NBA teams have incentive to sign minimum salary players to contracts of at least three years when they can, as I’ve examined in the past. The investment of the cap space or the exception money necessary to do so can pay off when a player exceeds expectations. That keeps him under a bargain contract for a longer period of time than the two years, at most, allowed under the minimum salary exception. Still, those longer contracts come with a catch, since they’re often harder to trade.
Teams over the cap that trade for players on one- or two-year minimum salary deals don’t have to count them toward the amount of incoming salary in the deal, thus lowering the amount of salary they must relinquish in return. Let’s say a non-taxpaying, capped-out team wants to trade a player making $10MM in exchange for a player making $14.5MM and another player on a two-year, minimum salary contract with a salary of $947,276 for this season. Such a deal would be kosher, since the team can slip the player on the minimum salary deal into the minimum salary exception. That allows the team to count only the $14.5MM as incoming salary, which is less than the extra $5MM of salary the team is allowed to accept in return for the player making $10MM.
Now, let’s say the player with the minimum salary contract is on a three-year deal instead of a two-year deal. The same trade wouldn’t work, because the $947,276 would count as incoming salary and be added to the $14.5MM, pushing the total past the $5MM matching range.
Nearly half the teams in the league have at least one player on a minimum salary contract of more than two years. It’s no surprise that the Sixers lead in this category with six, since under GM Sam Hinkie, they’ve consistently pursued a strategy of signing prospects to long-term deals. The Grizzlies have the next most, with three, though they and the Heat found a way around this issue when they each sent out a player making the minimum salary on a three-year contract, with Jarnell Stokes going to Miami and James Ennis to Memphis, to make the Mario Chalmers trade function. The Kings managed to trade Ray McCallum and his three-year deal to the Spurs this summer because San Antonio was under the cap and thus able to accept him without sending anyone in return.
It’ll be difficult for the Cavaliers to pull off a similar maneuver with Joe Harris. Cleveland, with an eye on shedding salary, has reportedly made Harris available. He’s making the minimum in year two of a three-year deal, so they could only send Harris out for no salary in return to a team with cap space or a trade exception. That wouldn’t be the case if the Cavs had signed Harris to only a two-year deal for the minimum. If that were so, the Cavs could trade him for no salary in return to any team in the league, since whoever would take him in could do so via the minimum salary exception.
Such a scenario would have also required the Cavs to have paid Harris only the minimum last year, when he made nearly $400K more than that. It’s common for teams to sign recent second-round draftees to deals that cover three or four years and feature an above-minimum salary in year one and the minimum salary thereafter. Even if those contracts covered only two years, they couldn’t be done with the minimum salary exception, and thus a team can’t use that exception to trade for the player, even if he’s in his second year and is currently making the minimum.
It’s a complicated issue, as ever with the vagaries of NBA trades. Still, it worth noting that some players making the minimum are more tradeable than others. Here’s a look at each player making the minimum salary this year as part of a contract that spans three or more seasons, thus making them harder to trade than their two-year counterparts:
The Celtics, Clippers, Hornets, Kings, Knicks, Nets, Nuggets, Pacers, Pelicans, Raptors, Rockets, Suns, Thunder, Timberwolves, Warriors and Wizards don’t possess one of these contracts.
The Basketball Insiders salary pages were used in the creation of this post.