Lost amid the shuffle of teams waiving and trading players to meet the NBA’s roster maximums before the start of the regular season, and the swirl around which players coming off rookie-scale contracts would get extensions, is another set of important transactions almost every team has to make decisions on. Teams have until Oct. 31 to decide on exercising team options for players on rookie-scale contracts. These options can be for either a player’s third or fourth year. The catch is that teams have to make that decision almost a full year in advance. That means that the decisions being made now are for the 2019-20 season.
Deciding to pick up an option for a player is often an easy decision for a team. If you drafted a player high in the first round, you’ve already invested enough in that player that you aren’t giving up after a season or two. On occasion however, a team feels they’ve seen enough to know that the player in question isn’t a part of the club’s future. It’s a mixture of projection and known factors that is unlike any other option in the NBA.
Given the choice, most general managers would rather wait it out as long as they can on a draft pick. They’ll keep giving players chances in the NBA or G League until their contract is up. It’s kind of like fighting a losing battle in Monopoly. You know you’re basically finished, but maybe you make it around the board just once more and get lucky. Giving up is admittance that you erred in judgment along the way, and no one likes to admit they were wrong.
But NBA general managers have to be pragmatic. Sometimes cutting your losses is the best way to move forward. Unlike Monopoly, the game doesn’t end. You move on to whatever’s next. And that might mean giving up on a player you were once high enough on to draft in the first round.
Teams decline to exercise these player options for a variety of reasons. Performance is certainly one of them. Sometimes they just got it wrong. Injury is another. If a player doesn’t project to make it back to form, or even make it back at all, there isn’t a reason to drag things out. And lastly, there are financial concerns. While rookie scale deals still represent the NBA’s best value for performance against salary, they can still be a costly endeavor for the team. If the club is up against the luxury-tax line, it has to look hard at whether carrying the player makes sense. And for those teams planning to make a run at free agents, a rookie-scale deal can make the difference between having enough space for a max contract offer or not.
When a team declines an option, the player becomes an unrestricted free agent in the offseason. While the team still holds the player’s free-agent rights, it is limited to paying that player a first-year salary that is only up to the amount of the option it declined. This closes a loophole in which a team could decline the option and negotiate a whole new contract.
Because of this limitation on salary, it makes it a fairly substantial risk for the team. If the player is a late bloomer and has a breakout season, his incumbent team is capped at how much it can pay him. Such was the case with Solomon Hill and the Indiana Pacers. After two moderately blah years, the Pacers declined Hill’s fourth-year option. It looked like the right decision for most of the year, then Hill busted out in the 2016 playoffs. The New Orleans Pelicans came calling with four-year, $48 million contract and there was nothing the Pacers could do to match it.
Teams have been making option decisions for 2019-20 for the last few weeks, but several remain outstanding. They range from the “no-brainer” to “this is a real decision” category.
Jaylen Brown (fourth-year option): Put this in the no-brainer category. Brown has improved by leaps and bounds from his rookie year to the start of his third year. No chance Boston lets him go.
Jayson Tatum (third-year option): See above, but read it with even more gusto!
Guerschon Yabusele (third-year option): Unlike his two teammates, Yabusele’s option isn’t as cut and dried. The Celtics are facing a hefty luxury-tax bill next summer, pending free agency. And while he’s a fan favorite, Yabusele is pretty deep on the big-man depth chart in Boston. The guess is that Boston declines his option in favor of roster flexibility and tax savings.
Malik Monk (third-year option): At the end of his first year, it seemed as if Monk might be in danger of having his option declined. He was that bad as a rookie. But he’s shown improvement this year and is one of the few cheap, cost-controlled players on the Hornets. He’ll have his option picked up.
Kris Dunn (fourth-year option): Dunn hasn’t lived up to expectations, but he’s the only rotation-caliber point guard on the roster. The next couple of drafts don’t appear to be loaded at the position either. His option will be exercised.
Lauri Markkanen (third-year option): Despite currently being sidelined with an elbow sprain, Markkanen is as close to a franchise player as Chicago has at the moment. This one is a no-brainer.
Denzel Valentine (fourth-year option): The Bulls aren’t the kind of franchise to let cost-controlled players slip away. Well, they weren’t before losing David Nwaba for nothing this past summer. Valentine has been injured and ineffective for much of his tenure in Chicago. The Bulls will probably pick up his option, but with cap space a goal this summer, it wouldn’t be a surprise if they went the other way.
Ante Zizic (third-year option): While he’s a long way from being put near the top of his class, Zizic is showing signs of development. He’s not an ideal fit in the modern NBA, but he’s got enough size and skill that the Cavs will pick up his option.
Malik Beasley (fourth-year option): Beasley has shown enough that Denver will pick up his option. The Nuggets are another team that can’t afford to let cost-controlled players slip away early because their roster is getting expensive.
Juancho Hernangomez (fourth-year option): Same as Beasley. Both are taking on rotation roles this year and have too much potential vs. cost to risk losing them on the open market.
