Behind the scenes with NBA capologists: The league’s CBA and cap experts

In 2017, the NBA ratified a new Collective Bargaining Agreement that will run through the 2023-24 season. The CBA is 598 pages long and it’s full of complicated details, which is why more and more NBA teams are hiring a capologist – an individual whose specialty is knowing the salary-cap and trade rules (among other things) that are spelled out in the CBA.

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There are a lot of jobs around the NBA that fans have never heard about, with the capologist position being a perfect example. While a team’s general manager is the figurehead of the front office, there are many people who work under the GM that help facilitate transactions.

In order to learn more about capologists, what the job entails and why it’s becoming more common to see them in NBA front offices, HoopsHype talked to the following people:

  • An anonymous capologist who currently works for an NBA team. This individual spoke to HoopsHype on the condition of anonymity because he was sharing sensitive information.
  • Larry Coon, who is widely regarded as the NBA’s preeminent salary-cap expert. He created the extremely popular CBA FAQ and has consulted with various NBA teams and agencies. He’s written for ESPN, The New York Times and Basketball Insiders. He founded the Sports Business Classroom – a course that helps people who are pursuing a career in basketball.
  • Bobby Marks, who worked in the NBA for 20 years, going from intern to assistant GM of the Nets. He’s a salary-cap expert who handled some of the capologist duties in the Nets’ front office. In 2017, he transitioned to a media career. Now, he is ESPN’s front-office insider, breaking down transactions, contracts and salary-cap information.
  • Eric Pincus is a capologist who appears on NBA TV and writes for Basketball Insiders and Bleacher Report. He has consulted with various NBA teams. During NBA TV’s free-agency and trade-deadline coverage, he breaks down the salary-cap ramifications and other pertinent information in real time. He’s also an instructor at the Sports Business Classroom.

WHAT DOES A CAPOLOGIST DO?

A capologist pitches trade scenarios year-round, follows 10-day signings, tracks open roster spots and monitors which teams need to hit the salary floor. They provide this crucial info to the rest of the front office. Sometimes, the capologist will present a trade and the GM just makes the call to execute the deal.

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One GM told HoopsHype that his capologist is constantly presenting him with potential moves that could free up cap space, open roster spots or add an expiring contract, and he evaluates each potential move with his staff. The GM named a few of his completed trades that were constructed entirely by the team’s capologist.

NBA Capologist: “I spend almost all of my time coming up with hundreds, if not thousands, of trade ideas. There are many that I come up with on my own. Sometimes, an executive says, ‘We want to add a post scorer. Go identify those players and bring me back a handful of trades that would work.’ Or they’ll say, ‘We’re willing to move Player X and Player Y, but not Player Z. Play around with that and see what you can come up with.’ When another team calls or our GM has a specific trade that they’re thinking about, I’m asked to figure out the details. I may want to trade Player 1 for Player 2, but their salaries likely don’t match, so I’m figuring out which side needs to add to the deal and what they’d be adding in order to make it work. It’s a lot of fun!

“Another big aspect of my job is educating the rest of the front office when it comes to the CBA and the salary cap. I can be the specialist – that’s obviously a good thing for my career – but I want everyone I’m working with to understand this as much as they can handle. There are some people I’ve worked with who will say, ‘I want to learn more about the cap,’ but then they give up quickly because it’s not their cup of tea. But the more people who understand it, the easier my job is.”

Bobby Marks: “In Brooklyn, Matt Tellem did a lot of our cap work and he would present 20 different scenarios [at a time]. And maybe one of them makes sense and that’s the one you use to make a deal. When we’d propose trade ideas, we always said, ‘There’s nothing outlandish.’ You may not think the other team will do the deal, but then they do it! Sometimes, it’s all about timing. You’re looking for, and presenting, every trade scenario imaginable.

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“You’re also projecting out. A lot of people think that things are done in a one-year window, but these guys are looking at things in a three- or four-year window. You’re projecting out your flexibility. If you’re a team like Atlanta, you have a ton of flexibility, but you also have seven or eight guys on rookie contracts so you know that you have a two- or three-year window to use that cap space. You don’t have to go out guns blazing this summer. Compare that to a team like Philadelphia, who has Ben Simmons up for an extension. There’s the long-term planning aspect of it, the trade-scenario aspect (where you’re constantly looking at a lot of scenarios) and there’s the free-agent planning aspect (where you’re trying to put a puzzle together and see what fits).”

