The NBA's 10 Toughest Contract Decisions This Summer

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistMay 18, 2019

The NBA's 10 Toughest Contract Decisions This Summer

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    Difficult decisions populate every NBA offseason. 

    For the most part, tough choices are the standard. Only a handful of players have cut-and-dry markets. And even contract-amount formalities can become problems in certain situations.

    Teams have club options to weigh. They have luxury-tax concerns. They have to decide between taking care of their own and cap space. They have to think about the long-term implications of extension-eligible players. It gets messy.

    And it isn't just teams that face dilemmas. Certain players are right there with them. They have their own options and earning potential to ponder.

    Our dive into this summer's toughest contract situations will cover predicaments from all sides: decisions that figure to wear on players or teams—or both simultaneously.

    Rookie extensions aren't up for inclusion. Everything else is fair game.

Boston Celtics: Al Horford's Player Option

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    Al Horford won't decline his $30.1 million player option to sign a long-term max with the Boston Celtics or another team. One suitor might give him the full boat for a year or two, but he'll be 33 when next season tips off. He isn't getting a three- or four-year deal with an average annual value of $30-plus million.

    Entering free agency would be more about securing a larger bag over the next few seasons. Something along the lines of a three-year, $60 million pact would help both him and Boston. He'd guarantee himself another $30 million or so in career earnings, and the Celtics could alleviate some of their luxury-tax concerns by shaving around $10 million off his 2019-20 cap hit.

    This feels like an inevitable outcome if Horford wants to stick around. And it seems like he does. A league source told the Boston Herald's Steve Bulpett that Horford is open to taking "a more team-friendly number for next season if he can get two more years tacked on."

    That reads like a win-win...if the Celtics run it back....which they may not.

    No one knows what Kyrie Irving (player option) will do in free agency. Re-upping Horford makes too much sense if he stays. It would be less appealing, for both player and team, if Irving flees for Los Angeles, New York or somewhere else.

    Boston might not lean into a full-tilt rebuild without its All-NBA floor general, but the team's timeline would shift. Keeping Horford on the books through his age-35 season wouldn't have the same pull as the Celtics recalibrate around Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, particularly with Gordon Hayward still a wild card.

    Acquiring Anthony Davis would change everything. But Boston is far less likely to empty its war chest without Irving. A team built around Davis, Hayward, Horford and, if the Celtics are lucky, Brown might not be more than a pseudo-contender.

    Opting in would allow Horford to hedge his bets. He could play out 2019-20 and re-evaluate the Celtics' position next summer. But he'd be 34 by that point. His market might not be the same.

    So does he opt out and stay in Boston no matter what? Or give himself the flexibility of leaving if the Celtics' summer goes to crud? Do they even want to pay him for another three years if Irving flies the coop? Both sides have some soul-searching to do.

Brooklyn Nets: D'Angelo Russell's Restricted Free Agency

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    Best of luck to the Brooklyn Nets as they try to figure out how much D'Angelo Russell is worth.

    Defaulting to "a lot" is fine. Russell deserves to get two-syllable puh-aid after his All-Star campaign, a career year that is, somehow, both overlooked and over-celebrated.

    Criticizing a 23-year-old for an awkward, at times undesirable, shot profile rings hollow when his efficiency wasn't a problem. The Nets, of all teams, probably want Russell to take fewer no-man's-land jumpers. Their offense was among the least inclined to fire up long twos, and he finished fifth in total attempts between 10 and 22 feet.

    But Russell converted 46.9 percent of those looks. That's a top-13 mark among the 57 players who jacked more than 200 shots from that range and a finish right in line with Kemba Walker's clip (47.0 percent) and comfortably in front of notable from-scratch scorers such as Bradley Beal (43.6 percent), Damian Lillard (45.9 percent), Kawhi Leonard (46.0 percent) and many more.

    Mid-range jumpers and long twos are allowable, even good, shots for certain offensive hubs. They're more problematic for players who hover inside the arc off the ball or jack up step-back or standstill 22-footers.

