Death, taxes and championship contenders are struggling to maintain their own free agents.
There are three certainties of life for the Brooklyn Nets, which own the NBA’s second-largest payroll ($166 million, behind only the Golden State Warriors), especially when you consider how massive the Nets’ payroll is.
Kevin Durant has earned $40.9 million this season. Kyrie Irving is on the hook for $34.9 million, Ben Simmons has a $31.5 million cap hit, and Joe Harris’ contract extension has paid him $17.3 million this season.
That’s a split of $124.6 million between just four players, $12 million more than the $112.4 million NBA salary limit.
Which is why it’s going to be difficult, as it was last season, for the Nets to retain their own free agents, and why it will be an uphill battle for Brooklyn to retain starting center Andre Drummond this off-season. .
Drummond signed a veteran’s minimum deal with the Philadelphia 76ers prior to his midseason trade to Brooklyn, but he has been removed only two seasons from a $16.4 million one-year deal with the Detroit Pistons.
Prior to that deal, he signed a five-year, $127 million deal.
In fact, Drummond suggested that the Nets would be foolish to move Nick Claxton on the trade deadline because he sees Claxton as potentially the center of Brooklyn’s future. Drummond also flat-out suggested that his own future is more than likely not with the Nets beyond this season.
“And if we’re all being honest, I’m only here for the rest of the season,” he said, discussing Claxton. “So who knows what’s going to happen in the off season? That’s why they need a guy like (Nick).”
Drummond knows that because he’s all about his money: The NBA’s collective bargaining agreement prevents the Nets from exceeding the salary limit to keep him. The most they can offer is 120% of their current minimum wage, or the exception of the full taxpayer mid-level who is just under $6 million. Those figures, in Drummond’s likely estimate since his trade with Brooklyn, are not enough for a double-double, 11 points and a player average of 9.6 rebounds per game.
There are several players in similar positions in the Nets: Goran Dragic earned $116 million from 2015 before signing with the Nets at the veteran minimum after the All-Star break. Bruce Brown has already re-signed for a $4.7 million qualifying offer in Brooklyn, but he’ll undoubtedly have more lucrative offers elsewhere after his second consecutive breakout season. LaMarcus Aldridge is on his second consecutive lowest deal since 2015, earning more than $20 million annually.
And of course, the Nets will have to pay Claxton, who will become a banned free agent this summer at the conclusion of the third year of his rookie deal.
“I think we need him,” Drummond said of Claxton. “We need him. I think he’s very beneficial to this team. He’s still young, a guy who can come in and help, start, come off the bench. He can do a little bit of everything. With a guy who’s so versatile, why would you do business with someone like that?”
Not all players take a pay cut to sign with a championship contender, either—especially young players who haven’t yet seen a significant offer in free agency. In an instance that came close to home last summer, the Nets couldn’t afford to retain veteran forward Jeff Greene, who left Brooklyn to sign a two-year, $10 million deal with the Denver Nuggets . In an effort to replace Green, the Nets signed past-their-Prime All-Star and ex-Nuggets forward Paul Milsap. Milsap was ineffective in his limited playing time before being piled by the Nets in a James Harden deal.
“The loss of Brooklyn was definitely our advantage,” said Nuggets head coach Michael Malone.
Blake Griffin and James Johnson are two other players who will become unrestricted free agents at the end of this season. Patty Mills can also become a free agent if he declines the player’s option on his contract to make other offers.
At first glance, Mills seems like a lock to stay in Brooklyn next season, given his relationships with Nets GM Sean Marks and Australian teammates Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons. But then, when the money calls, everyone listens.
And if the money says so, the Nets will be unable to answer.