Predicting the Next Wave of Max-Contract Free Agents

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJune 18, 2014

Predicting the Next Wave of Max-Contract Free Agents

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    A handful of NBA stars, some of whom aren't even technically free agents yet, are about to get seriously paid.

    Max-money paid, to be precise.

    Precision, though, is almost impossible to achieve when discussing the NBA's ultra-complicated collective bargaining agreement, and that's especially true when it comes to nailing down a definition of "maximum salary."

    Depending on service time, previous salaries and whether a player is re-upping with the same team or jumping to a new destination, a max deal can mean a whole bunch of different things. For example, Blake Griffin's five-year, $94 million contract is a max deal, but so is Marc Gasol's four-year, $57 million pact.

    The technicalities are mind-boggling, and if you want to dive into them headfirst, check out Larry Coon's 60,000-word explanation of the current CBA.

    For our purposes, we won't split hairs over which specific type of max deal the next wave of big-money signees will get. Instead, consider this a broader look around the league at the players likely to follow in the footsteps of John Wall and Paul George, two of the NBA's most recently maxed-out superstars.

    Remove all rubber bands from stacks; the NBA is about to make it rain.

    Here's who might want to grab an umbrella.

The Sub-Max Crew

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    You'll have to wait a moment before getting to the guys in line for a humongous payday. First, we should mention a few players primed to cash in very soon—just not quite to the level of the ones we'll get to shortly.

     

    The 2011 Quartet

    Klay Thompson, Kenneth Faried, Jimmy Butler and Nikola Vucevic are all members of the 2011 draft class, which means they head into this summer in position to get extension offers. Keep in mind, their teams don't have to lock them up just yet. But doing so this offseason would prevent these players from hitting restricted free agency next summer.

    There's value in taking that approach, as players on their rookie deals are often eager to secure multiyear extensions quickly. And from the team's perspective, exchanging another year of information-gathering is worth it to control the price on their own free agents without the outside interference of offer sheets and matching decisions.

    Don't expect any of these four to collect max dollars this summer, but be prepared for them to sign hefty deals. Of course, if they don't make long-term commitments sooner rather than later, it's possible the gamble could pay off with a max deal in restricted free agency next summer.

    Thompson, in particular, could cash in with another step forward this season.

     

    Oh, Lance

    If the 2013-14 season had ended sometime in January, Lance Stephenson probably would have been in line for a max deal this summer. But it didn't.

    As such, Stephenson is headed into unrestricted free agency looking a lot less valuable than he once did.

    The skills are there, and Stephenson's hyper-aggressive style on both ends makes him intriguing as a starting combo guard for any team with a backcourt need. But his attitude and erratic behavior in the postseason will probably weigh heavily on suitors' minds.

    There won't be a max deal here, especially if the Indiana Pacers wind up retaining Stephenson, a prospect that looks increasingly likely.

The "Could Get the Max If They Wanted It" Bunch

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    One final note before hitting the young guys who could form the next wave of maxed-out stars: There are a trio of talents who could cash in big if they wanted to.

    But LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony seem to have bigger things than money on their minds. All three would command max salaries, but assuming they exercise their early-termination options this summer, it's possible all of them forgo the chance to cash in.

    The lesson that drove James to the Miami Heat in the first place cropped up again in his third Finals defeat this past season: He needs help to win titles. So even though James is unquestionably worth the max, he knows collecting that much coin inherently hamstrings his team's ability to surround him with talent.

    Whether LBJ sticks around in Miami or surprises everyone by looking for another team, he won't be looking for a maximum salary.

    Bosh has already said he'd take less money to stay with the Heat, telling The Dan LeBatard Show (via Jason Lieser of The Palm Beach Post): "If that's what it takes," when asked if he'd consider a salary reduction.

    And then there's Melo, who could easily sign an extension with the New York Knicks for five years and a mind-boggling $129 million if he so chooses. According to Frank Isola of the New York Daily News, Anthony remains committed to exercising his termination option, which would enable him to sign the aforementioned massive deal—or another big one with a handful of interested teams.

    It's entirely possible Anthony makes the money grab. But the more likely scenario involves him taking a slightly sub-max deal with a team like the Houston Rockets or Chicago Bulls—or perhaps a bigger discount to join the Heat.

Greg Monroe, PF/C, Detroit Pistons

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    One way or the other, it looks like Greg Monroe is going to ink a max-salary deal this summer.

    There are a handful of paths the Detroit Pistons restricted free agent could take to cashing in. He could sign a max offer sheet with another team, and the Pistons could either match that offer or let him walk. He could also be part of a sign-and-trade exchange in which Detroit maxes him out with the intent to ship him elsewhere.

    That scenario has increased in likelihood recently, with Nakia Hogan of The Times-Picayune reporting the following:

    While the Pelicans, with about $7 million in salary cap room, don't appear to have enough cap space to sign Monroe, a source said the team has made some initial inquiries to the Pistons about the possibility of working out a sign-and-trade deal.

    Monroe's agent, David Falk, succeeded in securing a max deal for Roy Hibbert in 2012. And you'd have to think Monroe's value right now is very close to what Hibbert's was two years ago. Toss in the dearth of available big men and the 24-year-old center appears primed to get a massive offer from somebody.