    Russell is guilty of the latter, but he's earned carte blanche in the half-court after also establishing his pull-up three-pointer as an operable weapon. He buried 36 percent of his stop-and-pop treys for more than half the season.

    The degree of difficulty attached to his breakout season matters. Only six players attempted more pull-up threes overall, he initiated more pick-and-rolls than anyone except Walker and just five qualified players posted higher usage rates.

    Bake in Russell's career-high 8.3 assists per 36 minutes as Brooklyn's unchallenged focal point, and he could have "max-contract formality" stamped across his forehead. He doesn't.

    Career performances in contract years are fickle. Offering him top dollar ignores three seasons' worth of a more underwhelming baseline. Russell still isn't a high-end finisher around the rim or adept at getting to the line. Offenses that so heavily tether their livelihood to tough perimeter looks are at greater risk of sudden regression. Think the Charlotte Hornets with Walker.

    A confusing point guard market only complicates the Nets' decision. They cannot be killed for matching a huge offer sheet, but that over-the-top bid may never come.

    The Phoenix Suns don't have the cap space (right now) to go that high. The Chicago Bulls will, but a Russell-Zach LaVine backcourt would be a defensive nightmare. Without near-max overtures from entrenched playoff teams such as the Indiana Pacers or Utah Jazz, the Nets may be negotiating against themselves—a dangerous position unless they're prepared to play hardball.

Charlotte Hornets: Kemba Walker

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    Kemba Walker needs to make a pros and cons list this summer. He's coming off a four-year, $48 million extension that turned into one of the NBA's biggest bargains. This is his chance to cash in with the Hornets, presumably with a four- or five-year max offer.

    This is also his opportunity to join a winner. The Hornets have made the playoffs just twice during his eight-year career, and they're not in line to make any meaningful changes this summer. They're both light on trade assets and capped out until at least 2020, with the potential to remain cash-strapped until 2021 if they re-sign Walker.

    Winning or money? Maximum financial security or title contention? Those are the decisions facing Walker.

    The Hornets' dilemma is being portrayed as an easier one. They have to keep him because they've kept him this long. Letting him leave after opting not to move him at the past two trade deadlines would amount to wasting one of the league's 25 or 30 most valuable players. 

    Hence why general manager Mitch Kupchak told reporters that "we'll do everything we can to bring him back here," per the Charlotte Observer's Rick Bonnell. On the surface, the Hornets don't have a choice. Dig deeper, and they do.

    Re-signing Walker is a no-brainer if he wants to reach free agency again sooner rather than later, or even if he wants a four-year max. The math gets hairy if he demands a five-year commitment to stay with a team that cannot yet promise him more than fringe playoff contention.

    A five-season max for Walker runs $189.7 million. That number would climb to $221.3 million if he makes an All-NBA team, which he might.

    Neither value simplifies the Hornets' decision. The cheaper option is still worth nearly $200 million. Maybe Walker would lop a little off the top in exchange for that fifth year, but what if he doesn't? He has that leverage. Charlotte's habitually slapdash roster-building gives it to him.

    Can the Hornets afford to funnel that much into a 6'1", 29-year-old point guard whose offense is predicated upon hitting ridiculously difficult looks? Only James Harden attempted more total contested and heavily contested threes and more shots after seven-plus dribbles this past season.

    On the flip side, without a cornerstone alternative or rebuilding path in place, can they really afford not to pay whatever it takes for him to stay?

Denver Nuggets: Paul Millsap's Team Option

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    Paul Millsap's team option could quickly turn into a non-issue. He isn't a $30.5 million player. But the Denver Nuggets defense needs him, and he doesn't want to leave.

    "From how I want to do it, how I want my story to be told, [this is] definitely the group that can help me do it," he said, per the Denver Post's Mike Singer. "That's definitely a dream and a goal of mine. I think it's the goal for everybody, especially the younger guys."

