I had a long talk with DeMarre Carroll of the Hawks on the night Atlanta eliminated Brooklyn from the playoffs, and the discussion turned toward money — as in how much money Carroll will be worth on the open market, and whether it would be worth the risk for him to sign a one-year deal and then hope to cash in big-time in the summer of 2016 when the salary cap jumps to $90 million.
Since our conversation, Carroll has had a pair of 20-point performances in the second round vs. Washington — making it six straight games in which he has reached the 20-point plateau. During that span, Carroll has gone 49-for-79 from the field (62 percent) and 18-for-32 from 3-point range (.562) from 3-point range. Only one voter (out of 130) included him on his Most Improved Player ballot, so props to Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell for that vote (even though his ballot did not include Jimmy Butler, who won the award).
Like Butler, Carroll is playing himself into a mega-contract. And this run of consecutive 20-point games is earning him an elevated ranking in this latest list of the top 50 Free Agents.
It is widely assumed that Butler will get a max contract from the Bulls.
But what about Carroll? Is he worthy of a max deal?
For argument’s sake, let’s say he is. And that’s where we get to the risk-reward part of Carroll’s summer decision. As a player with six years of experience in the NBA, he is eligible for a max contract worth a little less than 25 percent of the salary cap, which is projected to be $67.1 million. That would make for a starting salary of roughly $16.3 million, which totals out to $94 million over five years if he stays with Atlanta and does a five-year deal.
But what if Carroll decided to roll the dice on the belief that he will be regarded as a max player one year from now. By then, Carroll will have logged 7 seasons in the NBA, which bumps his max up to a little less than 30 percent of the cap. We would then be talking about a first-year salary of $25 million, which translates into a five-year, $144 million deal if he gets maxed out by the Hawks.
If you are Carroll, is that $50 million in extra money a risk worth taking?
That is the type of question a lot of max-level players will be asking themselves this summer, a list that includes LeBron James, Goran Dragic, Kevin Love and Brook Lopez — a pair of players who can opt-in to the final years on their current contracts and hit the market in the summer of 2016 looking for MegaMillions jackpot contracts. The summer of 2015 will feature a free agent market that will be the last as we have come to know it.
The summer of 2016 will be bedlam as the money from the new nine-year, $24 billion TV deal kicks in. And because the Players Association refused to adopt the NBA’s proposal of “smoothing” in the revenue, the salary cap will jump an astronomical 32 percent to approximately $89 million with a projected tax line of $108 million.
Here are the teams with significant potential cap room this summer: Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Dallas Mavericks, Detroit Pistons, Los Angeles Lakers, Memphis Grizzlies, New York Knicks, Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns, Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings, San Antonio Spurs, Toronto Raptors.
Here’s who has significant potential cap room in the summer of 2016: Every team.
Under normal circumstances, players such as James, Love, Lopez and Dragic wouldn’t give a second thought to opting out and signing a new contract at a fixed percentage of a slightly higher cap. Doing so would lock them into that salary and the corresponding raises.
But given the anticipated increase in 2016, those players have to consider opting in and becoming free agents next summer, when the fixed percentage would be a much larger number.
The increase also impacts teams, which will be trying to do as much business as possible this summer.
There’s almost no sense in taking a tough negotiating stance with a restricted free agent and forcing him to sign his qualifying offer, because that will only make him more expensive as an unrestricted free agent next summer.
So don’t be surprised if players such as Carroll, Tobias Harris or even Khris Middleton receive max contracts, because those deals will be downright bargains compared to the size of max contracts a year from now. And teams that may have been apprehensive about exceeding the luxury tax to sign a player this summer may bite the bullet and pay the tax because the cap increase next summer almost ensures that they will not be a tax team in 2016, avoiding the higher repeater penalties.
This is our third edition of our free agency rankings, and we will continue to update it as the spring moves along.
We are factoring in the relative interest in each player, his willingness to change teams, whether he is unrestricted or restricted, has a player option or team option, skill, age and any other mitigating factors. Understand, Rajon?
1. Marc Gasol, C, Memphis (Unrestricted): This isn’t his first free agent rodeo. Remember, the Rockets signed him to a four- year, $55 million offer sheet in the post-lockout frenzy of 2011, which the Grizzlies matched.
But this is his last shot at a monster contract, and no team can offer Gasol what the Grizzlies can. Sorry, Knicks fans, but according to Sheridan, that is the overriding factor. There is also the overlooked factor that Gasol has lived in Memphis since high school, when his brother was the Grizzlies’ alpha dog. So he’s probably not going anywhere, although the Spurs likely will kick the tires.
2. LaMarcus Aldridge, F, Portland (Unrestricted): Less than a year ago, Aldridge said he wanted to be “the best Blazer ever,” which could only be done by staying in the Pacific Northwest. But he also turned down a three-year, $55 million extension.