NBA Capologist: “No trade is made in a vacuum; the context absolutely matters. I see some of the trade ideas that fans come up with on Twitter and I’ve noticed that most fans really undervalue draft picks. They typically come up with a trade concept and then say, ‘Well, this team is getting a better deal than the other team, so let’s just throw in a first-round pick.’ That is not even remotely the case. Even a second-round pick has more value than people think. You don’t just throw it into a deal; those are valuable trade chips. Sure, if you look around the league, there are some teams that have dealt away a lot of second-round picks. But, personally, I would not want to be in that situation.”

Eric Pincus: “It’s your job to know every team’s cap situation, and there are transactions happening on a daily basis. Some franchises have interns or younger employees under the capologist who keep the salary book up to date. You’re always tracking which teams have cap room. You project ahead and track which teams have cap room next summer. You have to know each team’s draft-pick situation, who could be waived day-to-day, which teams need to make transactions, which teams have more than 15 guaranteed players in the offseason so you know that they have to cut somebody, which teams have open roster spots in case you need to dump [a player] and how to get out of the tax (if you’re in the luxury tax).

“Some of it is just advising the GM on what’s going on around the league and what opportunities are out there. Some of it is reaching out to people from other teams – usually people in a similar position as you – to feel out where they are. Some teams have several people who take on these responsibilities, but some have one expert who focuses on it. The teams that don’t think they need a capologist tend to be the teams that struggle because they don’t have a person dedicated to this. They’re the teams that are in the bottom-half of the league. This is a full-time job. If you don’t have a healthy salary-cap situation and don’t take advantage of the rules, you’re only hurting yourself. Plus, a salary-cap expert can probably save you money and pay for their own salary anyway!”

NBA Capologist: “Anytime I get wind that a player may be available – whether or not our team will have interest in that player – I immediately start brainstorming and coming up with situations that could make sense for us. Sometimes, it’s very easy. Other times, I know people don’t think highly of the player and he has a bad contract and bad intel, and I can’t imagine we’re going to touch him, but I just want to be prepared in case my GM comes to me and says, ‘Hey, I saw this guy may be available. Is there anything there that makes sense for us?’

“Another responsibility of mine is negotiating some of the more minute details of a contract, like when you get into the exhibits. That’s past the compensation and options and the stuff that’s reported. That’s where you see things like the love-of-the-game clause. Is there going to be a physical? Some GMs want to be involved in that, other GMs will say, ‘Give it to the cap person.’ They’ll have me get on the phone with an agent to negotiate this. Sometimes, the agent has their own lawyer, and they’ll have the lawyer and I handle negotiations. Realistically, most of that stuff will never matter. But it’s part of the contract and part of the negotiations.

“When you’re deciding the protections on draft picks, that’s another area where the cap person will typically get involved more so than the GM. The GM will say, ‘Do your research, figure out what’s best and bring it back to me for approval.’ But when it comes to pick protections, you’re often making a series of phone calls back and forth because there are offers and counteroffers. At that point, the general terms of the trade are agreed upon and the deal likely isn’t going to fall apart because of the pick protections, but the GM might not want to be involved in that.”

The capologist just presents the trade scenarios and doesn’t decide whether the team will pull the trigger on a specific deal. It is the GM’s job to ultimately decide which moves to make.

NBA Capologist: “There are times where I’ll come up with a trade that I think is a home run, a no-brainer, and then I’ll be surprised when the GM shows no interest and may not even make the call to the team… I think everyone goes through that initially, but you learn to get over it very quickly. You learn to accept that with any move, you’ll be in a room with 10 people who work in the industry and someone is always going to disagree with you. You have to be humble, especially when you’re interacting with a GM who has more experience than you. And I would bet that, more often than not, the GM would prove to be right in the long run. You have to understand that it’s their call to make.”

 

ORGANIZING THE TRADE CALL

On many NBA teams, the capologist is in charge of organizing and completing the trade call, which is a conference call between the teams that agreed upon a deal and the folks at the league office. Marks provided an in-depth rundown of how a trade call comes together and what it entails.

