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Posted: Saturday, Jun. 16, 2012

NBA free-agent market isn’t great place for shopping

By Rick Bonnell
Published in: Building the Bobcats

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The Charlotte Bobcats have gone through a lot of pain the past two seasons to have salary-cap flexibility. They could be as much as $21 million under the cap this summer.

The chance to spend that money to sign impact free agents could be slim.

Of the dozen top-100 players becoming unrestricted free agents this summer, eight are so deep into their careers (at least 11 seasons) that it makes little sense to sign one for a rebuilding project.

That can’t be good news as the Bobcats set out to fix a roster that went 7-59 last season. In addition to the No. 2 draft pick, the Bobcats’ greatest tool is their cap flexibility.

But players rarely change teams through free agency. Only seven of the players the Observer identified as top-100 players were signed by their current teams off other rosters. (Five others - including LeBron James and Chris Bosh - changed teams through sign-and-trades after reaching free-agency.)

The NBA is an efficient marketplace when it comes to restricting player movement. Given a choice between overpaying for potential or losing talent without compensation, NBA teams almost always overpay. So young stars like Minnesota’s Kevin Love or Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook seldom reach the open market.

“It’s the impact of restricted free-agency,’’ said Bobcats general manager Rich Cho. “It’s a system where (the retaining teams) are not going to be quick to lose a player – particularly a really good player.’’

Under NBA rules, a player is typically a restricted free agent any time his contract expires in his first four seasons. That means the team that he played for has the right to match any offer another team would make to sign him. The retaining team has other advantages as well. Typically that team can offer the player larger season-to-season raises and can exceed the salary cap to re-sign him.

So what are the workarounds? How, realistically, can the Bobcats exploit their cap flexibility?

There are at least four top-100 players available as unrestricted free agents this summer with less than 10 seasons of experience. It’s probably unrealistic to see Nets point guard Deron Williams or Hornets center Chris Kaman signing here; they’ve both made it clear they’re looking to join contenders. But either of two power forwards – the Bucks’ Ersan Ilyasova or the Nets’ Kris Humphries – could help if the Bobcats don’t add a big man via the draft.

Ilyasova (a 6-foot-10 forward who recently turned 27) had a breakthrough season, averaging 13 points, 8.8 rebounds and 46 percent shooting from 3-point range, right before reaching unrestricted free-agency. Humphries (6-9 and 27 years old) is a late bloomer; his most recent of eight NBA season was his best at 13.8 points and 11 rebounds per game.

Bobcats president of basketball operations Rod Higgins said it might be more realistic to sign two lesser free agents for $5-$7 million salaries than to tie up $14 million on one player, hoping he evolves into a superstar.

The other ways the Bobcats could use cap room is by pursuing restricted free agents or making trades.

The Bobcats’ history with pursuing restricted free agents isn’t good; in both cases (Cleveland with Anderson Varejao and Houston with Carl Landry) the other team immediately exercised the right to match. And Higgins noted teams usually overpay to construct offer sheets for restricted free agents, looking to scare off the retaining team.

Higgins said trades using cap space could take various forms. For instance, they have the cap room to absorb a large veteran contract, as they did in 2007 when they traded the eighth pick to Golden State for small forward/shooting guard Jason Richardson. Or they could be the third team in a trade, essentially loaning another team cap space by absorbing a player contract. In return for that favor, the Bobcats would receive an asset, like a future draft pick or quality young veteran.

The NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement could help the Bobcats. The luxury tax (an NBA system that “taxes’’ teams for spending far above the salary cap, then redistributes those funds) will be more punitive, particularly for teams going over the tax threshold in multiple seasons. That could push teams to give up impact players in trade primarily to discard their contracts.

The Memphis Grizzlies could be such a team. They owe small forward Rudy Gay about $50 million over the next three seasons. Is there a deal similar to the Richardson trade, where the Bobcats exchange cap space and maybe the No. 2 pick for Gay? He’d become the most talented player in Bobcats history.

That’s the creative planning massive cap space could allow.

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