Damien Inglis

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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.

Aaron Gordon trying to make jump from great dunker to great player

Mark Blinch/The Canadian Press via AP
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Two Aaron Gordon stories:

1. The first comes from Pistons rookie Stanley Johnson, who played with and against Gordon growing up in California. They were AAU teammates when Gordon attempted a 360 windmill dunk but over-jumped it, spun too far around and missed the slam with his arm at a crooked angle.

“I was puzzled, like, ‘Why didn’t you just lay it up?'” Johnson said. “That’s just the way he is. He’s competitive. Every time he goes out, he wants to prove that he’s one of the guys. And that’s why I think he’ll be successful in the league, because he’s going to work hard, and he’s obsessed with being great.”

2. The other comes directly from Gordon. After his captivating performance in the dunk contest, he missed a couple layups in the Magic’s next practice.

“Everyone looked at me like, why aren’t you dunking it?” Gordon said. “I kind of looked at myself like, why am I not dunking it?”

————————————–

Gordon smiled wide and nodded confidently, lifting his built arms up and down to urge the crowd to get louder. I’m not sure it could’ve. Led by a group of delirious All-Stars in the front row, everyone was going wild.

All for Gordon.

For a moment on All-Star Saturday Night, Gordon might have been the NBA’s most popular player. Though he’d eventually lose in a second extra round to Zach LaVine, Gordon’s under-the-legs dunk after grabbing the ball from the Magic’s mascot highlighted the dunk contest and pushed Gordon onto the national stage.

But, for the all the popularity he gained that night, Gordon is still just a role player averaging 9.1 points and 6.5 rebounds per game on a bad team. As the dunk contest showed, he has potential to do so much more.

His great challenge is finding a balance between unleashing and harnessing his athleticism.

“I have a lot of tools in my bag,” Gordon said. “I just want to polish them.”

The Magic appear more committed than ever to helping Gordon do just that. The No. 4 pick in the 2014 draft, Gordon moved into the starting lineup late last January. A few weeks later, Orlando traded two others who were taking minutes at power forward, Tobias Harris and Channing Frye. Combined with his dunk-contest showing, it’s been a whirlwind for Gordon.

“That’s what makes the NBA so much fun,” Gordon said. “It’s always new for me, and I think it always be. That’s what’s exciting about life, not knowing and then embracing the challenge head on.”

The dunk contest often includes up-and-coming players, and Gordon fits the profile. He could follow a well-worn path of players who participated in a dunk contest then reached their first All-Star game in a future season:

Yet, there’s a major disconnect between Gordon’s potential and production.

With his athleticism, Gordon could terrorize opponents defensively, clean up on the glass and hammer dunk after dunk. At times, he does. But it’s definitely not a regular occurrence yet.

Here’s how Gordon ranks in a few key stats that he could theoretically dominate, ties represented by the range of tied players. Among 281 regulars this season (minimum: 40 games and 15 minutes per game), Gordon’s ranks:

  • Block percentage: 62-64
  • Steal percentage: 112-136
  • Offensive rebound percentage: 44
  • Defensive rebound percentage: 45-46
  • Field-goal percentage at rim: 73

Gordon has been tremendous one game, dismal the next. He’s too often passive, floating on the perimeter offensively or guarding conservatively defensively. The result is middling total production.

“He’s too good of an athlete,” Magic coach Scott Skiles said. “And he and I talk about it all the time, and he readily admits he’s still getting used to the pace of the season and back-to-backs. There’s all kinds of stuff going on.”

Skiles even said it could take Gordon “a handful of years” to develop proper consistency.

Thankfully for Gordon, time is on his side.

Just 20, the second-year pro is younger than most 2015 first-round picks. He’s still the 17th-youngest player to play in the NBA this season. Here are the league’s 30 youngest players – rookies in blue, second-year players in silver and a third-year player (Giannis Antetokounmpo) in black:

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The only second-year player younger than Gordon is Bruno Caboclo, and the Raptors barely use him. Heck, the other four second-year players who are still 20 – Noah Vonleh, James Young, Damien Inglis and Caboclo – have combined to play fewer minutes this season than Gordon.

Gordon could use the experience.

He missed 32 games as a rookie with a foot fracture, and a fractured jaw slowed him during the offseason.

“You’re very lucky if life goes according to your own plan,” Gordon said. “Obviously, my rookie wasn’t how I wanted it to go, but it was exactly what I needed.

“I got to see the game from a different perspective. I understand more now how to take care of your body, how to work smarter as opposed to harder.”

Gordon comes across as incredibly level-headed, a trait that has helped him after the dunk contest. He says people tell him every day that he should’ve won the dunk contest, but he leaves it at: “It could’ve went either way.”

