The salary cap dramatically increasing over the next few years is big news. The cap is likely to slightly rise next year, and then substantially increase all the way up to around $90 million (or more) for the 2016-17 season. No one knows the actual numbers yet, and a potential work stoppage in 2017 will further muddle the already murky waters. Right now the cap is about $63 million.
With so much cap uncertainty comes great risks for NBA rosters, as well as the potential for great reward. Perhaps the best mindset a NBA team can adopt is to acknowledge they don’t really know what lies ahead in terms of these higher cap numbers, and then still try to move forward with as much intelligence and guile as possible. Essentially, the general guidelines for roster management will be the same, but player salaries will likely increase across the board.
Correspondingly, many NBA teams have already been trying to sign/extend their good but not great players (like Rudy Gay, Eric Bledsoe, Klay Thompson, Ricky Rubio, Kemba Walker, Alec Burks, Nikola Vucevic and Kenneth Faried) to "reasonable" long-term deals before these new, higher cap numbers go into effect over the next few seasons.
These teams are all taking calculated risks and they know it. It’s much easier for me to say that Denver got a good deal with Faried's new contract than Utah got with Burks, but the major cap hikes makes it slightly less of a concern than usual – as long as these players continue to stay healthy and produce at expected standards. But that is always a risky assumption.
That “if” is always there, especially for the caliber of player that just got big deals. For instance, what if Vucevic or Faried hurts his back or knee and is never the same again? What if Burks does not improve? What if Bledsoe, Rubio or Walker never become above average starting point guards? What if Gay regresses, or Thompson is not as good as many people think? These are all highly relevant questions moving forward.
Health and production are the two most important components in judging any NBA player. For good but not great NBA players this is particularly true – because you can go from being very good to mediocre in the blink of an eye in the NBA. Legitimate stars can perform less effectively and still provide superior production, but that is not the case for the vast majority of players in the league. If you are only an average NBA player, but are being paid a lot over the next four or five years, you quickly become an unwanted, negative asset. The same type of player can be had for a fraction of the price.
Very good players – that nonetheless are not stars – are clearly going to take up a lot of cap space on most NBA rosters, even when cap numbers substantially increase. Extending such players now has benefits – especially if they can improve and turn into genuine stars – but the risks are also obvious, and cannot be glossed over. I have a feeling during free agency next summer this fact will be largely ignored, and perhaps we are already guilty of doing it now.