The NBA salary cap can be confusing, and unless you are a team’s general manager, you really shouldn’t be crunching numbers trying to figure it out. There are so many exceptions to the way players are signed in the league, that teams have the ability to get creative to make deals work.
For example, a veteran player like Paul Pierce could sign his player option in Washington this season for $5.5 million, or he could opt out and hit free agency. There, a team like the Los Angeles Clippers could sign him for $3.7 million, the most possible for a player not already on their roster, or he could give them a “discount” at the veteran’s minimum around $1.7 million. It gets confusing to follow, and no one ever knows the true value of a contract until it expires, but what I am most interested in this summer, is seeing who gets their max contract, a deal every player enters the league dreaming of.
The salary cap amount varies on a year-to-year basis and it is calculated as a percentage of the NBA’s revenue from the previous season. This current cap was valued at $63 million and next season appears to be somewhere around $89 million. Two years from now? It could be somewhere north of $100 million when the new television deal comes into play for the league. The elite players in the league will just get richer.
The maximum contract a player can sign is based on how long they have played in the league and the salary cap at the time. For a player who has been a professional in the NBA for 6 or fewer years, they can earn 25% of the team’s total cap. For a player who has played between 7-9 years that rises to 30% and for over 10 years of experience, that jumps to 35%. To understand this better, use next year’s salary cap of $89 million, where Anthony Davis, who has only been in the league for just 3 years, could earn a max contract of $15.7 million. Marc Gasol has been in the league 7 years, so his max contract could be $18.9 million. The player everyone is interested in, 12-year veteran LeBron James, could opt out of his player option for next season and make $22.5 million. Of course, he could also sign another one-year deal and then when the cap is over $100 million, sign a max deal for at least $35 million.
We all know that scoring brings ratings, which is why LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and James Harden are the biggest names in the sport. Any night you could tune in to see one of those three score over 40 points or rack another triple double, which they do consistently. These players will bring home the max deals to their families because they are making the headlines and scoring the baskets, but what about the players protecting their own hoops? The top-tier defenders, how will they get paid?
For the first time, we may be on the verge of something unheard of in this sport, a max deal for a defensive player. 3 of the 5 All-NBA First-Team members are set to hit free agency this summer; DeAndre Jordan, Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green. The other two members of this group are under contract for the next two seasons with their current teams, Tony Allen ($5 million) and Chris Paul ($21 million).
Paul is a scorer and facilitator, as well as a top defender, and he gets paid for the offensive production. Tony Allen is one of the best defenders in the sport, but offensively he averaged just 8.5 points per game this season. The lack of scoring is why he gets paid $16 million less than Paul. It will be interesting to see where Jordan, Leonard and Green fall in their contracts this summer. Will they be awarded the max deal for their ability to shut down opposing stars and protect the rim, or will their offensive stats weigh that contract figures down?
DeAndre Jordan made $11 million this season for the Los Angeles Clippers while averaging 11.5 points, 15 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game. He has been in the league 6 years, so next year he is eligible for that 7-9 year range in the max deal discussion, meaning the most he can make is $18.9 million. Offensively, he is just the 12th best at the center position, trailing the number 1 scorer DeMarcus Cousins by 13 points per game. Jordan did lead the league in FG%, but that is because he only takes 6.5 shots per game, which was the lowest by any starting center in the NBA.
Rebounding is where Jordan’s numbers really rise. He led the league in total rebounds per game as well as defensive rebounds per game, with 10.1. He cleans the glass better than anyone in the league and he also played in all 82 contests this season. His offense isn’t great, but he also plays alongside Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Jamal Crawford and JJ Redick, so he isn’t there to score. With the big contracts for these scorers already in place, the Clippers have a salary of $60 million accounted for next season. The problem here is that number only accounts for 9 players. They will have to use the remaining $29 million to fill out the roster and it’s likely not going to include a max offer to Jordan, which would eat up two-thirds of their available spending.
Kawhi Leonard has been in the league just four seasons but has already made a name for himself as last year’s NBA Finals MVP. Eligible for a $15.7 million max contract, Leonard has improved every season as a Spur, with points per game rising from 7.9 to 11.9, 12.8 and then 16.5 this past year. His rebounds, assists, blocks and steals have increased as well. Being a Spur, he has also played in the post season every year and his numbers jumped substantially this year from 14.3 to 20.3 points per game. He is the best offensive player of the three free agents this summer, but in comparison to the rest of the league, he still isn’t in the top of the rankings. He was 35th overall in the league in scoring and in just the small forward position alone, Leonard ranked sixth in the league in scoring and 33rd in 3P%. Offensively, he is not a max contract player. Defensively, there isn’t a better small forward in the game right now. Will his production away from the stat line help secure him the big check? This season he is making $3 million and the Spurs have a qualifying offer available for $4.2 million. They have just $33 million on the books for next season, including Leonard’s offer, so if they want to give him that big max contract, they can certainly do so. If they don’t some other team is going to see a proven young talent with skills on both ends of the floor, and offer him a big contract. Is he worth 25% of the team’s salary cap? If the team plans to build around him, he just might be.
Finally, Draymond Green. His numbers are far from jaw dropping, averaging just 11.7 points, 3.7 assists and 8.2 rebounds per game. At 6’7”, 230lbs., he is undersized to guard more than two positions, yet he is one of the most feared defenders in the game. He constantly cools the other team’s best scorers and he plays physical doing so. He gives up his stat line offensively to help his team win by setting that extra pick or making a pass through a double team. He doesn’t have big scoring numbers; those belong to teammates Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. He doesn’t have big rebounding numbers; those belong to teammate Andrew Bogut. What he does have is the most underrated stats in the league. He tops the categories that fans don’t even know exist.
Basketball-Reference.com shows Green as the number 1 ranked player in individual defensive rating and defensive win shares. SportVU data shows that in 38 drives by point guards this season in which Green was the defender, only 15 points were scored. That is just 0.39 points per drive. The league average is 0.63. He also led the league, regardless of position, in allowing just 0.68 points per post up for players defending at least 75 of them. Green plays hard and he only has two seasons under belt. He is only going to get better.
While Jordan offers tremendous rebounding, Leonard offers experience and clutch defense, Green brings you 100% defense, 100% of the time. Is there a team willing to give 25% of their salary cap to a player who won’t score 20 points a game or bring in 15 rebounds, but can play great defense like he did in the last Finals on LeBron James? The contract will be based off those hidden stats, the ones you have to ask a mathematician to help understand. Green is deserving of a big payday and he will no doubt get that somewhere in the league, but will it be a max contract? Considering he is being paid $915,000 this year, his life is about to change financially this summer one way or another, but it likely won’t be in Golden State. The team already has $78 million on the books for 2015-16 and they would have to make some trades to free up salary to take care of the heart of their defense.
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