Who Gets the Max? Predicting Top Earners in 2019 NBA Free Agency

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistMarch 6, 2019

Who Gets the Max? Predicting Top Earners in 2019 NBA Free Agency

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    Predicting which NBA free agents will sign max contracts isn't the straightforward exercise it gets made out to be.

    Megastars used to be top-dollar locks. Player agency has turned their paydays into something less certain. Some big names take discounts to facilitate incumbent roster moves or their own relocation. Other eligible mercenaries might value security and opt to accept smaller annual salaries in exchange for a lengthier contract.

    Market fluctuations have a similar effect on the pool of candidates. It never decreases in size but is subject to deepen depending on the desperation level of the league's biggest buyers. Certain teams may be inclined to throw max deals at fringe cases if they're jilted by the offseason's splashiest prizes.

    This latest max-contract forecast aims to balance all of these potential curveballs. The prospective length of each deal is immaterial, and it doesn't matter whether a player will end up being worth this type of money. Everyone we single out seems most likely to get and accept a max salary in 2019-20. That's all we care about.

Notable Non-Max Predictions

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    Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

    Jimmy Butler, Philadelphia 76ers (player option)

    Jimmy Butler's next contract isn't a no-brainer. He turns 30 in September, isn't a beacon of durability and has Tom Thibodeau miles on his treads. Most teams will think more than twice about giving him a full-term max—including the Sixers.

    Shorter-term paydays won't be hard to find, and there will be ultra-aggressive admirers ready to pony up all they can. Whether the best overtures come from suitors in markets Butler would actually consider is a different story. 

    Counting on a sub-max payday from the Sixers is the safer play. Butler grew frustrated with the Minnesota Timberwolves in part because they wouldn't create the cap space necessary to renegotiate and extend his contract, according to The Athletic's Jon Krawczynski. Long-term security seems like it matters to him, and accepting a hair or more below his max salary is a good way to extract a five-year commitment from Philly.

    Prediction: Signs five-year, sub-max deal with the Sixers or a four-year, near-max contract with another team.

    Tobias Harris, Philadelphia 76ers

    Tobias Harris will have the chance to sign a max deal with whoever this summer. He doesn't turn 27 until July and was viewed as the top consolation prize for teams that struck out in the megastar sweepstakes before getting traded to Philly.

    The Sixers don't give up Landry Shamet and the Miami Heat's 2021 pick for a player in his contract year unless they're prepared to pay him market value. They will match the four-year maxes Harris is showered with from rivals.

    Will he trim a little off the top in exchange for a fifth season? Take less so the Sixers re-sign his B.F.F.L., Boban Marjanovic? Accept a discount in return for both? Bet on the answer being yes—although, given his relatively young age, this isn't an open-and-shut case.

    Prediction: Signs five-year near-max deal with the Sixers.

    Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks (player option)

    Khris Middleton's market parallels Harris' projection. He isn't a conventional star, but the interest generated from the outside will drive his price tag up toward the max.

    The Bucks have already braced for his windfall. Offloading Matthew Dellavedova and John Henson and extending Eric Bledsoe positions them to max out Middleton while re-signing Malcolm Brogdon (restricted) and Brook Lopez without cannonballing into the luxury tax. But this presumes a four-year agreement between the two parties. We're stepping out on the longer-term limb.

    Middleton doesn't have the same incentive as other marquee names to accelerate his return to free agency. He doesn't turn 28 until August, but his max-contract candidacy is not universally translatable. It is shaped by this summer's market alone. The competition for him will look a lot different in 2022 or 2023.

    Locking down a five-year commitment from the Bucks at a smidge below the max boosts his earning potential in a way that taking the three- or four-year season route probably won't.

    PredictionSigns five-year sub-max deal with the Bucks.

    Kristaps Porzingis, Dallas Mavericks (restricted)

    Initial reporting following his trade to the Mavericks had Kristaps Porzingis planning to accept his qualifying offer and entering unrestricted free agency in 2020, per The Athletic's Shams Charania. That's not happening.

    Porzingis' qualifying offer is set to drop from $7.5 million to $4.5 million since he failed to meet the starter criteria this season. Signing on to play next year at that amount could leave more than $20 million on the table, even if he isn't getting a max salary from the Mavericks ($27.3 million).

