Ranking the NBA's 5 Toughest Contract Decisions This Summer
Negotiating an NBA contract is complicated in ways armchair general managers like ourselves will never fully understand.
So much goes into the process. It isn't just a matter of aligning skill sets with the proper salaries. Pay comps for similar players, current and future free-agent markets, cap sheets, depth-chart politics, player-team relationships, agent ties, organizational directions and much, much more are all factors.
Certain contract situations are easier to hash out. Everything just lines up. Others are the normal amount of difficult. Some, though, are a special brand of hard.
These examples typically focus on the logistical gymnastics through which teams must wade. But players have their own decisions to make and priorities to juggle. Our look at this summer's five toughest contract decisions seeks to identify instances in which both sides of the bargaining table have a lot to consider without the luxury of a clear-cut resolution.
Upcoming rookie extensions will be excluded because there are too many question marks to tackle. Every other negotiation is fair game. Rankings will be based on how hard we believe it will be for players and their incumbent teams to find common ground.
And, we're off.
5. Spencer Dinwiddie, Brooklyn Nets (Player Option)
Spencer Dinwiddie entered this season on the fast track to a mega contract, having entrenched himself as a fringe All-Star. Select people harped on his iffy three-point clip, but he averaged 20.6 points and 6.8 assists while downing 48.5 percent of his twos and improving his touch around the rim during the 2019-20 campaign.
Declining his $12.3 million player option wasn't even a discussion. Someone was going to throw him near-max money in free agency, ahead of his age-28 season.
That calculus changes a bit following Dinwiddie's torn right ACL. He will still opt out; his $12.3 million tag is well below market value for what he does at full strength, and this year's free-agency class wants for any trace of star power in the worst way. But his per-year basis is more of an unknown on the heels of such a significant setback—especially because he's now torn the ACL in both of his knees.
Does he target the most years possible on the open market in the name of long-term security? Prioritize a one-plus-one scenario that lets him re-enter free agency in 2022 after getting a chance to prove himself? How much of a raise will he get now? Which teams will actually have interest in him?
Potentially losing him for nothing stings at the same time—and not just because he'd then be a wasted asset. The Big Three appeared in just eight games together during the regular season. Having Dinwiddie better equips them to navigate load management for and injuries to their stars.
The Nets can always sign Dinwiddie with the intent to move him later, but that risks his next deal going belly-up post-injury and turning into a net-negative. There's also no guarantee he re-ups with a team that could feasibly flip him elsewhere in the first year of his new pact. So, yeah: both parties have some questions to answer.
4. Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics (Extension-Eligible)
Upheaval within the Boston Celtics does nothing to complicate Marcus Smart's extension eligibility. His contract situation was always going to be thorny—largely for the Celtics.
Offering him the maximum raise allowed from next year's salary would put him around $17.2 million in 2022-23. That might not be enough. Smart remains All-Defense material. Nobody on Boston's roster spent more time guarding No. 1 options this season, according to BBall Index, and he's strong and physical enough to line up against guards and forwards.
For as much as he can be a painful adventure on offense, he is also an asset. His three-point volume has value on its own, and he's canning a rock-solid 35.5 percent of his triples over the past three seasons.
Another team might be willing to go higher than $17.2 million for Smart in 2022. He'll be only 28 when he hits the market. A four-year contract takes him through the heart of his prime. It behooves the Celtics to get him signed rather than risk losing him for nothing down the line.
This presumes Smart is open to an extension. He might not be. You barely need two hands to count the number of perimeter defenders as important as him. He can very easily roll the dice into 2022 free agency.
Even if he's willing to sign at his extension number (or for less), Boston must actually pay him. That's not a given.
Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker (player option) are currently on the books for a combined $95.6 million in 2022-23. Tack on $17.2 million for Smart, and the Celtics will have $112.8 million committed to four players—almost the entire projected salary cap ($115.8 million). They must be willing to foot that bill or cuts costs (i.e. Kemba) for a Smart extension to make sense, all without knowing what the supporting cast will look like that far in advance. And if they aren't going to pay him, they'll have to at least consider moving him.
3. Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls (Extension-Eligible)
Zach LaVine's extension eligibility is to some degree simple, in that he's not going to sign one. A 20 percent raise off next year's salary would put him at $23.4 million in 2022-23. Entering free agency lets LaVine ink a max contract that projects to start at $33.7 million—a difference of more than $10 million. Case closed.
But not really.
The Chicago Bulls can try to renegotiate and extend LaVine, a move that would drum up his 2021-22 salary while attaching more subsequent years. But that immediate uptick must be paid in cap space. If they plan on maxing him out, they'll need somewhere between $13 million and $14 million in spending power.
Coming up with that scratch isn't a mindless endeavor. The Bulls must renounce all their own free agents to start, including Lauri Markkanen (restricted), and decline Ryan Arcidiacono's team option just to chisel out $12-plus million. That number could take a nosedive if their top-four-protected pick doesn't convey to the Orlando Magic. They will have to make at least one more cost-cutting move to squeeze in LaVine's max number.
