These NBA Contenders Have Sneaky Good Cap Situations in 2019-20

Coming out of the first heavy-spending summer since 2016, several teams are locked into their current core and will have trouble generating significant spending power over the next two offseasons. Of course, other teams are still riding out their own bad 2016 contracts and will look to get back in the game in 2020 and beyond.

A handful of teams are in that middle ground, which will give them ample financial flexibility while still remaining in the playoff hunt (and beyond) in their respective conferences.

The following three franchises are all contenders of varying degrees and will have cash to spread around in 2020 and beyond, bolstering their already impressive cores.

portland trail blazers

Nov 18, 2017; Portland, OR, USA;Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum (3) and guard Damian Lillard (0) regroup during a break in the action in the second half against the Sacramento Kings at Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

The Blazers have been locked into a dance with the luxury tax threshold since that fateful summer of 2016, when they spent their cap space on four-year deals for Moe Harkless, Meyers Leonard, Evan Turner and Allen Crabbe. None of those guys are on the team anymore.

And while Portland’s replaced them with a pair of 2016 deals who will see major rotation minutes—center Hassan Whiteside, Miami Heat; and Kent Bazemore, Atlanta Hawks—those deals will expire after the 2019-20 season and give the franchise much-needed breathing room to significantly add to their team.

As of now, I project the Trail Blazers to have nearly $19 million in cap space, depending on where their draft pick comes in at the end of the year. While Portland won’t have the flexibility to add a max player with that sort of money, they can do a lot of damage on the market, restocking around their core of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, (who won’t begin their own new lucrative extensions until the 2021 offseason). Jusuf Nurkic will still be under contract for just a bit more than $14 million to round out one of the better three-man cores in the league.

Portland’s downfall has always been related to its role players, not its stars. Bigger-money forwards Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu struggled to stay on the floor in the 2019 playoffs and were replaced by cheap offense-first options like Seth Curry and Rodney Hood. The Trail Blazers’ lack of two-way players up and down the roster—exacerbated by Nurkic’s season-ending injury and Harkless and Aminu becoming unplayable—led to their quick downfall against the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals.

With nearly $19 million to use in 2020, the club will have financial flexibility to add at least one quality two-way player on the wing to fit a missing piece into their championship puzzle.

toronto raptors

Nov 20, 2018; Orlando, FL, USA; Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam (43) drives to the basket against Orlando Magic forward Wesley Iwundu (25) during the first quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Toronto is unlike any championship team in recent memory: They won a title in June and lost their best player in July.

Valuable veteran wing Danny Green followed Kawhi Leonard out the door, leaving them two players short of their title-winning starting lineup from last season. The remainder of the core are also all on expiring contracts.

That’s right, Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam will all be free agents at the end of the 2019-20 season. Siakam will be a restricted free agent if he’s not extended before the start of the season, and Toronto will build around him going forward, along with nearly $80 million in usable cap space next summer.

Given the sort of trades and signings Masai Ujiri has been able to pull off in the past, Toronto is going to be a very interesting team to watch throughout this season and going into the summer. Ujiri has never been afraid to make a big move, and shaking up a defending champ would surprise absolutely nobody if the Raptors aren’t truly contending at the top of the Eastern Conference.

Selling on its ring-wearing veterans as expiring contracts would kickstart Toronto’s summer ahead of time and perhaps give it future draft picks or young players who better line up with Siakam’s long-term timeline. In fact, Toronto will have enough money and the rare chance to reconstruct its entire team around him.

That’s pretty good for a recent champion.

utah jazz

Mar 13, 2019; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) celebrates with Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) during the first half against the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The Jazz are perhaps a strange choice for a team with a good cap situation. But they’re lined up as true contenders in the Western Conference and yet are significantly below the luxury tax threshold for 2020-21, which should give them full access to the non-taxpayer mid-level exception next summer.

The 2020 free agent class is very, very short on star talent, but there should be quite a few players in the range of Utah’s mid-level exception who can really help them. Adding a player in the $10 million range to a core of Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles and Rudy Gobert could be the key to putting the Jazz over the top in the West and into the championship favorites conversation.

Utah’s flexibility—both this summer in the Conley and Bogdanovic acquisitions and into the future—shows just how important it can be for teams to hit on their draft picks, particularly as the draft wears on. Mitchell will make less than $10 million total over the next two years before he hits restricted free agency.

The Jazz clearly benefit a whole lot more from Mitchell’s services than what they’ll pay him between now and the summer of 2021. He’s knocking on the door of the All-Star conversation and will make far less than 20 percent of what most players in that conversation are making over the next two years.

Utah won’t be in the cap space derby with Portland and Toronto, but with a very strong five-man core already intact, it doesn’t necessarily need to add star-level talent. Using that mid-level exception to pick up a quality role player could put them over the top for the 2021 championship, to say nothing of what they may do this year.

That they still likely won’t be near the luxury tax also attests to future flexibility for “finishing touch” trades.