But this offseason, $44 million comes off the books, making the Celtics a major player in the magical arena of “cap space.” They’ve got a huge amount of it to throw around, and many commenters have suggested that the Celtics trade some combination of Jermaine O’Neal, Keyon Dooling, Chris Wilcox, and Sasha Pavlovic, along with the ~$12 million in cap space for next season that comes with them, in a trade for a passable rotation player like Gerald Wallace or Andray Blatche.
Unfortunately, most teams don’t really need or want cap space. For multiple reasons.
First, under the new CBA all teams are going to be required to spend 85% of the cap next season. Since the cap is going to rise to about $61 million next season, the minimum is going to be in the neighborhood of $52 million.
Second, cap space is theoretically desirable to sign major free agents, and most teams have figured out that signing major free agents is not something one simply does.
Let’s take a look at three frequently brought-up trade targets in the comments: Portland, New Jersey, and Oklahoma City.
Portland: The Blazers don’t need financial relief. At all. They have Marcus Camby, Raymond Felton, and Greg Oden coming off the books after this season. Gerald Wallace has a player option and might be gone also. They’re definitely going to have $20 million to spend, and possibly $30 million. Consider the fact that Portland isn’t a primary destination for a lot of free agents (unless they have something they need pickled), and that figure’s probably going to be enough.
New Jersey: The Nets only have about $9.5 million committed without player/team options next season. If all of those options are picked up, that number goes up to $18 million (Deron Williams’s player option doesn’t really count, because they’re either extending him or he’s leaving). If they don’t take the team options on Jordan Farmar or Shawne Williams and ship out Brook Lopez, they’re going to have at least $53 million to spend in the offseason, which is much, much more than enough to pay Howard and Deron Williams next year without even going over the cap.
Oklahoma City: This is a team that’s actually running out of room: after signing Russell Westbrook to a max extension, they’re probably going to cross the cap barrier next season and pay a small premium for it. Some space frees up the following season, but at that point they’re going to try to sign Serge Ibaka and James Harden, and that’s going to cost them.
Here’s the problem: there isn’t a player on the Thunder roster who the team A) would deal and B) would help the Celtics. Nick Collison, Thabo Sefolosha, and Eric Maynor are all useful pieces with cheap contracts: Sam Presti isn’t trading one of them for $12-15 million in cap space a year before he even needs it. Cole Aldrich and Reggie Jackson are still on their rookie deals and still developing: they’re staying. The only player the Thunder might look to deal that could contribute in Boston is Kendrick Perkins, and while I strongly believe Ainge blew the Perkins deal, I don’t think he should have resigned him to a big contract like the one he got in OKC.
These teams are indicative of a lot of teams around the league: they’re either flush with cap space already, aren’t looking to deal any useful players away, or don’t need space in the first place because A) they need to reach the salary minimum and B) no big free agents want to sign with them anyway. Mention a team in the comments and I’d be happy to lay out why acquiring cap space alone is not of interest to them.
In closing, yes. Cap space is overrated.