Now more than ever, it pays to be a member of the NBA’s middle class.
Gary Harris of the Denver Nuggets recently became the latest example when it was learned that he and the Nuggets had negotiated a four-year, $84 million contract extension for him to remain with the team through the 2021-2022 season.
By nature of the collective bargaining agreement that governs the league’s economics, rookie salaries are fixed. On the other end of the spectrum are players like LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook. The fact that an individual maximum player salary ensures that there’s a ceiling on how much transcendent players can earn funnels money into the NBA’s middle class of players. The main reason for that is a little-discussed rule of the collective bargaining agreement that mandates that each team spend 90 percent of the league’s salary cap on its payroll.
In other words, the $99 million salary cap for the 2017-18 season means that, by rule, each team must spend $89 million on payroll for this coming season.
Indeed, it pays to be Gary Harris, just like it paid to be Tim Hardaway, Jr.
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As a rookie, Hardaway certainly had his high moments as a member of the Knicks. For whatever reason, though, the Phil Jackson-led front office decided that Jerian Grant was a better fit for the club and opted to move Hardaway to the Atlanta Hawks in a draft night deal that brought Grant to New York.
After spending his first two seasons in New York, Hardaway appeared to have grown appreciably in Atlanta. His game was marked by discipline and consistency and last season, he put up career-high per-game numbers across the board: 14.5 points, 2.8 rebounds and 2.3 assists on 45.5 percent shooting from the field. At just 25 years old, it appeared that Hardaway was on his way to accomplish greater things as a starting shooting guard in the league.
Eventually, the Knicks would sign Hardaway to a four-year, $71 million offer sheet that the Hawks opted to not match. He had become an important part of their team, but with front office changes, the trading of Dwight Howard and the front office’s refusal to meet All-Star Paul Millsap’s asking price, it was obvious that the Hawks were starting over.
Generally, there were two schools of thought as it related to Hardaway’s contract. Some called it the worst contract of the NBA offseason, while others felt that the deal was par for the course in what has become the NBA’s new economic era of $30-$40 million annual salaries.
If one were to look at things in the simplest of terms and without context, the following seems to make perfect sense: Player A is a 23-year-old guard coming off of his third pro season. He averaged 14.9 points, 3.1 rebounds and 2.9 assists on a team that failed to qualify for the playoffs, but one that has shown tremendous promise for the near future. He looked impressive in all 56 of his starts and shot a remarkable 42 percent from the three-point line.
Player B is 24-year-old shooting guard who has just completed his fourth year in the league. He has proven to be versatile and durable and is coming off of a year in which he averaged 13.8 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.5 assists. He shot just 39.9 percent from the field, but 35 percent from the three-point line. He is considered to be a standout defender at his position.
Player C is a 25-year-old shooting guard who is coming off of a career-best season and played a major role in his team qualifying for the playoffs. He has made strides defensively and has had a few clutch moments where he has thrived. His 14.5 points, 2.8 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game were much-needed in his team’s quest to qualify for the playoffs. And of the three, he’s the only one that can boast being on a postseason team.
On paper, and without context, each of the three players appear remarkably similar.
Player A is Gary Harris. Player B is Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Player C is Tim Hardaway, Jr.
While Harris and Hardaway each signed four-year deals, it should be noted that Harris’ begins next season, as this coming season is the final year of his rookie scale contract. He will earn $2.55 million this year before receiving his huge payday. It should also be noted that Harris’ contract is guaranteed for $74 million, with $10 million in incentives. NBA contracts contain what are referred to as “likely” and “unlikely” incentives. Let’s assume that Harris is able to earn half of the incentives, making his final contract worth $79 million, as opposed to the full $84 million.
In terms of their annual salary, Caldwell-Pope (“Player B”) will earn $20 million on average and Harris will earn $19.75 million while Hardaway will average $17.75 million.
Comparing the salaries of these three young shooting guards against the salaries of some of their predecessors isn’t necessarily an apples-to-apples comparison since guards that entered the league before didn’t enjoy the timely free agency as the salary cap spiked.
On paper, it’s easy to see why those that support the Hardaway signing and contract feel that, especially when compared to other players that appear to be somewhat comparable in talent, his deal represented fair market value. In this day and age, a starting-caliber shooting guard’s market price is between $15 million and $20 million per year.
