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Why second-round NBA draft picks might get paid more than first-rounders this year

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Jordan Mickey had high hopes for the 2015 NBA draft, but his agent warned him: If you fall outside the top half or so of the first round, you’re better off going in the second round. Teams picking high in the second round offer a better fit and more flexibility.

Mickey heard the message.

He just didn’t care.

“The recognition, guys want to say they were a first-round pick,” Mickey said. “That’s something I wanted.”

“I just felt that, the way I play, I deserve it.”

Mickey slipped out of the first round to the Celtics at No. 37. Like many players, he still carries a grudge for the teams that passed on him.

“It’ll probably be with me until I’m done playing the game,” Mickey said.

What separates Mickey from other second-rounders: He received one of the biggest perks usually afforded only to first-rounders  – a higher salary – despite going in the second round.

It’s the product a salary cap increasing higher than ever imagined when this Collective Bargaining Agreement was signed, and this summer’s projected $94 million cap will intensify the effect. Expect several 2016 second-round picks to make more than some of their first-round counterparts next season.

The system

First-round picks are bound by a salary scale negotiated by the league and union into the 2011 CBA. The scale is a set amount for each pick, increasing slightly each year. Teams can pay a player between 80% and 120% of his scale amount, and 120% is so common, it’s practically the set number.

Second-round picks are free to negotiate any contract. Teams must use cap space or an exception – e.g., mid-level or minimum-salary – to sign them.

So, with the salary cap skyrocketing, the proportions for first-round picks have become out of whack. In 2011, the first year of the CBA, the No. 1 pick earned 8.86% of the salary cap ($58,044,000). If the salary cap comes in as projected this year ($94 million), the No. 1 pick will earn 6.28% of the salary cap. That same effect is felt throughout the first round.

Meanwhile, second-round picks are free to partake in the newly available TV money.

There’s an unsaid – sometimes, said – tension behind every contract negotiation between teams and second-round picks. To retain a second-rounder’s rights, a team must extend him a required tender. A required tender is a one-year contract offer, and because that’s the only requirement, it’s always for the minimum and fully unguaranteed.

Teams want to sign players to longer contracts with little to no guaranteed money. That way, if the player pans out, he’s cheap and can’t go anywhere. If he doesn’t pan out, he can be waived for minimal cost.

Second-rounders have varying interests. Some want a long-term deal with more money guaranteed or scheduled if not released. Others want to hit free agency sooner, so they can bargain with all 30 teams rather than just the one that drafted him. For most, both desires apply. Receive enough over a long-term contract, and free agency becomes far less important. Face a cheap long-term deal, and the player can always threaten to sign the required tender.

K.J. McDaniels, the No. 32 in the 2014 draft, famously accepted the required tender rather than sign long-term with the 76ers. He then signed a three-year, $6,523,127 deal with the Rockets last summer. Despite getting just the minimum his first year, McDaniels has already made more than half of the players selected in the first round ahead of him. Next season, he’ll pass a few more in earnings. Plus, he’ll either become a free agent a second time before 2014 first-rounders do so once (if Houston declines his 2017-18 team option to make him restricted) or an unrestricted free agent before scaled 2014 first-rounders (if Houston exercises his team option).

McDaniels’ plan carried risk. If he got cut in his first training camp, he could’ve walked away with nothing.

Still, there’s already a school of thought that players are better off going early in the second round rather than late in the first, that the freedom to negotiate a shorter contract trumps the lower initial salary.

Now, second-round picks can probably have their cake and eat it too – a higher initial salary and more freedom.

Precedent runs deeper than Mickey

Mickey became the first second-round pick under this CBA to sign the year he was drafted and earn more his first year than a first-round pick.

Players that were stashed overseas had done it, but their stock changed from the time of the draft – either because they developed or were ready to jump to the NBA. We’re looking at only players to sign the year they were drafted.

Mickey actually made more than four first-round picks last season: No. 27 pick Larry Nance Jr., No. 28 pickR.J. Hunter (Mickey’s own Celtics teammate), No. 29 pickChris McCullough and No. 30 pickKevon Looney.

Put another way, Mickey received 1.67% of the 2015-16 cap. The No. 20 pick Thursday will receive 1.66% of the projected 2016-17 cap.

Based on that precedent, more than third of the first round could make less next season than a second rounder.

