As commissioner David Stern warned at All-Star Weekend, the NBA is bracing to have the salary cap (and luxury-tax threshold) go down this summer for the first time ever. The picture might be even gloomier in 2010.
With season-ticket renewals expected to plunge because of the weakness of the economy, some league executives expect the cap to fall significantly, which could have serious ramifications for a number of teams. Some teams might find themselves paying the luxury tax, and some might not have the cap space needed to sign players in the already-celebrated summer of 2010.
All of that seems to be having a cooling effect as we approach Thursday's trade deadline.
"You've got a market loaded with motivated sellers and only a very small group of buyers," one NBA executive told ESPN.com. "It's really ugly. Owners are scared to death right now."
"If no one is willing to take back contracts that extend beyond the summer of 2010, not much is happening this week," another executive said. "However, if you're a GM that has an owner willing to spend, you're going to hit the jackpot this week. There are a lot of deals to be had if you're willing to take back salary. The problem is, those owners seem to be few and far between."
There has been a financial element to virtually every trade rumor out there this winter.
The Suns' willingness to move Amare Stoudemire has been motivated, in part, by owner Robert Sarver's desire to get below the luxury-tax threshold in Phoenix. Finances have played an even bigger role in their shopping Shaquille O'Neal.
The Hornets have just moved Tyson Chandler for similar reasons. The Wizards are flirting with moving Caron Butler and the Bucks are dangling Richard Jefferson, with each team looking for cap relief in return.
And the Knicks have had to seriously consider trading a core building block like David Lee to create the possibility of making a run at an elite free agent in 2010. Given the shrinking economy, that task is becoming more urgent by the minute, as Chris Sheridan explained in his excellent look at the state of the Knicks and their attempts to open up cap space for LeBron James.
So this year, more than ever before, the trick isn't just to identify who's on the trading block but also to figure out which teams are willing to trade cap space for talent.
Here's a look at what we're hearing:
The hottest name at the trade deadline? A guy who hasn't played a game this season: Raef LaFrentz of the Portland Trail Blazers.
"If you asked owners in the league who they'd rather have right now, LaFrentz or Stoudemire, I think more than half of them would prefer LaFrentz," one executive told me. "That's how screwed up this thing has been. I guarantee you [Blazers GM] Kevin Pritchard has gotten better offers for LaFrentz than the Suns have gotten for Stoudemire."
That might have been confirmed Monday when the Suns' interest in trading Stoudemire cooled dramatically. Some of that has to do with the hope that new coach Alvin Gentry will inject some life into the listless Suns. But much of it has to do with the fact that the Suns haven't gotten a great offer for Stoudemire.
Meanwhile, sources confirm that the Blazers have been getting a steady flow of offers for LaFrentz, including two significant new ones Monday.
The focus for the Blazers right now appears to be at the small forward position. It appears that three players -- Gerald Wallace, Caron Butler and Richard Jefferson -- are on Pritchard's radar screen. A fourth one, Mike Miller, is also a favorite of the Blazers, but the Wolves have been reluctant to include him in a deal.
Sources say the Blazers have intensified their focus on Wallace. He's young, athletic and physical, and he doesn't need to score to be an impact player. He has four years and $38 million left on his contract, which is a lot, but given his age and production the past few years, it's not unreasonable. The problem for the Blazers is that the Bobcats want Portland to take back Nazr Mohammed as part of the deal. That could be a deal-breaker for Pritchard.
Butler might be the best player of the group when he's healthy. He was an All-Star last year and is excellent in the mid-range game. He too has a reasonable contract, with just two years and $21 million left on his deal. But it's unclear what the Wizards would want in return and whether they'll ultimately opt to keep Butler and reevaluate the team when Gilbert Arenas returns. If the Wizards are to make such a deal, certainly they'll want the Blazers to take back Etan Thomas' contract, and they'll likely also demand one or two young players from the Blazers. That price might be too high for Portland.
Jefferson is the most available. The Bucks need to clear his salary from their cap if they're going to re-sign their two restricted free agents this summer: Charlie Villanueva and Ramon Sessions. Sources say there have been conversations that have included both Jefferson and Milwaukee point guard Luke Ridnour, though the talk has quieted down. As a proven scorer and defender who's played in the NBA Finals, Jefferson has some appeal for the Blazers.
One wild card for the Blazers is Vince Carter. His contract is the most expensive of the group, but Carter has been fantastic this season and would give the Blazers the biggest bang of anyone out there. It appears unlikely the Blazers will go that direction, but New Jersey would certainly listen if Portland wanted to do a deal.
Speaking of Carter, well-placed league sources say there is a good chance Carter is moved before the trade deadline. San Antonio, Dallas and Cleveland have all been mentioned as possible destinations, but sources say that the emerging dark horse is Houston.