Most assumed that was because he wanted the more lucrative five-year deal this summer — and Aldridge said as much. This will be Aldridge’s third contract and likely his last chance to truly explore free agency. The allure of playing for Dallas or San Antonio in his home state is strong. And the Blazers’ first-round exit from the playoffs doesn’t help.
3. Kawhi Leonard, F, San Antonio (Restricted): It doesn’t matter whether the Spurs are proactive and don’t allow their future cornerstone to get to the market, or reactive and allow another team the formality of making an offer. Leonard will become the first Spurs player to receive a true max deal – not an eight-figure average, like Tony Parker; not something slightly below the max, like Tim Duncan – since Duncan’s second contract in 2001.
Think of all the poorly run teams that have given max deals to undeserving players in that span. The Spurs have not handed out one and have four championships to show for it. And the beauty of Leonard’s deal is that it will be below market value once the new TV money explodes the cap.
4. DeAndre Jordan, C, LA Clippers (Unrestricted): Max guy. Not many players can get you 20 rebounds on a nightly basis. Remember when Dwight Howard used to do that?
A valid argument can be made that Jordan should have been both an All-Star and the Defensive Player of the Year this season. His horrifying free-throw shooting is a minor tradeoff for his paint presence on both ends and the fact that he is the NBA’s current iron man, having not missed a game since the league returned from its last lockout. It is safe to say that Steve Ballmer can afford to keep him on a five-year max deal, and I expect that to come his way.
5. Jimmy Butler, G, Chicago (Restricted): No one – not Leonard, not Brook Lopez, not Draymond Green, not Enes Kanter – has been on a more sustained or successful salary drive than Butler, who turned down $40 million over four years in October.
Since then, he has become Chicago’s leading scorer, earned his first All-Star appearance, likely will win Most Improved Player and could be hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy. With Derrick Rose returning to form at times in the playoffs, it’s easy to forget that Butler and Pau Gasol did the heavy lifting for much of the season. And like the Spurs with Leonard, the Bulls will have one of the game’s top shooting guards locked up for below market value once the TV money kicks in.
6. Greg Monroe, F, Detroit (Unrestricted): Do the Detroit Pistons consider him a max player? They didn’t a year ago, which is why Monroe and his agent, David Falk, accepted the qualifying offer and decided to see what comes their way in July 2015.
This is the guy I can see the Knicks making the hardest push for … but again, the actual dollar difference (when accounting for local taxes) between taking a five-year max deal from Detroit vs. a four-year max deal from New York is beyond substantial. For now, he appears to be the Knicks’ No. 1 target, as colleague Mike Scotto reported a few months ago.
7. Goran Dragic, G, Miami (Player Option): He isn’t going anywhere. His agent, Bill Duffy, made quite the power play in getting him dealt to Miami, which removed the Knicks and Lakers from the equation in terms of potential destinations.
If he opts out, the Heat will make him a max offer, and that will be that. If he waits a year and stays healthy, the same thing will be true. There will be parties in Slovenia and South Beach, and the Heat will have their best point guard since … Tim Hardaway Sr.?
8. Kevin Love, F, Cleveland (Player Option): The biggest mystery guy on this list. He has become a third wheel with the Cavaliers, and his first career playoff trip ended with a serious shoulder injury that likely will beep him out of action until training camp.
He has about 100 million reasons to opt out of his contract, which is why many believe he almost certainly will. And how happy is he in Cleveland? Does a return to Southern California where he played college ball seem more appealing? How about Boston, where he can accelerate the rebuilding plan? In the end, maybe the Cavs would have been better off keeping Andrew Wiggins.
9. Brook Lopez, C, Brooklyn (Player Option): If he opts out, he will get a max deal because he has spent the last two months showing a newfound desire to rebound and defend alongside his polished offensive game.
That might scare off Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, who no longer has the drunken-sailor approach he brought to the NBA when he arrives a half-decade ago. Lopez seems to be an ideal fit for the Lakers, with the added bonus of being a California native. But there will always be questions about his long-term health due to his history of foot injuries. Here’s another possibility: Lopez rolls the dice on himself, opts in and adds tens of millions to his next contract by working off the bigger salary cap number in 2016.
10. Paul Millsap, F, Atlanta (Unrestricted): One of the best signings of the last two years, as the Hawks paid less than $10 million annually for a tough, team-oriented player who has back-to-back All-Star appearances and continues to expand his game beyond the arc to remain relevant in a shooter’s league.
At 30 years old, he will be looking for a max deal, and the Hawks – thanks to absentee GM Danny Ferry’s previous moves – have plenty of cap room to satisfy Millsap and keep their intertwined nucleus together. The only question was lame duck’s ownership willingness to pony up and make the debit ledger less attractive to a potential buyer. Now that billionaire Antony Ressler’s group has stepped forward with $850 million, all systems are go.
11. LeBron James, F, Cleveland (Player Option): Relax, Cavs fans. He isn’t going anywhere, which is why he is slotted here.
