Hollinger: NBA’s middle-class contract extension revolution, analyzing Giannis’ bag

It’s a middle-class revolution.

Normally, rookie salary extensions are strictly the province of starting-caliber players or better, if not outright stars. Not this year. With the deadline for such extensions for the first-rounders from the 2020 rookie class hitting at 6 p.m. Eastern on Monday, we ended up with an amazing six separate deals for money at or below the range of the non-taxpayer midlevel exception. Typical previous seasons have seen just one or two.

Yes, the headliners got paid too, (well, except Tyrese Maxey), and Giannis Antetokounmpo got his bag as well before a separate deadline for veteran extensions hit at midnight Monday. We’ll talk about those developments in a minute.

But first, the amazing tally of not-exactly-superstars who nonetheless inked middle-class extensions:

  • Onyeka Okongwu, four years, $62 million from Atlanta
  • Isaiah Stewart, four years, $60 million from Detroit
  • Deni Avdija, four years, $55 million from Washington
  • Josh Green, three years, $41 million from Dallas
  • Cole Anthony, three years, $34 million from Orlando
  • Aaron Nesmith, three years, $33 million from Indiana
  • Payton Pritchard, four years, $30 million from Boston
  • Zeke Nnaji, four, years, $29 million from Denver with a player option

What happened here? Every contract is different, and I’ll break down some of the deals I liked better than others in a minute, but let’s take a crack at a few potential causes:

Distaste for restricted free agency

The RFA life isn’t for everyone. Players can wallow on the market for months, with rival teams not wanting to bother chasing an offer sheet they know is likely to be matched. And on the team side, it generates a lot of uncertainty that is normally not conducive to the roster-building process.

There are exceptions — Philadelphia didn’t extend Maxey because it wants to have him in restricted free agency, where his piddling $13 million cap hold gives the Sixers far more cap space than a max extension would. Cap room logic also may have factored into non-extensions for Aleksej Pokuševski in Oklahoma City and Precious Achiuwa in Toronto. Nonetheless, the overriding ethos was to get deals done: Of the 27 eligible players, 14 have extensions.

A rising salary cap

Several of the extensions have either flat or declining money year-to-year, while the salary cap is projected to grow steadily. League guidance projects a 4.4 percent rise next year, while the expectation is that subsequent years are likely to max out at 10 percent per annum (the most allowed under the current CBA), particularly for the 2025-26 season, when the new TV money hits. As a result, “inflation” will essentially water down the impact of the out years on these salaries, especially for four-year deals.

We didn’t necessarily see that just at the low end of the market either — Memphis going out a full five years on Desmond Bane and Minnesota doing the same for Jaden McDaniels were likely informed by similar logic. However, it appeared to cut more sharply here as teams tried to get long-term wins on back-end rotation pieces.


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Trade bait

Middle-class contracts are a necessary ingredient for future trades, so the teams that could afford to add them did. The two that particularly stood out are the deals for Avdija and Anthony; their respective teams are likely to have max cap room next summer either way, but a paucity of middle-class contracts on both rosters could potentially hinder their trade activity once the cap room is gone.

Remember, middle-class contracts are particularly flexible pieces now that the NBA has widened the salary bands for contract matching in this range. After July 1, Anthony’s $12.9 million salary for 2024-25 can be used to bring back up to $20.4 million as long as Orlando stays below the apron, while Avdija’s $15.6 million can bring back up to $23.1 million for the Wizards.

The quest for tradeable salary also was likely a factor in Nesmith’s otherwise puzzling extension. He soaks up the $11 million between the salary cap and the luxury-tax line that the Pacers likely will have next summer, turning it into a potential salary match.

The tax

With teams over the second apron effectively being shut out of free agency, a couple of high spenders decided to lock in late draft picks now. Boston and Denver, both looking at pushing into the second apron a year from now, decided to cement numbers for Pritchard and Nnaji rather than be left high and dry a year from now.

Those are somewhat tradeable salaries too, from above, but trade restrictions on tax teams limit the flexibility of those deals (Denver has sub-apron possibilities if Kentavious Caldwell-Pope leaves in free agency next summer; Boston, not so much). The free-agency restrictions likely focused those teams’ attention more on internal targets.

Payton Pritchard of the Boston Celtics

Payton Pritchard received a four-year extension from Boston recently. (Eric Canha / USA Today)

Giannis gets his bag

Now that we’ve talked about the top-line trends, let’s get into the nitty-gritty about some of the deals that happened at the buzzer.

The Bucks secured a major franchise-level objective with Antetokounmpo’s agreement on a three-year, $187 million deal. (Pedantic side note: Though the deal is widely reported as $186 million, it would maximally pay him $186.64 million, which normally would be rounded up to $187 million. It seems more likely to land at $177 million based on projected rises in the cap.)

This deal theoretically keeps him in Cream City until at least 2027, by which he’ll be 32 years old; the final year reportedly has a player option that takes the contract to 2028.

Antetokounmpo could have potentially put more pressure on the Bucks by waiting another year and then signing a four-year extension that paid him through 2029. The apparent advantage of extending now is that he can get to the next deal in October 2025, sign another three-year max with a player option, then do the same on the next-next deal in 2027. He could take advantage of potential 10 percent appreciation in the salary cap with each new deal (since his contracts are limited to 8 percent raises) and could get to the last deal in 2027 without being subject to the Over-38 rule.