    Stomaching Millsap's salary isn't a huge deal for the Nuggets. They don't have any pivotal free agents this summer or extensions that kick in next year, and his cap hit wouldn't come close to vaulting them into the tax.

    Declining Millsap's team option wouldn't arm the Nuggets with superstar money, either. Wiping his $30 million from the ledger would give them around $18 million to spend if they renounce all their other free agents. That's neither an insignificant sum nor enough to reel in a better player than Millsap. 

    Greasing the wheels of a Will Barton or Mason Plumlee salary dump would push the Nuggets into max-contract territory, but Denver has never been a preeminent free-agent destination. Millsap is the biggest name the franchise has ever poached. Opening max room hardly guarantees a genuine shot at Kawhi Leonard (player option) or even Jimmy Butler (player option). (Still, imagine if it did.)

    Letting Millsap enter free agency would make some sense if the Nuggets want him back at a cheaper price. They own his Early Bird rights, so they don't have to worry about cap space to bankroll his next deal. His $30.5 million salary could turn into $15-$20 million over three or four years.

    Going that route would come in handy if Denver wants to keep Millsap long-term while planning ahead for next year's contract decisions. Malik Beasley, Torrey Craig, Juan Hernangomez and Jamal Murray are all scheduled for restricted free agency in 2020. Even with Plumlee coming off the books next summer, the Nuggets' cap sheet will flirt with untenability. 

    Granted, the inverse is also true. Re-signing Millsap to a longer-term deal before knowing how much everyone else will cost in 2019-20 doesn't necessarily do the Nuggets any favors. They'll have a rough idea of what they can afford to pay him if they're talking about extensions with the others, but they're unable to traffic in exacts prior to next summer.

    And let's not forget the inherent risks of sending Millsap into free agency. He wants to stay in Denver, but a more desperate suitor with cap space could always come along and outbid the Nuggets. His team option cannot be treated lightly.

Milwaukee Bucks: Malcolm Brogdon's Restricted Free Agency

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    Very few restricted free agents are going to invite over-the-top offer sheets from rivals this summer. Malcolm Brogdon may stand alone.

    Kristaps Porzingis isn't getting priced out of Dallas. D'Angelo Russell might seduce a few teams, but his stock is more turbulent. His ascent could be a new normal, or it might have a lightning-in-a-bottle vibe.

    This year's crop of restricted free agents wants for potential star power after them. That includes Brogdon. He isn't someone around whom a team will build. But he is among the most consistent and versatile players from his class—a plug-and-play guard who can chopper into any team and have an immediate impact.

    Brogdon just became the 10th player in league history to slash 50/40/90 for an entire season, and his offensive game is translatable. He can run plays in the half-court, but his role with the Milwaukee Bucks is irreplaceable in its simplicity. Most of his baskets come off assists, and he feasts on a steady diet of catch-and-shoot jumpers and driving layups.

    At 6'5" with a 6'10½" wingspan, Brogdon's defensive range covers all guards and most wings. He's a disruptive blanket against pick-and-rolls, and Milwaukee showed zero qualms about leaving him on Kawhi Leonard in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals—just his second outing since returning from a right foot injury.

    Universal fits like Brogdon are easy to pay. Teams aren't getting into him for max money ($27.2 million), but an average annual value of $20 million or more doesn't feel entirely out of the question.

    Lucrative offer sheets may not deter the Bucks. Brogdon is a critical part of their core, and they have a feasible path to paying him a starting salary of $20 million while maxing out Khris Middleton without tapping into the luxury tax. 

    But that doesn't include new contracts for Brook Lopez (non-Bird) or Nikola Mirotic. Nor does it account for the Bucks using the mid-level exception. They'd also have to waive George Hill ($1 million partial guarantee) and one of their other non-guaranteed contracts.

    Reconciling Brogdon's price point gets easier if the Bucks don't care about paying the tax. And he may not solicit ultra-aggressive offer sheets. He turns 27 next season. His career arc will hit its apex soon if it hasn't already, and restricted-free-agent hunters prefer to bet on upside. 

