Caponomics, Part I: The Summer of Salmons

The toughest part about a breakout season? Living up to the expectations that come with it. It's a good problem to have, but it also means the Bucks' front office doesn't have much time to enjoy a season that defied expectations and once again made the Bucks a relevant entity in the Wisconsin sports scene.

With John Salmons (assuming he opts out), Luke Ridnour, Kurt Thomas and Jerry Stackhouse all hitting free agency, John Hammond will need to re-sign or replace a major chunk of the rotation that propelled the Bucks to their surprising 46 win season. But the good news is that he has more flexibility now than a year ago, when he had little choice but to jettison Richard Jefferson and ultimately decided against re-signing both Charlie Villanueva and Ramon Sessions. And with Mike Redd and Dan Gadzuric scheduled to come off the books a year from now, Hammond will also be sitting on a serious chunk of cap space in 2011.

This summer Hammond will have all the space he needs under the luxury tax to re-sign Salmons and Ridnour if he wants--and if he spends his money wisely he could also have the full MLE left over when he's done.  But will the pressure of keeping together the 09/10 squad cause the Bucks to panic and overpay some of their key pieces? And how can the Bucks balance the need to compete next year with a sound long-term fiscal approach? After the jump we'll start things off by taking a look at the Bucks' current cap situation and how re-signing Salmons could affect the rest of this summer and beyond.

Job 1: What to do with Salmons

The Bucks' strategy in the draft, trades and free agency are obviously all interdependent, so it'd be easy to write a rambling 30-page essay on every different scenario that could unfold over the course of the summer (note: as you guys probably know at this point, I'm good at rambling).  But for now let's make it simpler and start with the most pressing issue facing the Bucks: what to do with John Salmons. A month ago, the talk was that the Bucks were hoping to sign Salmons to an extension before he opted out of the $5.8 million he's owed in 2010/11.  Makes sense: Salmons was the one Buck who could consistently create offense off the bounce, he's a willing and at times very good defender, and the Bucks' 22-8 record with him in the lineup is hard to ignore. On a team full of scrappy defenders, Salmons was really the one guy who could fill it up somewhat consistently, and finding an immediate replacement at a good price won't be easy.

Sure, people said similar things about RJ, Villanueva and Sessions, but the Bucks were a well-below average offensive team until Salmons showed up, and with him they improved defensively as well. And while it's true that wing scoring isn't the scarcest commodity in the NBA, the Bucks' ability to replace Salmons in the short term is a bit uncertain.  The Bucks aren't going to find an immediate 18-20 ppg guy when they draft in the middle of the first round, and it's not like they can expect to get a proven free agent scorer (like Ray Allen) to sign for a bargain basement price either.  Unfortunately, scoring is one thing that's almost always overpriced, but it's also something the Bucks could use more of.

Recent reports (from Gery Woelfel and others) have suggested the likelihood of an extension before June 30 are remote, but Charles Gardner reports the Bucks have indeed offered Salmons a three-year extension beyond the remaining year left on his current deal.  Gardner writes that the extension is the max allowed given his current contract, which combined with next year's money could pay Salmons close to $27 million over four years.   No word on whether the deal would include team options or only partial guarantees in the final years, either of which would make it look much better from a Bucks' perspective.  Salmons has until the end of June to consider his options, so there's no reason for him to rush a decision.

So does it really make sense to sign an aging complementary player to a generous deal that will take him past his prime?  And are the Bucks sacrificing significant flexibility in 2011 and beyond?  Let's start by taking a look at the Bucks' current cap situation.  For the time being I'll ignore all the trade options that are out there--we've got some discussions about Ramon Sessions, Kevin Love, and even a Chris Bosh S&T in the fanposts--and focus strictly on the current cap figures.  If Salmons doesn't opt out of his 10/11 deal it looks like this:

One bit of good news is that the cap and tax have both been revised upward since the paranoia of last fall.  We won't know the final numbers for sure until early July, but the league's most recent memo to teams projected the 10/11 cap at around $56.1 million, down $1.6 million from this season, with the tax falling to around $68 million, compared to just under $70 million this past season.  Including Salmons' ETO year, Darnell Jackson's NG'ed minimum deal, and the salary of the 15th overall pick ($1.732 million), the Bucks would have eleven players under contract for $57.80 million.  If they keep their second round picks and sign both to rookie minimum deals (@$474k), then that figure moves to 13 players and around $58.75 million committed.  Note that both Luc Mbah a Moute and Jodie Meeks got slightly above-minimum deals in exchange for partially guaranteed third years in their rookie contracts, so odds are the Bucks may use that strategy again if they keep (and are excited about) their 2nd rounders. 

