A quick perusal of Hoops Rumors' list of 2013/14 free agents reveals three unrestricted free agents that figure to land maximum-salary contracts: Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, and Andrew Bynum. Just because those three guys are hitting free agency at the same time though doesn't mean they're all eligible for identical salaries when signing their next deals.
There are essentially three ways these players could sign their next max-salary contracts:
It's no secret that the second scenario maximizes the amount of guaranteed money a player can earn on his next contract -- this detail of the CBA allows teams a better shot to retain their own star free agents. If the player wants to leave badly enough, he can sign elsewhere, but he'd be giving up millions in guaranteed money to do it.
So how much exactly would each player make in each of these three scenarios? Let's run through and break them down....
While the maximum extension a veteran can sign is actually for four years, that includes the current season, so only three years are new. Additionally, while players can typically earn 107.5% of their previous salary in the first year of an extension, all three of these guys are already making more than the maximum, so the can't exceed the 105% they'd earn in the first year of a free agent contract. These extensions include 7.5% annual raises, but even Howard's $66MM pales in comparison to what he could earn as a free agent.
Five-year free agent contract:
Howard, Paul, and Bynum would all be eligible for contracts in excess of $100MM if they wait until next summer and re-sign with the clubs with whom they finish the 2012/13 season. This is why the team that holds the player's Bird Rights at season's end will be considered the odds-on favorite to re-sign him, a scenario we saw play out earlier this summer, when Deron Williams re-upped with the Nets for five years and $98MM+. These max contracts start at 105% of the players' 2012/13 salaries and include 7.5% annual raises.
Four-year free agent contract:
Players can, of course, re-sign for four years or less with their end-of-year teams and receive raises up to 7.5%, but this scenario assumes they're signing with a new club, limiting their annual raises to 4.5%. As the charts show, the drop-off in guaranteed money from a max five-year deal is precarious, from about $26MM for Bynum to over $30MM for Howard. Assuming these guys are still performing at an elite level in 2017, they'll make up a good chunk of that salary in the 2017/18 year of their next contracts, but it's hard to guarantee elite production and good health that far in advance.
As I outlined when I examined Bynum's case for a contract extension, it's possible he could benefit from taking a shorter-term extension now, maximizing his career earnings later. Some of the arguments in that piece apply to Paul and Howard to a lesser degree as well. But an agent of a star player in his prime will rarely recommend that his client accept anything less than a maximum guarantee. In each of these three players' cases, the likeliest scenario remains a five-year free agent contract next summer, which is why these next few months will be crucial. The teams that end up with these three stars at season's end will be the overwhelming favorites to retain them long-term.