    With career averages of 14.3 points, 9.0 rebounds and 2.3 assists on 50.8 percent shooting, Monroe doesn't profile as a max player. But he has a beautifully fluid offensive game, a deft passing touch and the ability to play either the 4 or the 5.

    Defensively, he has plenty of work to do.

    Ultimately, though, Monroe is an intriguing prospect—one who could become a franchise cornerstone with a bit more development.

Kawhi Leonard, SF, San Antonio Spurs

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    OK, let's get something straight: It's probably a little unrealistic to include Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard here.

    Not because he isn't worthy of a max contract. His brilliant two-way play on the biggest stage proved definitively that he's a flat-out elite talent, one whose youth—Leonard is just 22 years old—and already-legendary work ethic portend immense growth.

    Leonard is a bit out of place here because he plays for the San Antonio Spurs. And whatever that team puts in its Gatorade bottles somehow cleanses the imbiber of every last toxic shred of ego. Put another way: Nobody on the Spurs gets a max deal because being a Spur means understanding the sacrifices winning requires.

    Tim Duncan made $10 million last year. Tony Parker made $12.5 million. Both of those players are worth far more than what they earned in salary.

    As a first-rounder in the 2011 draft, Leonard is in line for an extension just like the ones Thompson, Faried, Vucevic and Butler are. And on any other team, he could expect to collect a max salary at the very moment the league's negotiation moratorium lifts on July 1.

    But Leonard plays for San Antonio, which means he'll almost certainly sign a reasonable extension now or wait to hit restricted free agency next season, allowing for one more title run before pursuing a financial payoff.

    This is all a long-winded way of saying Leonard is absolutely a max player—even if his bank account may not reflect it in the immediate future. 

Eric Bledsoe, PG/SG, Phoenix Suns

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    We know two things about Eric Bledsoe's impending free agency:

    First, we know wants a max contract, according to Mark Spears of Yahoo! Sports.

    And second, we know the Phoenix Suns want to come to terms on a deal quickly. Per Paul Coro of AZCentral.com, Suns general manager Ryan McDonough said, "We'll try to do that as soon as possible and not let it get to the point where you'd have to get an offer and we'd match it."

    As you can see, those two competing positions mean somebody is going to have to compromise.

    Expect that somebody to be the Suns.

    Bledsoe has no incentive to sign with Phoenix before finding out what he might get from other interested parties—especially if Phoenix's goal is to lock him up for less than the max. And while it's difficult to be completely certain, Bledsoe's injury-shortened 2013-14 season certainly made it seem like he was worth a maximum investment.

    Per B/R's Dan Favale:

    After being dealt out of Chris Paul's shadow, Bledsoe put up monster per-game numbers. He averaged 17.7 points, 4.7 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 1.6 steals, joining Russell Westbrook, John Wall, James Harden, Kyle Lowry, Stephen Curry, LeBron James and Paul as the only players to sustain benchmarks of 17.0 points, 4.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 1.5 steals. 

    More impressively, Bledsoe posted such marks while logging 32.9 minutes a night, making him just the fourth player in NBA history to hit those numbers in under 33 minutes. He joins Ray Williams, Clyde Drexler and Westbrook there.

    The sample is admittedly small, as Bledsoe missed nearly half of his breakout season with a knee injury. But combo guards like him are only becoming more valuable as NBA offenses lean on multiple ball-handlers to attack the vulnerable weak side of overloaded defenses.

    Bledsoe is going to get his max money. The only question now is, which other team will sign him to the max offer sheet Phoenix inevitably matches?

Kyrie Irving, PG, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Remember that initial discussion about the varied meanings of the term "maximum salary?" About how sometimes, max deals are extremely tricky to pin down?

    Well, get ready to take a crash course in max-salary nuance, thanks to Kyrie Irving.

    According to Terry Pluto of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Cleveland Cavaliers are prepared to pay Irving as much as they can for as long as they can:

    My sources tell me that the Cavs have had no doubts about offering Irving the 5-year deal, and will do so. Once July 1 arrives -- the first date that an extension can be offered -- the Cavs will set up a meeting with Irving. They will present their All-Star guard with a contract extension, a 5-year deal in the $90 million range (or whatever is the maximum number).

    Depending on how Irving performs after signing a max extension this summer, the total value of his deal could actually increase.

    Per Dan Feldman of NBCSports.com:

    Using a crude estimate of the salary cap in 2015-16, when Irving’s contract extension would begin, his absolute maximum salary for a five-year extension would be $109,106,328. He’d get that if he’s voted a starter in the 2015 All-Star Game – that vote should be fun! – or wins MVP next season.

    In other words, if Irving were to satisfy the requirements of the so-called "Derrick Rose Rule," he'd be entitled to as much as 30 percent of Cleveland's annual cap figure. The $90 million figure represents 25 percent of said figure. The $109 million Feldman mentions would be possible if Irving earned 30 percent of the Cavs' cap.

    And even that number could change if the league's salary cap increases more than forecasts indicate.

    Essentially, Cleveland is reportedly prepared to offer Irving what amounts to a minimum maximum contract, the value of which he can increase by performing well.

    Simple, right?