Bobby Marks: “We traded Jason Terry and Reggie Evans for Marcus Thornton back in 2014. That trade came along because you build relationships. I knew Pete D’Alessandro and gave him a call. I say, ‘Hey, how’s your family doing?’ Then, [the conversation] sort of shifts to, ‘Would you be interested in trading Marcus Thornton? We need a two-guard.’ Pete says, ‘Yeah, I think we might do that.’

“We go and check with our owners. At that point, we have a handshake agreement. From there, we notify the NBA and say Brooklyn and Sacramento have agreed to a deal. You get both teams on the line and you go over the trade terms: ‘Brooklyn is trading the contracts of Jason Terry and Reggie Evans to Sacramento for Marcus Thornton.’ The league goes over it and confirms that it works money-wise. Then, the league will say, ‘Brooklyn, we need you to send Sacramento both players’ insurance information if they’re covered under the league policy and all of their medical information, and copy the league on that. Sacramento, we need you to do the same.’

“Once the sharing of information and everything is done, the league will say, ‘Teams, we’re going to do a 4 p.m. conference call to go over all the terms of the deal.’ That’s how it goes. The league takes it from there; they go over the contracts and the medical information and the insurance information. You have to swear that there were no side agreements and once you agree on that, the trade is done.

“Then, they say, ‘Teams, let’s agree on reporting. Players will have 48 hours to report and another 24 hours to pass their physicals. Nobody can play or participate in any activities until all of that is completed.’ That’s what’s happening when you hear about a trade call.

“There are a lot of rules that you must follow. Back in January, [remember] when Houston had a hissy-fit because they were trying to make a trade and the league wouldn’t come in over the weekend? There’s a rule in the CBA that says if you are doing a trade over the weekend, you need to let the league office know by 6 p.m. on Friday. The league has to make sure it all works.”

THERE ARE GREY AREAS IN THE CBA

Larry Coon: “As you can imagine, the CBA – as thick and as dense as it is – doesn’t cover everything. It’s impossible to cover everything, especially since each CBA is just an updated version of the previous agreement rather than a complete do-over. When the two sides are negotiating, they come up with the deal points and it’s up to the lawyers to figure out how to represent that and [update] the old CBA into the new CBA. There are always things that they don’t think about, especially when there’s some new concept. That’s where there’s a lot of grey area.

“Sometimes, people are able to think of things that nobody has thought of doing or they take advantage of a rule in a way that nobody has thought to try. A good example of this is the Gilbert Arenas Provision. Everyone thought of it as, ‘Hey, we have a couple of players – including Gilbert Arenas – in a situation we didn’t intend. We made Bird Rights ramp up from one year to three years, which created a situation where some rookies who weren’t first-round draft picks become free agents after their second year and their teams can’t match!’ Well, creative thinkers come along, like Daryl Morey, and they realize, ‘Hey, we can use that to create a poison-pill offer!’ You have executives who are coming up with things like that and looking at rules from an angle that’s not expected.”

Bobby Marks: “Look at the situation we just saw with Rudy Gobert! The super-max criteria is defined as Most Valuable Player in one of the last three seasons, Defensive Player of the Year in the preceding season or two of the last three seasons, or All-NBA in the preceding season or two of the last three seasons. And you have to hit the years of service to be eligible. In the case of Gobert, there’s nowhere in the CBA where it says that you can combine Defensive Player of the Year in 2017-18 and All-NBA in 2018-19 to qualify for super-max. It doesn’t say that. That’s a rule that you’d have to call the league about and see how they interpret it. They would talk amongst themselves and give you an answer. In this case, they said, ‘Yeah, that makes sense.’ So Gobert is eligible for the super-max.”

 

NBA Capologist: “That Rudy Gobert situation was crazy! I didn’t know you could combine awards. That kind of thing happens a few times a year, where it’s something that just hasn’t happened before and maybe the league didn’t think it through, so it’s not covered in the CBA. The same thing happened with John Wall’s 15 percent trade kicker (which ESPN explained here). When something like that happens, you just wait for the league to make a decision. Gobert and Wall were both big ones, but there are a lot of smaller ones where I’m not 100 percent sure that I’m interpreting it right, even after reading the CBA. Fortunately, we can always call the league office.”

