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Rockets pitch idea to move free agency before NBA Draft with Celtics support

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The league’s minds are beginning to question if scheduling the NBA Draft before free agency makes any sense. The Rockets officially proposed it to the NBA last month.

Boston Celtics Media Day Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images

The 2018 draft marked the first NBA Draft since 2003 in which no active players were moved in deals. With the combination of teams strapped with absurd salaries from the “spend, spend, spend” summer of 2016 and 2019’s salary cap only likely to move less than $2 million above last year’s total, everybody wants flexibility entering free agency.

You might’ve heard that LeBron James, Paul George and Chris Paul are free agents this summer.

That means no extra and unnecessary salary. The Pacers even made the bold move this week of cutting ties with Lance Stephenson to get just $4 million in added cap space. They aren’t even one of the teams, totaling over half the NBA, that are right up against the projected cap of $101 million, or in the Celtics’ case the luxury tax of $123 million (check out Keith Smith on tax concerns moving forward). That uncertainty on one of the biggest nights on the NBA calendar is why the Rockets pitched last month to move free agency before the draft, per ESPN’s Zach Lowe.

“Rosas (Houston’s Vice President) hopes to build a calendar not so different from today’s version: free agency commencing in late June, the draft around July 10, and the start of summer league perhaps a week after that,” Zach Lowe wrote. “But that would push the NBA’s calendar back by at least a week or 10 days, and some opponents of Houston’s proposal fear an NBA in which urgent business persists well into August, sources say. Everyone needs vacation.”

Normally, the weeks following the NBA Finals hit a lull. With the league operating under the previous year’s cap, organizations are unable to legally talk with their own or other upcoming free agents, and the deadline for player and team options is not until this Friday. There’s no incentive for any barnstorming by GMs.

That all usually changes when the clock starts ticking on draft night. Draft night and the trade deadline are the two days where teams hesitant to take action get forced by a timer.

Lowe reported that Houston contemplated the idea of kicking the draft back for years with the primary motive of incentivizing trade activity. From a team perspective it makes total sense—when money is at a premium, activity will be at a low if teams have free agent targets in mind. A first-round draft pick adds guaranteed salary to the roster, and teams looking to move back this year like the Grizzlies wanted to dump money but found no suitors.

It’s worth wondering if the players would support the idea. As Lowe noted, the James chase of 2010 had multiple franchises lining up their cap space, which resulted in massive contracts for Amar’e Stoudemire and Carlos Boozer when the Knicks and Bulls needed backup plans. A later draft would promote more insecurity later into the offseason for players both signed to rosters and entering the draft. Then there’s the added dynamic of the window during which NCAA players are allowed to test draft waters before returning to school.

All of this falls under the cloudy future of entry into the NBA that will likely be decided by the end of the decade. The NCAA is looking at shaking up the recruiting system while the NBA mulls ending the one-and-done rule, which could open up the 2021 NBA Draft to high school graduates.

With Daryl Morey’s roots stretching back to Boston, inspiration could’ve been extended from the Celts organization where Austin Ainge and Mike Zarren stand as proponents of flipping the draft and free agency.

The league does need time to officially establish a new salary cap system, which involves the calculation and accounting of league income. Moving up the free agency period could place extra pressure on that delicate system, so it would be more likely to see the draft in late July or August if free agency would remain at the start of July. As this summer will likely show, deals don’t always fall into place quickly when a player like James is commanding the market.

Two possible issues that could arise with activity pushed back are a complete black hole of inactivity in June and a tiny window for teams to integrate rookies and players traded on draft night before training camp opens in September. Also, the Summer League currently plays in early July.

It’s no surprise the Celts, who pulled off the Kyrie Irving and Kevin Garnett trades well after the usual window of offseason activity, aren’t worried about late-summer vacations.

The league’s current CBA doesn’t end until a mutual opt-out in 2023. While the league wouldn’t need to wait until then to transform its calendar, that would be the most reasonable time to expect such a substantial change.

For now the NBA will continue to operate in a world where, barring any explosion in revenue streams, the cap likely won’t bump by any more than $7 million in a given offseason over the next eight years after the $24 million catapult in 2016. That will inherently place cap space right up there with James among the league’s most valuable assets.

Hopefully the Timofey Mozgov trade scratched your pre-free agency itch for activity.