A Look Ahead at NBA's Toughest Contract Decisions in 2018 Free Agency
Signing NBA players to contracts worth tens of millions of dollars isn't always easy. Go figure.
Some free-agency decisions are cakewalks. LeBron James deserves a max salary because he's an honorary Avenger. The Golden State Warriors should have no issue paying Kevin Durant top dollar if he doesn't feel like honoring coupons from billionaires because he's almost as important to them as Stephen Curry.
Other high-profile instances aren't as cut and dried. Some induce migraines and squandered sleep. A few seem genuinely unsolvable.
Household names coming off their rookie-scale deals with undefined values are usually the most difficult. Teams are trying to reward them for what they've yet to do, which often entails paying them more than they're worth. This offseason has plenty of those.
Impact role players ready for more responsibility and high-end talent working their way back from major injuries also fall under this umbrella. Some find themselves on teams grappling with depth-chart logjams and taxing salary obligations, and their futures are left hanging in the balance as a result.
These impending paydays represent the toughest to project. Never mind minor hiccups. We don't care whether the Houston Rockets are keen on maxing out a then-33-year-old Chris Paul. The Orlando Magic won't want to overpay Aaron Gordon (restricted), but he's the closest they come to a viable cornerstone. Matching an above-market offer is the least of their problems. Those decisions aren't nearly difficult enough to make the cut.
Look instead to the more precarious situations. These players aren't all hopeless flight risks, but their next deal is bound to be the subject of excruciating internal debates.
Note: Potential free agents with player or team options will be excluded from this pool and discussed in a separate piece.
Will Barton, Denver Nuggets
Age (as of July 1): 27
Free-Agent Status: Unrestricted
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 15.7 points, 5.0 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.6 blocks, 45.2 percent shooting
Will Barton will not guarantee his return to the Denver Nuggets. Their backcourt is set for the future, with Gary Harris and Jamal Murray, and he fancies himself a starter.
"If I would be able to know I would be a starter coming into next season, that would push me in the offseason," Barton said, per the Denver Post's Gina Mizell. "It's something that I've never been before or done before. That's what makes me who I am and what makes me better every year. That will definitely be a goal of mine."
Starting Barton at small forward is a possibility. Wilson Chandler (player option) could be a free agent as well, and the Nuggets outscored opponents by 32.7 points per 100 possessions in the 65 minutes Barton played beside Harris, Murray, Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap.
That sample is...nothing. Indefinitely inserting Barton into the starting five also compromises the bench. The Nuggets don't have another shape-shifting playmaker who can keep the offense afloat when one or both of Jokic and Murray are on the sidelines. Barton started 40 games this season mostly out of need, when Harris or Millsap was battling injury.
Losing him for nothing would be worse than reconciling the rotation's politics. And even those could work themselves out, to some extent, if Chandler hits free agency. But cost will be an issue. Barton turned down a four-year extension worth roughly $40 million last summer and is in line to command more now.
Can the Nuggets afford to pay him market value with Harris' four-year, $84 million extension set to kick in and Jokic (team option) potentially about to receive a max deal? Would Chandler's decision to opt in deter them from paying him? Will they have to pay an up-charge to keep using Barton as a sixth man and spot starter?
Denver needs wings no matter what. Barton is more necessity than luxury—especially given the time he soaks up at point guard. But paying him, Chandler and Jokic without shedding salary elsewhere puts the luxury tax in play. The Nuggets would be hard-pressed to rationalize that bottom line after missing the playoffs—unless they read all the way into the three-game gap that separated them from the third-seeded Portland Trail Blazers.
DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans Pelicans
Free-Agent Status: Unrestricted
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.6 blocks, 47.0 percent shooting
DeMarcus Cousins' next contract was always going to be a problem for the New Orleans Pelicans. They took a risk by acquiring him last season, a little less than 15 months out from free agency.
Would they play well enough to convince him to stay? Would a five-year contract represent enough of a difference to trounce four-season maxes from other suitors? Would Cousins' departure open the door for an Anthony Davis trade demand?
New Orleans needn't worry about carrying the burden of proof anymore. The tables have turned on the heels of Cousins' season-ending Achilles injury. He is no longer a max-contract formality, and his post-recovery ceiling will invariably scare off a few suitors.