There are deeper ways to evaluate a second-rounder’s contract than first-year salary as a percentage of the salary cap. Future salaries, length, guarantees, options and incentives all matter. But for a quick reference, we’ll go by first-year salary as a percentage of the salary cap.

Several second-round picks under this CBA – Mickey, Richaun Holmes, Chandler Parsons, Draymond Green, Joseph Young, Montrezl Harrell, Allen Crabbe, Jerami Grant, Joe Harris, Roy Devyn Marble, Kyle O'Quinn Tyler Honeycutt and Damien Inglis – have signed the year they were drafted and received a first-year salary relatively higher than what at least one first-rounder projects to make this year.

Here’s everyone on the same scale, the highest paid second-rounders colored by year with 2016 first-round picks interspersed in black:

    • 2015: green
    • 2014: blue
    • 2013: silver
    • 2012: yellow
    • 2011: red

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Previous contracts inform future contracts. If numerous second-rounders previously received starting salaries greater than 1.20% of the cap, agents will demand similar amounts this year. Those amounts will just happen to be worth more than first-rounders can receive.

A couple related factors beyond simply a higher cap conspire to boost second-round salary even further this year:

1. Nearly every team will have cap space. Because teams don’t receive an exception for second-round picks, many teams just didn’t have the ability to pay a second-rounder more even if they wanted to. That will rarely be an excuse now.

2. Many players are locked into contracts signed before the new TV money kicked in. That leaves more money for everyone else.

Well, almost everyone else. The rookie scale prevents first-rounders from enjoying the windfall.

Meanwhile, second-rounders will cash in.

The No. 30 pick will make $1,171,560 next season if he signs in the NBA. How many second-round picks can say “Give me $1.2 million (or more), or I’ll sign the required tender” and have the team acquiesce? I’m betting on several. Plenty of teams will have that much money lying around without a place to spend it, maybe even needing to spend it to reach the floor. Securing their own second-rounders seem as good a use as any.

It’s too late to change the system for this year, but either side can opt out of the CBA after next season by giving notice by Dec. 15, 2016. The rookie scale should be revisited in the next agreement.

A simple solution: Tying the rookie scale, like the cap itself, to revenue rather than ascribing a prefixed amount. Owners avoid the hassle of draft confusion, and players get more money to the players that deserve it.

“There’s no question that the contracts, the salary scale for first first-round picks is outdated,” said agent Mark Bartelstein, who represented two first-round picks who made less than Mickey last year (Larry Nance Jr. and R.J. Hunter).

But what about in the meantime?

Prepare for second-round saga in ’16

The 2016 draft is already hectic with several players having wide draft ranges. The second-round issue only adds uncertainty.

Will agents try to steer their players from the first round to the second round?

“If you’re projected to be a low first-rounder, it would be absolute lunacy not to work out with teams in that range, because you can easily fall,” said agent Keith Kreiter, who represented Richaun Holmes, the second-highest-paid second-rounder last year. “If you don’t work out for teams in the lower first and they pass on you, and some teams in the 30s end up passing on you – there’s no guarantee they’ll take you – then you’re in the 40s and 50s and you could be running the risk of straight minimums with very little guaranteed.”

Though there’s more money to be made in the high second round, there might be big downside to falling further. For players on their first NBA contracts, playing it safe makes some sense.

“A first-round deal isn’t so terrible in this world,” Kreiter said.

But there’s still wiggle room to work the system.

“One of the things I could see happening is you have a wonderful workout for a team in the 30s, high 30s, a team says, ‘Would you be willing to shut it down, and we’ll take you?'” Kreiter said. “There are some people that would maybe take that risk, although it’s a huge risk.”

Until Thursday, the question is which players this affects. Then, with everyone selected, it’ll turn into the magnitude of the effect.

How many second-rounders get more favorable contracts than first-rounders? How much more favorable? Will second-round negotiations become more contentious with more at stake?

It could become chaos, and Mickey is the trendsetter.

“It’s always a great thing to be the first at something,” Mickey said. “Hopefully, other players can do it.”

I suspect plenty will.

Dwight Howard on Hornets’ coach Clifford: “It’s a great feeling when somebody believes in you”

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Dwight Howard‘s game is much better than his reputation among fans.

He’s not the Defensive Player of the Year/All-NBA/MVP candidate level player he was back in Orlando, but Howard is still one of the best rebounders in the game, he’s strong defensively, and he’s an efficient scorer inside. He’s a quality center, if he plays within himself and is used well. His perception as a guy who does not take the game seriously and held back Houston and Atlanta in recent years has validity (he plays better in pick-and-roll than on the move, but wants the ball in the post), but the idea he is trash is flat-out wrong. He’s still good.