While it’s easy to see this perspective, though, all things need to be taken in context, and that’s where those that opposed Hardaway’s signing get credence to their argument.
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Most front office executives would agree that a player’s salary isn’t as important as the amount of years that are committed to him. In the case of Caldwell-Pope, while he will earn $20 million this coming season, he is only under contract for this coming season. Therefore, as the Lakers look toward next season’s free agency class to jumpstart life after Kobe Bryant, he will have no impact on their ability to spend. With a four-year commitment to Hardaway, the Knicks can’t say the same.
With respect to Harris, although the Nuggets didn’t qualify for the playoffs last season, they won 40 games and finished just one game behind the Portland Trail Blazers for the eighth seed. Harris was a major part of that, but more importantly, he wasn’t re-signed by the team with any sort of belief that he would be the alpha. That designation rightfully belongs to one of the most gifted big men we have seen in quite some time, Nikola Jokic. Jokic was rejuvenated with the February trade of Jusuf Nurkic. It cleared space in the front court and allowed him to be the team’s featured player.
Harris was re-signed to serve as a secondary player to Jokic—a player who has shown early signs of being truly special.
Conversely, in New York, Hardaway was signed to a team that knew it was trading Carmelo Anthony and one that should have been trying its best to divest itself of all big money contracts in preparation for a multiyear rebuild.
Rather than adding Hardaway for four years and about $18 million per year, the Knicks could have been better served by looking for ways to clear money off of their books and use any available money under the cap to absorb unwanted contracts from other teams and help to facilitate trades. The Philadelphia 76ers made a habit of doing that under Sam Hinkie and often walked away from trades with a future draft pick to show. Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, this past offseason, general manager Sean Marks was able to absorb the contracts of both Allen Crabbe and DeMarre Carroll because the Blazers and Raptors each desperately needed to trim their payroll.
It would have been wise for the Knicks to operate in the same manner, especially since few believe that Hardaway is capable of being the difference between the Knicks being a team that merely fights for the playoffs, as opposed to one that has a chance to be a contender.
Both viewpoints are reasonable. The fairest conclusion to draw would probably be that Hardaway’s four-year, $71 million contract isn’t a bad contract, per se. In context, it just happened to be a bad contract for the Knicks.
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In the end, Hardaway will have every opportunity to live up to the expectations that his contract yield. As the Knicks embark on their long rebuild, the team will rely upon the draft and a few wise free agent signings to bring them back to respectability.
Whether you love the Hardaway contract or hate it, from a monetary standpoint, it represents fair value.
Gary Harris and the Nuggets just helped to reinforce that point.
Fixing The Detroit Pistons
David Yapkowitz looks at how the fading Pistons can turn things around moving forward.
We wrap this week up with another installment of our “Fixing” series here at Basketball Insiders. The next team up is the Detroit Pistons.
The Pistons came into this season with playoff aspirations after a disappointing 2016-17 campaign that saw them regress instead of building on their playoff appearance the season before. To begin the season, they looked like they were on their way to accomplishing that objective. Then Reggie Jackson got hurt and the season began spiraling out of control.
They tried to inject some life into the team by trading for Blake Griffin, but it hasn’t worked out as expected. The Pistons have gone 8-12 since acquiring Griffin and the postseason looks like a pipe dream at this point.
What Is Working
Not a whole lot. Despite trading for a superstar player, the Pistons have tumbled down to the point where playoffs are looking extremely unlikely.
If there’s one thing that’s a welcome sight, it’s the bounce back of Andre Drummond. After being named to his first All-Star team in 2015-16, Drummond had a bit of a let down the following season. This season, he was once again an All-Star while putting up career-highs in rebounds (15.7) and assists (3.2). Drummond is still only 24 years old and has his best basketball years ahead of him.
The Pistons have also received encouraging signs from rookie Luke Kennard. A lottery pick in last summer’s draft, Kennard he’s been one of the few bright spots at times for the Pistons. About a week ago, his playing time had diminished some and he racked up a few DNP’s, but Stan Van Gundy has since reinserted him into the rotation.
