The NBA salary cap is somewhat malleable, with various exceptions allowing every team to surpass the $99.093MM threshold when that room is used up. In some cases, teams blow past not only the cap limit, but the luxury-tax limit as well, with clubs like the Cavaliers, Warriors, and Trail Blazers going well beyond that tax line this year.
The NBA doesn’t have a “hard cap” by default, which allows those clubs to build significant payrolls without violating CBA rules. However, there are certain scenarios in which teams can be hard-capped. When a club uses the bi-annual exception, acquires a player via sign-and-trade, or uses more than the taxpayer portion of the mid-level exception, that club will face a hard cap for the remainder of the league year.
When a team becomes hard-capped, it cannot exceed the tax apron at any point during the rest of the league year. Under the new CBA, the tax apron is set at the point $6MM above the luxury tax line. For the 2017/18 league year, the tax line is at $119.266MM, so the apron – and the hard cap – is at $125.266MM.
So far this year, six teams have imposed a hard cap on themselves by using the bi-annual exception, using the non-taxpayer mid-level exception, or acquiring a player via sign-and-trade. Listed below are those six teams, along with their current salary situation. Team salaries are estimations, since not all contracts have been finalized, and we don’t know the exact figures on all those salaries.
Los Angeles Clippers
- How they created a hard cap: Acquiring Danilo Gallinari via sign-and-trade. Using non-taxpayer mid-level exception to sign Milos Teodosic and Jawun Evans.
- Approximate team salary: $120MM
- Breakdown: The Clippers still have some non-guaranteed salary on their books, but even if they were to cut those contracts, they’d need to fill out their 15-man roster somehow, so they appear likely to stay over the tax line, despite losing Chris Paul. They’ll fill out their roster with minimum salary players and will have somewhat limited flexibility in trades unless they dump some salary at some point.
- How they created a hard cap: Using non-taxpayer mid-level exception to sign P.J. Tucker and Zhou Qi. Using bi-annual exception to sign Tarik Black.
- Approximate team salary: $119MM
- Breakdown: The Rockets acquired Chris Paul before the new league year began in order to hang onto their mid-level and bi-annual exceptions, and made full use of them. Like the Clippers, the Rockets have some non-guaranteed salary that could be removed from their cap to sneak under the tax line, but they don’t appear concerned about that for now. It will be interesting to see if their hard cap limits their flexibility at all when it comes to adding a highly-paid player like Carmelo Anthony.
- How they created a hard cap: Using non-taxpayer mid-level exception to sign C.J. Miles.
- Approximate team salary: $118MM
- Breakdown: Dumping the salaries of DeMarre Carroll and Cory Joseph allowed the Raptors to use their full mid-level exception, which gave them the opportunity to land a talented swingman like Miles. Toronto was originally planning to acquire Miles via a sign-and-trade, but either approach would have hard-capped the club.
- How they created a hard cap: Using non-taxpayer mid-level exception to sign Langston Galloway and Eric Moreland. Using bi-annual exception to sign Anthony Tolliver.
- Approximate team salary: $116MM
- Breakdown: Once the Pistons added Galloway and Avery Bradley, it became clear that Kentavious Caldwell-Pope wouldn’t return. Even without KCP on their books, the Pistons are inching close to tax territory, though they should be able to avoid crossing that threshold.
- How they created a hard cap: Using non-taxpayer mid-level exception to sign Ben McLemore and Rade Zagorac. Using bi-annual exception to sign Tyreke Evans.
- Approximate team salary: $104MM
- Breakdown: The Grizzlies are well below the tax line – and the hard cap – for now, but JaMychal Green‘s new contract looms large. At this point, it seems unlikely that Green will sign a massive offer sheet that forces Memphis into tax territory to match it. But even if Green gets $10-12MM per year, the Grizzlies will get a whole lot closer to the tax threshold, which will limit their ability to add more salary. If they let Green walk, that won’t be a problem, but I’d be surprised if that happens.
San Antonio Spurs
- How they created a hard cap: Using non-taxpayer mid-level exception to sign Rudy Gay.
- Approximate team salary: $97MM
- Breakdown: The hard cap shouldn’t have a major impact on the Spurs, who are still nearly $30MM away from reaching it. However, new contracts for Manu Ginobili and Pau Gasol could take San Antonio a whole lot closer to that tax threshold, depending on how much the club ends up paying its returning veterans.
New Orleans Pelicans
- How they created a hard cap: Using non-taxpayer mid-level exception to sign Rajon Rondo, Quincy Miller, and Frank Jackson.
- Approximate team salary: $118MM
- Breakdown: The Pelicans are closer to the hard cap than their team salary would suggest, since several unlikely incentives – which don’t currently count against the cap or tax – count for hard cap purposes. They’ll have to be careful this season about making further signings or taking back more money than they send out in a trade