Salary Cap space is for dreamers who live in the fantasy world. The No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft is for builders – and winners.
If given the choice of the two, it's really no choice at all. Take the pick every time.
In the summer of 2003, the Cleveland Cavaliers had the No. 1 pick and took LeBron James directly from high school. The same summer, the Washington Wizards cleared a ton of space to give Golden State free agent Gilbert Arenas a six-year, $65 million contract.
As a result, the Cavs have climbed steadily toward the top of the NBA, hoping to reach the Finals this season. The Wizards, meanwhile, peaked in mediocrity and hit the bottom last season with 19 victories. They paid Arenas $30 million the last two seasons to play a combined 15 games. That's what cap space gives you.
In the summer of 2004, the Magic took Dwight Howard with the No. 1 pick in the Draft -- again directly from high school. The same summer, the Phoenix Suns were so proud of their cap space, they gave Steve Nash a five-year, $65 million contract to lure him away from Dallas.
Five years late, the Magic have the best center in basketball and are coming off their first NBA Finals appearance in 14 years, perched to be championship contenders for the next several seasons. The Suns, meanwhile, haven't won a playoff series in two years. That's cap space for you.
Sure, there are times when the No. 1 pick becomes a huge disappointment -- hello Kwame Brown in 2001 -- but the economic risks aren't as great because of the league's rookie wage scale. You can cut your losses after three years.
The Los Angeles Clippers will pay only $4.15 million this season to No. 1 pick Blake Griffin, and he is guaranteed just $14 million over three years. He might become a star, and he might not. By comparison, it took five years and $65 million for the Toronto Raptors to sign free agent Hedo Turkoglu, who never has played in an All-Star Game and probably never will.
I'll take the pick any day.
There are a dozen teams creating cap space for the summer of 2010, and there are a dozen teams that are going to be standing there with their space in their hands looking a little foolish when all the big-name free agents stay where they are next July. The way the rules are set up, the current teams always can pay them a little bit more, which drastically reduces the movement.
Salary cap space is like fool's gold, and it's usually a bad investment. The Magic for example, will be paying Rashard Lewis $18.8 million next summer -- a little less actually because of his 10-game steroid suspension -- because they created salary cap space to sign him in 2007. They will be paying Howard a more-economical $15.1 million even though he is 10 times more important to the team.
Not every No. 1 pick turns out to Howard or James, but most turn out to be pretty good deals. If you are Chicago, don't you feel better about paying Derrick Rose, a former No. 1 pick, $5.1 million this season than paying Luol Deng $10.1 million as part of his free-agent contract.
The Portland Trail Blazers created all kinds of cap room this summer, but there were no real stars to chase. They had a hard time giving their money away. They struck out on Turkoglu, who went to Toronto instead. They struck out on restricted free agent Paul Millsap because Utah kept him by matching the deal. They settled for journeyman Andre Miller, overpaying him more than $7 million annually.
Moral of the story? Take the pick every time.