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.
NBA Daily: What Is The Hurry To Deal Leonard?
The San Antonio Spurs don’t seem any closer to a Kawhi Leonard trade than they were in mid-June. The real question is, what is the rush to make a deal?
What’s The Hurry?
The San Antonio Spurs and disgruntled forward Kawhi Leonard don’t seem any closer to a resolution today than they were back in mid-June when ESPN’s Chris Haynes dropped the bomb that Leonard no longer trusted the Spurs and wanted out.
While it seems fairly clear that Leonard is going to be dealt, the artificial sense of urgency from the outside doesn’t seem to be bothering the Spurs, as word in NBA circles is they continue to listen to offers but don’t seem anywhere close to making a decision. That can always change.
There are a few things that have started to leak out about the situation worth talking about, and some of it shouldn’t be all that surprising.
Kawhi Wants His Own Team
It is a common belief among fans that players should covet the chance to compete for a championship even if it means checking their own egos at the door. What’s become clear in this Leonard saga is that he has way more ego and bigger individual goals than anyone might have thought a year ago.
According to a source close to Leonard for a number of years, Leonard has always coveted his own team. He wants the chance to be the focal point on a group built around him. The idea that Leonard would openly welcome being second or third fiddle seemed unlikely to this source, which brings into question how seriously Leonard would pursue the chance to play with LeBron James in LA as a Laker.
There have been reports already suggesting that Leonard may not want the sidekick role with the Lakers, and that seems to line up with things sources were saying in Las Vegas last week.
If Leonard truly doesn’t want to share the spotlight with a bigger star, that could make this whole process a lot more interesting.
Kawhi Is Leaving A Lot of Guaranteed Money
Leonard became extension-eligible yesterday, reaching the third-year anniversary of his current contract. Because Leonard has made All-NBA in two of the past three seasons, he became eligible for what’s been commonly dubbed the “Supermax” contract extension, which would allow him to jump into the 35 percent of the salary cap max contract tier.
Based on the current cap, that extension could be worth as much as $221 million if he signs this summer. That money is only available to Leonard if he stays with the Spurs and gives him almost $30 million more money than he could receive becoming a free agent in July, even if he is traded to a new team that could obtain his Bird Rights.
While some have suggested that Leonard could make up some of that money being in a bigger market, it’s hard to imagine that he’s gaining $30 million more than his current marketing value, especially given his reclusive personality.
If by some miracle the Spurs and Leonard do reach an extension agreement, he would be untradable for one year from the date of his extension, so the idea of giving it one more year in order to salvage the contract money isn’t out of the question. The question becomes, would the Spurs do it without a full-throated pledged to be a Spur for the duration of the deal?
Lakers And Sixers Seem To Have Lost Interest
ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, on a recent ESPN podcast, suggested that the Lakers and the Sixers may have taken themselves out of the race for Leonard after making what most insiders believe was their best efforts to secure Leonard in trade. According to sources near both situations, the Spurs simply listened and didn’t really openly engage in negotiations sort of ended things where they started.
That’s not to say either team couldn’t jump back into the fray; there is a sense in NBA circles that the Lakers simply won’t give away the farm for Leonard, knowing they could be the favorite to sign him outright next July, so why give up too much?
The 76ers pursuit of Leonard was more about going all in, but only to a point. The 76ers were said to be reluctant to include Markell Fultz in a deal for Leonard, and that they were equally unwilling to let trade talks derail their upcoming season.
Are The Raptors The front Runners?
In the same podcast, Windhorst suggested that with the Lakers and Sixers likely bowing out, the Toronto Raptors may have jumped into the driver’s seat on a Leonard trade.
That would line up with the notion of the Raptors wanting to do something aggressive to better match up with Boston, and potentially clear some cap space should it not work out. It’s unclear exactly what the Raptors would be offering San Antonio to cement a deal, but they have no shortage of young promising players and a few proven All-Stars in DeMar DeRozan and/or Kyle Lowry that could be the centerpiece of a deal.
League sources said as many as eight teams started doing due diligence on Leonard after the NBA draft, and there was a growing sense that teams other than the Lakers were willing to pony up for a shot at Leonard, even in a rental.
The hope on a Leonard trade is similar to what played out in Oklahoma City with Paul George: that Leonard lands in a new environment and falls in love with the situation enough to commit long-term. There is clearly a risk in that thinking, but it seems several teams were at least open to the idea.
