Last week, the Washington Wizards and Detroit Pistons tried to salvage dismal seasons by making trades—not for players who could actually help them but for salary cap room. In the same spirit, the Chicago Bulls, also surging toward mediocrity, declined to pursue a trade, thus preserving their own salary cap room for the off-season. As the Washington Post’s Michael Wilbon put it, “You don’t do much of anything in today’s NBA without salary cap room.”
Really? Don’t tell that to the Los Angeles Lakers, Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings, Miami Heat, Philadelphia 76ers, or any other team playing meaningful basketball this season. All those teams are way over the NBA’s salary cap. They’ve long since realized that salary cap room is meaningless. Teams such as the Wizards, Pistons, and Bulls, on the other hand, still cling to the false premise that by dumping contracts and creating cap room, they will one day sign a big-name free agent who will lift them from the basement. Problem is, it almost never works that way. Salary cap room doesn’t make bad teams better. It relegates them to NBA road kill for years to come.
The Bulls, Wizards, and Pistons all want to be like the Orlando Magic, who last season dumped all their long-term contracts and still managed to sign Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady. But Orlando wasn’t a bad team before Hill and McGrady showed up. The Magic narrowly missed last year’s playoffs and boasted the NBA’s Coach of the Year, Doc Rivers. Hill and McGrady wanted to play in Orlando not because of the money, which they could have earned anywhere, but because the team was ready to win.
But by the time the Bulls, Wizards, and Pistons carved out salary cap room, their rosters were in shambles. The Bulls had to endure the retirements of Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson, trade away Scottie Pippen and Toni Kukoc, watch as Dennis Rodman and Ron Harper left as free agents, and survive two of the worst seasons in NBA history before they finally got their coveted salary cap room. Not surprisingly, big-name free agents everywhere declined to take part in the rebuilding process. Next year, the Pistons hope Chris Webber walks away from a contender to revive their sagging franchise. And after three straight losing seasons, the Wizards hope to land a player like Vince Carter.
It won’t happen. Good free agents never sign with bad teams—they have no incentive to do so. The NBA’s collective bargaining agreement allows a free agent to re-sign with his own team, regardless of its cap situation, for a maximum of $14 million per season, with annual raises of 12.5 percent. If he signs with another club, the team must be under the cap, and the annual raises drop to 10 percent—a loss of millions of dollars over the life of a contract. Plus there’s the advent of the “sign-and-trade” deal, which allows over-the-cap (read: good) teams to trade their re-signed free agents to other over-the-cap teams. Players like Brian Grant and Eddie Jones never bother with the league’s bottom feeders. They simply move from one playoff team to the next.
The mad rush for salary cap room distracts attention from the NBA draft, where the league’s great teams are really built. Last season, the Bulls slept through the draft, using two lottery picks on players who average a combined 10 points a game. The Wizards, having dealt their pick, didn’t have a first-round selection. Perhaps if these teams spent as much time preparing for the draft as they do for free agency, they wouldn’t be in their positions in the first place.
After last week’s trades, the Washington Post put together a list of “rising stars” from the 1998 draft who might be available to the Wizards next season: Vince Carter, Paul Pierce, Mike Bibby, and Dirk Nowitzki. Salivating over the upcoming free-agent draft class is an annual ritual. A few years ago, everyone hoped to land one of the stars of ‘96 draft class, such as Allen Iverson, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, or Stephon Marbury. But none of these players actually changed teams through free agency. The ‘98 class is even more inaccessible. Because the NBA’s new rookie contract system ties a player to his team for five seasons, those players won’t become unrestricted free agents until 2003.
Take 2002, when the Wizards start their shopping spree. They’ll be staring at the bargain rack: Travis Best, Samaki Walker, Donyell Marshall, Grant Long, Rodney Rogers. You don’t do much of anything in today’s NBA with players like that.