So, that was an unexpected Day 1 of NBA free agency. If you include the rookie contract extensions for Anthony Davis and Damian Lillard, 27 players agreed to deals totaling more than $1.5 billion. Fourteen of Tom Ziller's top 25 free agents are now off the market.
This is a far cry from last season, when a grand total of four players -- Marcin Gortat, Jodie Meeks, Cartier Martin and Shaun Livingston -- agreed to new deals on Day 1.
Why did so many deals happen so quickly? What lessons can we learn from the whirlwind of activity? Here's what we learned after a single-day frenzy the league has not seen in some time.
1. Cap space doesn't matter anymore
Every year, we take a look at publicly-available salary information and project the teams expected to be big players in free agency. We now know that's a waste of time.
With so many teams flushed with cap space, teams can always move contracts to other under-the-cap teams to create the room they need for their grand plans. It used to be that teams created the space before going after the player. Now, it's the other way around.
Just look at the two biggest contenders for LaMarcus Aldridge's services. As we covered extensively, the Spurs didn't have enough cap room to sign Aldridge when the summer began. That changed in a matter of hours because they were able to trade Tiago Splitter's $8.5 million contract to the Atlanta Hawks while taking no salary back. That, along with some nifty gymnastics by their cap gurus to maximize their breathing room, put the Spurs in a position to get the biggest fish on the market.
But we could at least sketch the roadmap for the Spurs to be an offseason player. Who saw the Phoenix Suns coming?
That the Suns are this far down the road for Aldridge's services is a perfect illustration of the new paradigm in free agency. Phoenix entered the summer with decent cap room, but not enough to secure Aldridge. They then spent that cap room on Tyson Chandler, a veteran center that hadn't been linked to the Suns by any prominent reports. They also agreed to a big new contract with restricted free agent Brandon Knight. And yet, they have wedged their way into the Aldridge sweepstakes with money they don't currently possess.
And that's OK. The Suns know that if they get a verbal commitment from Aldridge, they can create the cap space to sign him. There are plenty of teams under the cap that would welcome the contracts of the Morris Twins for free. Markieff is a very good player and Marcus is at least on a decent contract. There are others that will surely take on players like P.J. Tucker with a little incentive. If worst comes to worst, the Suns can work out a sign-and-trade with Portland should Aldridge decide he's leaving. The Blazers would surely rather have the Morris Twins and/or Tucker than nothing if they're losing Aldridge anyway.
(There are many more options as well that are too complex to list here. Bright Side of the Sun spells them all out in this must-read piece).
If you include Chandler's new deal and Knight's $8 million cap hold, the Suns have to dump a lot of salary to sign Aldridge. Bright Side of the Sun estimates that to be around $15-17 million, though my back-of-the-envelope calculations suggests less.
That sounds like a lot, but in the new NBA, all money is movable for the right player. Keep this in mind if your favorite team signs a long-term deal this summer that seems to eat into cap space for Kevin Durant. It's not hard to trade a contract.
2. Security matters
So much for the speculation that top free agents would push for short-term deals so they could enter free agency again when the cap jumps to an estimated $89 million and $108 million in the next two years. It turns out that it's hard for players to reject a massive amount of guaranteed money even if it prevents them from getting even more later.
Of the 25 contracts signed on Wednesday, 18 were for at least four years. Kawhi Leonard? Five years. Draymond Green? Five years. Kevin Love? Five years. Jimmy Butler? Five years, though he didn't have a real choice. Khris Middleton, Tristan Thompson and Brandon Knight? Five years. Of the big names, only Paul Millsap and Brook Lopez (three years with options after Year 2) took short-term deals, and both are older players that were not expected to double dip. Some of those contracts have options at the end of the deal, but none enable the player to be a free agent in the two years the salary cap is set to explode.
Teams are surely thrilled they could get those players to lock themselves in for so long. All of these look like big contracts, but they will become bargains in the next two years. These players could have leveraged short-term deals if they wanted, but they obviously didn't value that flexibility.
