The mid-level exception is the only guaranteed tool a team over the salary cap has at its disposal to upgrade through free agency. Sometimes, it can be used to land a difference maker. Other times, teams use it year after year, and dig their hole deeper and deeper (Ahem, Isiah, are you listening?). After the jump, we'll try to nail down which players could possibly be had for the MLE.
Let's start with the definition of the MLE, from the best CBA information site around:
MID-LEVEL SALARY EXCEPTION -- This exception allows a team to sign any free agent to a contract equal to the average salary, even if they are over the cap. This exception may be split and given to multiple players. It may be used for contracts of up to five years in length, and raises are limited to 8% of the salary in the first year of the contract. Signing a player to a multi-year contract does not affect a team's ability to use this exception every year. For example, a team can sign a player to a five-year contract using this exception and still use the exception the following year to sign another player.
In the past, you could kind of take look at the available free agents and peg which ones would fall somewhere in the MLE range. Last season, Mickael Pietrus and James Posey were two notable veterans who landed big MLE deals (the full MLE was $5.58M in 2008-2009). This year, however, I think we're going to see several players fall back into the MLE range.
Here are the teams who could have more than the MLE to work with in cap space. In some cases, the teams would have to cut ties with one or more free agents, restricted or unrestricted, to free up the cap space. If/when they make this move, they can no longer go over the cap to re-sign their free agents using the Bird or Early-bird exceptions:
- Portland (only if they don't cut Steve Blake, Travis Outlaw and renounce their rights to Channing Frye).
- Atlanta (only if they renounce Mike Bibby, Josh Childress and Marvin Williams)
- Detroit (after renouncing Iverson and Rasheed Wallace)
- Memphis (Hakim Warrick is a restricted free agent)
- Oklahoma City (Malik Rose, Desmond Mason, Chucky Atkins)
- Sacramento (Ike Diogu, Rashad McCants, Bobby Jackson)
- Toronto (Shawn Marion, Anthony Parker, Joey Graham)
Now, here's a list of the players who will probably test the free-agent waters who made more than the MLE last season:
- Jason Kidd *
- Mike Bibby
- Andre Miller *
- Carlos Boozer (will probably opt out) *
- Mehmet Okur (may opt out) *
- Hedo Turkoglu (will probably opt out) *
- Anderson Varejao (will probably opt out) *
- Allen Iverson
- Lamar Odom *
- Stephon Marbury **
- Wally Szczerbiak **
- Radoslav Nesterovic **
- Malik Rose **
- Rasheed Wallace
- Ben Gordon *
- Drew Gooden *
- Ron Artest *
- Shawn Marion
** - Highly doubtful any team would pay full MLE for this player.
So we have 18 players on this list, four of whom you can cross off right away, leaving 14 players vying for 10 available free agent contracts worth more than the MLE. But that's only the group of players who made more than the MLE last season. Now let's take a look at the guys who you could expect to get a bump to that level in free agency:
- Raymond Felton *
- Trevor Ariza *
- Marvin Williams
- Charlie Villaneuva *
- Hakim Warrick
- Nate Robinson *
- David Lee *
- Leon Powe *
- Ramon Sessions *
- Paul Millsap *
- Josh Childress
From this second list, I expect Villaneuva, Sessions, Felton, David Lee, Millsap and possibly Nate Robinson and Marvin Williams could be offered a contract greater than the MLE, but I'd only consider Millsap and David Lee locks.
In total, we probably have somewhere between 13 and 20 guys on the market who would normally be signed to a deal worth more than the MLE ($5.58M in the first season), and only 10 such spots available, at most. So who falls out of the big money? Here are the guys I fully expect to sign for more than the MLE:
- Ben Gordon
- Carlos Boozer
- Hedo Turkoglu
- David Lee
- Andre Miller
- Mike Bibby
- Ron Artest
- Paul Millsap
Utah will probably lose either Boozer or Millsap, not both. There are some other things we should probably discuss. The Gilbert Arenas provision could apply to guys like Ramon Sessions, Paul Millsap and Marcin Gortat. It's a convoluted rule, so check out the link. Basically, the most any team can offer one of those guys this season is the full MLE, but a team with more cap space can offer a contract that starts at the full MLE and then jumps up by a much larger percentage after year two.
That's the basic landscape, now let's play matchmaker:
- Atlanta re-signs Mike Bibby, Marvin Williams and/or Josh Childress, any one of the three will eat up their cap space.
- Portland signs Andre Miller or Mike Bibby.
- Detroit signs Hedo Turkoglu and Carlos Boozer
- Oklahoma City signs Ben Gordon
- Memphis signs Anderson Varejao
- Sacramento signs Shawn Marion
- Toronto signs Lamar Odom
We haven't even begun to talk about which teams can and cannot afford to add an MLE contract to their payroll without going over the luxury tax.
The point is, this Summer is shaping up to be a buyer's market. How does this affect the Sixers? Well, it could be profound.
First of all, if the Sixers open negotiations with Andre Miller on July 1st and quickly re-sign him, they're going to pay too much, and possibly remove the possibility of getting a better player for less money later in the Summer.
Take a look at those lists above, some of the players will test free agency and realize there's just no money available, then the power shifts to their current teams who are the only ones able to offer more than the MLE. Some will sign their qualifying offers and opt for unrestricted free agency in 2010. The rest will be scrounging around for MLE offers.
By my count no more than 10 teams will be ready, willing and able to spend the full MLE, either due to the desire to be as far under the cap next Summer as possible in the hopes of landing one of the big name free agents, or because they are hovering so close to the luxury tax level, it would cost them way too much to add a full-MLE deal (the Sixers will be in this boat if they re-sign Miller). That number will drop precipitously if/when teams start re-signing their own free agents.
I think it's entirely possible that by August we could see several players looking to Europe for a bigger payday. The ones who still want to play in the NBA will be settling for much, much less than their agents promised they'd get on the open market. That will be the time to swoop in and grab bargains. Guys like Anthony Parker aren't going to command the full MLE. In fact, you may be able to get two players of that caliber for the MLE. Or, better yet, a guy like Gortat or Sessions may just be sitting out there for the taking.