Take deep breaths. Take a step back. Maybe look at other sports news. Just try to process the first week of NBA free agency without hyperventilating.
Because if you can’t handle it now, you won’t survive free agency next year.
As spectacular as the mad NBA free agency period has been this year, it’s only a taste of how great it will be in 2016, despite concerns that it will taper off.
It is remarkable how active the market’s been right out of the 2015 gate. Players and teams have been able to agree to terms for deals since Wednesday, with actual ink hitting them this coming Wednesday. DeAndre Jordan chose the Dallas Mavericks, LaMarcus Aldridge will get a max contract from the San Antonio Spurs, Paul Pierce will go to the Los Angeles Clippers—oh, and did I mention that the New Orleans Pelicans agreed to extend Anthony Davis to a five-year, $145 million deal, the largest in league history? Yeah, you wonder why people have freaked out this week.
Not every move surprised us, of course. Most of the players who moved on to new teams did not do so out of the blue, like Jordan and Aldridge. No major trades have happened either. Most of the shocking news has had to do with dollar figures, seeing how much big money teams threw around at free agents and those they re-signed. Three players, in fact, agreed in terms to deals worth over $100 million.
No, we’ve been mainly enthralled by the volume and speed of the moves. In a little under 85 hours, nearly 40 transactions have been filed and every major free agent has already agreed to a new contract. Seemingly every few hours a player gets a big payday. Seemingly every few hours a notable name leaves the free agency board. Seemingly every few hours there is another Aldridge update. We’re less than a month removed from the end of the NBA Finals, and yet the stream of league news and excitement has been persistent and has kept us in the basketball zone almost non-stop.
So if it’s been this good this quickly in 2015, how fantastic will free agency be in 12 months time? Well, the salary cap is projected to jump from about $68 million this year to $89 million for the 2016-2017 season thanks to the league’s new television deal with ESPN and TNT. This is not an open option for some of the players we predicted to take a one- or two-year deals this year and then test the new salary cap later, as a few, like Jordan, opted to sign long-term contracts this week instead.
But the majority of the stirring names for the 2016 class remain resolute. LeBron James and Dwight Howard will likely utilize their player options next year. And restricted or unrestricted, a gaggle of players that range from good to superstars will join them, like Kevin Durant, Joakim Noah, Dwayne Wade, Al Horford, and Joe Johnson. In total, there will potentially be 20 stars on the market next year, including multiple players who have been in the top 10 in offensive and defensive win shares the last two seasons.
A lot of the excitement surrounds the predicted salaries overall. We saw more than a dozen free agents receive deals over $50 million these past four days alone. That number may only increase with the salary cap spike. Considering that teams have to use at least 90 percent of their cap each year, there’s no real way for owners to work around dishing out massive contracts.
It’s not clear if we will see too many—if any at all—deals worth $140 million or more, but Davis’s $145 million contract gives agents and players some practical numbers to work with, and some ranges for which to strive.
Durant and James may be the only ones who will come close to commanding that much money, but the possibility of anyone matching or exceeding Davis’s deal is mindboggling and will only create more excitement about 2016. We know it will not baseball money, not the $325 million commitment Giancarlo Stanton got from the Miami Marlins, but the best NBA players’ average annual salaries are comparable. For example, Davis is slated to average $29 million a year over the life of his new contract. Only three professional athletes in the four major U.S. sports earn a higher average annual salary from their contracts.
And let’s be honest: weren’t you rooting to see how many NBA players would break the $100 million mark this week? We fans love to pay attention to the numbers, and the future increased salary cap will only make us wait in thrilled anticipation to see how much money the top earner will make, how huge of a contract James will get, and how soon will we see a new record deal. The Pelicans set the standard with Davis’s extension, and it can be so much fun for the fans to imagine how it could be surpassed.
Of course, this is all comes with caveats. The huge sums of money teams will commit next year will probably result in more distance between the game and its fans. Sure, the TV deal will bring the league more cash, and many of the owners have huge sums of money in their names, even for sports franchise heads, but they won’t stand idly by while their expenses grow.
As players are paid more, the higher the ticket prices seem to soar. We’ve already seen this correlation in MLB as player contracts have soared and teams have only gotten richer; the cost for the fan to see the game—live and at home—has risen significantly.
There’s also arguments—such as the one Zach Lowe of Grantland made—that some of these players slated for free agency in 2016 might sign and get guaranteed money now rather than not take a deal, risk an injury, and see their market value drop. This is a classic rationale for a player to agree to a deal that isn’t ideal, and we already saw moves these past four days that suggested that fear pushed some stars; Jordan and Jimmy Butler could have waited a year for more lucrative long-term deals, after all. As a result the 2016 free agent class might be less packed than we thought, and that’s a recipe for people to be less interested.
While this is a valid argument, it is too broad to apply for all players. The sixth man on a team would have reasons to worry about being patient, but why should the superstars care? The major 2016 free agents—Durant, Noah, and likely James and Howard—the guys who have already collected a solid mound of money through large contracts and endorsements, can afford to wait.
These guys have so much money from their many successful years in the league that they can risk injury over the course of the next year, and they also already have mystique of being, well, them. Superstars have track records of success and sustainability. So who wouldn’t want to sign Durant, even if he was injured for, say, all of the 2015-2016 season? Their names alone will create a major buzz next year.
So worry as we might that the salary cap bump won’t bring as much of a boom as we think it will, and worry as we might that the NBA has burned up too much of the excitement that would have been reserved for 2016, there’s still so much to look forward to next year. Barring stunning trades or extensions, we will see two of the three best NBA players on the market in 2016. Historic? Yes. Profitable? Yes. Hyperventilating? Despite our best efforts to avoid it—yes.