In 2020, Bobby Portis signed with the Milwaukee Bucks. The deal was for two years, and $7.4 million total, but with a player option after the first season.
In 2021, Portis did not exercise his player option, opted out, and re-signed on a new two-year deal worth $8.9 million, which also included a player option after the first year.
Portis was able to squeeze out more money due to the fact that the Bucks could offer him a starting salary at 120% of the salary the year before.
Finally, after the completion of his second season with Milwaukee, the Bucks had early bird rights on the forward, which allowed them to pay him the greater of 175% of his salary the year before, or 105% of the league’s average salary in the season prior.
That meant, due to early bird rights, Portis was eligible to sign a four-year contract worth $49 million in 2022, which he did.
The path Portis walked is one Bruce Brown and the Denver Nuggets might follow this coming summer.
Brown, who signed a two-year deal with the Nuggets in 2022 worth $13.2 million, has a player option for this summer worth $6.8 million. His market value is several levels above his current compensation, but given that the Nuggets are a championship contender, and should remain as such for another handful of years, Brown might be inclined to sacrifice the allure of the open market this summer.
If Brown opts out, he can sign a new deal starting at 120% of his current salary of $6.4 million (or $6,479,000 to be exact). That means a starting salary of a little over $7.7 million. Add in another player option on that new deal, and the Nuggets would have early bird rights on Brown by the summer of 2024.
With early bird rights, the Nuggets can offer Brown 175% of his last salary, the aforementioned $7.7 million, or whatever 105% of the league’s average salary will be next season – whichever greater.
Since we aren’t yet sure of the latter number for next season, we’re going to have to operate with the 175% number.
(Note: Brown’s salary is a smidge higher than the initial compensation of Portis, and making the 105% scenario less likely to be worth it for Brown.)
175% of Brown’s $7.7 million would create a starting salary of $13.6 million, and Brown would be eligible for a long-term four-year contract. That’s a solid piece of cheddar for a part-time starter, but probably still below what his current market value is.
And as such, this is where things get tricky.
Brown could decide to once more sign a two-year contract, with a player option for the following season, and enter the 2025 summer with the Nuggets having full bird rights on him.
This would allow the Nuggets to offer him whatever they would agree upon, theoretically up to max-level compensation. This wouldn’t be relevant for Brown, but it means he’ll get every cent of what his market value dictates under those circumstances.
Why is that tricky?
Because Brown would have to gamble for a full two seasons to wait around for a contract he’s able to sign this summer. Brown will be 27 by the start of next season, and in the a above scenario he won’t get what he’s worth until he’s closing in on 29.
Not only is that a long time to wait around, it could also affect his ability to sign another long-term contract down the line.
Brown could sign a four-year deal this summer, mere months before he turns 27, and become a free agent when he’s a few months away from turning 31. That’s young enough for most teams to justify one final big payday, presumably over the course of three or four years.
If Brown is to get his first big long-term payday right before he turns 29, he won’t be a free agent until right before he turns 33, and at that age, teams are usually disinclined to offer significant compensation, both in years and dollars.
Basically, the only way for Denver to make this worth it for to Brown is to hand him a deal in 2025 that is extremely rich, compared to his production and skill.
That is something we’ve seen before in the NBA, but mostly with club legends. Kobe Bryant would near the end of his career routinely sign major max-level contracts based mostly on prior performance and not for what to come.
With Brown, the situation is different as the Nuggets would indirectly be paying him more than he’s worth for taking a discount for years prior, which the league could interpret as salary cap manipulation. This isn’t to say they’ll react to it, but if Brown’s compensation raises a lot of eyebrows, it can’t be ruled out either.
Perhaps the Nuggets are content with crossing that bridge when they get there. After all, such a deal would still be two years away. If they in the meantime – theoretically – win three championships with Brown playing a vital role, it’s probably easier to justify a major payday, as players with titles to their name often get compensated to a higher degree.
Overall, though, the Nuggets and Brown will need to discuss matters this summer to find common ground on the best path moving forward. Brown and his camp are well aware that there is an opportunity to cash in on his market value in July of this summer, so it comes down to how much they’re willing to gamble on the future – if at all.
Unless noted otherwise, all stats via NBA.com, PBPStats, Cleaning the Glass or Basketball-Reference. All salary information via Spotrac. All odds courtesy of FanDuel Sportsbook.
Follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn. Check out my website.