“It’s cool, because I got called the people’s champion,” Gordon said. “It was a little controversy over the dunk contest. It’s alright. Nobody lost.”

It’s a wise assessment.

LaVine took the hardware, but Gordon gained so much. The spotlight is on him now, road fans cheering when he’s introduced as a starter. Expectations are already soaring for next year’s dunk contest.

Will Gordon’s production match his dunking by then? Odds are against it, but maybe by the following year or the year after. Gordon’s youth works in his favor, as does Orlando’s commitment to developing him.

“We’ll stick with him,” Skiles said. “We think he’s getting better all the time”

Greg Monroe swinging fortunes for Bucks, Pistons and himself

Associated Press
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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – Pistons president/coach Stan Van Gundy is unequivocal in his praise of Greg Monroe.

“He’s certainly worth the max,” Van Gundy said. “There’s not a question with that.”

But that wasn’t the only question, because Detroit wasn’t among the teams – Bucks, Knicks, Lakers and Trail Blazers – Monroe’s agent said offered a max contract in free agency last summer.

Monroe signed a three-year max deal with Milwaukee, switching sides in the Eastern Conference’s saddest race. The Pistons (seven years) and Bucks (five years) have gone longest in the conference without a winning record. As both teams try to transition from cellar dweller to upstart, a few questions about Monroe highlight the roads to redemption in Milwaukee and Detroit – and the NBA’s changing financial landscape:

How much is he worth to the Bucks?

How much would he have been worth to the Pistons?

And how much will he be worth in two or three years?

Monroe’s value in Milwaukee

Milwaukee appeared on the verge of breakthrough last season, going a shocking 41-41 and winning two of its final three playoff games against the Bulls.

The Bucks signed Monroe to add interior scoring and help on the glass, and he’s doing that. His 15.8 points on 51.2% shooting and 9.9 rebounds per game are in line with his career averages.

But Milwaukee’s defense has slipped from 2nd to 26th.

That’s certainly not all Monroe’s fault. The Bucks have allowed fewer points per possession with Monroe on the court. Still, they don’t defend well when he plays. The slow-footed center has struggled in their aggressive trapping scheme. He just can’t cover that much ground quickly enough.

The problem is wider than Monroe, though. Milwaukee is struggling to integrate all its newcomers – including Greivis Vasquez, Chris Copeland and Damien Inglis (who missed all of last season due to injury). Here are the Bucks’ defensive ratings, per NBAwowy!:

  • Last season: 102.8
  • This season: 108.0
  • This season with only returning players on court: 99.1

Milwaukee has sacrificed too much defense for a little more offensive punch. Maybe without Vasquez and Copeland, Monroe’s defense would be more tolerable. But Vasquez and Copeland space the floor with outside shooting, a key issue for the Bucks.

They need better defense and 3-point shooting, and Monroe provides too little of the former and none of the latter. At this point, his inside scoring seems like a luxury.

Milwaukee has defended better lately, including with Monroe on the court. But the effects have been multiplied with John Henson playing instead.

Until power forward Jabari Parker adds more 3 and D to his game, both of which should come, Jason Kidd faces a challenge maximizing Monroe’s value. At least it’s headed in the right direction.

That wasn’t necessarily the case with the Pistons.

Monroe’s value in Detroit

Monroe once asked the Pistons to scout Andre Drummond, then a promising freshman at Connecticut.

That might have eventually contributed to Monroe’s exit from Detroit.

When the Pistons drafted Drummond just three years ago, power forwards and centers were mostly interchangeable. It seemed the more-polished Monroe and more-athletic Drummond would complement each other well. Bigger, Drummond was clearly a center. Monroe could play power forward.

But the NBA has gone smaller, and Drummond developed more quickly than nearly anyone projected. Next summer, the Pistons will certainly offer him a max contract.

That created a problem with Monroe.

“His best position is at center. He knew that. We knew that,” Van Gundy said. “So, what of your resources are you going to tie up at basically one position? Or were you willing to play with two centers in a league that’s going the other way?”

Kidd was similarly direct in declaring Monroe’s position.

“Greg is one of the top centers in the game,” Kidd said.

Van Gundy credited Monroe with making the most of a difficult situation, playing with Drummond (not to mention the times Josh Smith, a power forward, shared the court with the two). Monroe, steady as always, shrugged off any concern.

“We all did the best we could,” Monroe said.

That’s much easier for the Pistons now.

