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There has been a lot of digital ink spilled over the past few months about the upcomming super class of 2010 free agents (likely to include D-Wade, Chris Bosh, and Lebron James).  It seems like just about every team in the league is doing what it can to open up cap space to make a run at the Big 3 as well as "lesser" players like Amare, Yao, Redd, Joe Johnson, Manu, Nash, Chandler, and McGrady.  The prevailing buzz around Wolves Fandom is that Our Beloved Puppies are setting the stage for a big run at the stars in 2010.  There are two problems with this line of thinking: first, we live in the frozen tundra; second, the Wolves would be much better served to make their free agent run in 2009, as their competition will not be quite as stiff as it will be the following year. 

Let's start by taking a quick look at the 2009 free agent market.

The 2 big names of the 2009 market are already off the books: Deron Williams and Chris Paul.  Beyond them, the rest of the 2005 Draft class is up for restricted offers: Martel Webster, Charlie Villanueva, Andrew Bynum, Danny Granger, Jason Maxiell, Raymond Felton, Channing Frye, and David Lee. 

Beyond those mentioned above, the 2009 market could contain the following players: Okafor, Deng, Ben Gordon, Marvin Williams, Mike Bibby, Drew Gooden, Brandon Bass, Andre Miller, Hedo Turkolu, Keith Bogans, Chris Wilcox, Okur, Boozer, The Pryz, AI, Marion, Odom, and...Kobe. 

The way things currently stand, the teams with the biggest chance of being players in the 2009 market are Portland (between $18-35 mil w/o or w options), Memphis (between $37-47), the Clips ($41 mil), and Indy ($40-51).  There are a few other teams that could open up significant space (it remains to be seen what will happen in Atlanta or Golden State), but it looks like the 2009 free agent market could end up being even less cluttered than this year's affair, especially if Portland makes some extensions/offers, the Clips stay put, and Indy focuses on its young core.  Whatever happens, it is likely that there won't be as many teams with $10-12 mil to spend as there are players who can command it (especially if Gordon, Okafor, and Deng play out their contracts this year and guys like Hedo take their ETO). 

As for the Wolves, they are currently sitting at $52.5 mil with 11 contracts at the end of the upcomming season.  Without the cap holds and options (Carney, Brewer, McCants, and Foye), they can clear space all the way down to $39.8 mil.  Foye adds $3.5, Brewer nets $2.9, Carney at $2.5, and Shaddy will raise it a whopping $3.6 mil. 

With the cap projection at $61.5 mil, the Wolves would need to come in below $50 mil in order to a) sign their 1st rounder and b) make a legit run at either a full MLE or a $10-12 mil player.  Let's take a quick look at what the Wolves could do to clear cap space for the 2009 free agent season:

  1. Decline options on young players.  We should have a pretty good idea of who wins the Foye v. McCants Death Match this year.  By picking one over the other, the Wolves can gain $3.5 mil in cap space.  The same goes for Brewer and Carney to the tune of at least $2.5 mil.  Ultimately, the Wolves can lower their base level $52.5 mil payroll by at least $6 mil should they cut 2 of these 4 players: giving them a pre-draft cap number of $46.5 mil, which is enough to spend part of the MLE as well as go after a top-flight 2009 free agent.
  2. Pull a Philly and trade the young players for last minute cap space.  This one requires a bit of luck (finding a good trading partner with a trade exception or one who wants to sign and trade) but it would allow the Wolves to accept the options of their young players and then move them as young and relatively cheap assets to teams who will not be a part of the 2009 market. 
  3. Trade Brian Cardinal's contract for an expiring deal.  This option may be the Wolves' best chance at clearing 2009 cap space.  Cardinal's deal comes off the books before the big 2010 season so he won't cost a team their chance at the table in the big sweepstakes.  In order to see what sort of value Cardinal's deal has, let's take a look at some numbers put together by fellow Hoopus member Wyn:

The upper and lower trade limits of Cardinal's deal are $7.9 and $4.9 mil respectively.  What players have expiring contracts in that price range?

Eric Snow CLE $7,312,500
Mikki Moore SAC $5,784,480
Marquis Daniels IND $6,864,200
Stromile Swift NJ $6,200,000
Donyell Marshall OKC $5,950,894
Bobby Jackson HOU $6,090,000
Jeff Foster IND $5,500,000
Desmond Mason MIL $5,300,000
Malik Rose NY $7,647,500

The best targets for the Wolves are players with salaries above Cardinal's $6.3 mil.  This way, whatever team that takes him on will save a bit of money in 08 while taking a lesser cap hit in 09.  The first player that jumps to my mind here is Eric Snow.  Cleveland needs the money in 2010 to try and keep Lebron.  The Wolves would be able to clear an additional $6.7 mil off the books for a 2009 free agent run, bringing down their base level number to $45.8 mil, which is just about enough to take a run at a top flight free agent and a full MLE.  Whatever the case, by moving Cardinal's deal for an expiring deal, the Wolves could open up a massive amount of cap space and put themselves at the top of the list of 2009 free agent suitors.

Of course, Cleveland (or another team) may want something more than Brian Cardinal in return.  By adding Shaddy to the mix, the Wolves can pull a deal with an upper end of $11.2 and a lower end of $7.  Should they be able to move both players, they would push their 2009 cap space all the way down to $43.3 with 9 contracts.

The Wolves have also done an excellent job in signing their young talent to short contracts that are very cap friendly.  Should they need to move a larger contract like Cardinal, it would be much easier for the other team to take that sort of deal on if another player like Shaddy, Carney, or Brewer were attached to the trade.

Wrappinig this thing up, there are several things that make the 2009 free agent season more attractive to the Wolves than 2010: less competition, just as much cap flexibility, and a fairly significant number of smaller assets (small contracts + draft picks) that could be packaged to open up additional cap space.  2010 is going to be a free-for-all.  The Wolves stand a much better chance of being players in 2009 when the pace is slower, the competition isn't quite as thick, and the rest of the NBA is gearing up for the big mess in 2010. 

UPDATE: Cardinal is subject to trade restrictions in a joint trade until on or right around August 26th.  Until that point, he would have to be traded in a one-on-one trade due to CBA restrictions:

In addition, teams cannot trade players under the following circumstances:

For two months after receiving the player in trade or claiming him off waivers, if the player is being traded in combination with other players.  However, the team is free to trade the player by himself (not packaged with other players) immediately.  This restriction applies only to teams over the salary cap.  (Also see question number 72 for a special case where players can be traded together in less than two months.)

In order for the trade to happen before the 2 month deadline, the Wolves would have to complete a non-simultaneous trade with the Cavs (or whoever) before later attaching Cardinal to part of the deal that completes the earlier trade.  Or, they could just wait 2 months and have a go at it before the season starts.  Keep in mind that for any move to involve Carney or Cardinal, 2 months have to pass if they are included with other players...which is reason numero uno why the Carney + additional assets to Golden State for Wright rumors do not seem to make a whole lot of sense.