Training Camp Is The Real Deadline
While most of the basketball world has “Kawhi Fatigue” and simply wants it over already, the truth is the Spurs have a much longer runway.
The next milestone opens next week when Team USA opens mini-camp in Las Vegas. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is set to coach the men’s Senior Nation Team, and Leonard is among the 35 players selected to compete for a shot at the 2020 Olympic squad.
There has been talk that Leonard may opt not to attend until his situation is resolved, which would make the optics of the situation that much worse. There are many in the NBA that believe the Spurs are waiting to see if time together in Las Vegas might bridge the gaps between Popovich and Leonard, so how both handle the Team USA camp is worth watching.
While the outcome of a few days in Las Vegas likely won’t seal a deal, either way, the real window for a deal is the week of training camp in late September. That’s when things will start to get ugly and real for both the Spurs and Leonard. Neither are going to want to open camp with this situation hanging over their heads, so that’s the real date to watch.
The New York Knicks and Carmelo Anthony had a similar situation last year; it came to a resolution literally the day training camp opened, despite weeks and weeks of trade talks.
It may take exactly that long for the Spurs to finally agree to their own deal, so don’t expect closure quickly. There isn’t anything motivating a decision, beyond everyone being ready for it to be over already.
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NBA Daily: Jaren Jackson Jr. Adapting As He Goes
Memphis Grizzlies rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. has put on a show this summer. Spencer Davies dives into what’s been behind the success and how it bodes well for the future.
Meeting Jaren Jackson Jr. for the first time, you won’t find an ounce of doubt in him.
Instead, you’ll be introduced to a high-spirited man oozing with charisma and an obvious love for the game of basketball, which likely factored into why the Memphis Grizzlies were so keen on taking him with the fourth overall pick in the NBA Draft.
Then there’s the big reason—quite literally—that came into play. Standing at 6-foot-11 with over a 7-foot-5 wingspan and hands that are the size of most people’s heads, Jackson Jr. is the term “matchup problem” personified.
We’re seeing the evidence in front of our very eyes already. In eight summer league games between Utah and Las Vegas, the versatile Jackson Jr. is averaging 12.9 points and seven rebounds. He is shooting 41.3 percent from the field and has knocked down half of his attempts (14-for-28) from beyond the arc.
It didn’t take long for the JJJ bandwagon to get established. In his first taste of NBA action against the Atlanta Hawks in Salt Lake City, he scored 29 points and cashed in on eight triples to kick off July. He hasn’t tried more than four perimeter shots since then, but he’s been plenty busy doing other things just as important on the floor.
“I think I’m surprised by how well I’ve been doing,” a smiling, candid Jackson Jr. said. “You’re surprised at yourself sometimes, especially like the first game.”
You can look at these aforementioned offensive stats and take them with a grain of salt since the level of competition is a step below what the real professional ranks bring to the table. However, seeing the anticipation, reaction time, and natural awareness on the defensive end makes the lengthy forward a true gem of a prospect.
In all but one game thus far, Jackson Jr. has recorded multiple rejections every time he’s stepped foot on the court, including two occasions where he swatted four shots. It’s added up to an average of 3.3 blocks per contest to this point.
So since the outside potential, the athleticism and the rim protection are all there, what else is there to hone in on?
“I think just my aggressiveness,” Jackson Jr. said. “Making sure I play tougher, go harder longer. And my shooting…kind of—make sure I get my form right and all that stuff.”
Adjusting to a new pace at the next level can take some time. It depends on how fast of a learner a player is and how quickly that person can apply that knowledge in a game setting. Jackson Jr. thinks he’s started to pick it up as he’s gone along.
“It’s getting a lot better,” he said. “It’s a lot more spacing so it’s pretty cool. But they’re definitely stronger and faster players, so you have to adapt to that.”
Thanks to contributions from Jackson Jr.—in addition to Jevon Carter and Kobi Simmons—the Grizzlies have had loads of success in Sin City. They are one of the final four teams standing as summer league play wraps up in a day.
Whether the result goes in the favor of Memphis or not, the last couple of weeks in Las Vegas have impacted Jackson Jr. in a positive manner in more ways than one as a student of the game—and he’ll be better off because of it.