If the Pelicans want him, they'll have him. They couldn't say that before. Now they must decide whether they need him.
Cousins' absence has forced the Pelicans to lean into the Davis-plus-four-shooters model—and it looks good on them. Jrue Holiday has more freedom to leave his mark on offense, even when playing alongside Rajon Rondo. Nikola Mirotic can be lethal attacking off the dribble, most notably when capitalizing on switches in space, but doesn't monopolize possessions. Cousins' regular-season usage rate dwarfed his by more than 10 percentage points.
Sweeping the Blazers in the first round of the playoffs has only intensified the dilemma. Post-injury Cousins will be a better singular talent than Mirotic. That shouldn't be a question. But Mirotic might be the superior fit—that zippy 4 who doesn't need the ball on offense and frees Davis to ruin lives at the rim.
The numbers bear this out. Look at how the Pelicans' net rating when Mirotic plays with Davis compares to the flip side:
- Davis-Mirotic (regular season): 10.7 (576 minutes)
- Davis-Mirotic (postseason): 19.4 (119 minutes)
- Davis-Cousins: 4.2 (1,094 minutes)
Choosing between Cousins and Mirotic feels wrong. One is an All-Star, the other is not. Mirotic can be brought off the bench and play some 3, so the Pelicans could try having their cake and eating it too—particularly when letting Cousins walk won't, on its own, arm them with meaningful cap space.
Will they? Should they? Could the cost and length of Cousins' next deal turn this into a non-issue? We don't know. And odds are the Pelicans don't, either.
Derrick Favors, Utah Jazz
Free-Agent Status: Unrestricted
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 12.3 points, 7.2 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.1 blocks, 56.3 percent shooting
Derrick Favors looked like a goner not long ago.
Center is probably his best position if he's not hitting corner threes, and the Utah Jazz already have Rudy Gobert in tow. Split-duty is fine, and the Favors-Gobert tandem has worked for a couple years now, but the duo, like the team, began the season out of sorts.
KSL.com's Andy Larsen wrote ahead of the trade deadline that Favors "made it known to the Jazz front office that he intends to not re-sign with the team in free agency this summer." Holding onto him past February didn't change much.
Jae Crowder closed games at the 4, and most of Utah's top lineups included a a four-out structure. He would be too expensive, if pointless, to retain.
Still, Favors has not allowed the Jazz to prematurely remove him from their big picture. He's played too well. They outpaced opponents by more than 15 points per 100 possessions when he shared the floor with Gobert following the latter's mid-January return from a knee injury, and Favors has been an integral cog in their first-round series with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Only Joe Ingles and Ricky Rubio have a better net rating through the Jazz's first four postseason tilts. Favors is manhandling Oklahoma City on the offensive glass and has even downed a couple of threes. Head coach Quin Snyder is, for the time being, riding him more in the fourth quarter than Crowder.
Price point will determine a lot of what happens next. The Jazz cannot justify investing $15 million per year in another big with an unproven jumper. They won't have to. That offer isn't coming. The NBA is bogged down by a surfeit of plodding skyscrapers, and this year's market won't be kind to free agents.
Retaining Favors holds more than a fair share of appeal if the Jazz don't have eyes for someone else. They can dredge up enough money should they please, and their regular-season crunch-time investment in Crowder says a lot about the direction of their frontcourt.
Favors' future in Utah could come down to whether he's willing to sign a short-term pact and how much faith the team has in him becoming a modest-volume three-point shooter.
Zach LaVine Chicago Bulls
Free-Agent Status: Restricted
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 16.7 points, 3.9 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.2 blocks, 38.3 percent shooting
Bringing back Zach LaVine shouldn't be too expensive for the Chicago Bulls. Rival teams aren't bankrolling over-the-top offers for someone who appeared in just 24 games after an ACL injury and then finished the season on the shelf with tendinitis in that same left knee.
Chicago's predicament is more about principle.
LaVine was originally the crown jewel of last summer's Jimmy Butler trade. Putting a hard cap on his value is akin to admitting Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen are more important to the future and that the Bulls flubbed at least part of said deal.
Functional stubbornness could prevent general manager Gar Forman and vice president of basketball operations John Paxson from making that call. After all, who punts on the centerpiece of a blockbuster trade barely one year later? And LaVine was injured when they acquired him, suggesting the Bulls have always intended to play the long game.