Eric Pincus: “One example of a grey area in this CBA is Early Bird Rights for a player who has been on a two-way contract. Because the two-way contract is so new, we’re just now getting to the point where teams have Early Bird Rights for their two-way players and it’s a bit unclear what the cap hold is for those players. It’s not something that’s explicitly stated – you sort of have to infer it after reading certain sections of the CBA. At the NBA level, this may be clear since capologists who work for teams can contact the league office to clear up any questions they may have.”

NBA Capologist: “The people at the league office are very sharp and very quick. Sometimes, they’ll say they honestly don’t know, but they’ll work to find the answer to your question. They’re a great resource for us.”

Eric Pincus: “You don’t want to run into an issue on the day of the trade deadline. You want to have the answers well before then. While you can call the league for clarification, you don’t know how many other teams have contacted the league with their own question and it may take a while to get a response. A good capologist will have done their homework ahead of time and anticipated what could be confusing or unclear. The good organizations can execute a lot of deals very quickly because they’re prepared, whereas the front offices that don’t have as much experience and don’t have a capologist may have a deal fall apart because they run into an issue and don’t have time to figure it out.”

NBA Capologist: “When the CBA was originated, the lawyers who wrote it did not do a very good job. I do think it’s a very difficult job because there are a lot of unintended consequences. I think [the mistakes] will continue to happen, even if you get a group of very intelligent people who know the game of basketball, know the business of basketball and are experienced lawyers. They can only think of so many situations ahead of time. They do a really good job of anticipating some of the issues, but it’s an inexact science.”

ADVICE FOR ASPIRING CAPOLOGISTS

NBA Capologist: “Everyone wants to be a general manager or president of basketball operations. How do you actually get to that point? You find your lane, be patient, work hard and maybe your job will expand over time. But keep in mind, there are only 30 GMs in the league at one time; sometimes, you need to find a different front-office role.

“I would recommend sitting down and forcing yourself to read at least the basketball portion of the CBA, as brutal as it may seem. If you can’t handle that – or after you do that – read Larry Coon’s CBA FAQ because it’s an invaluable resource and it’s much more digestible. I highly, highly recommend that. Nowadays, you can engage with a lot of people on Twitter and have a back-and-forth. With that said, I would be a little cautious because I see a lot of misinformation out there from self-proclaimed ‘cap experts.’”

Larry Coon: “Having a baseline knowledge about the CBA is important. There are two parts to this: knowing the rules themselves by keeping up to date on what the CBA actually says and being able to understand the nuances and figure out how stuff gets put together.”

Eric Pincus: “Like anything else, it takes a lot of time, a lot of work, a lot of networking, a lot of asking questions. Generally speaking, don’t assume you understand everything because there are so many qualifications that it’s so easy to get things wrong off the top of your head, even if you’re an expert. If someone asks me something, I don’t like to answer off the cuff; I try to give the question some thought and I may even look up certain things to answer it.”

NBA Capologist: “This is more general advice, but cast a wide net. I’m a fan of the shotgun approach when it comes to networking. Try to get in touch with as many people around the game of basketball as you can and try to learn from them. And if this is your dream and you decide to pursue it, getting an internship will be your first big step. Try to have some work that you can show people. If you’re just walking around saying, ‘I’m a cap expert,’ nobody is going to hire you. But if you have something to show a team, they’re much more likely to take a look. If you’re good at what you do, eventually you’ll get noticed by the right people.”

CAPOLOGISTS ARE BECOMING MORE COMMON

Bobby Marks: “I think [hiring capologists] is relatively new. When I started with the Nets, that wasn’t a position. We all did 10 different jobs and knowing the salary cap was one of them (laughs). We’re all different in terms of how we got in; I interned and basically self-taught myself that stuff. But there are also people who are lawyers and use their law background.

“I think every team is different in terms of how they do it. If you look at Indiana with Peter Dinwiddie, he’s the [senior vice president of basketball operations] but he’s also in charge of the finances of the basketball department besides managing the salary cap and he also scouts. There are teams that have multiple tasks [assigned to each executive]. Brooklyn is a little bit different. They have a strategic planning coordinator [Andrew Baker] and they also have Matt Tellem, who is their salary-cap guru and that is his prime focus. In Miami, Andy Elisburg started out as the “cap guy,” but now he’s branched out and does many other things as well [as senior vice president of basketball operations].”

