With free agency and training camp set to officially kick off on Friday, the rumormill is in full swing across the NBA and the magical idea of "cap space" is once again putting fans' imaginations into motion.
- MLE or cap space? As things currently stand, the Bucks look to be fairly indifferent between using cap space (of which they have around $4.2 million) or just using the mid-level exception of around $5 million. In fact, the new two-year, $2.5 million exception available to teams which renounce the mid-level and instead opt to use cap space means that they might well prefer to renounce the MLE. Previously, there was no advantage to using cap space if it was less than the amount of the mid-level, especially if you also had the bi-annual exception (around $2 million). But the Bucks used the BAE on Keyon Dooling last year and thus wouldn't have it this year anyway.
Timing will be important, however. Their cap space will fall as soon as they officially sign players like Tobias Harris, Jon Leuer and Darington Hobson, whereas the availability of the MLE doesn't. As a result, if the Bucks want to use their cap space (and the $2.5 million exception) on other teams' free agents, then they'd best do it quickly. Realistically, the fact that camp opens the same day as free agency may make holding off on officially signing the teams' rookies unfeasible. If that happens it's hardly the end of the world, but it just means the opportunity to have a bit more cash ($4.2 million in cap space as well as the $2.5 million new exception vs. just the $5 million MLE) is lessened by the amount of the new deals (though as noted below, Harris already counts against the cap). Worst case scenario the Bucks would still have the $5 million mid-level to play with, and given their seemingly modest ambitions in free agency that would likely be enough to nab a so-so backup big man (Joel Przybilla or whoever else), another wing or both (provided neither is all that good).
Teams can always sign their own first round picks (Harris), Bird free agents (Mbah a Moute) and minimum level players (Hobson/Leuer) regardless of their cap space/MLE situation, so using the MLE wouldn't affect those players. The one exception would be if the Bucks wanted to offer Leuer or Hobson more than a minimum level deal, in which case it would have to come out of their cap space or MLE. That's not typical and probably unlikely, but the Bucks did do that with both Mbah a Moute and Jodie Meeks, offering them more money up front in order to lock them into a third year at a low price.
- 11 under contract. You may have heard references to the Bucks having 12 players under contract, but technically that's not correct until Tobias Harris officially signs. Note that the eleven includes both Ilyasova and Dooling, the two most likely Bucks to be dealt before or during the season.
- Cap hold for Tobias Harris. Until he signs, Harris has a cap hold equal to 100% of his rookie scale amount ($1.218 million). Rookies can sign for up to 120% of their scale amounts and they usually do, so the number in the table will likely bump up by 20% as soon as Harris signs. But until then the Bucks technically have about $200k more to play with in terms of cap space. Exciting!
- Cap hold for Luc Mbah a Moute. The Bucks retain Mbah a Moute's early Bird rights because they extended him a one-year, $1.091 million qualifying offer (QO) before the lockout, reserving Milwaukee the right to match any offer sheet Mbah a Moute might sign with another team. The QO acts as a placeholder that counts against the cap until Mbah a Moute signs with the Bucks (at which point his actual salary counts against the cap) or ends up somewhere else (and thus the hold goes away). John Hammond has to date been unequivocal in stating the Bucks' desire to retain Mbah a Moute, but there's been little indication from Luc as to how he feels about extending his stay in Milwaukee.
Restricted free agents have typically had to wait until the cream of the unrestricted free agent crop has been snapped up before getting much attention--given the challenges associated with prying a quality RFA away from his original team, most GMs won't even bother making them a priority. That's easier to do in an offseason that runs from July through September, but what happens with just two weeks to assemble rosters? Presumably teams should have a greater urgency to sign their own RFAs and, given the relative weakness of the unrestricted class, perhaps teams will be more open to chasing other teams' RFAs immediately. We haven't seen clear evidence that will be the case yet, but allowing Mbah a Moute's situation to drag out could complicate the Bucks' other plans. In particular, not knowing if Mbah a Moute will return impacts the Bucks' plans regarding Ilyasova and Leuer (who become more useful if Luc is no longer around to play PF) as well as Hobson (who could theoretically pick up some of Luc's time at SF), and saving him a roster spot necessarily changes the Bucks' free agent calculus as well. Mbah a Moute'sagent has been in touch with five unnamed clubs already, so it will be interesting to see if he can coax an offer sheet from one of them at the outset of free agency or if he has to wait for bigger names to decide first. A full MLE deal (four years, $20ish million) wouldn't be surprising, and it's probably a toss-up as to whether the Bucks would match at that amount.
- Assume everyone else is renounced. Technically speaking, Michael Redd ($19.2 million!) and a few other Bucks also have cap holds, but in practice they can be renounced at any time in order to facilitate a move. As a result, I'm ignoring them in the table above. The only time it's necessary to renounce players is when a team is using cap space, so it's not uncommon to have teams retain Bird rights on players who've been out of the league for a few years--that's why Sham Sports still lists the Bucks as having Damon Jones' nearly $9 million cap hold counting against their cap.
- No hold for Jon Leuer. Unlike first round picks, second rounders like Jon Leuer don't have cap holds and thus don't count against the cap...until they sign. The Bucks are obligated to make him a minimum tender offer in order to retain his rights, though they can keep his NBA rights if he chooses to play abroad--hence the idea of "stashing" players abroad. Unfortunately for the Bucks, if Leuer is intent on playing in the NBA then the Bucks will either have to sign and keep him or cut him at the end of camp--they can't force him to go back to Germany or anywhere else to retain his rights.
A similar story unfolded last year with 2010 second rounder Tiny Gallon. Going into camp the Bucks already had the max of 15 guys on the roster ahead of Gallon, whom the Bucks took a flyer on with the last of their three second round picks. So they signed Gallon to a non-guaranteed contract, had him in camp and then cut him in order to get back down to the regular season roster limit of 15. Leuer's a bit different because the Bucks actually seem to like him as a player, so presumably the Bucks will find a way to keep him. However, given the current roster numbers they probably would have been content to see him stay in Germany. Stay tuned.
- No guarantees for Hobson. Darington Hobson is in Milwaukee and finally playing basketball again over a year after the first of two corrective surgeries on both hips. At the moment Hobson doesn't have any guarantees about making the team, and like Leuer it's possible he gets caught in the numbers game. But it's been assumed he would return ever since his release a year ago, and Keeping Mbah a Moute, Dooling and Ilyasova (or trading either of the latter two for a single player) would mean 13 roster spots are taken even before Leuer and Hobson are considered. You'd hope the Bucks will add a legitimate center to back up Bogut and they could also use a legit shooter on the wing, but something has to give if the Bucks are to get down to 15 roster spots by December 26.
- No amnesty this year. The Bucks' cap possibilities would necessarily be more interesting if they opted to use the new amnesty clause on one of their three big contracts (Drew Gooden, Stephen Jackson or Beno Udrih), but John Hammond has already confirmed that the Bucks do not plan to use the provision this offseason. Assuming they pass on the amnesty this summer, the Bucks would not be able to use it again until next off-season.
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If you would like more information on the 2011 free agent group, you should check out Tom Ziller's full list of restricted and unrestricted free agents and his preliminary breakdown of the field. For constant updates on signings, trades, rumors and offers, be sure to visit the NBA rumor StoryStream.