    Still, Brogdon is a catch, and more than a few teams will be in the market for splashy alternatives after whiffing on A-listers. His name will pop up among the top consolation prizes. The Bucks have to figure out how much they're willing to spend before his price tag outstrips his utility.

Philadelphia 76ers: Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler (Player Option)

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    Dual decisions!

    Keeping this year's core together isn't immediately unworkable for the Philadelphia 76ers. They can max out Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, match JJ Redick's 2018-19 salary ($12.3 million) and still technically play out next year without entering the luxury tax.

    That projection doesn't allow room for upgrades on the margins, but it's workable. And Philly may not shy away from entering the tax. Managing partner Josh Harris said the team will "be comfortable" ponying up to win, per the Philly Voice's Kyle Neubeck.

    Jumping into the tax next year isn't especially heroic. The Sixers can pay their top three free agents market value, use their mid-level exception and still, in all likelihood, finish below the apron.

    Life gets harder to navigate beyond next season. Assuming Ben Simmons commands a max extension, the Sixers would have around $129.2 million committed to him, Butler, Harris and Joel Embiid in 2020-21. That number spikes if Simmons qualifies for a designated rookie extension. It falls if Butler, Harris or both re-sign for less than their max numbers this summer.

    Either way, Philly is on the verge of devoting more than the projected 2020-21 cap ($116 million) to four players. And that's before factoring in Redick's salary should he sign a multiyear deal.

    This doesn't mean the Sixers have to make tough cuts now. Any one of their free agents could leave by choice, and they have the option of paying everyone and re-assessing where they stand after next season. Neither Butler nor Harris would be immovable on max deals.

    At the same time, getting into so many players for max money is a huge undertaking. Retaining Butler is essential after he spent so much time running the offense during the playoffs, but maybe the Sixers get pocket shy when it comes to shelling out a superstar contract to Harris—their fourth-best player. Or perhaps Redick becomes a cap casualty of them doling out two maxes this summer and preparing for Simmons' next deal.

    Running it back is, objectively, the Sixers' best shot at winning a title next year. Their starting five made just 21 appearances through the regular season and playoffs, and over half came during the postseason. Breaking them up without a larger sample size, before they ever go through a training camp, is almost reckless. The thing is, paying what it will take to keep them intact might be, too.

Toronto Raptors: Marc Gasol's Player Option

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    Marc Gasol will pick up his player option if he cares about maximizing his earning potential. 

    Next year is his age-35 season, and he hasn't played well enough since his late-November downswing to warrant a significant investment. He has spent most of his Toronto Raptors tenure passing up too many wide-open looks and isn't as much of a defensive asset when guarding bigs who park beyond the three-point line and force him to scramble outside the paint.

    Centers are also forever at risk of getting squeezed on the open market. Look at Brook Lopez last summer. Gasol's reputation precedes him, and he can still anchor an offense for stretches with his passing alone, but an audit of this summer's biggest potential spenders reveals no obvious suitors. 

    Oh, he'll have admirers. Without question. But which team is exceeding the $25.6 million he's owed next season across a two-year deal? It might take him three years to recoup all that money and turn a slight profit.

    That math doesn't add up. He won't have a real decision to make...unless Toronto appears on the verge of dissolution.

    Kawhi Leonard's free agency looms over the Raptors' timeline. They don't have a championship core without him. They may look to start over if he leaves. And even if they don't, who's to say Gasol would want to remain part of a non-contender?

    Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam are a playoff core in the Eastern Conference. They wouldn't sniff the NBA Finals by themselves. And again: Team president Masai Ujiri could look to tear everything down if Leonard signs elsewhere.

    Sticking with the Raptors without regard for how the rest of their offseason plays out is easier if they're coming off a title. Short of a championship, though, Gasol has to weigh Toronto's worst-case scenarios when deciding his player option—without actually knowing all the details unless Leonard tips his hand before July.

