The last time the Toronto Raptors made a splash in free agency, they made it fast.
Team president Bryan Colangelo and assistant general manager Maurizio Gherardini picked up a phone at their Air Canada Centre offices the moment the NBA's free agency period started. Minutes later, then-Raptors coach Sam Mitchell, at home in Atlanta, was linked in on a conference call.
Together they made Jason Kapono very rich, using their quick-strike approach to lay a four-year, $24-million (all currency U.S.) contract at the journeyman's feet.
The whole deal took about 10 minutes.
Times have changed. Not only is Kapono, who agreed to his deal in the wee hours of July 1, 2007, now with the Philadelphia 76ers, but the NBA's economic landscape has shifted so much that players of his pedigree don't get plush offers any more.
Consider NBA veterans Shawn Marion of the Raptors and Rasheed Wallace and Allen Iverson, both of the Detroit Pistons, as examples.
Between them, they boast 18 all-star appearances and, in their 30s, are still potentially effective players with lots of basketball left.
But collectively they're staring at a pay cut in the range of $30-million to $35-million next season.
"There's just not any money out there for anybody, they'll be lucky to get the mid-level," said one Central Division executive, referring to the mid-level exception, a contract any team over the salary cap can offer based on the average NBA player's salary. This year it's expected to start at about $5.5-million and, over the full five years, be worth about $33-million.
Kapono money, give or take a season or two.
But as Colangelo readied himself for the free agency push that started after midnight this morning, the urgency was missing compared to other years.
Just four teams have room under the salary cap to go bidding for free agents. While that means the other 26 teams can use the mid-level provision to go after players, Colangelo didn't foresee a rush.
In recent free agency periods, teams could count on the salary cap and luxury tax thresholds (based on league revenues) increasing and thus lessoning the impact of free agency signings over the life of the contracts. But that momentum has halted. The salary cap and luxury tax thresholds are expected to be flat compared to last year, but that's worse than it sounds.
"This time last year teams were basing their budgets on the salary cap going up to about $62-million [a team] so that's already a hit," one Western Conference executive said.
In recent trades Richard Jefferson to the San Antonio Spurs, Vince Carter to the Orlando Magic - talent has moved for friendly contracts, indicative of the landscape. As NBA analyst Jeff Van Gundy said on draft night: "There are about 10 teams trying to win, and the rest are trying to pay the bills."
Clubs will have even less wiggle room a year from now given league revenues are expected to shrink by 5 or 10 per cent. As a result, Colangelo figures he can play more of a waiting game in the next few days or weeks.
"Teams have been reluctant to use the mid-level and going into next year with every team trying to line up free agent flexibility for the 2010 market, I don't think a lot of teams are going to jump forward and use it," he said.
The Raptors are no different. Their plan has been to re-sign Marion, and likely offer a deal starting about $7-million a season. That's an $11-million pay cut, but it will likely be the best offer the 31-year-old small forward sees, according to league sources, who suggest that Marion's image as a high-maintenance locker-room presence in his Phoenix Suns days would hurt his league-wide marketability as well.
The reality of such a massive pay cut may take some time to sink in. "It could take a little while here and Shawn will likely want to see how things go," Colangelo said.
But if Marion signs, the Raptors would still be interested in signing other players using the same mid-level exception that lured Kapono. Just don't look for them to spend all of it.
"The players we're targeting and the way the budget lines up, I'm not looking at doing a full [mid-level deal]" Colangelo said. "I'm looking at a partial."