With the trade moratorium being lifted on Monday, the draft taking place on Wednesday, and free agency beginning Friday, this week in the NBA has been aptly compared to drinking from a fire hose. It’s all adding up to a breathtaking explosion of transactional gluttony.
And yet, the three distinct cross-sections of roster construction wound up perfectly intersecting for the Utah Jazz on Wednesday and Thursday, with two matching deals.
One, announced Wednesday night, sent fourth-year reserve center Tony Bradley to the Detroit Pistons along with the No. 38 pick in exchange for future and cash considerations.
Then, on Thursday, the Jazz agreed to send Ed Davis and his $5 million salary to the New York Knicks, along with two 2023 second-round picks. That, too, was just a salary dump, with the return a marginal asset.
But the moves speak volumes in another way: They also are a signal for the Jazz’s intentions in free agency.
That dumping Bradley and Davis’s salary was such a priority indicates that they need the space for something; and in particular, something in the upcoming free agency period. With the complex machinations of the NBA’s salary cap, here’s what the Jazz were looking at.
Altogether, the Jazz have about $106 million committed to seven guaranteed players next year (Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell, Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles, Royce O’Neale, and first-round pick Udoka Azubuike). To fill out the rest of the roster, they’ll use some combination of the players they already have on non-guaranteed contracts (like Georges Niang, Miye Oni, Juwan Morgan, Rayjon Tucker and Nigel Williams-Goss), Bird Rights used to keep their free agents (Emmanuel Mudiay and Jordan Clarkson are eligible), additional rookies (such as second-rounder Elijah Hughes), and other teams’ free agents.
In particular, to sign free agents from other teams, they have three salary cap exceptions at their disposal: the mid-level exception (referred to as the MLE), the bi-annual exception (the BAE) and the minimum salary exception.
But just to complicate matters further, there are multiple versions of the MLE. For the Jazz, it’s a choice between the taxpayer MLE (which starts at $5.7 million per year) and the non-taxpayer MLE (which starts at $9.2 million per year).
Here’s the rub: if the Jazz use either the big MLE or the BAE, they are prohibited under NBA rules from spending more than $138.9 million on their roster, a hard cap called the luxury tax apron. And it may be difficult for the Jazz to achieve their offseason goals while staying under that salary number.
Here are a couple of scenarios to consider:
A) The Jazz could have signed Clarkson (who will command an estimated $9-$12 million per season), used the small MLE ($5.7 million), retained Bradley and Davis ($8.5 million) and signed the rest of their players from the current roster or minimums, and remain hard-cap free at a salary level around $132-$138 million.
B) The Jazz could sign Clarkson ($9-$12 million), use the big MLE ($9.2 million), use the BAE ($3.6 million), dump Bradley’s and Davis’ combined $8.5 million contracts and sign the rest of their players with guys already on the roster or minimums. They would trigger the NBA’s $138.9 million hard cap, but wouldn’t exceed it.
But the key point is that they couldn’t have it all. Under NBA rules, they can’t use the big MLE and re-sign Clarkson for what he’s expected to command as an unrestricted free agent and keep Bradley and Davis. The math doesn’t work.
So by trading Bradley and Davis, the Jazz have signaled their intentions to do something close to option B) above. They’re certainly going to try to re-sign Clarkson, that much we know. In addition, they’re likely going to have the $9.2 million MLE, not the $5.7 MLE at their disposal.
That’s likely why they traded the two centers: in order to be able to sign a better player in this free agency period.
While the selection of Kansas center Azubuike with the 27th pick in the draft was apparently designed to shore up the team’s paint presence behind Gobert and to upgrade upon Bradley and Davis, the Jazz are hardly a finished product yet, with myriad needs outstanding.
Retaining Clarkson is an organizational priority, given the scoring punch he brought to the team’s otherwise moribund second unit and because — due to those aforementioned cap constraints — they would have no viable means of replacing him. Beyond Clarkson, though, the Jazz could stand to add some players with a modicum of acumen for stopping smaller, shiftier guards; some longer and lengthier wings capable of bolstering Utah’s ability to switch on pick-and-rolls; perhaps a small-ball big capable of guarding both 4s and 5s while also stretching the floor on offense?
There were plenty of intriguing names already on the free-agent market, and yet more have become available in recent days, as teams have sought to clean up their books and create space ahead of Thursday’s deadline for accepting or declining team and player options.
Could elite perimeter defender Kris Dunn, recently cut loose by the Bulls, be an option? What of his lesser-known but taller and more offensively inclined ex-teammate, Shaquille Harrison? The Brooklyn Nets just declined their option on fan darling Garrett Temple. Kent Bazemore is unrestricted. So is 3-point-shooting behemoth Aron Baynes. How about Justin Holiday? Nerlens Noel? Derrick Jones Jr.? Ersan Ilyasova? Mo Harkless? Bobby Portis?
We’ll probably find out on Friday. Though there are apparent deadlines in place — negotiating can begin Friday at 4 p.m. MST, deals signed Sunday at 10:01 p.m. — those are really pretty nominal and meaningless parameters, if we’re being honest about the tampering that takes place.
So here we go. The fire hose is on full-blast again.