Utah Jazz: Derrick Favor's Non-Guaranteed Deal

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    Derrick Favors' future boils down to two issues: How much do the Utah Jazz value max cap space, and how much are they willing to pay for a ceremonial starter who, in reality, is Rudy Gobert's backup?

    The cap-space nugget is a biggie. Waiving Favors' non-guaranteed deal carves out the money necessary to sign a star from the Tobias Harris/Khris Middleton/Kemba Walker tier. Utah is not a free-agent hotspot, but the chance to pitch the biggest names or divvy up that max slot between two impact players may be worth the opportunity cost of parting ways with Favors and his $16.9 million salary.

    "What if the Jazz could find a playmaking 4 who's an upgrade over Jae Crowder?" Andy Bailey wrote for Forbes. "What about a point guard who can shoot? Or, a 3-and-D wing who would move Donovan Mitchell to the 1?"

    Utah has some breathing room. Favors' contract doesn't guarantee until July 6. That gives the Jazz time to meet with and gauge the temperature of free agents before making their decision. Their backs would only be against the wall if this summer's top targets take forever to commit.

    Whiff on all the available stars, and the Jazz can guarantee Favors' salary and still have more than $15 million in spending power to burn through. That's not enough money to reinvent the wheel, but it will net them a quality point guard or combo forward.

    Then again, Utah might be better off—or prefer to—waive Favors no matter what. His $16.9 million salary is an overpay, albeit a valuable trade chip, and his partnership with Gobert has already crashed into its ceiling.

    Though the Jazz have been a net plus with both bigs on the court in every season since 2014-15—demonstratively so in 2016-17 and 2017-18—their offensive rating during those minutes has only finished higher than the 44th percentile once (2015-16). Utah pumped in just 104.4 points per 100 possessions when they shared the court this season (13th percentile), with a net rating barely in the green.

    Staggering their minutes has its advantages. The Jazz were plus-5.5 points per 100 possessions with an offensive rating of 110.8 during the regular season when Favors played center, and he came off the bench in the final three games of their first-round loss to the Houston Rockets. 

    Backup center suits him. But second-string bigs aren't supposed to make $16.9 million. Favors and Gobert will earn $41.9 million between them next year—more than 38 percent of the cap—and that's too much for a team with so many holes on the perimeter.

    The Jazz shouldn't default to keeping Favors if they don't land a star. Exhausting their cap space on a handful of cleaner offensive fits is potentially just as valuable.

Washington Wizards: Bradley Beal's Supermax Eligibility

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    Bradley Beal's supermax eligibility is only an issue for the Washington Wizards this summer if he earns an All-NBA bid. And while the results have yet to be released, he's a good bet to grab one of the six guard spots.

    Stephen Curry, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard are all locks. The field gets a little hazy after them, but Beal is as close as it gets to a fifth formality after he became the 11th player in NBA history to average at least 25 points, five rebounds and five assists per game with a true shooting percentage north of 58.

    His company: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Alex English, James Harden, LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson. 

    In the event Beal gets the nod, the Wizards can sign him to a four-year extension worth more than $194 million. It is impossible to know whether they'll pony up (or if he'll accept their offer). Figuring that out is a job for former general manager Ernie Grunfeld's replacement, who Washington has yet to hire.

    Extending Beal would lock the Wizards into a wildly expensive backcourt. By the time his new salary kicks in for 2021-22, they'd have more than $85 million committed to him and John Wall. That figure would blow past $93 million in 2022-23—the final year of Wall's own designated veteran extension.

    Beal is arguably worth the massive payday in a vacuum. He has missed just five games over the past three years, and a prospective extension only takes him through his age-31 season. But footing the bill for two supermaxes is a monumental ask. It equates to more than 70 percent of the salary cap.

    For. Two. Players.

    So, yeah. If and when Beal receives his All-NBA due, the Wizards will have a decision to make.

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass. 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 B/R's Andrew Bailey.