Which NBA teams project to have the most cap space over the next two years?

In previous columns, I ranked the top 10 free agents of 2010 and identified several players with expiring contracts that might be moved before the Feb. 19 trade deadline. Now it’s time to talk about cap space.

We’ve been hearing a lot lately about how teams are “clearing cap space” so that they can sign a big-name free agent in the summer of 2010 (or in some cases, 2009). But what exactly does this mean?

The NBA has a “soft cap” which is currently set at $58.7 million. Teams that are over the cap can’t sign a free agent from another team for more than the mid-level exception, which usually starts at around $5 million per season. Teams that are under the cap can offer free agents whatever cap space they have up to the level of a max contract, which starts at about $14 million per season under current conditions.

HoopsHype has all the salary data for each team, but I thought it would be useful to compile it all into one table so we can easily see who will have money to spend over the next two summers.

First, my assumptions:

– Given the current state of the economy, the salary cap is likely to stay at about $59 million over the next two seasons, so I used the current cap ($58.7 million) to calculate each team’s cap space.

– Certain players have already indicated that they’re planning to “opt out” of the final year of their contracts so that they can enter free agency. For those that have not announced, I used my best judgment to determine whether or not a player is likely to opt out. For example, LeBron James is very likely to opt out of his contract in the summer of 2010, but Michael Redd, who stands to make more than $18 million that same season, is likely to play out the final year of his deal because he’s not going to get anything close to that kind of money on the open market.

– I’ll also list the major (and some minor) decisions that each franchise will have to make over the next two seasons. These are typically decisions about whether or not to re-sign a player whose contract is up (or is entering restricted free agency). For example, if the Knicks decide to sign David Lee to a long-term deal, it’s going to have an impact on the team’s available cap space.

Without further ado, here’s the table, sorted by total projected cap space in the summer of 2010.

The data is interesting. If teams didn’t spend another dime until the summer of 2010, there would be seven teams capable of signing one player to a max-type contract and 11 teams capable of signing two players to max deals. This isn’t realistic, however, as most teams are going to re-sign their current players when they enter restricted or unrestricted free agency, and that’s going to take a bite out of their cap space. Plus, there are a number of stars – Carlos Boozer, Shawn Marion, Allen Iverson – and several starter-quality players that will sign free agent deals this summer. That’s going to gobble up cap space as well.

Of the four teams that have significant cap flexibility this summer – Detroit, Memphis, Atlanta and Oklahoma City – only two, the Pistons and the Hawks, have major decisions to make this summer. The Hawks have to decide whether or not the 30 year-old Mike Bibby is worth a significant long-term deal. If they do sign him to a contract averaging, let’s say, $10 million per season, it is going to reduce their cap space for the summer of 2010 by that amount. They can always re-sign Joe Johnson (because he is “their” free agent), but they may not have enough space to sign another top tier player. That space would be reduced further if they elect to sign Marvin Williams to a long-term deal.

The Pistons have to make a decision about Allen Iverson and Rasheed Wallace. Both players are getting on in age, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the Pistons allow both contracts to expire and use the new cap space this summer or next, building around Rodney Stuckey and Tayshaun Prince.

The Grizzlies have a ton of projected cap space over the next two years, but their challenge is not the money – it’s attracting a top-tier free agent to a small city and a bad team. No one really thinks that Memphis has a shot at any of the top five free agents of 2010 – LeBron, Dwyane Wade, Amare Stoudemire, Chris Bosh and Joe Johnson – though there’s a slim chance that Amare or Bosh might want to play with O.J. Mayo and Rudy Gay. Small market teams like Memphis that are struggling to win are going to have to overpay for second-tier free agents. The Thunder, Timberwolves, Raptors and Kings are four other teams that will have significant cap space over the next two seasons but are unlikely to attract a top-tier free agent.

These numbers will obviously change over the next two seasons as teams make trades and sign free agents (and draft picks). However, I can’t remember a time when this many teams had this much cap space. Under normal circumstances, it would lead to a frenzy of spending in the short term, but with the current state of the economy, teams may be quite a bit more cautious as they open those checkbooks.

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom.

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