Teams look for balance between rewarding stars early, playing free agency game

In signing Eric Bledsoe to extension, Bucks become latest team trying to get in front of free agency challenges

A bunch of Milwaukee Bucks fans, and more than a few of the team’s players, breathed a sigh of relief last week when news broke that point guard Eric Bledsoe had agreed to a four-year, $70 million contract extension.

By locking up Bledsoe early, Milwaukee kept the muscled, two-way point guard off the free agent market this summer. The Bucks still have multiple players from their core nearing the end of their current deals — Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Malcolm Brogdon, Nikola Mirotic — so nailing down at least one of the key puzzle pieces around MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo eases at least a little uncertainty for what comes after this happy 2018-19 season and postseason. They also lessened the downside by reportedly guaranteeing only $3.9 million of the $19 million due Bledsoe in the last year of the deal.

Then again, the Bucks bid against no one in signing Bledsoe now rather than later. They committed to a guard who will be 32 in the final season of the extension, a guy who has helped his teams to just one playoff series in the past five seasons.

In setting their own market for Bledsoe four months early, Milwaukee essentially traded one risk — losing the player without compensation in July — for another. Which seems to be happening a lot around the NBA these days.

Maybe it’s Cleveland and forward Kevin Love jumping at a four-year, $120 million extension last summer, a deal that won’t start until next fall for a player who has missed 53 games this season and an average of more than 25 per season since he joined the Cavaliers in 2014. Or maybe it’s Minnesota doing the same thing with Andrew Wiggins, rushing to give the never-All-Star a five-year, $146 million extension in October 2017.

It’s bad enough that Love’s $24 million salary, even if he’s healthy for the remainder of the Cavs’ schedule, annualizes out to $66 million for the games he’ll actually play. No surprise that a 30-year-old veteran in his 11th season, with his history of injuries and ailments, would jump at the chance to guarantee early what might be his final (at least final big) NBA payday. Love at least is a five-time All-Star and affable personality who, at his best, is worthy of planting a flag with for a franchise in serious transition after LeBron James left last summer.

It’s worse that Wiggins’ massive deal, for a player whose intensity and desire to fully tap his many skills has been suspect for years, looked like a mistake well before it kicked in for this season.

If ever a player seemed to need the urgency of an open market — as a restricted free agent, still in Minnesota’s control had he even reached that status last summer — it’s Wiggins. Unless you think it’s a good idea to purchase luxury cars with missing motors.

Now consider Washington’s John Wall, whose ruptured Achilles tendon likely will keep him out until deep into next season. That, finally, will be Year 1 of the four-year, $170 million max extension the Wizards signed with him back in July 2017. They assumed 100 percent of the risk, giving Wall a player option for the final 2022-23 season.

Granted, he has been their best player for most of his NBA tenure, that essential piece in their, um, early eliminations and playoff misses. Now there’s genuine concern that the quickness that literally has separated him from most of his peers might be gone to injury and surgery. What isn’t gone is the contract obligation Washington faces.

Sometimes, admittedly, these pre-emptive strikes work out nicely. The four-year, $100 million (that is, less than maximum) package the Bucks gave Antetokounmpo is a relative steal — and sets a bar for what other Milwaukee players, such as Middleton, might think about making, in terms of drawing a bigger salary than the team’s essential talent.

Blake Griffin’s five-year, $173 million deal signed with the Clippers as a free agent in 2017 became Detroit’s burden entirely when they traded for the All-Star forward. Fortunately for the Pistons, Griffin’s game has grown in the interim, making the dollar amounts ($39 million in 2021-22 when he hits age 33) appear less onerous.

Jumping the gun — out of a fear of losing players outright — is one thing. Getting out over one’s skis to pre-empt restrictive free agency is an even shakier strategy. Portland did it with players, stuck because their departures wouldn’t have opened up enough cap space to compete in the market otherwise.

But who looks smarter now: Chicago for being “passive” and matching the four-year, $78 million offer sheet Zach LaVine signed with Sacramento or Minnesota owner Glen Taylor for looking deep into Wiggins’ eyes (that was a prerequisite for the Wolves boss) before handing over all that dough for still untapped potential?

These tactics have been further complicated by the recent trend of some NBA stars — cornerstone players to whom franchises either had or would have committed their futures — to fuss and buck with time left on the fat contracts they receive.

Notice the escalation from Paul George serving notice in Indiana that he planned to leave to Kyrie Irving wanting a trade away from Cleveland, followed by Jimmy Butler undermining the Timberwolves at the start of this season to leverage his trade to Philadelphia, finally to Anthony Davis demanding out of New Orleans as the February trade deadline neared — with 1.5 seasons left on his Pelicans deal.

The NBA long has been a supporter of players’ movement when they reach free agency and have the same freedom to choose whatever employer, colleagues, geography or professional ambitions suit them. But while upholding their end of a bargain into which they willingly entered? Nope.

It’s an unforeseen consequence of the owners, in the most recent collective-bargaining talks, preferring shorter contracts as a way to protect against under performance and debilitating injuries (think Chicago’s Derrick Rose). Now, with four-year contracts turned into two-, it’s something that goes bump in the night to keep commissioner Adam Silver tossing and turning.

No one questions the business strategy when it works; so far, Russell Westbrook’s five-year, $205 million extension, signed in 2017, appears to have been a solid move. It essentially kept both him and George in Oklahoma City.

But there are matching examples, a miscalculation for every success, throughout the league. And in between the two rules of free agency — “never let a star leave for nothing in return” and “never bid against yourself” — there is this enduring one: You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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