    Expect Dallas and Porzingis to find a lucrative middle ground. Giving him a four- ($122.1 million) or five-year max ($158.1 million) is too risky for the Mavericks without having a meaningful sample size to work off following his recovery from a torn left ACL. The same goes for Porzingis when weighing whether he should bet on himself.

    Torn ACLs aren't the omens they used to be, but his track record isn't a portrait of good health. It makes sense for him to net star money now when the rosiest trajectories are still intact.

    Prediction: Signs four-year near-max deal with the Mavericks.

Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors (Player Option)

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    Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

    Never mind the "where" of Kevin Durant's free agency. He could re-sign with the Golden State Warriors, head to the New York Knicks, latch onto the Los Angeles Clippers, whatever. His next contract is going to be of the max-salary variety. 

    After a few rounds of pay cuts with the Warriors—including a $5.2 million-ish shave this season—Durant has made this much clear. 

    "I just want to make sure I get as much money as I can on my next deal so I can stack up my money and figure it out," he told Yahoo Sports' Chris Haynes in December. "That's just the plan. Play basketball and stack money." 

    Taken literally, this is a vote of confidence for the Warriors. They can give Durant a five-year deal worth $221.3 million. The most other suitors can offer is a four-year, $164 million pact. Golden State is the pick if he indeed wants to "get as much money" as he can.

    Viewed against the backdrop of this season, and the consensus belief that #hegone, these sentiments bode well for the Knicks, Clippers and any other team Durant considers. They imply that Durant will be most interested in getting the long-haul bag, which in turn suggests his next squad wouldn't have a one-plus-one agreement looming over their heads.

    Whatever the terms of length, it sure seems like Durant is done playing for anything less than the max. That won't hurt his market in the slightest, but it does force his primary suitors to structure their cap sheets and pursuits of other star free agents accordingly.

    Prediction: Signs three-plus-one max with the Clippers or Knicks.

Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics (Player Option)

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    Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

    Much like Kevin Durant before him, Kyrie Irving's destination remains a mystery. He pledged his allegiance to the Boston Celtics before the regular season only to pivot into a state of "Ask me July 1" before the trade deadline.

    The impetus for Irving's about-face isn't quite clear. Does it have something to do with the Celtics' up-and-down year? Is it related to the Knicks going nuclear, trading Kristaps Porzingis and carving out a clear path to two max slots? Did Boston covertly dangle him in trade talks leading up to the deadline that eventually made their way back to him? Could he just be bored by the B.S. that is, by his estimation, the regular season and media availability?

    Each possibility holds its own merit. Irving could simultaneously be unhappy, a flight risk and not at all sure about what he'll do this summer. All of these can be true.

    Irving's price point is less of a Gordian knot.

    Any version of the max he wants will be available to him. Boston can offer a five-year, $189.7 million deal. Others can sling four-year, $140.6 million agreements. No one is in a position to play hardball.

    Maybe the Celtics try drawing a hardline stance if they're peddling a fifth year. Irving underwent two knee surgeries last season and doesn't have the cleanest health bill. Paying him as your franchise cornerstone for the next four or five years carries real risk.

    But that extra season doesn't give Boston much leverage if Irving is already window shopping. He'll be 27 when 2019-20 tips off, and stars have gotten in the habit of prioritizing shorter contracts and quicker trips back into free agency. Offering less than the max, in any form, is a good way to drive him into the arms of other suitors.

    Prediction: Signs three-plus-one max with the Celtics or Knicks.

Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors (Player Option)

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    LM Otero/Associated Press

    Keeping with the theme established by Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard's offseason leanings are largely unknown. League executives have winnowed his could-be landing spots down to the Clippers and Toronto Raptors, according to ESPN.com's Tim Bontemps, but that offers minimal certainty, and a lot can happen between now and July's swap meet.

    Out of everyone who makes this list, though, Leonard is the least likely to join the pay-cut parade.

    He walked away from a potential five-year designated veteran extension worth $221.3 million by orchestrating his exit from the San Antonio Spurs. Re-signing with the Raptors for $189.7 million over five years would represent a $31.6 million haircut from that number. Joining another team on a four-year, $140.6 million max would cost him $80.6 million in guaranteed money.

    This isn't perfect math. The uprising of shorter contracts changes how we interpret a player's earning potential. Leonard won't forfeit an entire year's work by joining a new team. He will get another contract after four years. He could also opt to sign a two-plus-one deal with the Raptors or another squad and re-explore free agency in 2020, when he'll be eligible for a fatter max.