They traded for Ersan Ilyasova – a stretch four – by absorbing his salary into space vacated by Monroe. Now, Reggie Jackson (19.3 points and 6.3 assists per game) and Drummond (18.0 points and 16.7 rebounds per game) have plenty of room to run pick-and-rolls, and Drummond can even post up a bit more. Plus, the Pistons are less likely to compete with each other for rebounds, allowing non-Drummond players to handle other responsibilities.

There are diminishing returns with pairing two centers. Drummond is no longer feeling them.

But the Pistons’ scoring is down. While their offense may look smoother, it’s less effective. This floor-spreading style has a higher ceiling, but Drummond and Monroe crashing the paint and offensive glass – while more brutal on the eyes – worked a little better.

Essentially, the Pistons exchanged talent for fit and flexibility.

“There was never a time that we didn’t think that Greg was worth the money based on his performance,” Van Gundy said. “…The issue that wouldn’t go away is, in the long run – Greg’s an outstanding player, and he’s a great person – the issue in the long run for our organization is, were were going to pay huge money for two centers?”

Van Gundy said the Pistons considered trying to re-sign Monroe in part as a trade asset. But after studying similar situations, Van Gundy determined that route was too unlikely to pay off. Instead of flipping a player for a quality asset, Van Gundy found teams typically sold low in those situations.

He specifically cited Dwight Howard and Omer Asik. The Rockets kept Asik, their incumbent starting center, for a season after signing Howard.

But that case is an outlier. In limited minutes, Howard and Asik were dreadful together, producing offensive/defensive/net ratings of 88.6/104.9/-16.3. Monroe and Drummond had already proven themselves a better fit together. Plus, Houston eventually traded Asik to the Pelicans for a protected first-round pick that became Sam Dekker, not an insignificant return.

All the Pistons got for losing Monroe was the cap space to acquire Ilyasova and the knowledge they won’t be hamstrung with two highly paid centers if one – almost certainly Monroe – couldn’t be traded.

In many ways, it was the safe route.

Monroe took all the risk.

Monroe’s value in two or three years

Thirteen players – LeBron James, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love, Marc Gasol, DeAndre Jordan, Brook Lopez, Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Wesley Matthews, Enes Kanter, Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard and Monroe – signed a max contract or extension last summer. Additionally, seven other players – Tobias Harris, Khris Middleton, Tristan Thompson, Draymond Green, Reggie Jackson, Brandon Knight and Iman Shumpert – signed their second NBA contract (typically the first opportunity to earn major money) with a starting salary of at least $8 million.

Only LeBron and Monroe can re-enter free-agency before 2018.

For all the talk of players seeking shorter contracts in anticipation of a rapidly rising salary cap, few took advantage.

Monroe got that opportunity by accepting the qualifying offer – a one-year, $5,479,934 contract – rather than taking a much bigger long-term deal with Detroit. That allowed him to become an unrestricted free agent last summer, which made signing his max deal with Milwaukee feasible.

Now, he’s again banking on less guaranteed money. Instead of securing a four-year contract, he took just a three-year deal with a player option.

When did Monroe become such a risk taker?

“I can understand why you say it’s a risk,” Monroe said. “But to me, I put in the work every day. I’m showing up. So, I believe in myself and I understand what I can do and my capabilities. So, to me, it’s not taking a risk. It’s just a business decision.”

It’s certainly one that could pay off.

Monroe will make$33,553,338 the next two seasons, and he’ll have a $17,884,176 player option for 2016-17. If he opts out and signs a new max deal in 2017, it could start at more than $30 million and pay about $175 million over five years.

Monroe might not be a max player in 2017 as a larger cap increases variance in player salary, and the NBA and union are discussing changes to the Collective Bargaining Agreement that could alter any present-day projections. But whatever the exact machinations, a ton of national TV money is flowing into the system.

As long he continues to produce like he has – defensive questions included – he’s going to get paid.

But Monroe didn’t accept the qualifying offer just for a big salary. It also allowed him to leave Detroit, where he spent a lot of time losing.

Yet, his Bucks (9-14) are looking up at the Pistons (12-11) in the standings.

Milwaukee is feeling the loss of dependable veterans like Zaza Pachulia, Jared Dudley and Ilyasova. A Monroe-led younger core could carry the Bucks to great heights, but they’ve first taken a step back.

Detroit is feeling itself out, still transitioning to Van Gundy’s system. Additional spacing hasn’t immediately created higher scoring.

And Monroe is feeling growing pains on a new team. Kidd isn’t bending his defense just for Monroe.

But, it seems with Monroe on the Bucks, everyone is in the right spot.

“He’s a perfect fit for them, absolutely,” Van Gundy said. “And he would be for most people.

“I don’t think there’s been any doubt about that, that it’s been good for him.

“And we hope in the long run, it’s going to be good for us.”