The still-scuffling U.S. economy may keep some NBA teams from starting the season with a full, 15-player roster, according to a survey of all 30 franchises by The Associated Press.
With the season opening next week and final rosters due on Monday, the survey found that nearly half the league plans to start with 15 players. But others will carry the minimum 13 or leave one spot empty.
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Chief among the reasons was flexibility — having an available spot or two to keep options open for trades or injuries in the long, 82-game season. No teams outright said their decision would be driven by the economy, but the bottom line is clearly an issue.
“NBA teams are businesses like every other in this country,” Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban wrote in an e-mail to AP. “Times are tough and I expect many if not most teams to carry fewer than 15 players on their rosters.”
NBA teams are allowed to carry 12 active and three inactive players. Not filling all 15 slots would not leave a team at less than full strength for games, though it might leave it short-handed for practices.
Denver will start with a 13-player model after going with 14 last season and the full 15 in the two seasons prior.
In the first seven games last season, the Nuggets used more than nine players only once. Mark Warkentien, the team’s vice president of basketball operations, said he likes having chairs open at the end of the bench, just in case.
“There’s an obvious economic benefit. I’m not going to deny it,” Warkentien said. “The compelling reason is the flexibility.”
The minimum NBA salary this season is about $457,000 for rookies. The luxury tax threshold is about $70 million, meaning teams must pay a $1 tax for every dollar spent on salaries above that limit in a given year.
Expectations by coaches and general managers for their roster sizes this season are generally in line with previous years. L.A. Clippers general manager and coach Mike Dunleavy, for instance, said he’s carried 15 players the past few years — 14 with guaranteed contracts — and expects the same again for this season.
But Dunleavy also said the Clippers have less of a financial burden this year by signing younger guys to less expensive deals.
“If we hadn’t, then I think I probably wouldn’t have had a 15th guy,” Dunleavy said. “Everybody is very conscious of the revenue situation.”
Cuban said he would like the Mavericks to carry only 13 players but will likely max out his roster after Dallas carried 16 guaranteed contracts into training camp. A trade left the Mavs with 15 guaranteed deals and one non-guaranteed contract ahead of Monday’s deadline.
The climate is bad news for players because it could mean fewer jobs in the league.
Curtis Jerrells, an undrafted rookie from Baylor who was cut by San Antonio this week, said he feared economic factors could make sticking with a team more difficult.
“That’s stuff I can’t really control,” said Jerrells, whom the Spurs didn’t waive for financial reasons. “The economic deal … this is my dream. Regardless of what happens I’ll go out and play hard. I’ll be OK with it.”
Billy Hunter, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, said the union is waiting to see whether NBA teams really keep rosters leaner this season or whether it’s simply talk. The economic crisis and the number of teams struggling led Hunter and NBA commissioner David Stern to begin their collective bargaining talks early, in August, even though the current agreement runs through 2011.
“Obviously it’s a concern for us as a union because we want to employ our guys,” Hunter said. “So for every two guys on a team cut, you take 30 teams and if everybody reduced their roster by two, that’s 60 jobs. So we’re obviously concerned.”
Minnesota is leaning toward carrying 13 players this season after maxing out their roster a season ago. Like Denver, Miami, Atlanta, Charlotte and Philadelphia may also go a player or two fewer than a year ago.
Charlotte, which has lost millions each year since coming into the league in 2004-05, kept training camp at home this season to help cut costs and let go staff, including a scout. The Bobcats carried 15 players for most of last season but considered 14 during the preseason.
The Heat have generally carried 15 players and haven’t ruled out doing so this year. Miami already entered training camp $3 million into the dollar-for-dollar tax, and team president Pat Riley wants as much financial flexibility as possible heading into next summer’s potential free-agent bonanza in the NBA.
The Washington Wizards, meanwhile, are spending more on salaries this season than ever before and, with a $78 million roster, will be paying the luxury tax for the first time. It’s about $8 million more than the Wizards spent last season — even though they expect to go from 15 to 14 players.
San Antonio went on an atypical spending spree this summer to bolster its title chances, taking Richard Jefferson and the $29.2 million owed to him over the next two years off Milwaukee’s hands in exchange for three aging bench players.
Milwaukee will still carry 15 this season but would have preferred 14 for flexibility and injuries, Bucks general manager John Hammond said. But are smaller rosters more about roster flexibility, or the economy?