Take Leonard, for example. Five years and $90 million is hardly chump change, and surely he's thrilled to be well-compensated for his work. But say he insisted instead on a two-year maximum contract with a player option for a third year. Maximum salaries are calculated as a percentage of a cap, so Leonard could sign for around $16.5 million for each of the next two years, then sign a five-year maximum in 2017 starting at 25 percent of an $108 million cap, which is $27 million. That could end up being a five-year deal worth more than $150 million when you account for annual raises. He would be sacrificing security on this deal, but there is a significant long-term payoff.
Instead, he's chosen to lock himself in at around $18 million a year for the next four years and will only hit the open market when he's 28. By then, he could already be on the decline as a player.
Leonard was a restricted free agent, but he did have leverage. As we noted, Leonard could have torpedoed San Antonio's careful pursuit of LaMarcus Aldridge simply by agreeing to an offer sheet with another team and forcing the Spurs to match it. He could have used that threat to leverage the shorter-term deal, which would have maximized his long-term earning power.
Instead, he and many others chose immediate security. NBA players, as it turns out, are much more risk-averse when it's their own blood, sweat and tears on the line.
3. 3-and-D players are getting PAID
The days of defense being undervalued on the market are over. Teams are smarter now, and thus, they're giving role-playing wings that are great on defense and can hit open threes a ton of money. Look at these contracts:
- DeMarre Carroll: Four years, $60 million
- Danny Green: Four years, $45 million. (And many believe that's an underpay)
- Khris Middleton: Five years, $70 million
- Iman Shumpert: Four years, $40 million
- Jae Crowder: Five years, $35 million
- Al-Farouq Aminu: Four years, $30 million. And he can't even shoot!
Wesley Matthews, who is coming off arguably the most devastating injury an NBA player can have and turns 29 before the season begins, reportedly wants $15 million a season. And he very well might get it!
These contracts would never have been handed out in the past. As Bobby Marks, a longtime executive for the Brooklyn Nets that has quickly become a savvy analyst after being let go following the season, tweeted:
Not sure if I have ever seen in Day 1 where players who were minimums went to 14m plus on the FA market. Same with DeMarre from 2.7 to 15.— Bobby Marks (@BobbyMarks42) July 2, 2015
These players were undervalued by teams in the past. They aren't anymore. Smart NBA teams now must find a new market inefficiency.
4. Market size doesn't really matter anymore
The Lakers went after all the big free agents and struck out. The Knicks are settling for second-tier players like Arron Afflalo. Meanwhile, the Suns and Spurs are in the lead for Aldridge, the Hawks and Magic of all teams battled for Millsap and the Raptors snagged the best unrestricted 3-and-D small forward on the market before he could even meet with the Knicks.
Even Greg Monroe signed with the Bucks.
Those who have followed this league for a while know that the new CBA tightened the gap between big and small markets, but the first day of free agency drove this home. The Lakers and Knicks need to start building good basketball situations just like everyone else instead of relying on the mystique of Los Angeles and New York.
5. The slight cap bump mattered
An under-the-radar story that slipped in just before free agency began ended up making a big impact. Previous estimates suggested the salary cap would be set at $67.1 million, but the actual audit will reportedly add as much as $2 million to that number. Nobody knows for sure until the moratorium ends on July 9, but teams certainly operated under that assumption.
That's a big deal for teams that needed to exploit every loophole possible to clear the maximum amount of cap space. The Spurs got much-needed breathing room that could allow them to keep Patty Mills instead of having to trade him to sign Aldridge. The Raptors now at least theoretically could fit Carroll and Matthews under the cap if Matthews wants to sign there. The Hawks were able to give Millsap a larger salary to stay instead of risk losing him to a maximum offer by the Magic. The Suns, as we noted, now have less money they'd need to dump if Aldridge gave them a verbal commitment. More generally, it's a lot easier for teams already over the cap to sign players with their salary-cap exceptions and avoid the luxury tax.
That $69 million number is not set in stone, which is insane given all the moves teams are making based on its estimate. But if the cap does indeed come in higher than projected, teams close to the cap and tax line are thanking their lucky stars.