The oxymorons of the NBA offseason – restricted-yet-free agents – yielded most of the spotlight to the bigger and freer names through the first week of July or so. But with fellows such as Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Josh Smith, Andre Iguodala and more reaching agreements on new deals, those tethered to their incumbent teams will get more run now.
It’s not exactly garbage time. Last summer, nine of the top RFAs — Roy Hibbert, Eric Gordon, Brook Lopez, Ryan Anderson, George Hill, Nicolas Batum, Omer Asik, Jeremy Lin and Landry Fields – landed deals worth a total of $366.4 million. On a per-season basis, their salaries over three to five years averaged $10.8 million.
That’s not far from where this year’s RFA market sat after its two highest-profile commitments: Tyreke Evans to New Orleans’ four-year, $44 million offer sheet and Tiago Splitter four years and $36 million to stick with San Antonio. But that’s a small sample size, with the likes of Nikola Pekovic, Brandon Jennings, Jeff Teague, Gerald Henderson, Timofey Mozgov and several others still with business pending.
The dynamics of restricted free agency clearly are different from those in play for the truly free. The chilling effect that an incumbent team can have on its guy’s options is considerable, simply by pointing out to one and all its intention to match any offer. And yet, a team that expresses too much love can drive up an RFA’s price, leading rivals to touch up their offer sheets in the hopes that overpaying might pry him loose.
There are other risks. Teague, for instance, was said to be growing impatient in recent days, frustrated by what might be perceived as the Atlanta Hawks’ lack of urgency in pursuing a deal, when all it really is is Atlanta letting the market play out. There really should be no harm in that, unless the guy’s feelings get hurt at what he mistakes as an absence of pro-active negotiations.
The three-day period incumbent teams get to match or not on RFAs doesn’t stymie a club’s offseason strategy quite the way the old seven-day decision period used to. But it still can hang up a team to have cap space committed, at precisely the wrong time, to an offer sheet that goes nowhere.
Fans get antsy with restricted free-agency, too, waiting for updates on players who often loom large in their current teams’ plans. Yet there they sit “on the market” longer than seems comfortable. (We’re talking days, not weeks, but everyone’s shelf life/attention span is sped up these days.)
Oh, and woe to the players who try to assist the process by professing love for a new market — as Gordon and Batum did last summer — or some disdain for an old one, thinking that might tilt the process and short-circuit the “restricted” label in front of their status. That rarely, if ever, changes a team’s business decision, but it does risk bad blood while accomplishing nothing positive.
So it probably is a good thing that Pekovic, Jennings, Teague and the rest — and their representatives and their teams — have mostly stayed mum to this point. They’ll get theirs sooner or later, almost certainly in the next week or two.
And even if they don’t, the option of playing for one year on a qualifying offer, with its no-trade provision, wouldn’t seem to be the worst thing. That would turn a 2013 RFA into a 2014 UFA, with a heavy list of teams looking to rebuild, improve their draft chances, shed salaries and open cap space.
The buzz around some RFAs, however, is beginning. Minnesota apparently tried to pre-empt any head-turning overtures from outside teams, putting together a formal offer to Pekovic on Friday, according to Timberwolves beat writer Jerry Zgoda:
As of Sunday, he is not believed to have been offered [a competing] deal and the number of teams who have the cap space and desire to sign him had dwindled to one or two.
Pekovic repeatedly last season said he wanted to return to Minnesota, and President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders has said all along that he believes the two sides will reach a deal.
The price might rise to $11 million to $12 million per year for four years, insiders have estimated. Specifics of the Wolves’ offer weren’t known.
Then there was the prospect of Jennings and Teague having their negotiations settled almost in an old-fashioned, non-free agent way: If the two point guards were signed and traded for each other, would it even seem like they were free agents?
That’s a scenario reported by ESPN.com’s Mark Stein, driven at least in part by former Hawks coach Larry Drew’s familiarity with Teague. Such a move, coincidentally, could have a ripple effect on Jennings’ backcourt mate in Milwaukee, Monta Ellis, who opted-out of an $11 million salary for 2013-14 in hopes of doing better, longer, in a multi-year deal.
ESPN.com reported early in free agency that the Bucks, at Drew’s behest, had interest.
If those sign-and-trade talks progress to the serious stage, sources said, Atlanta would inevitably have to rescind its long-standing interest in Ellis, knowing he and Jennings realistically couldn’t play together again given how poorly they functioned as a backcourt duo in Milwaukee last season.
As for other notable RFAs, Charlotte’s Henderson is a solid two-way player who likely will be affordable, Denver’s Mozgov might wind up with Lokomotiv Kuban in Russia on a four-year offer and Gary Neal may have gotten bumped off San Antonio’s depth chart with the Spurs’ signing of veteran Marco Belinelli.