A while ago, I wrote about Anthony Morrow’s impending free agency, breaking down how much he could sign for and why. If you have not read it, please do so, and I won’t stab this puppy.
Morrow’s situation is not unique, for his is a situation that arises every offseason. Lots of players’s first contracts are two-year minimum salary deals, and those who manage to make it to the end of them are usually worthy of new contracts at that time. Others in Morrow’s situation this season include Jawad Williams, Will Bynum, Bobby Brown and Nathan Jawai – I mentioned Morrow specifically only because he is the one deemed most likely to get the largest contract offer this summer, and therefore his is the one that gets asked about most.
A similar situation to those of Morrow et al is to be found in the situations of those who signed one-year minimum salary deals, and who will be restricted free agents to a team with only non-Bird rights on them. It’s a situation that will apply this offseason to Mario West, Anthony Tolliver, Chris Hunter, Mustafa Shakur, Patrick Mills, Jon Brockman, Cedric Jackson and Cartier Martin; however, the most intriguing player to whom it applies is free agent Jazz swingman, Wes Matthews, for the simple reason that he’s the most likely of the bunch to command more than the minimum salary.
Young players don’t usually sign one-year minimum salary deals. Instead, veterans almost always do, because teams have financial incentive to do so. Teams who sign players with more than two years of experience to one-year minimum salary deals are billed only the amount of a twoyear veteran; for example, when Chicago signed Lindsey Hunter to a one-year minimum salary deal this past offseason, they were billed only $825,497 for his services. The minimum salary for a ten-year or more veteran is actually $1,306,455, and Hunter got all that; however, only $825,497 is charged to the Bulls cap, and the league refunds the difference between the two sums to the Bulls during the following offseason. This is largely why most older players only sign one-year minimum deals, and, on the rare occasions that they don’t – Eric Piatkowski with Phoenix, Devin Brown with New Orleans, Calvin Booth with Philadelphia – it’s usually a mistake.
Of course, this does not apply to the young. Teams like to sign them to two-year minimum salary deals (often steeped in conditional guarantees), so that if they get good, they’re tied in cheap. For their own draft picks, teams increasingly often like to crack off three- or four-year minimums using a chunk of their MLE or cap space; players to whom this has applied recently include A.J. Price, Bill Walker, Jermaine Taylor, Chase Budinger, Monta Ellis and DeAndre Jordan.
However, last offseason, several rookies did sign only one-year deals. You will note that drafted rookies usually did not; the only ones who did were Goran Suton (who was not expected to make the team, and didn’t), Jack McClinton (same, twice), Jon Brockman (whose deal was fully guaranteed, unusually) and Patrick Mills (who signed his tender offer of a one-year unguaranteed minimum salary long after training camp, which gives us the distinct if unsubstantiated belief that the Blazers weren’t expecting him to do it). The rest, however, were undrafted. West, Tolliver, Martin, Jackson, Shakur and Hunter were midseason pickups, and while the overwhelming majority of rookie training camp pick-ups signed only one-year deals, only three of them made their respective teams; Trey Gilder (quickly waived by Memphis), Marcus Landry (who almost made it the full year before being waived by Boston last month) and the eponymous Wesley Matthews.
The reason Matthews is still here, the reason he made it beyond any guarantee dates and into the fire of his impending restricted free agency, is because he’s quite good. Matthews has been in the rotation for the Jazz ever since preseason, and was flopping his way into charging fouls up to and including the Jazz playoff run, which ended last week with defeat to the L.A. Lakers. Due to his usage and ability, Matthews is expected to command some money above the minimum salary this summer. The question is how much he can get.
Firstly, the Gilbert Arenas rule, mentioned in the Morrow post, also applies to the situations of Matthews et al. A lengthier explanation of the rule can be found there; to briefly summarise, a player with two years or less experience can’t be signed to a deal that starts at more than the full value of the first year of the Mid-Level Exception, for reasons explained elsewhere. But as was the case with Morrow, the rule will not apply here, because no one’s giving Wesley Matthews more than the MLE.
Secondly, Matthews is what is known colloquially as a non-Bird free agent (known officially by the slightly unerotic term “non-qualifying veteran free agent”). This is very significant, for it limits the amount the Jazz can give him. For a team to have full Bird rights on a player – i.e. for he or she to be a “qualifying veteran free agent” – that player must have played three years without changing teams as a free agent. For a team to have early Bird rights on a player – “early qualifying free agent” – that must have played two years without changing teams as a free agent; this is the case with Morrow. However, Matthews will have played only one. And that’s a problem.
Like full and early Bird rights, Non-Bird rights ARE a cap exception. You can use it to sign those qualifying players, without needing to use another exception (such as the Mid-Level Exception or Bi-Annual Exception) to do it. Yet the problem with the non-Bird exception is that it’s a bit…tame. The limitations on the exception are quite severe; contracts can be for as little as two years in length (not including options years) or for as long as five years, but the raises in the contract can only be for a maximum of 8%.
More importantly, the starting salary is severely limited; it can only be for the largest one of these three things.
(a) 120% of Matthews’s salary for the previous season
(b) 120% of what Matthews’s minimum salary would be for next season, or
(c) the amount of Matthews’s qualifying offer.
As always, you can make free agents with three years or less experience into restricted free agents, whether they like it or not, by extending a qualifying offer. [The only exception to this is with players who were on a rookie scale contract but who had an option declined; this clearly does not apply here, for Matthews wanted drafted at all, let alone in the first round two years ago.] If he were to get one – and he will – Matthews’s qualifying offer this summer will be for $937,195. This is equal to what his minimum salary for next year would be as a second-year player/one year veteran ($762,195), plus $175,000. Furthermore, Matthews’s salary this season was only for the rookie minimum of $457,488. 120% of that is only $549,106, not enough to surpass even the second-year player minimum of $762,195. And 120% of the $762,195 minimum is $914,634.
Therefore, the amount of Matthews’s qualifying offer is the most Utah can sign him for using the non-Bird exception. Over a highly unrealistic maximum length of five years, with maximum raises of 8%, that is a contract of:
Total = $5,154,575
Slightly inadequate, really.
Of course, Utah is not forced to re-sign Matthews with only the non-Bird exception. They can use their BAE and MLE instead; indeed, because of the inadequate nature of the non-Bird exception, they might well have to. It’d be lovely if they didn’t need to, and if they could get him to re-sign to the one year qualifying offer (a move which would incidentally give him a right to veto any trades), but it might not happen. Particularly if they end up having to match an offer sheet from another team. (For a longer explanation of the options available to a RFA, view the Morrow post.)
It is possible, sensible and inevitable for Golden State to re-sign Morrow without cracking open their MLE. But it will be far harder for Utah to do the same with Wesley. They will have their full MLE this offseason, as well as their BAE, and it looks like they might have to go that route.
As a general manager, at times like this, you wish you’d tacked on that second season. As an agent, at times like this, you’re glad you didn’t let them.