Soaring salary cap creates a free agent feeding frenzy

$24 million jump has more suitors in fray

- Sam Amick @sam_amick USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to NBA Free Agency 2016, that unpreceden­ted spectacle starting at midnight ET on July 1 when Kevin Durant won’t be the only one about to enjoy a historic payday.

These days of high-priced reckoning were set in motion in October 2014, when the league cut a nine-year, $24 billion television deal with ESPN and TNT that changed the economic landscape. The salary cap is about to rise from $70 million last season to $94 million, and free agency chaos will ensue.

So, how big a change is this? Before this year’s $24 million rise, the salary cap rose a total of $17 million over the last decade.

Not everyone in league circles is happy about this. The Oklahoma City Thunder wish Commission­er Adam Silver would have found a way to phase in this new money rather than giving so many teams an unexpected chance to steal their star. Durant will visit with Thunder officials in Oklahoma City on Thursday to discuss his future before heading to the Hamptons to visit with the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, Miami Heat, Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Clippers.

Ditto for the Atlanta Hawks, who have far more competitio­n for Al Horford’s services than they would prefer. It’s the same situation for the Memphis Grizzlies with Mike Conley and the Miami Heat with Hassan Whiteside. More than two-thirds of the league could have more than $20 million in cap space during this bonanza, with the league’s parity in peril as a result.

When the collective bargaining agreement was reached in December 2011, no safeguards were put in place against this kind of cash flood. Silver proposed to the National Basketball Players Associatio­n that they use “smoothing ” as a way to slow the spike. The players declined. Who says no to a winning lottery ticket?

The ripple effect is unreal. After winning his third title, Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James is in line to hit a stratosphe­re reached only by Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant — more than $30 million a season. From the superstars on down, this is about as good as it gets for players unemployed at the perfect time.

“This is Christmas, this is summertime, this is all the best things — it’s Fourth of July, it’s everything kind of combined for this class and for next year’s class as well,” Jamal Crawford, the Clippers guard and reigning Sixth Man of the Year who will be a free agent, told USA TODAY Sports. “It’s going to be interestin­g. It’s going to be fun to be a part of it.” What to watch for:

The smart money says Durant is staying in Oklahoma City. Still, you never know what might happen when he hears all these pitches. The Warriors appear to pose the greatest threat.

Even before Durant headed for the Hamptons, it spoke volumes that he decided against the prospect of granting the Los An- geles Lakers a formal visit. The Lakers were widely known to be planning for the day when Durant could come to town.

They have more cap space than anyone else — more than $60 million — but the Lakers’ 17win season and the chance to partner with young prospects such as D’Angelo Russell and Brandon Ingram just wasn’t enough to get Durant’s attention.

The New York Knicks earned their way onto the radar with the recent trade for Derrick Rose. And while they’re shuffling a number of would-be plans — including the prospect of being added to Durant’s list of visits – it’s clear in the early going that veteran big man Joakim Noah could be right behind his former Chicago Bulls teammate.

If not, Dwight Howard would like to be the big man headed to Madison Square Garden. Having opted out of his Houston Rockets deal, the 30year-old is in search of a big-time payday. He has one of the most fascinatin­g free agency situations of them all.

 ?? KEVIN JAIRAJ, USA TODAY SPORTS ?? Coveted free agent Kevin Durant, right, will meet with the Thunder then chat with other teams in the Hamptons.
KEVIN JAIRAJ, USA TODAY SPORTS Coveted free agent Kevin Durant, right, will meet with the Thunder then chat with other teams in the Hamptons.

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