For cap simplicity, let's assume the Bucks keep all three of their picks and have them on the roster next year.  That would leave them two roster spots and $9 million to play with before they bumped up against the projected luxury tax, and they could always cut Jackson ($854k) to get a bit more breathing room.  They would then have the MLE (worth perhaps $5.5-ish million) and bi-annual exception ($2.08 million) to spend on the rest of the roster, in addition to Bird rights they can use to sign Ridnour.  That'd be a reasonable amount with which to fill out the roster, and the Bucks could also probably afford to up their offer to Salmons by a couple million if they were willing to pass on signing a full MLE free agent this offseason.

The Problem With Extensions

While it'd be nice for the Bucks to avoid a potential bidding war in free agency, a Salmons extension is somewhat limiting for both sides. The Bucks can only give Salmons raises equal to 10.5% of the final year of his current deal, so his salaries over the three years beginning in 2011/12 would be capped at $6.42 million, $7.03 million, and $7.64 million ($21 million in total).  Those back-end years could look pretty ugly given Salmons will be 34 in the final year of the deal, but that's the tradeoff for getting Salmons at a relative discount next year.

Considering Salmons' age and the Bucks' cap space in 2011, the ideal scenario for the Bucks is probably not giving Salmons an escalating multi-year contract, or at the very least making the last year a team option or non-guaranteed. If you don't think the Bucks can use their cap room productively anyway, then Salmons' escalation is less of an issue.  But either way he'll be tougher to trade a couple years from now if his salary continues to rise as his game declines.

To address that, the Bucks could try to sign Salmons to a front-loaded deal if he opts out this summer. After all, the Bucks aren't trying to extend Salmons for four years because they think he's going to be a great player when he's 33 or 34--the length of the deal is just the price you have to pay for making sure he's in a Bucks uniform next year. However, it's also very possible that one of the teams with significant cap space could make a run at Salmons if/when they strike out with bigger names like Dwyane Wade and Joe Johnson, which is the obvious reason why the Bucks would like to do a deal now.

But would Salmons take a generous one-year offer in the $8-9 million range rather than a longer deal that starts at a much lower value?  Tough to say--it really depends on how optimistic he is about the market now and going forward, which is fairly uncertain given the possibility of a lockout in 2011. But that might be the best solution for the Bucks, who wouldn't have to worry about Salmons' game deteriorating two or three years from now and could instead focus on 2011 with more cap money at their disposal.  Salmons obviously wants a long-term deal, but for the Bucks shorter is better.

2011 Cap Space: Fool's Gold or Real Opportunity?

As of now, the Bucks have less than $25 million committed to five players in 2011/12; add in the second year salary of the 2010 first rounder and it goes up to about $26.5 million.  Ignoring a potential lockout, that leaves an absolute ton of money to spend on free agents--about $30 million even if the cap stays steady for another year, ignoring free agent cap holds. 

Signing Salmons beyond 2011 obviously puts a dent into that figure, but realistically it's not like the Bucks were going to sign two max free agents anyway.  Looking at the list of 2011 free agents, Carmelo Anthony, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker are the only potential superstar unrestricted free agents, and at this point I don't really see any of them as realistic targets (same goes for RFAs like Al Horford).  Still, the Bucks could go after any number of quality complementary players, Carl Landry being perhaps the most intriguing of the unrestricted free agents. And perhaps more importantly, the Bucks could also use their cap space to facilitate trading for a bigger name. That's because the NBA's salary matching requirements on trades (125% of the outgoing salary + $100k) don't apply to teams with cap space. While there's no guarantee the Bucks could pilfer a star-caliber player from another team, at the very least they would have a much easier time doing it.

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