2014 NBA Free Agents: Who Could Cash in After 2014 Finals Performances?

D.J. Foster@@fosterdjContributor IJune 16, 2014

May 8, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) celebrates a score with forward Boris Diaw (33) against the Portland Trail Blazers in game two of the second round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

When it comes to a player increasing his value with a strong effort in the NBA Finals, it's not solely about performing well on the biggest and brightest stage. There's also some recency bias that factors in, even if NBA general managers try to avoid it.

When it comes down to something like, say, San Antonio Spurs guard Patty Mills or Chicago Bulls guard D.J. Augustin, teams may value Mills higher because his hot shooting display is fresh in the mind. Augustin had some great games, to be sure, but those are buried away in the memory. 

That's not to say it's a huge factor, but even the tiniest of differences can earn a player a few extra million in free agency. It also doesn't hurt to have that championship glow either. Winning a ring tends to lend credence to the idea you're a wise, experienced player. It boosts your value, any way you slice it.

So which players in the 2014 Finals stand to gain the most financially this offseason? Let's take a look.


Patty Mills

Patty Mills has come a long way in just the course of a year, as Paul Flannery of SB Nation examined here:

The team is in decent shape cap-wise, but Boris Diaw, Matt Bonner and Patty Mills will all be free agents this summer and Kawhi Leonard will be eligible for an extension. Mills is having a breakout season, going from towel-waving bench mascot to invaluable backup point guard, and he will attract a lot of attention in a thin free agent point guard class.

While the point guard class is indeed thin, there will be players who rank ahead of Mills who will occupy the few potential starting spots available around the league. Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry is an unrestricted free agent who will be hotly pursued, and Sacramento Kings guard Isaiah Thomas has the potential to be stolen away with a big offer sheet.

After those two players, though, you could certainly argue that Mills is the next-best option, even if he's more of a shooter and scorer than a true point guard. Truthfully, Mills is currently in the ideal role for his skills, which isn't all that surprising given that he's playing under Gregg Popovich.

Patty Mills averaged 19.5 points per 36 minutes this season. I'd love to see what he would do as a starter.

— Kevin Pelton (@kpelton) June 16, 2014

It's very well possible that Mills thinks he's right at home in his current role in San Antonio, given what he told Roy Ward of the Sidney Morning Herald:

The support has been great all year. The community of San Antonio has been great, you know how important you guys are to us. You're a part of this win, as much as anyone.

I can't tell you how nice and genuine the people of San Antonio are ... it reminds me a lot of Australia.

Mills will undoubtedly have suitors trying to take him away regardless. His energy is infectious, he harasses ball-handlers and takes charges, and his perimeter shooting alone make him worthy of playing time on every roster. 

As an unrestricted free agent this offseason, the 25-year-old pint-sized guard will likely have a choice. The ceiling for his next deal should be the mid-level exception (around $5.5 million a year), as he'll most likely be sought after primarily as a sixth man.

Would it be worth it for Mills to stay put in San Antonio on a deal similar to the one Danny Green signed in 2012? Something in the range of three years and $12 million total?

That would be passing up the $4 million or so in total salary he earned over the course of a great season and an even better Finals performance, but that money probably means less than the comfort level he has in San Antonio's system and the chance to continue winning rings. 

San Antonio could probably pay Mills more than that, but it doesn't need to. Players take discounts to stay there all the time, and Mills probably won't be an exception.


Boris Diaw

Ardent supporters of Diaw's all-around game, even through the rough times of his career, were rewarded tenfold with his brilliant performance in the Finals. Diaw defended LeBron James well in last year's Finals loss to the Miami Heat, but this time around, he brought out the full arsenal.

Before Kawhi Leonard exploded with another huge game, it wasn't out of the question to consider Diaw for Finals MVP. No one looked more at home offensively with the ball zipping around the court, and it was often Diaw's sweet interior passing or kick-outs to open three-point shooters that broke the back of the Heat. 

Diaw actually led the Spurs in assists in the Finals, tallying 5.8 a game to go along with 6.2 points and 8.6 rebounds. At times, he often possessed the biggest mismatch on the floor, as Miami looked unsure who to guard him with or how to stop him from picking apart the defense.

This was the perfect series for Diaw, and he certainly shined. The question now is how many teams will look to add the free-agent forward to their roster? 

Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney broke it down:

The 32-year-old forward is in a position to command more than the $4.1 million he made this season, and the Spurs — who have a tidy cap sheet — may be in a position to oblige him.

Determining Diaw’s market value, however, is tricky.

A big man with his playmaking abilities could be useful in many contexts, but because of a well-honed system predicated on ball movement and spacing, San Antonio is suited to maximize those talents in a way that other teams are not. Otherwise, Diaw isn’t a rim protector, doesn’t pile up rebounds (he averaged just 5.9 per 36 minutes this season) and rarely acts as a concerted scorer. How much is a player like that worth to any team that isn’t the Spurs?

Mahoney's point is a sound one, and we've seen this happen in the past. Teams assume that the "rescued" talents of the Spurs won't perform well in a different system, and so the Spurs happily bring those players back and keep rolling along. 

But will the rest of the league wake up? Power forwards simply have to be able to pass in today's game with the way teams are defending the pick-and-roll, and Diaw does that as well as any other big man in the league. He has his faults, for certain, but it's a copycat league and getting Diaw could at least start a team in the direction of playing more unselfish basketball.