Sources say the Rockets have been pushing a trade that sends Tracy McGrady to the Nets for Carter and Trenton Hassell. However, the Nets are balking at taking back McGrady's contract. The Nets have countered with a proposal that would send Carter and Josh Boone to the Nets for a combination of Ron Artest, Shane Battier, Luther Head and Carl Landry. Read more here.
It seems the Cavs would be, like the Blazers and Rockets, in a position to be buyers this week, because they have Wally Szczerbiak, a player with a coveted expiring contract.
But Cavs GM Danny Ferry told Marc Stein on Sunday night that he'd "be surprised if they did anything at this point."
Maybe the surprise should be if they don't do something.
When Ferry made the deal for Szczerbiak, one of the big selling points was that the Cavs could use the contract as an asset this year.
And if the Blazers are getting so much interest in LaFrentz, why wouldn't Cleveland be getting similar interest in Szczerbiak? Yes, LaFrentz's contract is easier to swallow thanks to an insurance provision that pays 80 percent of it. But if teams are selling assets, shouldn't the Cavs pounce to increase their chances of winning the title?
It all makes you wonder if Cavs owner Dan Gilbert is among the owners feeling the financial heat. The Cavs are paying roughly $19 million in luxury taxes this year. But next year they will go under the luxury-tax threshold if they let Wally walk.
The Knicks are an interesting case. They want to clear cap space and get better at the same time.
On one hand, they need to find a home for either Eddy Curry or Jared Jeffries, whose contracts don't expire until 2011. That means that if the Knicks don't trade one or both of them, they probably won't be able to re-sign David Lee or sign two superstars in the summer of 2010.
On the other hand, the Knicks would like to fill some holes in the short term. Their biggest hole is in the middle, where the combination of Curry and Jerome James has given them nothing.
Can Knicks president Donnie Walsh find a way to fulfill both goals at the same time?
On Monday, the Knicks and Kings discussed a possible trade of Malik Rose for Brad Miller, two league sources told ESPN.com. Miller was a Walsh favorite in Indiana and could help fill the hole in the middle for the Knicks. And Miller's contract is right for New York, as it comes off the books in 2010.
Both teams would have to include more players to make the numbers work.
The Kings would like Nate Robinson as part of the deal. The Knicks talked about including James as part of the deal, though they're even more interested in including Jeffries.
If the Knicks and Kings can agree to a deal that swaps Miller and Kenny Thomas -- who also has a contract that expires in 2010 -- to the Knicks for Rose, Robinson and Jeffries, the Knicks will suddenly have a legit center and enough cap space to sign David Lee this summer and a max player like LeBron James in 2010.
Would the Kings do the deal? Rose would give them some cap relief immediately. Robinson is a talented spark plug who could give them energy off the bench. But with Jeffries' contract running until 2011, it's not an easy sell.
It will be interesting to see if anything comes of this as we get closer to Thursday.
I'm wondering why no one is mentioning the Indiana Pacers as a possible trade partner. They have two expiring contracts: Rasho Nesterovic and Marquis Daniels, whose salaries together equal $15 million. As a bonus, both of those players are actually playing really well this season.
Why wouldn't a playoff team looking to create some cap space make a run at those guys?
It's no secret that the Pacers want to find both an athletic big man and a team willing to take point guard Jamaal Tinsley off their hands. Pacers execs Larry Bird and David Morway have done a great job of recreating this roster on the fly. The team has about $10 million or so in wiggle room next year before it hits the luxury-tax threshold, so the Pacers can take on some salary. I wouldn't be surprised to see them become players Thursday.
The Minnesota Timberwolves are another team in an interesting position. Rashad McCants (who hits restricted free agency this summer) and Jason Collins have expiring contracts. And the team has another asset in Mike Miller.
Yet so far the Wolves haven't packaged them together to add another major piece to their rebuilding effort. They won't have enough cap room next summer to be major players, so the question arises: Why not make a move now?
They need help at both point guard and center. One rumored trade I've heard: McCants, Collins and Brian Cardinal for the Sixers' Samuel Dalembert, who would give Minnesota shot-blocking and athleticism in the frontcourt. But is he worth the two years and $25 million left on his contract?
The Pistons also could become players. Rasheed Wallace and Allen Iverson have big expiring contracts. If Detroit lets them expire, it goes into the summer with $20 million or more in cap space, putting the Pistons in position to make a significant offseason splash.
But if a team can offer the Pistons something now that's better than what's available this summer, they'll have to take a long, hard look.
Another team that could be a buyer is the Mavericks. They have Jason Kidd's expiring contract and Jerry Stackhouse's semi-expiring deal to offer.
While the Mavs have shown no interest in acquiring Shaquille O'Neal, I'm surprised owner Mark Cuban hasn't shown more a more proactive approach to shaping the long-term direction of the franchise.
In the short term, losing Kidd would hurt, a lot. But does Dallas think it has a realistic chance of winning it all this year? If not, shouldn't the Mavs start rebuilding?
Chad Ford covers the NBA for ESPN Insider.