Like any player heading into restricted free agency, Brandon Jennings is looking for greener pastures in more ways than one.
A big first payday is the most obvious green Jennings is after, and it's no secret that Jennings will consider pastures other than those limited to Southeastern Wisconsin. Given the Bucks' decision not to hand Jennings a big payday last fall, that much is only fair, though the Bucks continue to insist they will match any offers the restricted free agent might receive this coming summer.
The only thing for certain is that it won't be long-time agent Bill Duffy collecting commissions on that new deal. As Liz Mullen of Sports Business Journal tweeted earlier today, Jennings is going to be looking for his first big contract without the services of Duffy, with Ken Berger of CBS reporting that Jennings is signing with Jeff Schwartz, who also represents Luc Mbah a Moute. Berger writes that the switch could also be bad news for the Bucks:
Jennings will be one of the top restricted free agents on the market this summer, and his hiring of Schwartz could be ominous for the Bucks. After failing to receive a multi-year extension by the Oct. 31, 2012, deadline the 2009 first-round pick said, "I'm doing my homework on big-market teams."
To clarify, Jennings actually uttered his infamous "homework" comment as part of an email interview with ESPN's Chris Broussard back on February 11, 2012, but it's no secret that Jennings wasn't thrilled with the Bucks' lack of urgency to sign him to a long-term extension. With Ty Lawson, Stephen Curry and Jrue Holiday all signing new deals that will pay them in excess of $40 million over four years, Jennings will head into the summer as the best player from the class of 2009 who didn't get a shiny new deal last fall. It's not something that Jennings should be thrilled about, but realistically it may well end up being a prudent move for the Bucks, who get another year to determine if Jennings is worth the money without the risk of Jennings bolting this coming summer.
So should Jennings' agent switch worry the Bucks? First and foremost, it's important to remember that as a restricted free agent Jennings can't just leave. The Bucks will have the option of matching any offer sheet he signs with another team, and there's been no indication that Jennings is opposed to getting paid big money to serve as the Bucks' de facto face of the franchise. He said as much last summer:
In short: young NBA players just want to get paid, and the Milwaukee Bucks' money is just as green as anyone else's. That cynical read on the situation isn't an overwhelming endorsement of Jennings' enthusiasm to remain in Milwaukee, but it's more or less been the norm among players coming off rookie deals. Give them money, and they stay. So even if Schwartz has more of a big market bias than Duffy, don't expect him to leave a ton of money on the table just for the off chance of steering Jennings to a bigger market in 2014. His job (and his personal motivation) is to get his client paid, which is still most likely to happen in Milwaukee. Besides, it's not like the Knicks, Nets, Lakers or Clippers are going to have cap space in 2014 anyway.
Not that there's any way to guarantee Jennings' long-term future in Milwaukee either. If he's dead set on leaving--which we haven't seen any indication of to date--Jennings could accept his one-year, $4.3 million qualifying offer and become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2014. But that's typically only a last resort for guys who can't find a respectable long-term offer (h/t RealGM for the link), and would entail significant financial risk for a player who has legitimate offers on the table. Shockingly, you won't find many agents endorsing that philosophy. Brandon could also sign an offer sheet with another team and then beg the Bucks not to match, something Eric Gordon tried unsuccessfully last summer. Or the Bucks could opt to deal Jennings ahead of the February 21 trade deadline, which is possible but seems rather unlikely given everything we know about the organization at the moment. But the key takeaway is that any short-term exit strategy Jennings might want to cook up will require the Bucks' cooperation, and for now at least the Bucks are saying all the right things about wanting to keep Jennings for the long haul.
And so we get back to the heart of the matter, which is that the ball will be in the Bucks' court come July when free agency begins. Will John Hammond and company make a concerted effort to sign Jennings immediately, or will they wait for another team to set a price on Jennings? The former increases the risk that the Bucks bid against themselves, while the latter increases the possibility of the Bucks alienating Jennings. Unfortunately it's a touchy process that can get rather emotional, as the Bucks found out all too well with Charlie Bell of all people back in 2007.
So how might the Bucks approach the topic without hurting anyone's feelings? The four years and $32 million in guaranteed money that the Bucks gave Ersan Ilyasova last summer would seem like an obvious place for the Bucks to start--presumably the Bucks should be willing to pay their supposed face of the franchise more than a very efficient but entirely complementary stretch four, right? But that doesn't mean Jennings and Schwartz would have any interest in going for that kind of deal except as a last resort, and Jennings' camp will of course point to the deals of Lawson, Holiday and Curry as being the obvious benchmarks for the Bucks to match.
In my gut that's also why I'd guess that the Bucks will have to fork out at least $10 million a year to keep Jennings in Milwaukee, though it's not clear how many other options he'll have. The number of teams who need a point guard and have cap space isn't terribly long, though the list could certainly change a bit between now and July. At this point I'd peg the Mavericks, Hornets and Jazz as teams that might make a run at Jennings, but keep in mind that he won't be the only point guard available over the summer and his restricted status makes him a less convenient target.
It's not to say Jennings is actually "worth" the $11-12 million that Lawson, Curry and Holiday stand to earn on their new deals, though it's not to say they are either. But this is the difficulty with being a small-market team that's neither bad enough to draft all-star talent in the lottery nor attractive enough to lure star free agents. With cap dollars to burn, the Bucks realistically won't be able to parlay the money that would otherwise go to Jennings in more effective ways. If you need proof, try perusing the league's rosters and find examples of guys making $10-12 million per season who are real bargains. You can probably count those guys on one hand. Then look at the list of this summer's free agents and find guys who you'd be thrilled to pay $10-12 million AND who would be willing to sign for that in Milwaukee. I hate to sound fatalistic, but free agency just isn't a pretty place.
It's one of the fundamental truths of a cap system that suppresses rookie deals while capping the salaries of true superstar talents well below what a truly free market would dictate. All that money not spent on good young players and superstar veterans means the good-but-not-great guys tend to be overpaid relative to what we consider what their market "should" be. The key is building a roster that balances the bargains with the kinds of players who are almost necessarily "overpaid"--which for the Bucks means young guys on rookie deals (Larry Sanders, John Henson), veterans making less than they deserve (hello, Mike Dunleavy!) and avoiding really unproductive deals at all costs (sorry, Drew Gooden). In that context, the Bucks can afford to sign someone like Jennings for more than he might nominally be worth. But make no mistake: it's a gamble.
That's precisely why Jennings can't afford to rest on his laurels, no matter how much his next deal might pay him. While he was close to earning his first all-star bid this season, the reality is that Jennings hasn't made any major strides in his fourth NBA season. He's pretty good, sure, but it's saying something that he couldn't crack the East's all-star roster even with Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo hurt and Deron Williams playing below his usual level. Kyrie Irving has already rocketed past him in the NBA point guard hierarchy, Holiday has made a clear move up the ranks as well, and we haven't even talked about the possibility of younger players such as John Wall and Kemba Walker doing the same in time. For a franchise that desperately needs a pretty face, "pretty good" might be good enough. But shouldn't we still ask for more?