“It’s been cool,” Jackson Jr. said. “It’s a lot of stuff going on. It seems like more of an event when you’re here as far as watching it on TV over the years. You get like a new historic player sitting on the sideline every day talking to people. You meet people in your hotel. Bunch of stuff like that. It’s been a good experience just having everybody here before we all leave and go to our own cities.
“I kinda went into it [with a] clear head. I didn’t really didn’t want to put too much into it ‘cause I’m learning everything new. Everything is new. Being a rookie, everything’s gonna be a new thing.”
As the youngest player in his draft class at 18 years old, Jackson Jr. has a ways to go to familiarize himself with the NBA.
But by the looks of things, the NBA had better prepare to familiarize itself with him as well.
NBA Daily: Antonio Blakeney Hoping For A Big 2nd Year
After an impressive rookie stint, Antonio Blakeney gives us a tale of hope and potential.
The Chicago Bulls are in the midst of a rebuilding project. This summer, they held on to one of their key young players in Zach LaVine and drafted two guys in Wendell Carter Jr. and Chandler Hutchinson whom they’re hoping can be part of that rebuild.
But there might be one player on the roster already who could play a big role in the team’s future. A year ago, Antonio Blakeney used a big summer league performance in Las Vegas to earn a two-way contract with the Bulls.
This time around, with his NBA future a little more secure, he’s working on becoming more familiar with the team.
“Just learning and getting better,” Blakeney told Basketball Insiders his goals are. “Obviously being able to play through my mistakes, go out here and learn and get familiar with the coaching staff. Keep building our relationship with the coaches and stuff.”
Blakeney went undrafted last summer after declaring for the draft following two years at LSU. He lit up Las Vegas to the tune of 16.8 points in four games before the Bulls signed him. Under the two-way contract, he split time between Chicago and the Windy City Bulls, their G-League affiliate.
His summer success carried over to the G-League where he exploded on the scene averaging 32 points per game and being named the G-League Rookie of the Year. Being shuffled back and forth between leagues was a bit of an adjustment for Blakeney, but it was an experience he ended up learning a lot from.
“It was an up and down roller coaster from the NBA to the G-League and stuff like that. Starting in summer league, going to the big team, going to camp, preseason games and going to the G-League. It was an up and down experience,” Blakeney said.
“Overall, it was great. I think I learned a lot in the G-League. A lot of rookies play in the G-League now. Going down there it’s kind of tough. For some guys, the travel is different. It’s just staying motivated and working hard.”
It’s no secret that Blakeney can put up points in a hurry, as he was the Tigers third-leading scorer his freshman year behind Ben Simmons and Keith Hornsby with 12.6 points per game. His sophomore year, he led the Tigers in scoring with 17.2 points.
He knows though that he’ll have to be able to do other things if he wants to stick in the NBA. While he’s been lighting up the stat sheet scoring wise this summer in Vegas, he’s been working on other aspects of his game. He’s been charged by the Bulls summer league coaching staff with initiating the offense.
“Obviously I got to be a combo. I got to be able to move over to the one and make plays and stuff like that. So just working on making that simple play,” Blakeney said. “Obviously, I’m a natural scorer so I’m not really a pass-first guy, but I’m more when the simple play presents itself, to make it.”
While his future may be more secure, the majority of the guys in summer league don’t have that luxury. The two-way contract Blakeney signed last summer was for two years and based on his play this summer, it would be shocking to see the Bulls let him go.
For his summer teammates who don’t have that security, he understands what they’re going through. Having been in that situation a year ago, he’s got plenty of advice for them.
“Just go work hard, learn from the veteran guys, but compete,” Blakeney said. “Go at the guys that’s supposed to be the best. If you think you’re that good, go at guys. Just compete, that’s the main thing I did, I just competed.”
And although nothing is ever guaranteed in the NBA, especially regular rotation minutes, Blakeney is confident that he can be a regular contributor. The league is filled with guys who come off the bench and provide instant offense. He knows if, given the opportunity, he can do that too.
“I think next season my goal is to try to crack the rotation and just be a guy who brings energy off the bench,” Blakeney said. “I can get buckets fast, get it going, bring energy and get buckets off the bench, just do my thing. That’s something that in my young career I’m trying to get in to.”
He’s certainly off to a good start.