Last offseason, when eight fourth-year players agreed to extend their rookie-scale contracts, the most notable extension-eligible player not to receive a new deal was Bucks guard Brandon Jennings. Multiple reports since then have suggested that Milwaukee offered a four-year, $40MM contract, which Jennings turned down. However, according to the 23-year-old, the team never formally proposed such an offer. Whether or not Jennings declined a long-term extension last offseason, he's heading for free agency this summer, and will be one of the more interesting options on the market.
Since Jennings will be a restricted free agent, the Bucks will have the right to match any offer sheet he signs with a rival team. But Jennings indicated earlier this month that he hasn't ruled out the possibility of signing Milwaukee's one-year qualifying offer, which would allow him to become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2014. It's a move you might think we'd see more often from young players unhappy with their teams or their situations, since simply extending a rookie scale contract by one more year gives a player the freedom to choose his own destination the following summer.
Still, for marquee restricted free agents, signing that one-year qualifying offer is extremely rare. Even though a player may not want to commit long-term to the team that holds his rights, there's plenty of risk in passing up a big payday in the hopes that he'll still be able to sign a similar long-term deal 12 months later. Poor performance or a serious injury could adversely affect a player's value while he plays out that one-year contract, which could end up costing him millions of dollars on his next deal — just ask Andrew Bynum how far a player's stock can drop in a single season.
In Jennings' case, the one-year qualifying offer from the Bucks will be worth about $4.53MM. So not only would accepting that QO mean postponing his free agency a year and risking a drop in his stock, but he'd be passing up the opportunity to earn an eight-digit salary immediately in 2013/14. Maybe he'd be able to make up that money later in his career, but NBA stars typically don't make a habit of giving up $5MM+ in salary in their age-24 seasons. As such, I don't expect Jennings to sign that one-year qualifying offer.
If we assume Jennings will be seeking long-term offers, it's worth exploring how big those offers might be. There's been a debate recently about whether Wizards guard John Wall deserves a maximum-salary contract, or whether he's worth such a deal, and the same argument could be had about Jennings. The Bucks guard is averaging 18.3 PPG and 6.8 APG this season, with a .403 FG% and a 16.7 PER, numbers that are good but not elite. Jennings doesn't stack up particularly favorably to players like Ty Lawson and Stephen Curry, who signed four-year extensions for between $40-50MM last October. So if we're debating whether Jennings "deserves" the max, which figures to be $60MM+ for four years or $80MM+ for five years, the answer is probably no.
Still, as The Wire's Snoop once said, "deserve got nothin' to do with it." In free agency, a player's stats and his potential play a part in his price, but there are a number of other factors involved as well. For the Bucks or another team, overpaying Jennings may be worthwhile if the club has a glaring need and believes there aren't many appealing alternatives out there.
When Eric Gordon signed a max-salary offer sheet with the Suns last summer, an offer that was eventually matched by the Hornets, I would have argued that he wasn't necessarily "worth" the max. But there were at least two teams with the space and the willingness to pay that price. When Jennings hits free agency, there will be plenty of teams with the space, and it only takes one desperate club to make a big offer, which would leave the Bucks with a big decision. That's not to say I believe Jennings will definitely earn a maximum offer this July, but I'll be surprised if he doesn't sign a contract worth more than either Curry's or Lawson's deal, simply because he'll have multiple potential bidders in the mix, giving him leverage.
Who might those bidders be? I'd certainly expect the Bucks to be a primary player, though the club may simply wait for Jennings to sign an offer sheet elsewhere, then decide whether to match it, rather than negotiating directly with him. There's been reported mutual interest between Jennings and the Mavs, a team that will have the cap space to make him a big offer. The Jazz are also seeking a long-term solution at point guard, though I would guess they'd probably prefer a player who would be a facilitator first and a scorer second. The Hawks and Pistons are among the other teams expected to have a huge amount of cap space and a hole or two in the backcourt.
Given the extensions signed by other fourth-year players last October, four years and $40MM sounds like a reasonable price for Jennings, but now that he's headed for the open market, I expect that price to rise. By the time the dust clears in July, I could see Jennings landing a four-year deal worth north of $50MM, and I think the Bucks are the best bet to end up with him. Maybe Jennings surprises us by accepting a one-year qualifying offer with an eye toward escaping Milwaukee in 2014, or maybe the Bucks surprise us by letting Jennings walk to a rival suitor. But a long-term contract between the two sides makes the most sense to me, since it would give Jennings financial security and would allow the Bucks to hang on to one of their most valuable assets.