NBA Capologist:More and more, the general manager’s duties are stretching them very thin. If you have specialists who are dedicated to a specific area, it just makes their job easier. They don’t have to worry about the day-to-day stuff, like entering in every single player contract and all of the details into whichever salary database that their team uses. They don’t have to study things quite as in-depth and they can rely on someone else to carry that weight.”

Bobby Marks: “I think all GMs have a general knowledge of the CBA. They have the cookie-cutter knowledge. But part of the general manager’s job is to manage and that’s why they hire specialists. If you’re the head of a hospital, you’re going to hire the best orthopedic surgeon, the best pediatrician and so on until you have everything covered.”

Larry Coon: “I think the sophistication of what I call ‘front-officery’ is steadily increasing. On the athletic end, they’ve been steadily improving things like training and scouting and health and player development for many years. I think this is just part and parcel with it. Teams are looking for any advantage that helps them succeed. Analytics is an example of that and [having a capologist] is an aspect of that as well. Yes, there has always been someone within the front office that knew the cap or they had outside counsel that knew the cap, but it was pretty caveman-ish. In the old days, things were less sophisticated.”

Coon has standing job offers from a number of NBA organizations, but he’s made it clear that he’s content doing NBA work on the side since he already has a great career as a computer scientist at the University of California, Irvine. In three years, he’ll retire with a pension that pays him 100 percent of his salary for life.

Teams have tried to hire him away, but the only way he’d give up that pension is if a team offers him more money (and that’s not realistic for a front-office position). With that said, he has consulted with many NBA teams and agencies. Some teams bring him in to teach a front office about the CBA, while others hire him to help with a specific cap issue.

MORE PEOPLE ARE LEARNING SALARY-CAP RULES

Eric Pincus: “With the proliferation of social media, it’s easier to communicate directly with the writers of the articles and even with team personnel at times (to a degree). Years ago, it was kind of the Wild West and nobody knew the rules or correct information. Reporters would rely primarily on their sources with the teams or they’d be communicating with someone in the team’s PR department. The reporter might ask about picks or salaries and maybe the team would provide the info, maybe they wouldn’t. But, by and large, PR people weren’t very well-versed in salary-cap minutiae, so there was a lot of misinformation out there – it was like a game of telephone. Fans didn’t know any of this stuff because they had no resources and many didn’t know how the rules worked.

“Then, you had Larry Coon put out the CBA FAQ and I think that started to inform the more dedicated reporters and fans who were interested in that sort of thing. Over time, I think people in the media became more informed and then they educated the fans. Now, fans can reach out to us directly and view the resources themselves. I think the NBA itself is actually grateful and happy that there’s a wider understanding of how it all works. It doesn’t do anyone any good when fans are clamoring for their favorite team to do something that’s against the rules. Celtics fans were clamoring for the team to trade for Anthony Davis while keeping Kyrie Irving, but they quickly realized that wasn’t allowed [since both signed designated-player extensions]. Well, 10-to-15 years ago, that kind of thing would be in the papers! Now, the fan bases are more intelligent because there’s way more access to the information.”

Larry Coon: “Hell yeah, fans are more well-versed than 10 years ago and way more well-versed than 20 years ago. When I got started, nobody knew what any of this stuff meant. There weren’t sites where people could converse like there are now… The specialization sites didn’t really exist; mine was one of the first ones. I decided I was going to take this niche area of basketball and describe it better. My feeling was that every fan is an armchair GM and while the rules of the game are well publicized, the rules of the front office – where the chess match really happens – and the rules of the season are only in the CBA and nobody understands them. That included the media, who either kept things vague or would say things that were contradictory.

“I made the CBA FAQ for three audiences: me, fans in general and media. Once the FAQ was out, if someone wrote something that was wrong, I’d gently write to them and point out [errors] and tell them about the FAQ and that they were free to use it. It was positively received, and the media’s knowledge of the rules got a lot better and they were able to educate the fans better. In addition to that, websites started popping up where groups of people could talk about this stuff and spread the information. The availability of [information] and the ability to converse about this stuff with like-minded people really increased everybody’s level of sophistication and knowledge of this. It’s not just the CBA either, it’s also advanced stats, how plays are run, etc. You can understand and enjoy the game at a different level.”