Finally, I’ll note that Antetokounmpo was a rare case because he had multiple years left on his deal. A few other veterans had a deadline for midnight Monday – including Boston’s Derrick White and Miami’s Bam Adebayo – didn’t extend. But Antetokounmpo was unusual; for most veterans on expiring or potentially expiring deals, an extension can be signed until late June.



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The non-extensions

Not everybody inked an extension, and tax and cap uncertainty seemed to play a role in a few deals that didn’t happen. We aren’t privy to the negotiations and just hear what either side chooses to leak, but a peek at the cap sheets shows some fairly obvious reasons why, say, Cleveland didn’t march into a deal with Isaac Okoro, which would have all but assured the Cavs of being over next year’s tax line.

Atlanta was a more interesting situation, as the Hawks had both Okongwu and Saddiq Bey as extension-eligible options, but face a tax situation a year from now where it might be able to pay only one. (Adding to the fun: The two players share the same agency.)

As noted above, cap room considerations likely were a factor in the non-extensions for Maxey, Pokuševski and Achiuwa.

The most interesting non-extension, by far, was Immanuel Quickley in New York. Quickley is a good, valuable combo guard whom advanced metrics looove; BORD$ projects him as worth $34.7 million for this season. Fitting that kind of cheese into the Knicks’ salary structure could be tricky, however, especially when they’re already paying Jalen Brunson and, perhaps, hoping to keep a spot warm for Donovan Mitchell. Keeping Quickley around as a trade option seemed the wiser play if they weren’t going to get a below-market deal.

Another notable Knicks-adjacent non-extension was Obi Toppin in Indiana. Projected to be the Pacers’ starting power forward after his offseason liberation from the New York bench, it seems Toppin wanted to bet on himself rather than lock in a Nesmithian wage rate for the coming few seasons.

The other significant non-extension was perennial tease Patrick Williams in Chicago, whose distance between ceiling and floor likely made for a challenging valuation for either side, bolstered by the added complexity of the Bulls figuring out whether they’re coming or going.

Finally, five other cases were more straightforward examples of players not really establishing themselves enough to warrant extensions: Toronto’s Malachi Flynn, Orlando’s Chuma Okeke, New Orleans’ Kira Lewis Jr. and Detroit’s Killian Hayes and James Wiseman.



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The Faried Rule

In an ironic twist, Minnesota team president Tim Connelly was able to sign McDaniels to a five-year deal for less than the max … something that was not allowed the last time he tried it.

In 2014, when Connelly was general manager of the Nuggets, Denver attempted to sign forward Kenneth Faried to a five-year extension, but the league spiked it because the CBA at the time prohibited five-year deals for less than the max. Nobody thought this rule made sense, and it was removed in the next CBA.

That allowed Connelly to sign McDaniels for a full five years on Monday, at a fair $136 million that reportedly includes $5 million in unlikely incentives. (BORD$ values McDaniels at $19.9 million for the coming year, and that number should steadily rise given that he’s only 23 and the cap will keep increasing.)

The interesting part of this deal, of course, is what it portends for the rest of Minnesota’s roster. The Wolves are now at the second apron for next year before paying a dime to potential free agents Mike Conley and Kyle Anderson. With Karl-Anthony Towns due for a big raise to $49.7 million and persistent questions about exactly how deep ownership’s pockets go, speculation will only grow as to whether Minnesota will cash in its Towns stock or look to move another big to escape the luxury-tax dungeon. The Wolves have an amazing $108 million committed to three centers – Towns, Rudy Gobert and Naz Reid – next season.

Best value

While I have some questions about whether Okongwu does enough offensively to supplant Clint Capela as a starter, there is little doubt his deal is a favorable one for Atlanta. Okongwu won’t turn 23 till December and carries an $18.5 million BORD$ value heading into this season; his contract starts at a mere $14 million in 2024-25. It’s a win for the Hawks in that it also should allow them to explore Capela’s trade market more fully.

Anthony’s deal in Orlando also looks good for the Magic, even with a third-year player option. BORD$ probably likes him too much ($17.7 million) given that he’s likely permanently shoehorned into a sixth-man scoring role, but his contract is below the nontaxpayer MLE.

Worst value

It’s a tie between Nesmith and Nnaji. The 6-foot-5 Nesmith has a BORD$ value of $5.7 million, and the Pacers have five other players between 6-4 and 6-6 who are better. He gives Indiana a tradeable salary, as noted above, but unless you’re a fan of him masquerading as a starting four for the next few years, I don’t really get it.
As for Nnaji, let’s just say I don’t think the Nuggets needed to get out in front of a bidding war. He was the only extended player who rated at or below replacement level for the coming season. Denver benched him last year and traded three second-rounders for Thomas Bryant to try to fill his position.

Optimists will note that Nnaji had a good preseason, abetted by his drawing heaps of free throws. The money is declining, and it’s not a huge dollar amount. But he still needs to be playable, especially because his salary may be enough to push Denver above the second apron in 2024-25.

(Top photo of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Onyeka Okongwu: Brett Davis / USA Today)

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