Taking that can't-go-back-now stance has more than financial repercussions. Overpaying LaVine would be a hindrance, but keeping him at all becomes problematic no matter the cost if it crimps the development of those around him.
Someone like Markkanen, who depends on others to get him the ball, is specifically at risk of suffering inadvertent reversion. LaVine averaged 19.5 field-goal attempts per 36 minutes in Chicago—ninth-most among every player to appear in more than 20 games this season. That volume begets an awkward pecking in which the Bulls are almost marking him their closest thing to a cornerstone.
As Blog A Bull's Easy Eis wrote:
"In 12 of the 19 games that Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen have played together this season, the former has taken more shots than the latter. For a team trying to develop their top ten first round pick into a franchise cornerstone, that simply cannot happen. The Bulls have the luxury right now of very little pressure to play winning basketball, so the focus should clearly be on getting their stars of tomorrow comfortable with a consistent leader's workload.
"By this point, most would acknowledge Markkanen's progress is directly tied to the Bulls’ future, and Dunn at the very least looks like a quality two-way NBA point guard. There’s no questioning LaVine’s present talent and his potential upside, but is waiting to find out if he can fulfill such promise worth jeopardizing the ceilings of two players that—at this point—bring far more immediate and long-term value to the team as a whole?"
Figuring out what to do next is not an enviable position. Maybe the market is so cold it won't matter. And it would be unreasonable to declare LaVine irrelevant to the Bulls' future. He needs more than 24 games of rust-ridden availability.
Likewise, though, it would be irrational and intractable of Chicago to view him as indispensable. Good luck determining how much that player is worth.
Jusuf Nurkic, Portland Trail Blazers
Free-Agent Status: Restricted
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 14.3 points, 9.0 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.4 blocks, 50.5 percent shooting
Jusuf Nurkic's future with the Blazers is foggier than ever following their first-round dispatch at the hands of the Pelicans.
Bigs with finite pick-and-pop range and face-up chops must be elite stoppers to carry real cachet. As the rim-protection anchor for the NBA's eighth-best regular-season defense, Nurkic appeared to have just that. Opponents shot 54.8 percent against him at the hoop—the ninth-best mark among 98 players to challenge at least 200 point-blank looks—and Portland defended like a top-four outfit with him on the floor.
Squaring off with New Orleans did a number on Nurkic's stands. He was no match for the frontcourt combination of Anthony Davis and Nikola Mirotic. While no one is well-equipped to handle Davis, Nurkic has limitations beyond the restricted area that hamstring the Blazers' ability to react.
Sticking Al-Farouq Aminu on Davis—or a fellow unicorn—leaves Nurkic to chase around power forwards and glorified wings. And he struggles against explosive rim-runners or anyone with a semblance of outside-in handles. He would have been better off facing a fully healthy Pelicans squad that had DeMarcus Cousins jumping center.
Investing in Nurkic for his rim protection alone toes a dangerous line. As Cleaning The Glass' Ben Falk wrote, his stinginess around the iron is more systemic than developed:
"Jusuf Nurkic patrols the paint for Portland with a unique mix of oafishness and grace that has produced a consistent track record as a strong rim protector. But it’s about more than personnel: with only a partial season of Nurkic, Terry Stotts’ outfit ranked first in this stat last year (though not by the same margin) and this season is their fourth top-three finish in the last five years in this stat, despite a changing roster."
Portland's salary-cap situation doesn't help matters. Carrying Nurkic's $8.8 million hold alone drags the ledger into luxury-tax territory ($123 million)—and that doesn't include potential new deals for fellow restricted free agents Pat Connaughton or Shabazz Napier.
Soldiering onward with Zach Collins and Ed Davis offers genuine temptation. The Blazers outscored opponents by 6.4 points per 100 possessions with them playing together in the regular season, and the two gave them more defensive maneuverability versus the Pelicans.
But Davis is a free agent himself, and Collins only started seeing a lion's share of his time at the 5 in the playoffs. Exploring the alternative guarantees Portland nothing—infinitely so if Stotts and his defensive scheme are shown the door.
