Restricted free agents aren't supposed to have much agency at all.
The NBA's collective bargaining agreement, while friendlier than previous iterations, is designed to allow incumbent teams to wield significant power. They have a 72-hour period to decide whether to match a signed offer sheet—eons in the rapidly evolving days of early July. They can dilute a player's market by leaking through back channels they plan on matching any offer given to a certain player. They can offer a below-market deal, knowing most players will bite the bullet and choose a lifetime of financial security.
The only option the player has is nuclear: Take the qualifying offer required to keep them restricted and Obama-kick the door on their way out. This is akin to walking into a casino, taking out the equivalent to your retirement fund and betting it all on red. This is a player literally putting his—wait, I can't say that.
No one does it. Mostly because turning down tens of millions of dollars seems pretty damn stupid to most 24-year-olds. Hell, I'm 24 and would do unfathomable things for tens of thousands of dollars.
Greg Monroe and (maybe) Eric Bledsoe seem to have more fortitude than I do. While it's yet to be confirmed, Monroe has decided to accept his qualifying offer of $5.479 million for the 2014-15 season, per USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt. Bledsoe, whose relationship with the Suns has chilled to the climate of an Alaskan winter, is thinking about doing the same, per Zillgitt.
The Pistons have offered Monroe a four-year deal worth slightly more than Josh Smith's four-year, $54 million contract. Bledsoe, according to Zillgitt, is seeking a five-year max deal worth $84 million—nearly double the four-year, $48 million Phoenix has on the table.
Debating the merit of both offers is worth a full-length look by itself. Across the league, you'll find few who believe either Detroit or Phoenix are lowballing their respective players.
The Pistons might even be overpaying Monroe, a defensive minus whose inability to stretch the floor makes him a difficult spacing fit with Andre Drummond. The Suns are right around market value for Bledsoe, offering a player with 78 career starts Kyle Lowry money.
I know what I'd tell them if I were representing them. I also know the anarchist inside me wants to see them thumb their nose at the establishment.
Monroe and Bledsoe would instantly join the short list of best players to ever play on a qualifying offer. Since the league instituted a rookie wage scale in 1995, only 17 players have taken the nuclear option, per research by HoopsRumors.com's Chuck Myron. Most of the players did not have much of a choice. The list is filled with Kevin Seraphins, Melvin Elys and Robert Swifts.
No player in league history who has signed a qualifying offer in the last two decades has gone on to make an All-Star team. The best-case scenarios on the list are your Ben Gordons and Stromile Swifts; Gordon is the only player on the list to sign a contract the next summer averaging $10 million per season.
Bledsoe and Monroe, if not quite better than the 2008-09 version of Gordon, are right there nipping at his heels. Bledsoe is a bulldog defender, an unbelievable athlete and made massive leaps as a primary ball-handler last season in Phoenix. Monroe is a throwback post bully, someone who might benefit from a change of scenery and a full-time move to center.
The natural inclination here is to wonder whether they could spark a leaguewide trend. As we saw this summer, teams are becoming more willing to let their guys test the market. And as the Pistons, Suns and last summer's Timberwolves are proving, front offices are brazenly and purposely depressing the market on non-max guys to their benefit.
The likes of Jonas Valanciunas, Kenneth Faried and Jimmy Butler can each sign extensions this summer. None of those players have proven they're worth max salary, but each have enough of an NBA resume to push for the top possible dollar.
How can Faried's agent look at Derrick Favors' four-year, $48 million contract and accept less? How can Valanciunas' representatives not look at the market for big men and then use Marcin Gortat's $60 million deal as a starting point?
Stephen Curry and DeMar DeRozan are chief among the guys who recently signed pre-Oct. 31 extensions before instantly regretting it. Curry's $44 million deal might be the best contract in the league. DeRozan was an All-Star last season and made $9.5 million.
Agents know the NBA's salary cap is going to spike whenever the league signs a new TV deal. A $12 million contract may become the equivalent of $9 million in today's NBA dollars. Everyone in the league is trying to forecast three and four years into the future without a firm grasp of what's coming.
Obviously, the restricted free-agency/qualifying offer limbo will never affect the best prospects. The Pelicans will give Anthony Davis ALL THE MONEY the second they can, as the Cavaliers did with Kyrie Irving. I don't suspect Drummond or Damian Lillard will be forced to do much negotiating, either. (Worth noting: Curry's injury history depressed his asking price in negotiations with the Warriors.)
But will one or two Bledsoes or Monroes start popping up every year? It's not outside the realm of possibility. Onerous luxury-tax penalties make teams more aware of every dollar they spend, even on players they hope to retain. As restricted free agency becomes more prevalent for mid-tier guys, the number of mid-tier guys angry to be restricted free agents will rise.
Bledsoe and Monroe could be the guinea pigs for a more radical experiment—one that could get ugly, fast.
History says players who take qualifying offers do not return to their incumbent teams. Only one (Spencer Hawes) has re-signed the following summer in our limited sample. The CBA also prevents teams from trading players who accepted qualifying offers without their approval. Detroit and Phoenix go from holding all the power to basically none.
The Pistons and Suns could respond to their players' dirty pool with some of their own. Phoenix already signed Bledsoe insurance this offseason in Isaiah Thomas. Detroit has Smith, whose game has long been better suited to the power forward spot.
Might Bledsoe or Monroe suddenly find themselves as sixth men? Both are too talented to bench outright, and it'd be a terrible PR move to determine starting status based on a contractual situation, but the "we have to see what we have for the future" angle does hold weight.
And playing time becomes the organization's only source of power the moment a qualifying offer is signed.
These are the pitfalls of restricted free agency. The entire system is built to create a faceoff between a player and his team. A player knows, whether via behind-the-scenes conversations or contracts given to similarly skilled players, what they're worth. A team knows, based on two decades of history, that the carrot of financial security too often trumps a desire for fair market value.
Bledsoe and Monroe are preparing to check that system. I have no idea if it'll become a trend or a historical blip. I do know the process of restricted free agency becomes a whole lot more interesting if their roulette ball lands on red.
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