Mo' money, new problems: Adventures with the NBA Salary Cap

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We're not here to cast stones at Cory Joseph.

Cory's a perfectly nice guy—he's from Canada, and up there, it's illegal to be mean—and a functional enough NBA bench player/spot starter. Between the regular season and the playoffs, the slender point guard has appeared in 245 games for the San Antonio Spurs, 43 of which saw him in the starting lineup, and 42 of which he hit double-figures. He plays about 14 minutes a night, and averages 5.2 points, a couple of assists and a couple of boards. By all accounts, Joseph never complains about his limited role, he's a hard worker and his high level of energy probably drove Tony Parker nuts during the Spurs intersquad five-on-fives.

Earlier this month, the unproven 23-year-old signed a four-year, $30 million contract with the Toronto Raptors.

There are plenty of ways to break down Cory's $7.5 million annual salary. If he maintains his career scoring average for the life of the contract, he'll be earning $17,605 per point. Or, if he maintains his current minutes average (14.9), we're looking at $6,142 per minute. Or, if he maintains his current block average (0.2), that's $468,750 per block. Okay, maybe that last one isn't fair (Joseph is only 6'3", and a buck-eighty-five soaking wet, so nobody expects him to be Serge Ibaka). For that matter, maybe none of it is fair, but you get the point. Unless Joseph more than doubles his career output, the dude just won the Canadian lottery.

Get used to it, people. Welcome to today's brave new NBA world, a world with an inflated salary cap, wide-open checkbooks, and absurdly wealthy role players.

For the last couple of years, players, owners and agents alike have focused on the 2016-17 salary cap, which, thanks to the NBA's mind-boggling television deal—$2.67 billion per year through 2025—is expected to rise to somewhere in the neighborhood of $90 million. Few, however, expected the 2015-16 cap to land at $70 million, and that number has led to some oddball situations, the oddest one being the Dallas Mavericks.

In preparation for the theoretical signing of Los Angeles Clippers free-agent center DeAndre Jordan, Dallas freed up tons of cap space by letting their two highest profile free agents walk, those free agents being Monta Ellis and Tyson Chandler. (Ellis went to Indiana and Chandler to Phoenix.) After Jordan committed for $80 million over four years, the Mavericks temporarily pumped the brakes on any roster tinkering until he dust settled and the ink dried. But as we all know, Jordan bailed on the Mavs, leaving them high and dry with Jordan's $20 million salary slot to play with, and no A-level free agents remaining on the market.

Jordan's change of heart not only screwed up the Mavs roster, but it also wreaked havoc with their salary cap. See, not only is there a cap ceiling, but there's also a $63 million floor. Why? Because you can't have some owner thinking, Man, we stink this year, and we don't have any first round picks until 2019, so I'm going to cut, trade or buy out all of my underperforming starters, field a team of D-Leaguers, and save my money so I can chase after Kevin Durant next season.

All of which meant that Dallas, in order to meet the salary floor, had to give newly-signed free agent Wesley Matthews a raise before he'd even put on a Mavericks uniform. The initial offer to Matthews: four years, $57 million. The final deal: four years, $70 million. That's an additional $3.25 million a year thanks to Jordan's flake-out, so if Wes yet hasn't sent D.J. a muffin basket, well, he should. J.J. Barea will also want to buy a little something for Jordan because, like Matthews, the point guard was treated to an unexpected paycheck bump when the team's initial two-year, $5.7 million offer was jettisoned in lieu of a four-year, $16 million deal.

You can look for plenty more goofy contract machinations in July of 2016. Next year's crop of free agents is a fascinating one, running the gamut from in-their-prime all-stars (Kevin Durant, Al Horford), to young veteran franchise building blocks, (Andre Drummond, Al Jefferson), to future Hall of Famers nearing the end (Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade).

As was the case this summer, the big boys' deals will be wrapped up within two weeks after the start of the free agency period, and, as was also the case this summer, teams who missed out on the first-tier players will be scrambling to either fill their roster or meet the salary floor. This bodes well for fourth, fifth, sixth and even seventh options like Nicolas Batum, Gerald Henderson, Harrison Barnes, Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson and O.J. Mayo, who are likely to get the Cory Joseph treatment.

The real test of the salary cap will come during the summer of 2017, when superstars Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, Blake Griffin, Dwight Howard and Derrick Rose will be looking for new deals. The $90 million ceiling evens the playing field, so at that point, if the Westbrooks and Currys of the world decide they want to forego the extra year of contract time allotted to a player who re-signs with his current team, it won't be about which franchise can clear enough cap space, but rather who offers the most appealing situation. Suddenly, the contracts—which will be comparable from team to team—won't matter as much as proximity to family, or good weather, or a low state sales tax...or, of course, the opportunity to win an NBA championship.

The free-agent migration to small-market teams has already begun—LaMarcus Aldridge chose San Antonio over Los Angeles and Greg Monroe picked Milwaukee over New York—so what happens a couple of years down the road? Will that trend continue? Will Blake Griffin blow off the Clippers and return home to Oklahoma? And if that's in the cards, can OKC figure out a way to fit Durant, Westbrook, Griffin and 12 other warm bodies under the cap?

Nobody knows. Because it's a brave new NBA world.

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