    Still, looking at Leonard's value in the aggregate is fair. He missed most of 2017-18 while recovering from a right quad injury and has yet to play both ends of back-to-backs this season. Long-term security should mean more to him than many of his peers after passing on the supermax option in San Antonio.

    At the very least, Leonard probably isn't the type to gift annual discounts anymore, assuming he even was before. If he signs a shorter contract to optimize his long-term earning potential, don't expect him to accept a starting salary below his $32.7 million max.

    Prediction: Signs two-plus-one max with the Clippers or Raptors.

Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors

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    Michael Reaves/Getty Images

    Klay Thompson had no inkling to give the Warriors a discount on his next contract entering the regular season, as ESPN.com's Zach Lowe noted. They should not anticipate that changing.

    Thompson has already made enough concessions. He's working off a four-year, $70 million extension that quickly turned into a submarket deal following the salary-cap spike, and he cedes function and stature playing alongside Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. Even if the latter leaves, he still won't earn the credit or touches typically ascribed to someone with his superstar standing.

    Maxing out Thompson is the price the Warriors must pay for turning his free agency into a non-issue. And make no mistake, they should pay it.

    Losing Durant doesn't compromise their dynasty if they can fall back on their initial core. Thompson is a crucial part to that safety net. He may not be worth the five-year, $189.7 million boat playing on his own—he'll qualify for a $221.3 million supermax if he makes an All-NBA team—but he's not going at it alone. His capacity to shimmy between the workload of a second option and sometimes fourth or fifth wheel is a skill.

    Golden State cannot, under any circumstances, let Thompson go. Low-maintenance stars are extremely difficult to mine, and he ideally fits whatever iteration of the Warriors gets rolled out in 2019-20.

    Plus, a four- or five-year max only takes Thompson through his age-32 or -33 season. That deal will never become immovable. Stars in their early 30s aren't considered terribly old, and Thompson plays a brand of basketball that should age well at both ends of the floor.

    Prediction: Signs five-year max with the Warriors.

Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets

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    Kent Smith/Getty Images

    Kemba Walker isn't in a position to be taking any discounts. He's finishing up the final season of a four-year, $48 million extension that turned into one of the NBA's best bargains. Just as Stephen Curry went after the full armored truck in 2017 after playing on a clearance-rack scale, Walker deserves to line his pockets with his new market value.

    And that market value, to be clear, is the max.   

    Only a handful of teams ticketed for superstar space have obvious openings at point guard. The list starts to trail off after the Knicks, Indiana Pacers, Dallas Mavericks and Utah Jazz.

    The Phoenix Suns and Orlando Magic need a floor general, but neither has an effortless path to eking out $32.7 million in room. The Chicago Bulls would have to shed some salary before entering Walker territory. The Brooklyn Nets have D'Angelo Russell (restricted) and Spencer Dinwiddie. The Los Angeles Clippers have all the guards. The Los Angeles Lakers have Lonzo Ball and bigger aspirations. 

    Walker will still be fine. Teams like the Pacers and Jazz should have no trouble viewing him as a Plan A, and he'll have more than a few contingency maxes waiting for him from suitors who get spurned by the spattering of available All-NBA wings.

    Oh, and then there's the whole "Kemba doesn't really need outside leverage" thing.

    "I think I'll be here," he said when asked about his free agency in December, per the Charlotte Observer's Rick Bonnell. "They'll do the right thing." Nudged further, he added: "I've just got the feeling. I've been saying this is where I want to be, the place I love."

    Charlotte is also the place that cannot afford to lose Walker for nothing. The Hornets elected against moving him at the past two trade deadlines, so allowing him to leave without compensation is out of the question. 

    Tack on the franchise's stuck-in-the-mud trajectory, and Walker finds himself in the ultimate driver's seat. Whether he qualifies for a five-year, $221.3 million megamax after making an All-NBA team or is up for the regular five-year, $189.7 million deal doesn't matter. The Hornets neither promise him the best chance to win nor an imminent hope that'll change. They'll have no choice but to offer him everything, whatever that may entail—particularly if they wind up missing the playoffs.

    Prediction: Signs five-year max with the Hornets.

             

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com or Basketball Reference and accurate leading into games on March 4. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders and RealGM.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by SLC Dunk's Andrew Bailey.