Tyler Lydon (third-year option): Lydon is in a bit of a different boat than his teammates above. The Nuggets are awash in power forwards, and Lydon hasn’t shown much to date. That could have him on the outside looking in.
Jamal Murray (fourth-year option): Along with Brown and Tatum, Murray is among the biggest no-brainers on the list.
Henry Ellenson (fourth-year option): Ellenson hasn’t done much in his first two seasons and doesn’t project as part of the rotation in his third year. The Pistons’ roster is already expensive and they’ve got some players due for new contracts too. That puts Ellenson firmly on the bubble.
Luke Kennard (third-year option): Kennard is part of the rotation and brings some shooting to a wing group that really needs it. His option will be picked up for sure.
Golden State Warriors
Damian Jones (fourth-year option): A year ago, it looked as if Jones would certainly have his fourth-year option declined, and some even thought that would happen with his third-year option. But he’s hung in there. The Warriors have one of the priciest rosters in the NBA, so they might hang on to Jones, who is starting while DeMarcus Cousins is out.
Marquese Chriss (fourth-year option): Chriss was just acquired by the Rockets this summer, but he seems like the kind of player GM Daryl Morey will want to see more of. He’s athletic and does a nice job around the rim, which sounds a lot like Clint Capela lite. The Rockets also can’t let cheap talent slip away because of mounting tax concerns.
Thon Maker (fourth-year option): Maker has had his ups and downs, but he’s still young enough with enough potential that Milwaukee will assuredly exercise his option.
D.J. Wilson (third-year option): Wilson is in a different spot from Maker. He was on the roster bubble out of camp and was reportedly a draft pick that former coach Jason Kidd had pushed for. Like Kidd, Wilson hasn’t really worked out in Milwaukee. He’s among the more likely candidates to have his option declined.
Justin Patton (third-year option): Patton is probably the best bet to have his option declined. He got hurt before his rookie season and then got injured again before his second year. At this point, it’s probably best for Minnesota to cut its losses.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Terrance Ferguson (third-year option): Ferguson showed some potential as a rookie and is now starting for the Thunder because of Andre Roberson’s injury. He’s a lock to have his option exercised.
Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot (fourth-year option): Oklahoma City currently has the NBA’s most expensive roster. They lessened their tax bill by trading Carmelo Anthony, but still have a large check to write at the end of the year. And 2019-20 looks to be about the same. Because the Thunder didn’t draft him and have no attachment to him, Luwawu-Cabarrot could be let go to save money.
Markelle Fultz (third-year option): Fultz has gone through as much purely basketball turmoil as any first overall draft pick could possibly go through. Regardless, Fultz will have his option picked up.
Furkan Korkmaz (third-year option): Philadelphia is facing some very real cap concerns. Extensions have already kicked in for Joel Embiid and Robert Covington. Ben Simmons and Dario Saric are up next summer. Korkmaz could have his option declined as a result, but don’t bet on it. Philly likely will pick up his option and look for a trade to clear cap space if it needs to.
Dario Saric (fourth-year option): A no-brainer. Saric is too important for the Sixers to mess around with anything but guaranteeing him for 2019-20.
Ben Simmons (fourth-year option): Simmons is in the Jayson Tatum/Jaylen Brown/Jamal Murray tier of no-brainer guarantees to have his option exercised.
Dragan Bender (fourth-year option): The alarm bells are sounding for Bender. First, he hasn’t been very good. Second, the Suns have designs on cap space next summer. Last, Phoenix already picked up Josh Jackson’s option, and teams almost always pick up all options together. Bender looks like a goner.
De’Aaron Fox (third-year option): Fox is a lock to have his option picked up. He’s the Kings’ point guard going forward.
Harry Giles (third-year option): Giles was one of the best players in his high school class, but couldn’t shake some injuries. Sacramento redshirted him as a rookie. The talent is still there, and given the Kings investment, he should be back next year.
Buddy Hield (fourth-year option): Hield hasn’t been the game-changing shooter Sacramento hoped for when they picked him up in the DeMarcus Cousins trade. That said, he’s been better as of late. The Kings likely will have him back next year.
Justin Jackson (third-year option): Jackson started for a lot of his rookie year last season. That was mostly due to lack of better options, but he’s good enough to have his option picked up and it likely will be.
Skal Labissiere (fourth-year option): Sacramento has a lot of bigs and most of them are better than Labissiere. The Kings will have to trade someone, but they’ll do that before they lose a talented player for nothing. Labissiere likely will have his option exercised.
OG Anunoby (third-year option): Anunoby fell to the Raptors in the 2017 NBA draft because of injury concerns. He showed last year that teams made a mistake passing on him. It’s a lock the Raptors pick up his option.
Malachi Richardson (fourth-year option): Toronto has some very real tax concerns because of its expensive roster. Those will only grow if they re-sign Kawhi Leonard. Because of cost reasons, Richardson is likely to have his option declined.
Pascal Siakam (fourth-year option): Siakam’s option is just about guaranteed to be picked up. He’s improved a lot over his first couple of seasons, and Toronto loves him. Really loves him. Miniscule chance the Raptors decline his option.
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