So much for restricted free agency drama.
Just two hours into the league's annual free agent frenzy, ESPN's Marc Stein is reporting that the Bucks and restricted free agent Khris Middleton have agreed in principle to a five-year, $70 million deal to keep the 23-year-old sharpshooter in Milwaukee. Not that we should have been surprised by the final figures, which perhaps not coincidentally mirror exactly those that Middleton's close friend and former teammate Brandon Knight will reportedly get in Phoenix. AHEM:
Alright, let's just get the Middleton-getting-5-years-and-$70-million thing out of the way. I'm ready. C'mon sources, let's do this.— Frank Madden (@brewhoop) July 1, 2015
[123 minutes later]
ESPN sources say Milwaukee and Khris Middleton are closing in on five-year, $70 million deal— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) July 1, 2015
Drafted 39th overall by Detroit in 2012, Middleton barely played as a rookie and was perceived by many to be a throw-in to the Brandon Knight/Brandon Jennings swap in July 2013. But he quickly established himself as a dead-eye shooter in Milwaukee, averaging 12.1 points and hitting 41.4% of his threes while leading the Bucks in total minutes in 13/14.
After a slow start, he eventually claimed the starting shooting guard spot under Jason Kidd last season, once again connecting on better than 40% of his threes while improving his per-minute and efficiency numbers across the board. Following Knight's departure at the trade deadline, Middleton helped fill the void by bumping up his numbers across the board (16.8 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 3.1 apg) without seeing much dropoff in efficiency (38.7% from deep, 55% true shooting) -- not bad for a guy thrust into the role of go-to scorer overnight.
Among other impressive statistical milestones, Middleton somewhat famously ranked tenth in the entire league in Real Plus-Minus(+6.07), reflecting the critical role he played in the Bucks' turnaround under Kidd. The team's best floor-spacer and most versatile wing defender, Middleton was the common cog in virtually all of the Bucks' best lineups, and his combination of shooting and ability to defend multiple positions makes him in many ways the perfect complement to Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker.
It's not to say the deal is without risk -- this is still a lot of money we're talking about, and injuries infamously derailed the career of another sweet-shooting Bucks' #22. But what Middleton lacks in flash he makes up for in practicality; he may never be an all-star, but in a league increasingly moving toward switching defenses and three-point-heavy offenses, Middleton's shooting and two-way versatility are precisely what teams are coveting.
Isn't that a lot of money?
Well, sure. The $14 million annual figure is of course a big one for a player best suited to being a third or fourth banana, but once again the league's skyrocketing salary cap is a critical factor in assessing its value. With the cap likely to be just shy of $70 million next season, Middleton's deal figures to be on the rich side in the very short term. But it will be diluted significantly over the remaining four years, with the salary cap expected to jump to $89 million next summer and an astronomical $108 million in 2017. To put it in perspective: $14 million in 2016 will be the equivalent of $10 million using last season's $63 million cap, while $14 million in 2017 will be the equivalent of $8.2 million in today's cap terms. Grantland's Zach Lowe puts it in rather blunt terms:
A bunch of those teams — Utah, Orlando, Milwaukee, Detroit, Phoenix, and others — have cap room this summer, and they should be hell-bent on using it. I don't really even care who they sign, provided it's not an obviously below-average player on the downswing. Pick a young or mid-career free agent and fucking splurge. Almost any deal with a solid player at $15 million or below this summer will look fine once the cap cracks $100 million. Have a jones for Khris Middleton? MAX HIM OUT. Hesitant to snap up Monroe in free agency because you already have one decent low-post guy? SIGN HIM ANYWAY. Does $12 million for DeMarre Carroll or Danny Green seem insane? They're in their primes, and they do very important NBA things well. GO GET THEM. Barring disaster, all these guys will be on tradable contracts if the fit isn't ideal on your team.
The dilutive effect of the rising cap is also why teams will be hoping to lock down young players for as long as possible, which is another reason to view Middleton's deal as favorable. Whereas players previously always sought to lock up as much money as possible for as long as possible, many high-profile players including Jimmy Butler and Greg Monroe are reportedly looking for shorter deals this summer in order to take advantage of the rising cap sooner rather than later. Reports on Tuesday of the 15/16 cap possibly being $1-2 million higher than expected would further improve the value of Middleton's deal, while possibly increasing the Bucks' cap space by the same amount. As a result, Middleton could have signed elsewhere for as much as four years and close to $70 million; instead the Bucks will pay him that amount and get five years instead of four and he'll still be only 28 when he hits unrestricted free agency in 2020.
It's also critical to note that Middleton agreeing to a deal in principle doesn't affect the Bucks' $16 million cap space figure. Because his previous contract paid him less than a million annually, Middleton has an exceptionally low qualifying offer and cap hold of just $2.75 million. Once he signs officially, that figure balloons to whatever his actual salary is and reduces any cap space the Bucks might have by that amount. The good news is that Middleton and the Bucks will presumably delay that signing until it's convenient from a cap perspective, giving the Bucks time to negotiate with the likes of Tyson Chandler, Greg Monroe, Robin Lopez, and any other free agent they might choose to pursue. Even if they use their entire $16 million in cap space on other free agents, they can then use Middleton's Bird rights to go over the cap to sign him. Also keep in mind that deals can't officially be signed until July 9 anyway, but don't expect Middleton and the Bucks to publicly announce anything until the Bucks have exhausted their other free agent options first.
As for the specifics of the deal itself, it's not clear at this stage whether his salary will be escalating, flat or declining, but it doesn't matter for the Bucks' 2015 cap space so long as he hasn't officially signed. That said, the structure of the deal does affect the Bucks' cap once he does sign, and there would be advantages to a declining deal in order to leave more room in future years. As always, stay tuned.