They’ve also gotten solid production out of Reggie Bullock. When Bullock came over to the Pistons in a trade with the Phoenix Suns almost three years ago, he was little more than a seldom-used wing with the potential to become a solid 3&D guy. This has been his year, however. He’s the best shooter on the team at 43.5 percent from the three-point line. His numbers, 10.8 points per game and 49.1 percent shooting from the field, are career-highs.
What Needs To Change
Quite a bit. Acquiring Griffin was a move the Pistons needed to make. On the verge of losing control of the season, they needed to make a move to try and turn things around. It’s been a disaster thus far, however. They are 2-8 in their last 10 games and although they’re in ninth place, they’re falling farther and farther away from eighth.
Who the Pistons are really missing is Reggie Jackson. Ish Smith, who has proven himself beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is an NBA player, just isn’t Jackson. They desperately need Jackson’s playmaking abilities to help take the pressure off everyone else. Even if he returns this season, it’s already too late. The Pistons need to focus on getting him healthy and ready for next season.
The Pistons also need to improve their offense. They’re in the bottom half of the league in both points per game (25th) and offensive rating (24th). A big part of that is Jackson’s absence, but they could also benefit from additional outside shooting. Right now they have one long-range threat on the roster and that’s Bullock.
Focus Area: The Draft
To make matters worse, the Pistons will likely give up their draft pick to the Los Angeles Clippers as part of the Griffin trade. The only way the Clippers wouldn’t acquire the Pistons’ pick this year is if it falls in the top four, and that’s not going to happen.
The Pistons will have a second-round pick though. The draft is never 100 percent guaranteed, and the second round is even more of a crapshoot, but talented players can definitely be found. That’s what the Pistons’ main objective in the draft should be. It sounds silly, but they truly need to buckle down and do their homework in hopes of finding that one overlooked guy in the second round. That’s pretty much all they have to look forward to come draft night.
Focus Area: Free Agency
The Pistons are going to have a couple of minor decisions to make this summer regarding their free agents. Jameer Nelson, James Ennis, and Anthony Tolliver are all unrestricted free agents. Out of the three, Ennis has given the team the best on-court production, but it isn’t necessary that any of them are brought back.
Bullock and Dwight Buycks have non-guaranteed contracts, and those are the two guys that the Pistons should work towards bringing back in the fold. Both should have their contracts guaranteed for the following season. Bullock is their only three-point threat. Buycks began the season as a two-way contract player splitting time between the Pistons and the Grand Rapids Drive of the G-League. He’s since been converted to a standard NBA contract and has done enough to earn his spot on the team next year.
In terms of adding new players to the roster, as mentioned before, the Pistons need outside shooting. Marco Belinelli and Wayne Ellington are possible options that the Pistons might be able to afford. Joe Harris is another option, but it will be interesting to see what the market is for him after the strong season he’s been having in Brooklyn.
It’s tough to gauge the Pistons’ true potential without Jackson. If he returns before the season ends, it will be too small a sample size to accurately assess the team. There are only 14 games left. Although things look pretty bleak right now, it can’t be argued that injuries haven’t played a big role in the Pistons disappointing season.
The team deserves a shot at seeing how a healthy Jackson, Griffin, and Drummond trio looks on the court together. If they start off next season the same way despite all three being healthy and in the lineup, then it would be time for serious changes.
Fixing The Chicago Bulls
Spencer Davies says the Bulls have a long way to go, but they’re taking steps forward. In year one without the former face of the franchise, that’s about all they can ask for.
Next up on Basketball Insiders’ “fixing” series is a stop in the Windy City.
In spite of the criticisms over last summer’s Jimmy Butler trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves, it feels like the Chicago Bulls at least have a sense of direction. Many members of the media—including this one—expected them to finish dead last in the NBA, yet they have 23 wins, with seven other teams worse off.
Obviously, the goal for the organization this season was to establish an identity and see what they had with their new cornerstone pieces. To a good extent, there’s optimism regarding those players because of the potential they’ve shown.
There’s still a good chunk of the year left, but the Bulls are 12th in the Eastern Conference standings with 15 games to go.
What Is Working
If it weren’t for the spectacular seasons by Donovan Mitchell and Ben Simmons, Chicago stretch big man Lauri Markkanen might be the Rookie of the Year. Even with some second-half struggles, the entire body of work is impressive.