Howard wants to change his reputation, rewrite the final chapters of his career, and told Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN that Steve Clifford’s Charlotte Hornets are the place that is going to happen.

“The other places I was, the coaches didn’t really know who I am,” Howard told ESPN. “I think that they had perception of me and ran with it. Cliff knows my game. He knows all the things that I can do. I’m very determined to get back to the top. It’s a great feeling when somebody believes in you. They aren’t just saying it; they believe it. It really just pushed me to the limit in workouts: running, training, everything. I want to do more.

“In Orlando, I was getting 13-15 shots a game. Last season, in Atlanta, it was six shot attempts. It looks like I’m not involved in the game. And if I miss a shot, it sticks out because I am not getting very many of them. But I think it’s all opportunity, the system. I haven’t had a system where I can be who I am since I was in Orlando.”

Howard averaged 8.3 field goal attempts per game in Atlanta, which is about five a game below his peak. Last season 75 percent of Howard’s shots came within three feet of the rim — is is not there to space the floor, however, he can still move fairly well off the roll and is a good passer for a big.

Last season, 28 percent of Howard’s possessions came on post ups, and he averaged a pedestrian 0.84 points per possession on those. On the 21 percent of shots he got on a cut, he averaged a very good 1.36 PPP. When he got the ball back as a roll man (again on the move), it was 1.18 PPP. The challenge long has been Howard is better on the move but doesn’t feel involved unless he gets post touches, and if he doesn’t feel involved and engaged he’s not the same player.

Maybe Clifford can make this all work with some older plays where Howard feels comfortable.

Charlotte, with Howard in the paint and on the boards, should get back to being a top 10 NBA defensive team, not the middle of the pack as they were last season. Clifford is better than that as a coach, and Howard is an upgrade in the paint (on both ends). Charlotte should be a playoff team again in the East.

But it all will come back to Howard. Fair or not. And Wojnarowski is right, this is Howard’s last best chance to write the ending he wants to his career.

Friday afternoon fun: Watch James Harden’s 10 best plays from last season

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James Harden had a historic season in Houston.

Since it’s Friday afternoon and your sports viewing options consist of watching guys about to be cut from NFL rosters try to impress, why not check out Harden’s best plays from last season. It’s worth a couple minutes of your time.

Mavericks sign Jeff Withey to one-year contract

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Jeff Withey‘s ex-fiancée accused him of domestic violence, but he was not charged.

That frees him to continue his basketball career, which he’ll do in Dallas.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

The Mavericks could use another center, even if they re-sign Nerlens Noel. Salah Mejri is the only other true center, though Dirk Nowitzki will now play the position.

Withey is a good rim protector. Just don’t ask him to do anything away from the basket.

Dallas annually brings excess players to training camp and has them compete for regular-season roster spots. Whether or not his salary is guaranteed, Withey will likely fall into that competition.

Marc Gasol: If Grizzlies don’t share my goal of continued growth, we might have to revisit things

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The Grizzlies’ Grit & Grind era has ended.

Zach Randolph signed with the Kings, and Tony Allen appears likely to leave Memphis, too. The Grizzlies are prioritizing younger/cheaper players like Ben McLemore and Tyreke Evans.

Marc Gasol via Ala Carta, as translated by HoopsHype:

I’m very ambitious and I’ve wanted Memphis to be a great franchise. We’ve grown a lot the last 6-7 years, but we have to keep growing. If this is not lined up, maybe we may have to revisit things.

Gasol has been loyal to Memphis, and his first wish is probably winning there. But Giannis Antetokounmpo put it well: Teams must also do right by their players. Gasol is 32 and doesn’t have much time in his prime left. I see why rebuilding wouldn’t interest him.

But what will he do about it if the Grizzlies don’t prioritize the present? They made their push last summer with a max contract for Chandler Parsons, but because Parsons can’t stay healthy, that deal only inhibits team growth.

Gasol is locked up for two more years before a player option. He doesn’t have much leverage. This is part of the reason LeBron James keeps signing short-term contracts. Gasol doesn’t have the same ability to steer his team in his desired direction

On the potentially bright side, rebuilding teams often don’t have much use for 32-year-olds guaranteed more than $72 million over the following three years. If the fit devolves, Memphis becomes more likely to trade him.