NBA Middle Class Deals

The NBA’s middle class might not be vanishing, but it is not robust. There has been no evidence of drastic change in the willingness of teams to hand out middle class deals over the past few years, as team sources and former interim players union executive director Ron Klempner told Grantland’s Zach Lowe for a piece published in April. Lowe defined a middle class deal as one with annual salaries that fell between $5MM and $10MM. There have been 108 signings or agreements between free agents and NBA teams so far this summer, according to our Free Agent Tracker, and 20 of them fall with Lowe’s range. But the equation changes with a slight alteration to the definition of middle class.

The NBA’s non-taxpayer mid-level exception this season calls for a deal with a starting salary of up to $5.305MM. The most a player could receive through this exception is slightly more than $22.652MM over four years. That works out to an average annual value of about $5.663MM. That’s strikingly close to the league’s $5.632MM estimated average salary for 2014/15 season. The average annual value of a four-year mid-level deal would nonetheless likely end up beneath the NBA average salary over the full span of the contract, since average salaries have risen each season since the first one under the latest collective bargaining agreement. That equation isn’t different even for a player who signs a shorter mid-level contract, since the 4.5% annual raises involved in a mid-level deal boost the average annual value of longer such contracts. The average annual value of a two-year mid-level deal, for instance, is only about $5.425MM, beneath this year’s estimated average salary.

The exception is a tool that teams can use without opening cap space. If we remove the deals that would have fit within the parameters of the mid-level and instead define middle class deals as those that come in above the mid-level amount, only 12 of this year’s signings and agreements fit the middle class criteria. That means teams have been largely unwilling to commit cap space to players making more than the mid-level but less than eight-figure salaries.

There’s an even more profound dearth of pacts in the next bracket. Teams have handed out only three contracts with starting salaries of at least $10MM but less than $14.746MM, the maximum salary for a player with fewer than seven years of experience. This sort of “upper middle class” deal has been exceedingly difficult for players to find this year.

I’ve listed this year’s middle class deals here, grouped by tier and listed in descending order of average annual value. The salaries are rounded to the nearest $1K.

Upper middle class ($10MM or more but less than $14.746MM)

Above mid-level deals (More than mid-level exception, less than $10MM)

Mid-level and near-mid-level ($5MM to mid-level exception)

* — The salaries in Tucker’s deal descend over the life of the contract, so his first-year salary exceeds the amount of the mid-level, while the average annual value comes in at less than the mid-level.

ShamSports and Larry Coon’s Salary Cap FAQ were used in the creation of this post.

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