The only way James doesn’t finish his career in his home state is if there is some sort of irreparable disconnect between him and owner Dan Gilbert that drives The King away. And if James went elsewhere, he would need a security force that would make President Obama blush. However, James could temporarily opt out and re-sign if it somehow would help Cleveland improve its roster, and technically he would be on the market. Depending on how you look at it, he could be first on this list or not even on it. So we arbitrarily placed him here.
12. Draymond Green, F, Golden State (Restricted): There is no doubt that Green’s salary is going to jump from six figures to eight figures. The Warriors already are in tax territory next season, when Klay Thompson’s extension kicks in. They have indicated that they are willing to take the one-year hit in order to keep Green, whose improved offense and ability to defend multiple positions is invaluable. GM Bob Myers would love to move David Lee and the $15.5 million on the final year of his contract, which is not impossible given that it is an expiring deal. With no other big names to re-sign, the Warriors can let another team set the market for Green, which could be as much as $12 million per year. If that happens, (a) Golden State will become the third team in NBA history with five eight-figure players and (b) Stephen Curry will be their fifth-highest paid player.
13. Reggie Jackson, G, Detroit (Restricted): It’s hard to envision GM Stan Van Gundy allowing both Monroe and Jackson to get away in free agency. But he does have a couple of hole cards that may help in retaining Jackson. One is that Jackson’s production didn’t make the Pistons winners. Another is Detroit still has Brandon Jennings, although he will be coming off a torn Achilles tendon. Keep in mind that Jackson forced his way out of Oklahoma City because he wanted to start and turned down an extension offer. The guess here is that Van Gundy will allow the market to set Jackson’s value before deciding to match. What he will not do is play hardball as he did with Monroe, because that would make Jackson an unrestricted free agent in 2016, when the bags of TV money show up.
14. Enes Kanter, F-C, Oklahoma City (Restricted): Probably the best pickup of the trade deadline, even though his awful defense in the pick-and-roll and at the rim – coupled with Serge Ibaka’s absence – made the Thunder look like an ABA team down the stretch. But Kanter’s offense is a welcome addition for a team that normally uses its centers as screeners and goons, and his effectiveness – if not his production – should be even better when lining up alongside Ibaka and Kevin Durant, whose free agency clock is ticking loudly. Now all GM Sam Presti has to do is convince skinflint owner Clay Bennett to look beneath the sofa cushions for the eight figures annually that it will take to keep Kanter, either with an offer right out of the gate or by matching another team’s pitch. That means luxury tax territory for one season until the cap jumps next summer. How OKC deals with Kanter is a direct referendum on Bennett.
15. DeMarre Carroll, F, Atlanta (Unrestricted): Along with Green and Middleton, Carroll figures to receive one of the league’s biggest pay raises this offseason from his $2.44 million salary. Scotto has him in his five free agent sleepers column, but these playoffs are showcasing Carroll’s skills to a much wider audience. He has become one of the best “3-and-D” guys in the league, and his numbers (career highs of 12.6 points, .487 FGs and .395 threes) were certainly enhanced by playing alongside four All-Stars in a system that took advantage of his willingness to screen and cut rather than just stationing him in a corner. Millsap remains Atlanta’s priority, but with the Hawks under the cap this season and new ownership soon to be in place, it’s hard to imagine him heading elsewhere.
16. Tobias Harris, F, Orlando (Restricted): Just 22, Harris is going to get max money; you can bet your bottom dollar on that. But here’s two questions: Does he deserve it? Everything he has accomplished has been with awful teams. And will the Magic match? The educated guess here used to be yes, because that is what Rob Hennigan has told Magic season-ticket holders. But the proof will come when the 72-hour matching window begins to tick away, and the Magic have to decide if there may be too much collateral damage from having Harris making significantly more money than teammate Nikola Vucevic, whose $12.8 million salary in 2018-19 might make him the NBA’s most underpaid player. (That title will be held for the next several seasons by Stephen Curry, the MVP, who is under contract for $11.4 million next season and $12.1 million the following season.)
17. Brandon Knight, G, Phoenix (Restricted): He was Jimmy Butler with training wheels, unable to reach accord on an extension with Milwaukee in October, elevating his game to borderline All-Star level and setting himself up for a huge payday as a restricted free agent this summer. Then Bucks management – likely influenced by ownership’s struggles in getting taxpayers to pick up more of the tab for a new arena – got out from under Knight’s impending payday and dealt him to Phoenix, where his season dovetailed with an injury. But Knight is just 23 and is about as close to a max salary point guard as you will find out there this summer. In today’s NBA, he is a much better option than Rajon Rondo.
18. Al Jefferson, C, Charlotte (Player Option): Michael Jordan is a billionaire now, according to Forbes, and if you are Jefferson, you opt out of your deal and get a new one for five years at max money. If you know your boss can afford it, and if you know your boss has no choice … this is what you do.
And if Jordan hesitates, you remind him of the max money he offered Gordon Hayward last summer when the team put Hayward’s likeness on the Jumbotrons inside and outside the arena. Yes, leverage is good.