Every rookie scale contract in the league, by rule, includes a pair of team options. Otherwise, team options are rare. NBA clubs prefer the flexibility of non-guaranteed seasons instead, since they allow the team to cut ties with the player at any point before the leaguewide guarantee date of January 7th. Team options must either be exercised or declined before the NBA’s calendar flips over on July 1st. (Rookie scale options must be exercised or declined on October 31st the year before the option season would begin.) Players, too, can benefit from the greater flexibility of a non-guaranteed contract, since they can earn a portion of their salary if they remain on the roster for a partial season.
Still, a growing number of free agents are signing contracts with team options. Of the 13 existing NBA contracts that include team options for future seasons and aren’t rookie scale deals, 11 have been signed since this past July. A handful of those contracts last four seasons, and there’s a compelling reason for teams to structure deals that way for second-round picks and undrafted players.
Chandler Parsons is Exhibit A. The Rockets haven’t informed Parsons about whether they intend to decline his option, worth about $965K, for next season, as Parsons tells Grantland’s Zach Lowe. Under most circumstances, Houston’s decision would be a no-brainer. Parsons has far outperformed his deal, signed after the Rockets took him in the second round of the 2011 draft, and having him for an additional season at a cost of less than $1MM would give the team one of the league’s best bargains. What makes his case so intriguing is that undrafted players and second-round picks, like Parsons, can be restricted free agents if their contracts end before their fourth seasons. So, the Rockets could decline their option and have the right to match other teams’ offers for their small forward. Houston wouldn’t have that right in 2015 if the team exercised its option on Parsons, who’d become an unrestricted free agent when his contract ends after 2014/15.
The team option gives Houston a choice that a non-guaranteed season wouldn’t. If 2014/15 were a non-guaranteed year for Parsons, rather than an option year, the Rockets could only make him a free agent this summer if they waived him, and he’d be an unrestricted free agent, and not a restricted one, if he cleared waivers.
Three other teams did deals this year that mimic the Parsons contract, and it’s not surprising that the Sixers are one of them. GM Sam Hinkie was the executive vice president of basketball operations for the Rockets when they signed Parsons. Philadelphia signed two undrafted rookies this season to four-year contracts with a team option in the fourth year. The contracts for Brandon Davies and Hollis Thompson, just like the one for Parsons, aren’t fully guaranteed in the seasons leading up to the option. Davies signed his deal without any guarantee at all, while Thompson received a tiny partial guarantee of $35K for this season.
Neither Davies nor Thompson has guaranteed salary on his respective option year. That means that the Sixers could pick up their options and still cut ties with them before opening night without owing them any money that year, just as with a regular non-guaranteed season. Parsons has a partial guarantee on his salary next season. If the Rockets and Sixers exercise their options, those contracts will become just like any other deal that isn’t fully guaranteed. The only difference will be that their teams will have had a chance to make them restricted free agents, a valuable resource in case the player, as Parsons did, blossoms into a sought-after commodity.
Rockets GM Daryl Morey and his disciple aren’t the only ones who’ve caught on. Former Cavs GM Chris Grant signed Carrick Felix, the 33rd overall pick in the 2013 draft, to a four-year deal with a team option in the final season. In Felix’s case, the only non-guaranteed money is in the third year, and the fourth year is fully guaranteed providing the Cavs exercise their option. Hawks GM Danny Ferry, Grant’s former boss in Cleveland, produced the latest iteration of this trend when he pried 2013 second-rounder Mike Muscala from his Spanish league contract in February to bring him stateside. Muscala’s four-year deal is 50% guaranteed next season but henceforth completely non-guaranteed, and that includes the fourth-year option season.
Not every team has the flexibility to make four-year offers. Teams need either cap space or a portion of the non-taxpayer’s mid-level exception to sign rookies for four years. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more contracts like these in the future, especially if the Rockets use their team option on Parsons this summer and other teams hesitate to give him an offer. Teams may become more hesistant to use their full mid-level on veteran free agents so they can leave room to sign one or two intriguing young players to four-year deals.
It’s unlikely that Thompson, Davies, Felix or Muscala will ever become as valuable as Parsons is, and there’s a decent chance that their teams will waive them long before the option year comes around. Still, the Rockets, Sixers, Cavs and Hawks had nothing to lose, and neither would any team that does a similar deal. It’s a smart play that can look even smarter over time.