The 7-foot Finnish forward continues to stay aggressive with a high usage and great mentality in snatching up those boards. It’s normal for a first-year player to go through those ups and downs. Add in a back injury that’s been bothering him as of late and the slump make a little more sense. Markkanen has shown the skill and consistent effort that it takes to be a mainstay in this league.
Bobby Portis is another member of the frontcourt who’s made a noticeable impact off the Bulls’ bench. In his third year, you can see the confidence continue to grow as a versatile offensive threat with a ton of touches. He’s taken a responsibility upon himself to lead the second unit and the proof is in the pudding. According to Cleaning The Glass, the team is a net plus-11.5 per 100 possessions with him on the court.
Second-year swingman Denzel Valentine has filled the stat sheet in multiple games as one of the most unselfish players on the roster. David Nwaba’s role from the beginning was to be a defensive menace and he’s come through for the majority of the year. Even two-way contract rookie Antonio Blakeney has shown flashes as a volume scorer in stretches.
Recently, Chicago has given a couple of cast-offs opportunities to display their skills. In 10 games, Cameron Payne looks as comfortable as he has in quite some time coming off a major foot injury. Noah Vonleh has been an effective late addition playing next to Portis and filling in for Markkanen. Let’s not forget that these two were lottery picks and are still in their early 20s.
What Needs To Change
Looking at what Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine have done, it’s been a mixed bag. With that being said, there’s clearly untapped potential between the both of them.
Dunn proved in very little time that the narrative of him being a lost cause was far from the truth. Hoiberg’s trust in him to be Chicago’s floor general has gone a long way. He’s been in attack mode with the ball in his hands, has seen his outside game get better and has been bothersome with his length defensively. It hasn’t resulted in wins, but remember—it’s this group’s first season together.
As for LaVine, it’s difficult to judge where a player is using a 23-game sample size. Yes, it’s a good amount of playing time, but let’s not forget he’s coming off a devastating left ACL tear. His defense has been subpar, but the bounce seems to still be there. The jumper is on and off, but he hasn’t been bashful at all. Starting the year off fresh in 2018-19 will benefit him.
Speaking of next season, the goal for the front office of Gar Forman and John Paxson should be simple—get younger. Currently, Robin Lopez is the highest paid player on the Bulls and he’ll have one year left on his deal going into the summer. The same applies to Justin Holiday. These are two veterans who could contribute on teams ready to win now, and it would be logical to part ways considering the direction the franchise is going.
Focus Area: The Draft
Due to the Nikola Mirotic trade on February 1st, Chicago acquired a first-round draft pick from the New Orleans Pelicans. That gives them two chances to add to their young talent pool in the upcoming 2018 NBA Draft.
Typically you’d go with the best player available when you’re slotted in the top ten, but the Bulls should feel good about their backcourt and the power forward position. What they really are lacking are reliable shooters and perimeter defenders, as well as a player with a bulldog mentality.
Chicago doesn’t get to the free throw nearly enough and they don’t convert looks that they should. Considering a true wing is amiss, it’d be the ideal scenario for Michael Porter Jr. to fall right into their lap. The Missouri freshman just returned after missing basically the entire season with a back injury. He was a top name coming into the class because of his size and could be a steal with the eighth selection.
If Porter Jr. doesn’t make it to them, Miles Bridges would make for a heck of a consolation prize. Unlike Porter, he has a more muscular frame at 6-foot-7, 230 pounds that allows him to bully the opposition. There’s a relentless nature and fearlessness about him that will translate to the next level.
Using that Pelicans pick, the Bulls would be happy to see Duke sharpshooter Gary Trent Jr. fall to them in the early-to-mid 20s, but that seems more unlikely with Anthony Davis continuing to carry New Orleans to new heights. If they end up selecting towards to the back end of the first round, Arizona junior guard Allonzo Trier could end up being a good fit as well.
Focus Area: Free Agency
Entering the summer, Chicago doesn’t have too many decisions to make on the contract front.
The trade exception from the Butler deal expires on June 22nd. If it’s not used by then, the amount will be renounced if the team goes under the salary cap. The deadline to present Noah Vonleh and David Nwaba a qualifying offer is June 29th.
