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An Inside Look at NBA “Capologists”

Alex Kennedy of HoopsHype interviews a quartet of salary cap experts on the ins and outs of the league’s most confusing document.

NBA: Playoffs-Houston Rockets at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

In popular conception, NBA trade conversations involve two parties, the respective franchises involved in negotiations. Basketball aficionados and experts will tell you that’s one party short. Every trade requires the agreement of three, minimum: Team A, Team B, and the NBA Salary Cap.

The prominence of the large and complex Collective Bargaining Agreement (and its attendant cap rules) has given rise to a hidden, but crucial, type of executive, the “capologist”. Last week Alex Kennedy of HoopsHype went behind the scenes with a few of the league’s cap wizards, asking what they do and how this trade process really works.

Casual observers assume that capologists clear trades that General Managers suggest. According to Kennedy;s interviewees, reality is often the other way around. One anonymous capologist related:

“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.’”

The same capologist reviews the detail work inherent in trade negotiations:

“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.

The article gives a rundown of trade procedures, which operate with precision, before addressing the elephant in the room: the CBA itself isn’t always clear; interpretations are made on the fly. The anonymous capologist expands on Rudy Gobert’s eligibility for a supermax contract and John Wall’s trade kicker, both oddball situations:

“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.”

Kennedy’s article is extensive and worth a read for all armchair GM’s and NBA executive aspirants.