We’re still more than eight months away from next summer’s free agent period, but as yesterday’s story on Carmelo Anthony exhibited, reports on upcoming decisions for players like Anthony, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Kobe Bryant figure to come early and often throughout the season.
Of those potential star free agents, at least two – Carmelo and LeBron – are strong bets to land maximum salary contracts. It’s an outside possibility for both Wade and Bryant as well, especially given their histories with their respective teams, but the best days for both players seem to be behind them, making it unlikely that they’ll continue to receive raises on their current max deals.
In any case, as we’ve discussed before, not all max salaries are created equal, and depending on whether a player re-signs with his own club or joins a new team, the total amount of a max deal will vary considerably. As such, it’s worth examining the scenarios facing Carmelo and LeBron next summer.
Let’s start with the Knicks forward. Anthony has a player option on his contract for 2014/15, so there’s no guarantee he opts out next summer, since he could theoretically maximize his earnings by exercising the option and signing a max deal in 2015. Still, his latest comments have strongly suggested he’ll hit free agency in 2014, so for our purposes, we’ll assume he plans to turn down his player option.
In that scenario, Anthony could re-sign with the Knicks (assuming, of course, that he’s not traded during the season) for up to five years with 7.5% raises, or with another team for up to four years with 4.5% raises. His maximum starting salary would be worth 105% of the $21,388,954 he’s earning this season. Here are the two max contract scenarios for Carmelo:
It’s not hard to see why Carmelo intends to become a free agent rather than signing another in-season extension with the Knicks. Veteran extensions can total no more than four years, including the current season. So if Anthony were to re-up with the Knicks in February when he becomes extension-eligible, his new deal would only keep him under contract through 2016/17, wiping out the $56MM+ in guaranteed money he’d get in the last two seasons of the scenario detailed above.
If Anthony were to play out his current contract and become a free agent in 2015, his potential maximum salaries would be a little higher. We won’t get too far into the specifics on that scenario for now, but he’d be eligible to earn about $140.9MM on a five-year deal and $104.6MM on a four-year pact.
Now let’s turn our attention to James, who, like Anthony, doesn’t necessarily have to become a free agent in 2014, since the reigning MVP will actually have two more years remaining on his current pact as of next summer. But as we did for Carmelo, we’ll assume James opts for free agency, if only to secure a longer-term deal with his current team.
LeBron is unquestionably the NBA’s best player, but won’t be paid like it, since his decision to take a discount to join the Heat will continue to affect his maximum salaries going forward. James is making $2MM+ less than Anthony is in 2013/14, with a salary of $19,067,500. That’s actually also less than the NBA-wide max of $19,181,750 for a player with 10+ years of experience (Carmelo was able to exceed that max due to CBA rules).
Because his current salary is less than the allowable maximum, we’re not 100% sure what LeBron’s maximum starting salary will be. If that league-wide max of $19,181,750 increases significantly next July, it will represent James’ max starting salary. But if we figure it will only increase slightly, then we can assume LBJ’s max starting salary will be 105% of $19,067,500. Here’s what his contract scenarios would look like in that case:
For completion’s sake, we’ll note that if LeBron opts in for 2014/15, then becomes a free agent in 2015, he’d be eligible to earn five- and four-year totals of about $124.3MM and $92.3MM, respectively. If he were to play out his full contract and hit free agency in 2016, those two totals would increase to about $133.5MM and $99.1MM, respectively.
As I noted at the top, James and Anthony represent the two strongest bets to land maximum salaries in free agency next summer. Wade’s knee issues making him a risky long-term investment, while Chris Bosh likely isn’t a max player anymore. Luol Deng, Rudy Gay, and Pau Gasol fall into that boat too, and Dirk Nowitzki has indicated that he’d take a discount to help the Mavs land a marquee free agent.
Perhaps the most interesting name of the potential max players is Kobe. It remains to be seen how he’ll recover from his Achilles injury, and even if he comes back strong, it’s safe to say he’ll be in line for a pay cut next summer, since he’s currently earning more than $30MM. But just for fun, let’s suppose he did receive maximum-salary offers in free agency. Here’s what his max scenarios would look like:
Of course, to reiterate, there’s no way the Lakers are making Bryant a $183MM offer next summer, and I can’t imagine there will be many teams with the cap space and the desire to offer a 36-year-old Kobe a $32MM salary. I think it’s far more likely we’ll see his salary reduced by $15-20MM, rather than increased. Still, Kobe’s maximum possible contract shows just how large NBA salaries can get for a player who has been earning the max for his entire career.