Jabari Parker, Milwaukee Bucks
Free-Agent Status: Restricted
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 12.6 points, 4.9 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.3 blocks, 48.2 percent shooting
Jabari Parker's playing time has spiked in the Milwaukee Bucks' postseason rotation after he logged just 25 total minutes through the team's first two playoff games and suggested he might be in interim head coach Joe Prunty's doghouse.
This does nothing to clear up the uncertainty engulfing his foray into restricted free agency. If anything, it underscores the existing confusion.
Parker is fewer than 40 total games into his return from a second ACL injury. He isn't starting. After taking a baby step forward on defense last year, he cannot stay in front of most ball-handlers now. Milwaukee coughed up 109.5 points per 100 possessions with him in the lineup during the regular season—about the same as the 29th-ranked turnstiles in Cleveland.
Surviving with him on defense has been a tad easier in the postseason, but the Boston Celtics are missing their two most dangerous scorers, Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving. Playing Parker in and against bench-heavy lineups helps, too.
Unlike LaVine, Parker may not want for lucrative offers over the summer. His pure scoring abilities haven't left him in the aftermath of his latest knee injury. He shot better than 45 percent on pull-up two-point jumpers during the regular season and continues to look more comfortable firing away from deep. He's canning more than 37 percent of his three-pointers since the start of 2016-17 and drained 42.6 percent of his spot-up triples this year.
Certain teams won't be averse to taking a stab at the 23-year-old given his star tendencies on offense. A long-term, max-money deal should be out of the question, but Parker could feasibly net an annual salary worth in the ballpark of his $20.3 million cap hold.
The Bucks may wind up matching whatever offer he receives. He would have been a hotter point of discussion around the trade deadline if they were disenchanted with his outlook. But the money it will cost to keep him almost obligates them to both start and close games with him—two things they've been reluctant to do all year.
Playing him among the starters won't take much finagling. Subbing him in for Malcolm Brogdon or Tony Snell is supposed to be the endgame. Using him to close is a different story. The Bucks have enough self-sufficient scorers, and his standalone shooting won't always offset the damage he does to the defense.
Parker devolves into an even greater liability if Milwaukee is at all married to Giannis Antetokounmpo-at-center looks. He is not a plus rebounder and won't be able to pitch in as a rim protector or post-up pest. So whereas another team might see Parker as its offensive lifeline, the Bucks must decide how much they can pay to see whether he fits with theirs.
Julius Randle, Los Angeles Lakers
Free-Agent Status: Restricted
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 16.1 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.5 blocks, 55.8 percent shooting
In a vacuum, Julius Randle's 2017-18 campaign warrants a big-picture spot on the Los Angeles Lakers. Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic were the only other players to clear 20 points, 10 rebounds and three assists per 36 minutes, and he improved his one-on-one defense enough to hang on certain switches and battle on the block as a de facto 5.
Most rebuilding squads wouldn't need to think twice about trying to re-sign a player like Randle. Outside interest is always a wild card, but failing untenable acts of desperation from the field, retaining a 23-year-old working off a career season takes precedence.
The Lakers aren't most rebuilding teams. They've hewn a clear path toward affording two superstar free agents. Renouncing Randle's $12.4 million cap hold could be a part of it. They can cobble together the $65.65 million it'll take to max out both Paul George (player option) and LeBron James (player option) while keeping him, but only if they sweeten the pot enough for another team to sponge up the two years and $36.8 million left on Luol Deng's contract without sending back any money in return.
Doling out just one max contract could free up the Lakers to keep Randle without issue. Striking out entirely could make his return no-brainer.
Emphasis on could.
Paying Randle will eat into Los Angeles' long-term flexibility. That doesn't matter as much when he's the complement to a superstar duo; it matters a whole lot if the Lakers miss on their primary targets this summer and kick the can into 2019.
Waiting out decisions from George and James could inflate Randle's price tag as well. Why should he hang around while the Lakers are out there pursuing players who will most likely force him out the door? Some teams will be in a holding pattern until the A-listers make their choices. Others will be down to hammer out an agreement before the first marquee domino falls.
Even the best-case scenarios leave the Lakers with questions. They'll have to burn through assets to squeeze Randle's hold under the cap if George and James both come aboard. Funneling eight figures into him annually with a bare-bones supporting cast is its own problem.
However this summer ultimately plays out, Randle's next contract will be among the NBA's most divisive topics.