Bobby Marks: “I’ve gotten really good feedback [about my CBA content]. There are little things that are fun for the fans to know about. For example, I think the bonuses are fascinating. I wish the league would expand it to more than 15 percent of a player’s salary. Look at Kyle Lowry, who’s making an extra $500,000 because the Raptors advanced to the NBA Finals. Some of this stuff, it’s not easy [to understand]. ‘Why isn’t Giannis Antetokounmpo super-max eligible?’ Well, he is, but because of his years of service, he doesn’t qualify until next year. I think giving the English version to fans helps a lot.”

Larry Coon: “There’s been a lot of great feedback about the FAQ. I talked to one NBA team’s front office and they said that whenever they had a CBA question and they didn’t know the answer, they’d have one executive call the league office, one executive look in the CBA itself and one executive look in the CBA FAQ. They’d see who could come back with the answer first. You can tell the FAQ won by the fact that I continue to use this anecdote (laughs).”

 

Keep in mind that the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement changes every few years, which means capologists must memorize the new documents.

Larry Coon: “The current CBA may be the first time in history that the agreement got written up months in advance. Typically, they’d come up with a new agreement sometime after July 1. In good years, like in 2015, I believe it was resolved by July 3. In bad years, it really gets problematic and it takes a long time to get resolved – with 2011 being a great example of that. In 2011, they came up with the agreement and teams had to start doing business right away! That year, they got an agreement done by the skin of their teeth in time to open the season by Christmas, which was a huge motivator for obvious reasons. They cranked out the CBA and then teams had to start signing players right after, so they were learning it on the fly. That’s the worst-case scenario. But even in 2015, it was tough because they gave teams a new CBA on July 3 and then teams were still trying to learn it while they were signing players and making trades.

“In 2017, it was the other end of that spectrum – it was the best-case scenario. It may be the first-time ever they negotiated the CBA ahead of time and everybody had six full months to study it and understand it before it took effect. Because they had this extra time, the league was able to be extra careful and make this agreement much cleaner than past agreements. I mean, I’ve been pointing out problems to them since 1999 and this is the first agreement where they took the time to clean up a lot of those little problems.”

Bobby Marks: “The 2011 CBA – the one that they put together after the lockout – was a free-for-all (laughs). It changed dramatically and we were all trying to learn on the fly. The hard cap came into play. Different exceptions came into play. There were just a lot of different things that weren’t in the previous CBA. Plus, the lockout ended around Dec. 5 and they were like, “Okay, you can start signing guys on Dec. 14!” So we had around nine days to learn the CBA. I made mistakes. In New Jersey, we went from being a team that was under the salary cap in the summer of 2012 to a team that was paying the luxury tax. So we thought we could sign Mirza Teletovic to the full mid-level exception and then… Oops! We couldn’t do that. Now, we have to go back to him and say, “We can only offer you the tax mid-level – $10 million over three years.” This most-recent CBA was basically an amendment to the 2011 CBA.”

Eric Pincus: “Even if you feel you really know the CBA, it changes every couple of years so you have to re-learn it and adjust once those changes are made. You need to understand the economics of the league and project where the league is going. How many teams really understood what was going on in 2016 when they were making decisions based on what they expected the 2017 CBA to look like? It’s not that they were negligent and didn’t read it – you can’t read what’s not written! That’s why projecting the future is a key part of this job. Back in 2016, I spoke to two or three teams that really understood where the league was going and those teams are doing really well now. But the bulk of the league looked at it like the cost of doing business was just going up. The smarter teams viewed it as a bubble that was going to constrict soon after.

“My point is that when there’s a new CBA, you’re kind of operating on the fly. And when there’s a new CBA that follows a lockout, there’s no grace period. The best you can do is skim the document over the course of a weekend. I spoke to one person who locked themselves in a hotel room for two or three days to read the document, but that’s all the time they had to get familiar with the CBA. Some executives who are less savvy will only read the summary that the league puts out, which is a mistake. There was one team that made moves without thinking and suddenly realized they were hard-capped and couldn’t even field a roster for training camp, so they had to trade a first-rounder to dump a player just to get to a training-camp roster. This job is already hard enough without any self-inflicted wounds.”

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