New reality facing familiar NBA free agents

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Cleveland Cavaliers’ Deron Williams, right, follows through on a shot as teammate LeBron James watches during an NBA basketball practice, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

By David Aldridge, TNT Analyst

Most NBA training camps begin two weeks from today. (Teams that will be playing exhibition games abroad, namely the Minnesota Timberwolves and Golden State Warriors, who’ll play two games in China the first week of October, will start camps a few days earlier.)

With a few exceptions, rosters are pretty much set for the coming season. Many teams’ players have been working out together for weeks already in L.A. or other comfortable climes. It’s time to go.

Just not for everyone.

Every year, some good players get left at the altar when the season comes around. Sometimes they price themselves out of the market, sometimes, they’re caught in a numbers crunch. And restricted free agents, traditionally, find the sledding very difficult after the first few days of free agency. If they don’t find a team willing to drop an offer sheet on them early, they can find it gets very cold very quickly.

It’s one thing to be coming off an injury, like Andrew Bogut, who would have surely earned a new deal from the Cavs if he hadn’t broken his left tibia less than a minute after making his debut with Cleveland March 6. Bogut has spent much of the summer rehabbing and once all the medical I’s are dotted and T’s crossed, he’s likely to sign before camps start; Boston has been mentioned often as a potential destination.

But there are plenty of other players still out there who also have tread left on their tires, and who could help good teams win this year, like Tony Allen and Gerald Green. The “Grindfather” may be 35, but he still has forgotten more about wing defense than most coaches know, and can still lock up guys 10 years younger than he, as he showed again last season in Memphis.

Veteran forward David Lee, who played for the San Antonio Spurs last season, may be 34, but the 12-year veteran hasn’t forgotten how to score or rebound. Anthony Morrow (Chicago Bulls) and Brandon Rush (Timberwolves) are veteran wings with deep range, which is supposedly the most important commodity a player can have these days.

Deron Williams wasn’t the impact player he’d hoped to be when he joined Cleveland in February, but he’s still a career 16-point, 8-assist per game guy that should be able to help somebody off the bench. Veteran Rodney Stuckey also is coming off a not-great season in Indiana, but he’s always been a tough-nosed, competitive guy whether starting or coming off the bench.

Veteran forward Dante Cunningham could certainly help someone. He’s been durable, playing in 91 percent (373 of 410) of his teams’ games the last five years, as well as consistently productive. He’s a solid rotation guy coming off the bench. But after declining his player option in June with the New Orleans Pelicans to become an unrestricted free agent, he still isn’t getting more than minimum offers from New Orleans and Minnesota. Shabazz Muhammad is facing the same situation after the Wolves renounced their rights to him in June.

Restricted free agents like JaMychal Green (Memphis), Mason Plumlee (Denver Nugges), Alex Len (Phoenix Suns) and Nikola Mirotic (Chicago) that got qualifying offers from their respective teams haven’t found suitors, much like Dallas center Nerlens Noel — who turned down a big offer from the Mavericks in July in expectation for a bigger one from another team that never came. He wound up signing the one-year tender with Dallas for $4.2 million.

Others have chosen not to wait, opting to sign in China, as former Sacramento Kings guard Ty Lawson and ex-Pelicans forward Donatas Motiejunas have done. Both will play in the Chinese Basketball Association this season with Shandong. The Chinese season ends before the NBA playoffs begin in April, allowing U.S. players who play there for a given season a chance to sign with an NBA team before the deadline to be playoff eligible.

Part of this is a market correction. After teams spent like drunken sailors in the summer of 2016, flush with cap space created by the new national television deals — money that they had to spend to reach team minimum salaries — the spigot was turned off in ’17. There’s a third of the available cap space that there was just 12 months ago. The supply is gone, but the demand is just as high as it was in ’16.

But unsigned players are also up against the reality of the new two-way contracts that were negotiated into the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. The selling point for the NBA Players’ Association was simple: 60 new jobs for its members, most of which will be young guys who’ll now get a better opportunity to stick with the team that either drafted them or signed them afterward, and for better pay than they’d get if they signed a one-way deal with a G League team. Every team in the league has signed at least one two-way player going into camps.

The two-way deals create 16th and 17th roster spots for NBA teams. They don’t count against a team’s NBA salary cap unless the player’s G League deal converts into an NBA contract. Players on two-way deals will spend most of their season with their NBA team’s G League affiliate (or in the case of the handful of NBA teams that still don’t have a G League squad, whatever G League team they’re assigned).

Two-way players will be paid on a $75,000 scale while they’re in the G League — much more than the $26,000 maximum for G League players on one-way deals. The two-way players can spend up to 45 days in the NBA, during which time they’re paid on the rookie minimum scale for an NBA player, $815,615. A two-way with 45 days’ NBA time on his docket could make more than $200,000 total this season. And just as important as the money is the opportunity to be fully integrated into an organization — which is showing its commitment to trying to develop the player by paying more for those two extra roster spots.

Yet the two-ways may have produced — that phrase again — unintended consequences.

Instead of having a full complement of 15 NBA players and two G League two-ways, many teams are opting to sign 14 NBA players, leaving the last spot open, and signing one or two two-way players. And that’s not much different than what most teams did in previous years.

“That 15th spot is an endangered species,” one team executive said.

The new CBA also put in bigger minimums for players across the board, including minimum salaries, which went up 45 percent, as did rookie scale, mid-level and bi-annual exception contracts. A veteran with 10 or more years of experience now gets at least $2.32 million this year. Yet even that hard-won concession could be impacting the very players it’s supposed to help.

“Two ways are definitely impacting rosters,” said another team executive. “In addition, if you are close to the tax, the big bump in minimum salaries are also affecting whether you can keep a 15th man. For example, if you have 15 guarantees and have a major injury and have to replace a player, the minimum salary for a guy with two years of service is now close to 1.5M (the actual number is $1.471 million), which is 50% higher than last year ($980K) and can take a team from under or close to tax to over the tax. The extra $500K might not seem like a lot, but remember that teams usually have several minimum players, so it adds up.”

Especially if you can spend $75,000 to $200,000 instead.

Another exec said the two-way deals have impacted signings “significantly” this summer. “We have effectively 17 players to choose from,” he said.

This view isn’t shared by everyone. Some agents don’t believe the two-ways have had any real impact on the unsigned players, as they don’t count against the NBA team’s cap. One general manager said the one-year sample size was too small to draw any real conclusions.

And a prominent player agent said that while he thought two ways have played a part in creating the unsigned glut, it was just a small one.

“But I also think some guys identified (that) their market changed drastically and bowed out,” the agent said. “Other guys recognized this and signed quickly to low money deals … just a tighter market this year in general.”

Every summer is different, to be sure. But whatever the reason, time is getting short. And there’s still a lot of talented people out there who’ve answered the bell before, and await the call for help again.

Longtime NBA reporter, columnist and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.





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