Commentary

PER Diem: Feb. 23, 2009

The Hornets, Wizards and Bucks could feel the economic crunch next season

Updated: February 23, 2009, 4:50 PM ET
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

Tyson ChandlerAP Photo/Tony DejakA lower cap may leave some teams scrambling to get under next season's luxury tax.

Thursday's trade deadline has come and gone, and what stood out was not the players who were dealt, but rather the players who were not.

Amare Stoudemire? Staying.

Shaquille O'Neal? Staying.

Vince Carter? Staying.

Richard Jefferson, Caron Butler, Antawn Jamison and David Lee? Staying.

Tyson Chandler? Going going gone? Close, but no cigar.

Instead we were treated to a lot of lower-level deals and had the shocking sight of several large expiring contracts not changing hands. Wally Szczerbiak, Raef LaFrentz, Bobby Jackson and Jason Collins, among others, had huge expiring deals that were thrown into virtually every trade discussion but ultimately never moved.

As a result, some teams are heading into a sticky summer.

The reason names like Stoudemire, O'Neal, Chandler, Jefferson and Butler were tossed out there is the luxury-tax whipsaw appears to have caught several teams unaware. The salary cap is likely to go down next year, not up, as the league recently warned teams, and that takes the luxury-tax level with it.

Teams had done their planning on a steadily increasing cap/tax level, rising at about 4 percent a year. That put their projected tax number in the $75-76 million range; unfortunately for them, the real number is likely to be more in the $70 million area.

So teams with projected payrolls in the mid-70s -- like Phoenix, New Orleans, Washington and, if they want to keep their young guys, Milwaukee -- were motivated sellers at the trade deadline. This was their last chance to deal for expiring contracts that would put them under the tax line.

And yet none of those teams made any deals, mostly because the asking price from other parties was simply too high, though in Chandler's case because Oklahoma City nuked the deal because of concerns about his toe.

If those teams are serious about getting under the tax, their lack of activity is going to leave them in an even worse position this summer. They'll be forced to trade with teams that are already under the salary cap (not the tax, the cap), teams that own a large trade exception or teams with a large non-guaranteed contract that can be released. Between those three categories, there figures to be only a handful of trading partners. And a couple of those teams -- Sacramento and Memphis, for instance -- appear averse to taking on too much money, further crimping options.

The most interesting case by far is Washington. It appears that its best route to getting under the tax would be to trade its first-round pick -- which could be first or second overall -- to a contender along with a handful of bad contracts, and get back a productive player on a good contract. Just to create one completely hypothetical (I emphasize hypothetical) scenario, they could send the pick along with Darius Songaila and Etan Thomas to Memphis for Marc Gasol and get under the line.

That would allow the Wizards to keep together their nucleus of Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison, plus they'd have Marc Gasol, Brendan Haywood, Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee up front. Since the Wizards are firmly in win-now mode anyway based on their recent salary decisions, trading a high pick in a weak draft seems a reasonable strategy.

Milwaukee is in an even tighter spot. The Bucks have two high-quality restricted free agents -- Charlie Villanueva and Ramon Sessions -- that they won't be able to afford unless they can either pay somebody to take Luke Ridnour off their hands or move Richard Jefferson; they almost certainly would need to give up their first-round pick in the former scenario, and might in the latter.

Even then they aren't assured of being under the tax, especially since teams with cap space know money is tight in Milwaukee, and thus will come after their restricted free agents hard. That's why trading Jefferson seemed so palatable for the Bucks; from here on out it's going to be much harder to put together deals that get them under the tax without great pain. One possibility to file away in your back pocket: They could trade Jefferson to Dallas for Jerry Stackhouse (only partially guaranteed at $2 million), Antoine Wright and Jose Juan Barea; replacing the latter two players with Matt Carroll would also work.

The Hornets are also in a bind after the Chandler deal blew up on them. It seems all but certain that they'll sell or trade their first-round pick, since the cap hold alone could end up pushing them over the tax line, and they probably need to add promising forward Julian Wright along with another fairly sizable deal (Mo Peterson or James Posey, for instance), in order to get under the tax. Trading Chandler would get the most in return, of course, and could allow them to keep the kids, but it would leave a gaping hole in the middle, and it will be tough to find a partner with $12 million in cap space.

As for Phoenix, we've already heard the various permutations of potential Amare Stoudemire deals, but now the possibilities have narrowed because expiring contracts are no longer part of the picture. Also, teams will want to be convinced he's recovered from his detached retina before paying such a high price. The Suns could also take the shocking step of not picking up Steve Nash's team option for next year, or, in a less-often-discussed maneuver, move Jason Richardson in the same kind of Stackhouse trade I mentioned above with the Bucks.

All told, it portends a very interesting summer. I can't imagine any of these teams exceeding next year's tax line, except perhaps Phoenix, and they all just missed a great opportunity to get themselves under it. Which means they're going to have to do some very creative dealing in the coming months in order to sidestep the tax man.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.