For free agents in today’s NBA, navigating the free agency marketplace can resemble a game of Jenga. Removing a brick from the base of the structure is the risk a player incurs by waiting out the market and placing that brick of risk on top of the tower signifies the heights of their potential earnings. Theoretically, more patience (removing more bricks) allows the market to squeeze and a free agent’s potential pile of money to grow.
However, this is a decision made on a razor’s edge. At some point, you have to pull the trigger on a deal as the tower will, eventually, become unstable. Take advantage of the team with a mountain of salary cap space that missed out on a superstar and you have yourself a coup. But if you are too patient, if you wait too long, the money dries up and the tower comes down... JENGA.
Misjudging the Free Agency Market
The latter proposition is what happened to Shabazz Muhammad, a 2013 lottery pick who just completed the fourth and final year of his rookie scale contract. In the midst of his crumbling Jenga bricks, Muhammad inked a one-year minimum contract with the Wolves signifying the end of a tumultuous and somewhat misguided offseason.
During this offseason, many non-star players (like Muhammad) waited for the stars of free agency to make a decision of where to play in the upcoming season. Those lesser players found themselves in a waiting game of sorts as the Gordon Haywards, Kyle Lowrys, Blake Griffins, and Paul Millsaps had to pull the trigger for the market to begin to unfold. That market, however, moved at a slower pace this summer compared previous offseasons.
The 2016 offseason was a fireworks show of money spewed in every direction. After the NBA’s new and mega television deal was signed, almost every team entered the 2016 offseason with a full-wad of salary cap space to use (or blow). The salary cap’s spike in response to the TV deal gave all thirty teams what was functionally a $25 million gift certificate that they had to spend. As can be the norm with gift certificates, that money was spent on luxury goods that turned out to be, in many cases, less luxurious than expected.
2016 Free Agency Explosion
|Player||Position||Age||FA Status||Team||Contract Length||Total Dollars||Annual Salary|
|Player||Position||Age||FA Status||Team||Contract Length||Total Dollars||Annual Salary|
The most recent offseason was very different. Far less luxurious. Franchises had much less to spend thanks to 2016’s largess and a less than expected cap increase for this season. The marquee names moved on or were re-signed but many of the role players were left floating in a free agency pool hoping for more gift card irresponsibility. But that money was gone.
As the summer wore on, Muhammad and many from the 2017 free agent class twiddled their thumbs patiently with idea that they were worth at least 50 cents on the dollar of a Mozgov ($64 million), Evan Turner ($70 million), Allen Crabbe ($74.8 million), Luol Deng ($72 million), or Kent Bazemore ($70 million) from 2016.
But Jenga block on top of block was piled on as the market never responded. The 2017 free agency game of Jenga, for many players, ended poorly. Maybe no bigger crash from perceived value to true value occurred than in the case of Muhammad.
“Yes, it was obviously a disappointment,” said Muhammad, at Media Day, reflecting on the contract he signed with Minnesota in mid-September.
While Muhammad does not view this as Armageddon, disappointment is fair and he feels much can be taken from how the process played out.
“I’m 24, I’m young, my best basketball is ahead of me and this summer I can really learn from what I did,” said Muhammad.
Muhammad does not begrudge the Wolves for his misstep because they did offer him a one-year contract for $3.96 million — his qualifying offer, to retain his restricted free agency rights — on June 26th, very early in the free agency process. Muhammad could have accepted that deal or negotiated a bigger deal with the Wolves but he opted to look elsewhere.
“At the beginning of the summer I had offers, I didn’t take ‘em. You learn from that,” continued Muhammad.
By mid-July, the Wolves no longer could wait on Muhammad given his $7.6 million cap hold. They pulled the contract offer from the table by renouncing his rights in a move to clear salary cap space for the signings of Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson.
Still, at that point, there was a discourse going on between Muhammad and the Wolves. Conceivably, the money used on Jamal Crawford — the room exception for $4.3 million — could have been used to bring him back but he continued to pull Jenga bricks elsewhere.
Choosing Minnesota over Los Angeles
As July spilled into August his appeal waned. The long-term deal Muhammad desired never presented itself. One year deals were all that were available.
“Bucks, Lakers, I can go on. Those teams were calling,” said Muhammad. But no one was willing to offer him long-term security. “It was going to be a one-year deal anyway, so why not come (back to Minnesota) for a one-year deal and play really well for a team that’s gonna win in the playoffs. And then potentially have a big summer for myself (next year).”
At Media Day, Muhammad was persistent in his belief that this team is going to win. While that is, of course, important to him as a competitor he also implied the Wolves losing record in past years played a role in his poor perception this offseason. Muhammad sees the new squad as very different than the teams that depressed his marketability while losing 170 of their last 246 games.
