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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.

NBA refs admit they missed James Harden’s shuffle-step travel

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Did James Harden travel on Monday night? Obviously.

But was Harden called for a travel by officials? No. At least, not at first.

Video of Harden’s ridiculous shuffle was circulated on social media after the Houston Rockets beat the Utah Jazz, 102-97. Harden was asked about the move by media, and said that he wasn’t going to tell on himself, which is fair enough.

On Tuesday the official NBA referee Twitter page decided to comment on the play at hand, admitting that they had made a mistake and had missed a travel.

Via Twitter:

Having a Twitter account hasn’t always worked out for the NBRA. Their explanations of what many would consider to be violations have often stood in the face of common sense. To that end, they’ve sometimes been mocked on social media, which is against their goal of having the social channel in the first place. But this play with Harden was a particular sore subject with fans around the league, and it was right of them in to make a comment.

At least they got it right.

Watch LeBron James get blocked at the rim by Jarrett Allen

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LeBron James is seemingly and ageless wonder. The Los Angeles Lakers forward is still one of the most athletic players to ever grace an NBA court, and despite his obvious physical decline, that’s not to say he’s a slouch out there. He’s not exactly late-career Boris Diaw just yet.

But LeBron is now 34 years old, and as such there are other players on the floor with him at any given time that have a bit more bounce than The King. James found that out the hard way on Tuesday night as the Lakers took on the Brooklyn Nets in New York.

During a play early in the first quarter, James drove to the basket only to be rejected by Brooklyn’s Jarrett Allen at the rim.

The result was striking.

Via Twitter:

Good for Allen. It’s one thing to say you have played against the best player of all time, but it’s another thing altogether to swat him on a play that creates a turnover.

Atlanta’s Kent Bazemore fined $10,000 for bouncing ball into stands

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It wasn’t intentional.

With 9:09 remaining in what would be a Nets win over the Hawks in Brooklyn, D'Angelo Russell and Eric Davis completed a 2-on-1 fast break that Kent Bazemore could not stop. The Hawks called timeout, Bazemore had the ball in his hands and, in frustration, tried to throw a hard bounce pass off the stanchion and back to himself.

Except Bazemore missed and the ball went flying into the stands.

Tuesday the League announced Bazemore was fined $10,000 for “throwing the ball into the spectator stands.”

It’s understandable why the NBA does not want players launching the ball into where fans are sitting, so they fine players when it happens. And, thanks to precedent, those fine are whether the move was intentional or not. So, Bazemore takes a hit.

Bucks, 76ers, other teams practicing with “4 point line” to improve spacing instincts

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Space is the name of the game in the modern NBA.

Milwaukee is thriving in part because of the addition of three-point bomber Brook Lopez (still weird to type that) and a coach in Mike Budenholzer who encourages his players to shoot from deep, opening up the floor for Giannis Antetokounmpo to drive the lane.

How Budenholzer reinforces that spacing — adding a four-point line on the practice floor and color-coding parts of the court — is part of a fascinating story by ESPN’s Malika Andrews on how coaches are “gamifying” practices to get through to players. The 76ers, Hawks, Nets, Bulls, and Bucks are the teams we know are using a four-point line in practice right now.

To explain how the Hawks’ 4-point line — which is painted onto the floor 5 feet beyond the regular 3-point line — helps his team, [Atlanta Hawks coach Paul] Pierce walks onto the court to physically demonstrate. The condensed version of Pierce’s 36-minute explanation, which is punctuated by wild gesticulation, is this: “Spacing changes the whole game.”

Atlanta targeted Young out of Oklahoma in the 2018 draft lottery, with hopes of building an offense around his long-range shooting and passing skills. Because Young is willing and able to shoot off the dribble from well beyond the 3-point arc, defenders are forced to step out to defend him almost as soon as he crosses half court. Although he already had that range before he joined the Hawks, Young acknowledges that not everybody has the natural instinct to pull up from that deep, so it helps to have a visual reminder…

Lloyd not only wants Young to shoot from the 4-point line but to make plays from there, too. Expanding the floor outward, in turn, creates space in the paint for big men such as second-year breakout John Collins. If a guard like Young can initiate a play from behind the 4-point line, defenses are forced to cover more ground and, eventually, make difficult choices and compromises.

While Young is struggling with those deep shots this season — 24.1 percent from three — the principle is still valid, and just his and the Hawks’ willingness to shoot from there has stretched defenses (they just don’t have the talent and experience yet to exploit those defenses properly). It’s what Stephen Curry brings naturally to the Warriors (that team has the talent and experience yet to exploit defenses).

It’s not just the four-point line. In Philadelphia, the corner-three spot on the court is a different color, a reminder to players they want to be and shoot from there. In Milwaukee, there are five taped-off boxes on the court, each about the size a person takes up standing there, a reminder of where Budenholzer wants players to be in a five-out offense.

For young players raised on computer learning and video games, the color coding — what Brett Brown called “gamification” of the court — works as reminders. Ones that, ideally, carry over into games themselves.