-quality player. The Cavaliers were under a playoff mandate from owner Dan Gilbert last year and failed spectacularly; you think he wants to fail again? The Lakers live in the other 29 teams' nightmares every time they have this much flexibility just because of their history. Those teams aren't just going to roll over their cap space and miss out on a chance to improve their team.

There's also the future to consider. Growing league revenues and the prospect of a new television deal in two years mean massive salary-cap raises too. The cap level grew more than $5 million this season and could grow at an even higher rate going forward. Teams with space can sign a big contract this summer and still maintain flexibility to make other big moves down the line. At the same time, hoarding future cap space makes less sense when so many teams are getting that space anyway.

This is why you saw two teams move very quickly to lock up their own free agents. Washington handed starting center Marcin Gortat a five-year, $60 million deal that seems absurd on its face for a big man that's never made an All-Star team. Toronto, meanwhile, worked tirelessly to keep Kyle Lowry on a four-year, $48 million deal, even giving up a player option after the third year that allows Lowry to hit the open market in a post-TV deal world and cash in. But both teams rushed because they saw the impending storm on the horizon. They weren't competing against actual offers. They were competing against something far more dangerous: the very high risk that the losers of the LeBron/Melo derby would come calling about their second-tier free agents with all the money in the world to burn.

It's actually a mild surprise that Gortat and Lowry didn't wait until that storm came to make up their minds. Lowry in particular could have theoretically squeezed additional money out of teams like the Lakers and Rockets, both of whom showed interest. He could have flirted with the Heat even though they may not have been able to meet his matching price. That would have tested Toronto's resolve and given Lowry more leverage. The Raptors were appropriately desperate to keep him and maintain positive vibes from its best season in franchise history, but how high would they go to keep their best player? Surely higher than four years and $48 million, right?

Other players, though, are smartly holding out. Lance Stephenson turned down a reported five-year, $44 million offer from the Pacers, which seems silly until you look at all those teams that will be desperate for talent and can exceed that price. Ariza has yet to re-up in Washington even though the Wizards are putting on a full-court press to keep him. We've heard little about restricted free agents not named Gordon Hayward, who could get a whopping $15-million-a-year offer from the Cavaliers.

They should keep holding out, too. As NBA GMs are fond of saying, it only takes one asshole to drive up someone's price. One look at the free-agent climate reveals a lot of potential assholes.


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