“I had exceptions I could have taken elsewhere... But going to a team, and taking an exception, that’s not gonna win (would) put me in the same predicament,” said Muhammad.
He seems to understand that middling players with a clear deficiencies have become increasingly less desirable. Even more so, he seems to have gathered an understanding that stats can become empty on losing teams. The (at times) dynamic player he can be on the offensive end will, now, carry more weight playing for a 48-win team like the Wolves than, say, a 30-win team like the Lakers.
When asked how close he was to signing with his hometown Lakers, Muhammad responded, “Very close. I met with Magic (Johnson) and Rob (Pelinka) and Luke (Walton)... It was tough. They said ‘Do you wanna stay home?’ But the thing I’m looking at is I want to win.”
Muhammad is evidence of the premium on winning in today’s NBA. The role players that get paid are those who perform efficiently. Performing on a winner only further improves one’s market value.
“I think this gives me an opportunity to be set up for this summer,” explained Muhammad. His belief lies firmly in his head coach Tom Thibodeau. “Biggest thing is Coach knows my game. I didn’t want to go somewhere else where they didn’t know my game.”
This offseason taught Muhammad the need to not only understand the game of basketball but also the business. Through this ordeal, he familiarized himself with the intricacies of the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement and earning structure.
“The Timberwolves have my Bird Rights, so they can obviously sign me. And that was something that was smart on my part,” Muhammad explained to the Media Room.
And that is true, the Wolves do retain his Bird Rights which means they can exceed the salary cap — that they will certainly be over — to bring back Muhammad on a long-term deal next summer if they see fit. The other teams that pursued Muhammad for a one-year deal, like Milwaukee and Los Angeles, would not obtain his Bird Rights, limiting his earning potential in 2018.
In many ways, Muhammad’s hand has been forced to look long-term.
“That extra three or four million (from the Bucks or the Lakers) . . . I’m 24, I’m young, so that’s something I wasn’t concerned with,” said Muhammad.
While there is no assurance that Minnesota would want to invest heavily in Muhammad beyond this season, improvements in his game could make that more appealing. Next summer, while over the cap, the Wolves will have limited resources to improve the roster. Muhammad will be one of the team’s most impactful free agent decisions. Beyond Muhammad’s on-court value in 2017-18, this deal has potential to be mutually beneficial in the long run, for both parties.
The Jenga bricks did come crashing down for Muhammad as a minimum deal is his reality for 2017-18. He is almost certainly worth more than the $1.5 million he will cost the Wolves this season, yet he wants to — or has agreed to — play here at that price. The Muhammad signing is one of the first examples of the benefits of being an attractive franchise.
“I just wanted to be a part of something that I think is going to be special this year,” said Muhammad.
Wolves fans can safely assume Muhammad will come in with the proverbial chip on his shoulder. He has, again, lost weight this offseason and is prepared to prove those who did not invest in him were wrong.
“I think this is the lightest I’ve been since I was in high school. I’m like 218 right now, last summer I was 230-something. So, I’m serious,” said Muhammad.
A New Season and A New Opportunity
This inexpensive contract could light a fire under Muhammad. While he is an imperfect player his productivity and development have exceeded the typical value of a late-lottery pick. His new salary does not indicate this. At 24-years-old, a minimum contract suggests a player is on his way out of the league rather than still developing.
From that 2013 draft class, the only other lottery picks slotted to make the minimum salary are definitively massive busts — Anthony Bennett and Trey Burke. Muhammad should be fueled by the disrespect that suggests.
The average player drafted in the 2013 lottery is scheduled to make $11,010,854 in 2017-18, seven times the veteran’s minimum Muhammad is playing for. Players know these sort of things.
2013 Draft Class Salaries in 2017 Season
|Anthony Bennett||$1,577,230||non-guaranteed contract|
|Alex Len||$4,187,599||Qualifying Offer as RFA|
|Trey Burke||$1,577,230||UFA, expected to sign for min.|
|Avg. Salary of '13 lotto pick||$11,010,854|
All in all, the 2017 offseason was crazy for Muhammad. It was a disappointment. He did take on too much risk and he did misjudge the market. But as it sits now, Muhammad is looking at this season as an opportunity to stack back together his value. And Minnesota presents him an opportunity that is mutually beneficial venture for he and the franchise.
Next offseason, Muhammad will have learned from this summer and implement more of a risk-averse strategy. Until then, he has this season to showcase himself as one of the first players off the bench for what should be a competitive playoff team. From this season in Minnesota, he could earn the pile of money he desired, just one year of patience later.