At 5 p.m. ET on Monday, the Denver Nuggets claimed backup point guard Mo Williams off waivers. He was on waivers because the Philadelphia 76ers waived him one day after claiming him off waivers from ... the Denver Nuggets. And that happened after the Nuggets acquired Williams in a trade with the Hawks for virtually nothing. And that happened because the Cavaliers needed to include Williams’ $2.2 million salary to make the Kyle Korver trade work.
Got all that?
To review: Mo Williams, who has played zero games this season after declaring his retirement, has technically been on the roster for the following teams:
- Until Jan. 7: Cleveland
- Jan. 7: Traded from Cleveland to Atlanta
- Jan. 18: Traded from Atlanta to Denver
- Jan. 18: Waived by Denver
- Jan. 20: Claimed off waivers by Philadelphia
- Jan. 21: Waived by Philadelphia
- Jan. 23: Claimed off waivers by Denver
This sequence of events puts Luke Ridnour’s to shame.
But why would the Nuggets and 76ers keep waiving and reclaiming Williams? Are they just trying to mess with him? Possibly. That would be amusing.
But there’s an actual reason, and it has to do with something known as the salary floor. And it’s honestly kind of silly, too.
What is the salary floor?
To prevent teams from cutting player costs and fielding non-competitive teams while pocketing sweet revenue sharing money (see Pirates, Pittsburgh), the NBA has a rule that a team must spend up to a certain percentage of the salary cap.
That percentage has steadily risen over the course of the 2011 CBA. This year, that number was 90 percent of the cap. Ninety percent of the salary cap this year is about $84.7 million.
That’s actually a very high number. You remember that big jump because of the TV deal, don’t you? The salary floor jumped with it. For perspective: the 2016-17 salary floor is about the same as the 2015-16 luxury tax, which only seven teams exceeded.
That means that a lot of teams need to make up some ground to get to the salary floor. The 76ers ($77 million) and Nuggets ($75.7 million) have the 28th- and 30th-ranked payrolls in the league. They have some ground to make up to get to the $84.7 million floor.
And Mo Williams is at least a partial golden ticket.
So why are they waiving him back and forth?
Because of the way the waiver process works.
Williams has a guaranteed salary of $2.2 million. Whenever a player with a guaranteed salary is released by a team, they are technically “requesting waivers” on him. For the next 48 hours, any team that is either a) under the cap, or b) has some sort of special salary-cap exemption (for example: if enough players have been injured for the league to give a team a “disabled player exception”), is allowed to put in a claim for the player. If they do, that player goes directly onto their cap at their exact salary for the year.
And if they do, they then count for that much in total team salary, which in turn puts teams like the Nuggets and 76ers closer to that elusive salary floor. That’s why the 76ers and Nuggets keep claiming him.
But why are they also waiving him over and over?
Because of what happens if no team claims a waived player. Should that happen -- and under normal circumstances, it would — the player becomes a free agent and their salary stays on the cap of the team that waived him. It essentially becomes dead salary.
But dead salary is exactly what the 76ers and Nuggets want in this weird, warped scenario.
The ideal outcome for both teams is that they waive Williams, let him clear waivers and slap that $2.2 million in dead salary onto their cap, thereby getting them closer to the salary floor without wasting a roster spot on a retired Mo Williams. But every time another team claims Williams, they are also swiping his dead weight salary from the team that waived him.
And so, the 76ers and Nuggets are engaged in a high-stakes battle of chicken over Mo Williams’ dead salary. When one waives him, the other claims him to snag the salary floor savings for themselves. But when that same team waives him back, the other gives them a taste of their own medicine. On and on this goes.
Will it stop?
Probably. The 76ers have only one roster spot left and need to make a decision on whether to sign Chasson Randle for the rest of the season after his second 10-day contract expires. If they claim Williams again once Denver inevitably waives him, they need to say goodbye to Randle. That’s unlikely because Randle is an actual non-retired basketball player, unlike Williams.
If that’s the case, congratulations to the Nuggets! You’re that much closer to the salary floor!
But wait a second. What happens if you don’t reach the salary floor?
This is why this is all very silly.
The penalty for finishing the season below the salary floor is barely a penalty at all. The difference is split up proportionally among the remaining players on the roster. In effect, if a team doesn’t reach that benchmark, everyone else gets a raise. Two teams (the Magic and Trail Blazers) fell short of the floor last year and gave their guys a slight bump.
And yet, we see teams take on dead salary all the time just to reach the salary floor. Remember this trade? The reason the 76ers wanted JaVale McGee was because his $11.2 million salary got them over the salary floor. He played just six games for the 76ers before they waived him. Nobody claimed him off waivers, so the 76ers were able to use his dead salary to get over the floor despite putting out an embarrassing product on the floor. Plus, they got a first-round pick for their troubles. Not a bad deal for the 76ers!
But that is kind of lame for the players. If a team has to pay the money out anyway, why not give it to the players actually playing instead of someone who isn’t? It’s surprising that more players don’t raise a stink about this.
So could the Mo Williams saga happen again?
Only in the next couple months. The NBA closed this loophole in the impending new CBA.
Minimum team salary will be calc'd by allocating each player’s salary to team he plays on per-day basis in new CBA.https://t.co/mIyvz1e7ij— Albert Nahmad (@AlbertRandom1) January 23, 2017
In current CBA, each player's cap hits count toward salary floor (even if it acquires him mid-season and only owes fraction of his salary).— Albert Nahmad (@AlbertRandom1) January 23, 2017
So enjoy this dumb moment in obscure NBA salary-cap standoffs. It probably won’t happen again. And that’s great news for the future Mo Williamses of the world.