Traveling such lengths won't be a no-brainer. The Bulls are clearly committed to LaVine—otherwise they wouldn't have made the all-in move for Nikola Vucevic. But giving him an immediate raise hamstrings their capacity to improve a roster that failed to crack this year's play-in tournament. Paying him will actually cost them talent.
If that's what it takes for LaVine to put pen to paper, the Bulls should absolutely do it. Letting him reach unrestricted free agency is a hairy proposition. Another failed playoff chase could drive him into the arms of a better team.
That is LaVine's dilemma amid all this: his view of Chicago's future. Bagging an immediate $14 million or so pay bump is nice, but he doesn't have to worry about his market evaporating before 2022. He will get max money. Period. If he's going to take a new deal from the Bulls, he needs to be comfortable tethering the next half-decade or so of his career to this organization's direction.
2. Lonzo Ball, New Orleans Pelicans (Restricted)
Lonzo Ball made himself a looot of money this year. He continues to have his limitations as a half-court creator, but he averaged 15.3 points and 6.0 assists while hitting 39.8 percent of his 8.6 three-point attempts per game after his name hit the early-season rumor mill. Malik Beasley and Stephen Curry were the only players to match his long-range efficiency and volume over this stretch.
Prospective suitors might be willing to come in with offers starting at $20-plus million. Matching a deal in that neighborhood, while their right, could be difficult for the New Orleans Pelicans. They already shelled out max money for Brandon Ingram and gave Steven Adams a two-year extension, and Eric Bledsoe has another fully guaranteed season at $18.1 million left on his deal.
Coughing up $20 million for Lonzo would leave the Pelicans with $95.4 million committed him, Adams, Bledsoe, Ingram and Zion Williamson. It might only be for one year (Bledsoe's 2022-23 salary is partially guaranteed for $3.9 million), but New Orleans isn't getting any cheaper.
Zion and Jaxson Hayes will be extension-eligible next summer. Josh Hart, another player who should command eight figures annually, is joining Lonzo in restricted free agency. Paying a combined $38 million for both—roughly the sum of their cap holds—puts the Pelicans right at the luxury-tax line depending on where their first-round pick falls.
On the flip side: Showing Lonzo the door without netting value for his exit would be franchise malpractice. They had the opportunity to flip him for assets midseason and opted against it. The implication is that they'll match whatever offer he receives, or that they're confident they can suss out sign-and-trades.
Lonzo has leverage in the latter scenario. The Pelicans cannot broker a sign-and-trade without his cooperation. But working with them will be in his best interests should he want to leave. If he yearns for a bigger role within the offense or just a change of scenery, he has to weigh inking an offer sheet they might match versus trying to find a destination via sign-and-trade that's mutually beneficial.
1. Dennis Schroder, Los Angeles Lakers (Unrestricted)
Dennis Schroder's next contract has become a head-scratcher for all of the involved parties. His decision to turn down a four-year, $84 million extension suggests his market will be frothy, but he capped off the season by shooting a combined 9-of-36 over the Los Angeles Lakers' final three playoff games.
Writing off such a teensy sample isn't hard. Schroder only had two regular-season appearances to ramp up after exiting the league's health and safety protocols, and the entire Lakers team was either banged up, misfiring or both in their first-round series loss to the Phoenix Suns.
Still, Schroder didn't exactly meet expectations prior to missing time. His efficiency noticeably fell off from last year's career-best pace, and he didn't provide the Lakers with a steadying hand in the minutes and games they played without LeBron James. Their offensive rating placed in the 27th percentile when Schroder went to work without the four-time MVP.
The Lakers shouldn't want to pay fringe-star money to keep him in a vacuum. They also might not have a choice. Bouncing Schroder from the books still leaves them over the cap, and they'll flirt with the luxury tax even if he leaves depending on what happens with Alex Caruso, Montrezl Harrell (player option) and Talen Horton-Tucker (restricted).
Los Angeles' initial price of admission is an issue, too. Schroder cost Danny Green and last year's No. 28 pick (Jaden McDaniels). The Lakers will have nothing to show for that small-but-not-insubstantial package if he heads elsewhere.
Do they pay Schroder just because they can't replace him? Is there a world in which the mid-level exception nabs a player who provides more reliable creation and shot-making? Would Schroder be interested in exploring a sign-and-trade that sends him to a team over the cap? Does that suitor exist? What do the Lakers bring back in that scenario?
Looming over all this, meanwhile, is that extension on which Schroder passed. He told reporters he wants to stay with the Lakers. Will he take less to make that happen? Does he have the outside leverage to drag L.A. to or above the initial $84 million offer? Will he still want to stay if the Lakers decide to bring him off the bench? There isn't a contract negotiation with more layers to it this summer.