The bloated contracts handed out in 2016 are almost at their merciful end.
However, several teams are still plagued by that fateful summer while several more have pushed these contracts from club to club like the saddest possible pieces on a chessboard. Thankfully for many teams, most of these deals will expire next July, giving the clubs a light at the end of what has been a relatively dark tunnel for their cap sheets.
Due to the lessons learned in 2016, there aren’t a significant number of franchises who are in long-term cap difficulty. With so many deals expiring in 2020, a lot of teams will actually have flexibility to spend moving forward. Of course, the teams who still hold these expiring deals were relatively inflexible this past summer, but as we look forward to 2020 and beyond, those contracts aren’t nearly as influential as they’ve been over the past three years.
Here are a few teams that have worse situations than you’d think, even if they’re nowhere near as bad as they could be.
The Phoenix Suns stand out as a team with the sort of long-term inflexibility that is usually reserved for someone in a much more competitive position than theirs. In fact, the 2019 offseason continued a decade-long trend of wandering through the Arizona desert with no coherent path toward competitiveness.
Their rather aimless summer further entrenched them in this position: At first, they shed money by shipping T.J. Warren to the Indiana Pacers, but then they took on extra money by acquiring Aron Baynes from the Boston Celtics. And then they had to downgrade their roster in the Josh Jackson trade with the Memphis Grizzlies to clear enough money to sign Ricky Rubio and keep Kelly Oubre.
The Suns aren’t anywhere near the playoff conversation for 2019-20 and have no real flexibility going forward. They’re not projected to have any usable cap space next year and instead will be limited to the mid-level exception if adding outside talent in free agency, even as Tyler Johnson’s inflated contract expires next summer. They’re going to need massive development from their young guys to be competitive at any point in the near future because they don’t have much in the way of flexibility to add around their core.
The Charlotte Hornets are in a very similar situation to Phoenix but are lacking the star the Suns have in Devin Booker. Both teams overpaid a mediocre (at best) point guard on the free agent market in 2019—Rubio for the Suns; Terry Rozier for Charlotte—and will be saddled with that player for the next three years.
But the Hornets are in an even worse roster-building situation despite having slightly more financial flexibility.
One of the worst short-term contracts in the league resides on their books (Nicolas Batum), and while they’d love to move him, they shouldn’t be willing to part with a first-round pick to do it. But no team is taking him without at least one pick attached.
Bismack Biyombo, Marvin Williams, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will all be free agents in 2020, which should give the Hornets about $25 million to spend, but without any high-end talent nor high-ceiling prospects, things are very, very bleak in Charlotte right now.
There’s some thought throughout the league that the Philadelphia 76ers could find themselves in a bad spot if things don’t work for them immediately. Al Horford is a wonderful player who makes any team better with his playmaking and defense, but he’s 33 and will be heavily paid over the next few years to be a core part of their team.
While a very solid player, forward Tobias Harris is on the lower talent end of max guys throughout the league, which puts a dent in his value on the five-year deal he signed with the team this offseason.
Between Horford, Harris, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, the Sixers owe $120.4 million to four players in 2020-21 and project to be well into the tax for the foreseeable future as a result. Of course, they’re in a premier position within the league right now and can accurately believe they’re among the title contenders in 2020, but if they have chemistry issues or other problems arise, ownership may balk at the expenses going out the door each year.
The saving grace for Philadelphia is that, even in their worst-case scenario, they have two star-level young players on max contracts.
Both Embiid and Simmons would generate immense trade interest if one or both were ever available, which gives Philly an out if they’re not as competitive as ownership wants for the money they’re spending. Harris just turned 27, and the five-year deal he signed will take him through the back half of his prime, so he should also be able to generate positive trade value throughout his contract as well, should it come to that.
Washington Wizards & Minnesota Timberwolves
These are a pair of teams who appear on this sort of list every year.
It’s nearly impossible to not have a bad cap situation when you have the worst contract in the league (Andrew Wiggins, Wolves) or an injured former star (John Wall, Wizards) on your books for as much as Minnesota and Washington are going to respectively be paying these guys well into the next decade.
Wiggins still has $122 million left on his deal and absolutely murders any chance the Wolves have at really competing in the Western Conference. Even if Karl-Anthony Towns puts it together defensively and becomes an MVP candidate, to spend more than $27 million per year for a replacement-level wing makes it nearly impossible for them to reach the upper levels of the league.
They have the draft assets to move Wiggins and may consider that if it becomes clear that Towns is a superstar, but it’s going to cost them A LOT of their picks to convince another team to take on Wiggins’ contract unless he miraculously discovers a motor.
As things stand ahead of the 2019-20 season, Wall’s contract may yet be worse than Wiggins’, but at least there’s a chance that Wall can get healthy and provide some value to the Wizards in the near future. With four years and $171 million still owed to him, he must eventually return in a big way to give Washington any sort of relief.
Whether he can do so in time to save them from moving Bradley Beal remains to be seen. In fact, Wall’s contract and injury could prove to be more damaging than Wiggins’ horrible deal if his negative value pushes Beal out of town.
Whereas even if Towns blossoms into a superstar, he’s under contract until 2024 and the Wolves don’t have to entertain any trade talk with him for at least the next three years.