As the Wolves’ January swoon continues and threatens to spill into February, I’d like to take a step back and consider a very important aspect in measuring a team’s success and current standing in the modern day NBA. In light of recent trades around the league (and truthfully, as an attempt stay positive about the Wolves’ moving forward), I am reminded of the one thing that David Kahn has done well, even to a fault (see: Kevin Love’s “mini”-max contract): salary cap flexibility.
When Kahn was hired by owner Glen Taylor, it was clearly a) the hiring of a financially-minded, dollar-centric, cost-conscious executive and b) a cheap hire in and of itself. A clear business decision by Mr. Taylor, and a look towards the near future (now) and the period of time that Taylor was looking to sell the team. Certainly, he has the right to run his business however he sees fit, and the hiring of Kahn has likely saved Taylor millions. Kahn and his staff have absolutely made numerous foolish personnel decisions, but have largely maintained financial flexibility. This has not only pleased Taylor, I’m sure, but also given the basketball operations department flexibility moving forward to take on salary (something that Taylor has allegedly blessed, as a winning team will in turn fetch more in a sale of the franchise) if needed to win.
I would like to take a quick look around the league at some teams that have been in the news recently for various reasons, whether it be injuries and rumored trades (Boston) or recently completed blockbuster trades (Toronto). We will then return to take a comparative gander at the Wolves’ cap situation, and I think you’ll find the hometown squad to be sitting in a much better position than some of the other organizations in the Association.
The situation north of the border was already depressing, but has become downright dire in the wake of the acquisition of the grossly overpaid Rudy Gay. Take a quick look at the salaries on the salary cap of the Raptors (all salary charts courtesy of Storytellers Contracts):
Obviously, Calderon’s expiring contract is no longer there, along with Ed Davis. The Raptors have instead taken on two years and $37.2 million of Rudy Gay (he has an Early Termination Option for 2014-15), along with a partially guaranteed $1.4 million for Hamed Haddadi. Andrea Bargnani is simply not a good basketball player, and the Raptors have another two years and $22.25 million headed his way. DeRozan isn’t much better, and the Raptors just signed him to a 4-year, $38 million deal, handcuffing themselves further.
Consider this: next season, the Raptors will be paying Bargnani (.061 career WS/48, .006 this year), DeRozan (.059 career, .062 this year), and Gay (.082 career, .085 this year) a combined $38.1 million and change. Add in Landry Fields’ $6.25 million next season and you have a solid lottery team making around $45 million altogether. Gay is a nice player, but not on a max contract, and it certainly looks as if the Raptors squandered what should have been an even better asset in Calderon’s $10.5 million expiring contract. Toronto will be stuck in the lottery for the foreseeable future, unless they can trick some similarly-run teams into taking their bloated contracts off their hands.
Boston’s season took a turn for the worse last weekend when they learned that superstar point guard Rajon Rondo was out for the season with a torn ACL. In the wake of that devastating news, rumors have abounded that General Manager Danny Ainge would begin making moves to try and salvage the season for the Celtics. Of course, the Celtics’ cap situation, along with the age (and even the quality) of their players calls Ainge’s alleged assessment of the situation into question.
On the one hand, the Eastern Conference is terrible, and the Celtics will certainly still make the playoffs. Of course, after losing Ray Allen to Miami in the off-season, the Celtics are down to an aging and expensive duo of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, who will be paid a combined $27.8 million next season. Garnett has one more partially guaranteed season at $12 million, but Boston’s problems extend beyond their aging superstars.
The Celtics signed Courtney Lee to an unnecessarily long contract over the summer: four years at a total of $21.35 million. Lee is a very good role player, and exactly the kind of “three-and-D” player that the Wolves and coach Rick Adelman covet. But let’s not fool ourselves: four years of guaranteed money at $5+ million per? Too much. Jeff Green’s contract is significantly worse, at a shocking $36 million over four years. Green still has not developed into the kind of player that Ainge thought he might when he swapped Kendrick Perkins for Green’s services on the heels of an NBA title. Why guarantee someone coming off of a missed season due to serious heart surgery $36 million?
The Celtics filled out this year’s roster with cheap players on minimum contracts with rookies Fab Melo, and Jared Sullinger and veterans like Chris Wilcox, Jason Collins, and Leandro Barbosa. This cast of characters will not afford Ainge much cap space moving forward, and now he has an injured Rondo for the next calendar year with his nearly $12 million contract for 2013-14 just taking up space. Ainge needs to spend the off-season trying to find someone to take the contracts of Pierce, Lee, and Green off his books (Garnett has a full no-trade clause that he is unlikely to waive, unless Pierce is also traded, potentially). Realistically, Ainge will hold on to the remnants of their championship from years ago, and the Celtics will be stuck as a mediocre-to-bad team for the foreseeable future.
The Wolves are set up nicely moving forward, due in large part to Kahn’s constant wheeling and dealing. The worst deals that he has signed (handing out four year contracts to Luke Ridnour, J.J. Barea, and Ramon Sessions) have ironically been the players that are currently most likely to be traded, or in Sessions case, have already been traded. (Yes, I am ignoring Darko Milicic’s 4-year, nearly $20 million contract in light of him being amnestied this past off-season.)
The only contracts on Minnesota’s books beyond next season are Kevin Love (through 2014-15 with an ETO in 2015-16), Alexey Shved, Barea, Ricky Rubio, and Derrick Williams. Rubio and Williams are both on their rookie contracts and have options for the 2014-15 season. Williams will be traded by that point and Rubio will be extended, meaning that Kahn has successfully cleared the books in order to keep his stars, Love and Rubio.
Unfortunately, Kahn refused to guarantee five years to Love, and will likely struggle to keep Love and Rubio both beyond 2015. Until then, however, Kahn has created enough space to entertain offering extensions to other key players such as Nikola Pekovic (restricted free agent after this season) and Chase Budinger (unrestricted free agent). A core of Rubio, Shved, Budinger, Love, and Pekovic is probably a contending team, and depending on the team’s success next season, an extension to finish out Shved’s Russian buddy Kirilenko’s career is certainly a possibility.
In short, the Wolves are certainly in better shape than a number of other teams. This year has been an utter disappointment, and pretty soon we’ll all have to start looking to 2013-14, which is something that Wolves’ fans are adept at doing. Keep in mind, however, that one of the reasons why the Wolves are seemingly always in the mix of trade rumors is the nature in which they have constructed their roster and pieced together the team within certain salary limitations. David Kahn can be blamed for many things, but the potential payoff from the flexibility of the current roster should not be overlooked.