Everybody’s going to keep an eye on LaVine because of restricted free agency, but the Bulls have indicated they prefer him to be a part of their core. They’ll in all likelihood look to bring him back on a long-term contract. If he doesn’t approve of the terms, he can always choose to play on his qualifying offer and bet on himself.
Chicago has to decide whether or not to guarantee Paul Zipser’s $1.5 million salary for next season by July 18th. The extension deadline for Payne, Portis, and Grant is the day before the first day of the 2018 campaign and team option deadlines for Dunn and Markannen come on Halloween.
There probably won’t be too much activity on the Bulls’ part regarding free agency. The focus will lay on improving their young core and getting guys who are just getting on the upswing in the pros. There are talents out there who fit the bill. It just all depends on what comes from the draft.
All in all, Chicago has a long way to go to get back into the postseason conversation, but they’re taking steps forward. In year one without the former face of the franchise, that’s about all you can ask for.
NBA Daily: 76ers’ Ben Simmons Enters Rarefied Air
Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons passed Magic Johnson for second in rookie triple-doubles.
As the Philadelphia 76ers continued their playoff push with a come-from-behind victory over the woebegone New York Knicks Thursday, rookie Ben Simmons joined some NBA legends in the record book. With his eighth triple-double of the season, Simmons passed Magic Johnson for second all-time in triple-doubles among rookies. According to ESPN’s Ian Begley, Simmons is only the third rookie to record 1000 points, 500 rebounds, and 500 assists.
After the win over the Knicks, Simmons told reporters that the process for him has been to disregard the expectations thrust upon him as a scorer and focus on his ability to contribute in a variety of ways.
“I try not to get carried away with what people say,” said Simmons. “People want me to be a scorer or a player that I’m not right now. I can score the ball, but I can also rebound and pass the ball. I’d rather do that and do what I’m pretty good at than force things.”
Simmons was clearly aware of the gravity of what he had accomplished in the postgame locker room. He spoke with reverence of the legendary players his name will always be associated with, including Oscar Robertson, whose record of 26 triple-doubles as a rookie may never be challenged.
“It’s surreal knowing the game’s been played for a long time,” said Simmons. “So many greats have been through. I’ve set a record with Magic and Oscar Robertson, which is surreal to me.”
Before the game, Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek described how Simmons’ combination of size, speed, and court vision make him especially difficult to guard.
“He’s got the speed, he’s got those long strides and he’s got the vision as a passer to pick you apart,” said Hornacek. “You’ve got to kind of collapse and kind of create a wall to not let him get in [the paint], but then he goes ahead and throws it out to the shooters that they have on his team.”
Begley also quoted 76ers coach Brett Brown during the pregame discussing how Simmons’ assignment to the point guard position was debated within the organization.
“I’m so pleased that the organization, he, the coaching staff, had the courage to try him as a point guard,” said Brown. “Because, let’s face it, that was highly scrutinized.”
It seems it was the right decision, as Simmons’ 507 assists easily leads all rookies. Lakers point guard Lonzo Ball is second with 325 while Dallas’ Dennis Smith follows with 289, De’Aaron Fox of the Kings has 262 and fellow Rookie of the Year candidate Donovan Mitchell of the Jazz has 236. Simmons leads the 76ers with 7.7 assists per game and is third in scoring with 16.2 points, trailing leading scorer Joel Embiid (23.6) and veteran shooting guard J.J. Redick (16.6). His 7.8 rebounds per game trails only Embiid (10.9) for the team lead.
The 76ers are currently sixth in the Eastern Conference, but could easily move up with only three of its final 15 games coming against teams in playoff position. Philadelphia trails the third-seed Pacers by a mere two games, so home court advantage in the first round is definitely in play. Meanwhile, Simmons said at a practice over the weekend that he hasn’t experienced a rookie wall.
“I don’t think there’s a wall,” said Simmons. “I wake up every morning and I love what I do. You’re going to have great games and you’re going to have some bad games, but that just comes with it.”
With history notched into his belt and no signs of slowing with the playoffs looming, Simmons’ All-Star snub could look even more ridiculous as time passes. Magic posted an eerily-similar 18 points, 7.3 assists and 7.7 rebounds per game as a Lakers rookie. He was an All-Star starter and became the first rookie to be named NBA Finals MVP.