Breaking down 2019’s rookie scale extensions, Part I

It’s late August, which means the NBA (except the Brooklyn Nets, apparently) is on vacation or working out to get those #MUSCLEWATCH2019 tweets out before the season starts. Free agency has come and gone outside of a few stragglers still finding homes and the remaining summer contracts being handed out in advance of training camp, but August and early September are the true dead periods in the NBA calendar as players, coaches, and executives throughout the league get a well-deserved break from the season-long grind.

As we move out of the offseason and into actual games, rookie scale extensions are the last major piece of business for most teams. First-round picks in the 2016 draft (or players in 2014 or 2015 who didn’t sign their rookie scale deal until 2016, like Dario Saric) have until day before the season starts, October 21, to agree to terms on an extension with their current teams.

In general, I have two schools of thought when it comes to rookie scale extensions, from the team’s perspective – the player either has to be a no-doubt max guy or the team has to be getting such a bargain that it makes it worthwhile to lock the player in a year early. The fact that the teams involved have restricted free agent rights on these players the next summer if they can’t come an extension agreement would make me a lot more aggressive in negotiations.

The former is what drives a team like the Philadelphia 76ers to max out Ben Simmons on an extension this summer. Simmons is a no-doubt max guy and locking him into a five-year max with no options is a win for a Philadelphia team who had something to lose by letting him hit restricted free agency next summer. Even if Simmons doesn’t take a step forward as a shooter or finisher, he was going to get the full boat from someone, probably multiple teams, and probably would have had the leverage to negotiate a fifth-year option in his contract with Philadelphia. One of the worst-case scenarios for the 76ers includes him signing a 3+1 offer sheet with another team and getting out of Philadelphia a full two years earlier than he will under his current extension. Even if the relationship between player and club sours at some point in the next few years, he’ll retain most of his trade value and would fetch a much larger return on a five-year deal than a 4+1 or a 3+1.

The other side of this is something that’s more difficult for me to speak to; namely, how much paying guys a year early without getting a bargain can affect team morale, the club’s standing throughout the league, and other softer traits. This is the argument for Denver maxing out Jamal Murray a year ahead of his rookie scale contract expiring – the Nuggets famously want to engender goodwill with their players and value consistency and continuity over getting the very best deal they can. And for a team that isn’t likely to have cap space for a couple of years, Murray’s max deal doesn’t hurt them there.

Murray’s on-court fit in what Denver is building also makes his max extension more palatable. He’s not a fantastic primary playmaker – he doesn’t have the passing vision to be a contender’s sole offensive engine – but he doesn’t have to play that role on a Nuggets team that has Nikola Jokic. Murray and Jokic play together very well, with Murray’s off-ball movement and shooting complementing Jokic’s pinpoint passing. On the defensive end, that duo could present some issues in the deeper reaches of the Western Conference playoffs, but for where the Nuggets are as a franchise, moving into the future with that duo makes sense.

On Sunday night, news came down from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski that Caris LeVert had signed the latter version of a team-friendly rookie scale extension: a deal that locks in a good player at a below-market number. LeVert’s reported terms will see him make $52.5 million over three years with Brooklyn, which represents a significant break off what he could have made in free agency next year but locks that money in a year ahead of time.

LeVert’s injury concerns seem to have driven him to the table in these extension negotiations. He’s had a lot of trouble staying healthy throughout his career in college and the NBA, which is usually what leads to these below-market contracts or extensions. He’s made strong improvements each year in the league and is on a very good overall developmental trajectory.

Some will balk at him being able to improve significantly in the future given his lengthy college career and the fact that he’s already 25, but I’ve never been a strong believer in development being as strongly tied to age as a lot of people seem to be. LeVert doesn’t have as much room to grow physically and athletically as some of his younger draft classmates, but if we’ve learned anything over the last few years, it’s that skill and mental development has far more to do with a player’s success than his physical attributes.

His box score stats may not wow anybody, but LeVert has everything a team needs from a winning role player, which makes him exceptionally valuable to a team with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant on board for the next few years. He can play both forward spots and is a strong secondary playmaker at the 3 or the 4, which makes him a bit of a matchup nightmare for a lot of opposing teams. The jumper is the final piece to the puzzle for LeVert; he’s never been better than average from beyond the three-point line and can at times gum up the works with his relatively unwillingness to take those shots. This is an area in which he can improve even as he ages out of his absolute athletic prime, which is part of why I usually reject the hypothesis that players at their full potential by this time in their lives.

All told, this is a far, far lower extension for LeVert than I would have expected. He’s a legitimate third or fourth option on what will be a very, very good Brooklyn team once Durant is healthy and he plays the most important position on the floor. Teams usually pay through the nose for players of LeVert’s caliber who can swing between the 3 and 4 as well as he can. It would not have surprised me in the least to see him get twice as much guaranteed money next summer, but LeVert took a significant discount to insure himself against future injury and still lock in life-changing money.

This is the precise extension that makes perfect sense for both player and team and a very good example of the second sort of extension agreement I’d offer as a general manager. Between Simmons and LeVert, the 2016 draft class already has the two versions of an extension that make sense for a team, given that both players could have hit restricted free agency next summer. Simmons signed the full five-year max to insure the team against him taking a 3+1 next summer and LeVert took a below-market extension to lock in more than $50 million a year early, while the Nets locked in a good player on a good contract, whether they want to trade him or keep him at that number until 2023.

Three extensions down, 18 to go. In Part II, I’ll take a look at some of the other wings eligible for rookie scale extensions, including Brandon Ingram and Jaylen Brown, before hitting on a few other guys in Part III.