Who Gets the Max? Predicting Top Earners in 2019 NBA Free Agency

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Jimmy Butler, Philadelphia 76ers (player option)

Jimmy Butler’s next contract isn’t a no-brainer. He turns 30 in September, isn’t a beacon of durability and has Tom Thibodeau miles on his treads. Most teams will think more than twice about giving him a full-term max—including the Sixers.

Shorter-term paydays won’t be hard to find, and there will be ultra-aggressive admirers ready to pony up all they can. Whether the best overtures come from suitors in markets Butler would actually consider is a different story. 

Counting on a sub-max payday from the Sixers is the safer play. Butler grew frustrated with the Minnesota Timberwolves in part because they wouldn’t create the cap space necessary to renegotiate and extend his contract, according to The Athletic’s Jon Krawczynski. Long-term security seems like it matters to him, and accepting a hair or more below his max salary is a good way to extract a five-year commitment from Philly.

Prediction: Signs five-year, sub-max deal with the Sixers or a four-year, near-max contract with another team.

Tobias Harris, Philadelphia 76ers

Tobias Harris will have the chance to sign a max deal with whoever this summer. He doesn’t turn 27 until July and was viewed as the top consolation prize for teams that struck out in the megastar sweepstakes before getting traded to Philly.

The Sixers don’t give up Landry Shamet and the Miami Heat’s 2021 pick for a player in his contract year unless they’re prepared to pay him market value. They will match the four-year maxes Harris is showered with from rivals.

Will he trim a little off the top in exchange for a fifth season? Take less so the Sixers re-sign his B.F.F.L., Boban Marjanovic? Accept a discount in return for both? Bet on the answer being yes—although, given his relatively young age, this isn’t an open-and-shut case.

Prediction: Signs five-year near-max deal with the Sixers.

Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks (player option)

Khris Middleton’s market parallels Harris’ projection. He isn’t a conventional star, but the interest generated from the outside will drive his price tag up toward the max.

The Bucks have already braced for his windfall. Offloading Matthew Dellavedova and John Henson and extending Eric Bledsoe positions them to max out Middleton while re-signing Malcolm Brogdon (restricted) and Brook Lopez without cannonballing into the luxury tax. But this presumes a four-year agreement between the two parties. We’re stepping out on the longer-term limb.

Middleton doesn’t have the same incentive as other marquee names to accelerate his return to free agency. He doesn’t turn 28 until August, but his max-contract candidacy is not universally translatable. It is shaped by this summer’s market alone. The competition for him will look a lot different in 2022 or 2023.

Locking down a five-year commitment from the Bucks at a smidge below the max boosts his earning potential in a way that taking the three- or four-year season route probably won’t.

PredictionSigns five-year sub-max deal with the Bucks.

Kristaps Porzingis, Dallas Mavericks (restricted)

Initial reporting following his trade to the Mavericks had Kristaps Porzingis planning to accept his qualifying offer and entering unrestricted free agency in 2020, per The Athletic’s Shams Charania. That’s not happening.

Porzingis’ qualifying offer is set to drop from $7.5 million to $4.5 million since he failed to meet the starter criteria this season. Signing on to play next year at that amount could leave more than $20 million on the table, even if he isn’t getting a max salary from the Mavericks ($27.3 million).

Expect Dallas and Porzingis to find a lucrative middle ground. Giving him a four- ($122.1 million) or five-year max ($158.1 million) is too risky for the Mavericks without having a meaningful sample size to work off following his recovery from a torn left ACL. The same goes for Porzingis when weighing whether he should bet on himself.

Torn ACLs aren’t the omens they used to be, but his track record isn’t a portrait of good health. It makes sense for him to net star money now when the rosiest trajectories are still intact.

Prediction: Signs four-year near-max deal with the Mavericks.

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