For that reason, Diaw might not go as unopposed as someone like Mills.

Still, though, it's his decision on where to sign, and Diaw has played in the depths of basketball hell before when he toiled away on the Charlotte Bobcats. If anyone is going to take him from the Spurs, they better have a much bigger offer and a championship-caliber team.

Even then, Diaw doesn't seem like much of a flight risk. Tony Parker is a lifelong friend and teammate on the French national team, and so the front office won't let him go without a fight, even if Diaw was tempted elsewhere by a big offer in the range of $7-8 million annually. 

With his contributions all over the floor, you could argue that Diaw is certainly worth that much, even if he was the first big off the bench. It seems more likely, however, that Diaw gets a slight bump in salary from his deal this year ($4.7 million) but stays right below the mid-level exception ($5.5 million), which is the most capped-out contenders could offer anyhow.

Something along the lines of three years, $16 million seems plenty fair for both sides.


Kawhi Leonard

Here's the tough one. Leonard is the 2014 Finals MVP (still seems weird, doesn't it?) and the youngest to accomplish that feat since Magic Johnson. He's 22 years old and still has plenty of room to grow, which is scary for the rest of the league.

Here's Mahoney at Sports Illustrated with more on Leonard:

This summer marks San Antonio’s first chance to extend Leonard’s rookie-scale contract. (If no agreement is reached, Leonard would become a restricted free agent in July 2015.) No player is more important to the Spurs’ future than Leonard.

Even if he lacks the skills as a shot creator to function as a traditional star, his intuition, developmental curve and fill-the-gaps game make him one of the league’s most intriguing players. One could easily argue that Leonard deserves the max, with Paul George’s lucrative extension with the Pacers serving as a template.

The San Antonio Spurs shouldn't want Leonard to hit restricted free agency in 2015. Teams will be licking their chops for a young wing with the potential to be great on both ends, and he'd be a lock for a max deal coming off his rookie-scale contract.

The Spurs know that and so does Leonard's camp. Now the battle will be to convince Leonard to leave money on the table, as Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker once did, in order to keep a quality supporting cast around him for the future.

Is that Leonard's responsibility to do that? No. If the market dictates that he's worth a max deal, he has every right to secure a max deal. It's much harder to take less money when you haven't made the millions and millions Duncan, Ginobili and Parker did. Leonard is going to make just $2.8 million next year. It's a completely different situation.

Still, it's not out of the question that Leonard takes a lesser deal. In a perfect world, which is the one San Antonio seems to reside in right now, Leonard would extend without any hassle this offseason. 

There are two things to consider here, though.

The first is the "Derrick Rose Rule" extension, which makes players coming off a rookie-scale deal eligible for a max deal worth 30 percent of the salary cap as opposed to the standard 25 percent. Here are the criteria to qualify for that:

  • Named to the All-NBA First, Second or Third team at least twice
  • Voted as a starter in the All-Star Game at least twice
  • Named the NBA Most Valuable Player at least once

The other thing to consider is the Spurs making Leonard their "Designated Player" with an extension, which seems like a certainty given that he's the only prized young player on a rookie deal that's on the roster. The Designated Player can be extended for five years instead of the normal four, but a team may only have one Designated Player on the roster.

Let's have Larry Coon explain the 30 percent max "Rose Rule" and the Designated Player extension, via his invaluable salary cap FAQ. We'll only include the option that pertains to Leonard, since he hasn't qualified for the Rose Rule quite yet:

Since the maximum salaries for the following season are not known at the time the extension is signed, and the player may meet the 5th Year 30% Max Criteria during his fourth season (also after the extension is signed), the following amounts can be specified in lieu of a specific salary:

25% of the Salary Cap in effect during the first Season of the extended term, or, if the player meets at least one of the 5th Year 30% Max Criteria during the fourth Season of his Rookie Scale Contract, XX% of the Salary Cap in effect during the first Season of the extended term," where XX% is between 25% and 30% (if the player has not already met the 5th Year 30% Max criteria)

What does this all mean? The Spurs can negotiate a max extension with Leonard, designate him and keep him for five years. But unlike George, who is eligible for the Rose Rule salary bump, Leonard can agree not to be eligible for the bump or to receive lesser than the full 30 percent down the line, like Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook did.

In effect, this could make both sides happy; the Spurs will get an extra year of control that they wouldn't be able to receive by simply matching in restricted free agency next offseason, and Leonard can still get a max deal while also agreeing to take less salary down the line.

Given how much San Antonio has developed Leonard, it would be a surprise if he balked at such an offer. If there's no desire to leave, and if San Antonio truly views him as the future of the franchise, there's too much incentive both ways for a deal not to get negotiated. 

Leonard showed he's plenty capable of deserving the max going forward, even if he hasn't always been worthy in the past.

That's not uncommon in this scenario, as the same exact thing can be said for DeMarcus Cousins, John Wall and a host of others who received max extensions.

You're paying for potential as much as production, and Leonard displayed a dizzying blend of both in the Finals with his defense on Dwyane Wade and LeBron James and his aggressive offensive play. He could very well end up being a bit overpaid down the line, but he's a safe bet to be an excellent two-way forward for a very long time.

Perhaps Leonard wouldn't be considered a max player had he not played so well in the Finals, but again, things can change quickly in the NBA, and great performances on that stage aren't easily forgotten. Mills and Diaw will get payday bumps as well, but it's Leonard who will really cash in after leading the Spurs to a title.


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