Late last night, Hoops Hype’s Michael Scotto came through with some news about Bucks reserve point guard Jevon Carter, who turned down the player option on the two-year deal he signed last season, thus entering free agency:
Milwaukee Bucks guard Jevon Carter will decline his $2.24 million player option for the 2023-24 season and become an unrestricted free agent, a league source told @hoopshype. Carter, a strong defender, shot 42.1 percent from 3-point range in 81 regular-season games played.— Michael Scotto (@MikeAScotto) June 28, 2023
Carter’s opt-out date was reportedly tomorrow (June 29th), just before the unofficial start of free agency. He’s leaving a skosh over $2.2m on the table after making exactly $2.1m this past season, but after setting multiple career highs in 2022–23, he’s very likely to surpass that annual salary in year one of his next deal. He’ll be 28 wherever he takes the floor next fall.
While oft-maligned for his shot selection, notoriously preferring pull-up threes in transition over passing to teammates driving to the rim, Bulldog still endeared himself to fans last year with his tenacious defense. Primarily tasked with guarding ball-handling guards, it was pretty common to see Carter pick up opposing ballhandlers in their own backcourt, even early in the game. He regularly frustrated his man by staying glued to his hip and denying entry passes but was solid off-ball as well. That routine 94-foot effort, a career-best shooting line of .423/.431/.816 resulting in 8.0 PPG, then setting new season highs in games started and played, plus minutes, rebounds, assists, and blocks per game should earn him a nice raise on his next contract.
The question is: should it be from the Bucks? When Khris Middleton was hurt for the season’s first twenty games, Carter started every one of them and established himself as one of the Bucks’ main rotation guys. He re-entered the starting five when Middleton missed further time, then earned sporadic nods over the season’s last two months. A consistent member of the rotation averaging 22.3 MPG and missing just one game (held out for rest), it seemed likely he’d be a key part of the playoff rotation, unlike in 2022.
However, his minutes trickled down from nearly 23 in Game 1 versus Miami to just eight seconds in Game 4, then former head coach Mike Budenholzer benched him entirely for Game 5. That wasn’t without merit either: he scored just two points in Game 1 to go with an assist and two boards while—like most Bucks—looking far worse than his regular-season self defensively. All told he was 2/9 in 49 minutes over the first three games and a cumulative -15. He showed—or rather didn’t show—enough to leave many questioning his future in a Bucks uniform.
The Bucks are in a better position to re-sign him than their rivals, though. After picking him up off waivers from Brooklyn soon after the 2022 trade deadline and signing him to a new contract last summer after his minimum contract expired, Milwaukee has early Bird rights on Carter, thus possessing the ability to exceed the salary cap to retain him on a new deal.
Unlike full Bird rights (like the Bucks will enjoy on Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Jae Crowder, and Thanasis Antetokounmpo), though, GM Jon Horst is limited in what he can offer Carter. The NBA’s CBA—which does expire in two days—stipulates that early Bird players’ first-year salaries are capped at either 175% of their previous salaries or 105% of the estimated league average salary from the previous season for up to four years. It’s not expected these rules will change under the new CBA.
Since Carter was making $2.1m, well below last year’s estimated average salary of $10.8m, the Bucks can pay him anything up to $11.3m next year. Factoring in the maximum-allowed 8% raises, he’s eligible for anything up to a 4-year, $51m contract if the Bucks would like to re-sign him. I sincerely doubt that he would fetch that much on the open market; even the teams operating with cap space this offseason probably wouldn’t go that high. That number is also lower than the non-taxpayer midlevel exception, which is projected at $12.4m. Most any team can offer him up to $5m using one of their exceptions.
I’m not sure what the market will look like for Carter in the coming days, but I’m positive he’ll get a nice pay bump from his next employer. Milwaukee can do a lot worse for a reserve guard, and I would think the new coaching staff would appreciate him for his defensive acumen. Perhaps they’ll have different ideas about his role in the offense because for as great as his outside shooting numbers were in catch-and-shoot (43.2%), pull-up (39.3%), and early shot-clock situations (39.6%), he hardly attempted—for better or worse—any of such threes in the postseason.
It will likely come down to money more than fit; the Bucks currently owe $115.1m to six players next year, not counting either of last week’s second-round picks. With the six to eight roster spots (depending on if the rookies both receive standard contracts and whether the Bucks opt for a fourteen or fifteen-man roster) they’ll need to fill for 2023–24, they seem likely to prioritize Middleton and Lopez before Crowder. New contracts for those two will put the Bucks closer to the $182.5m second apron and its associated penalties, but even with raises for those guys, they should have a good bit of room underneath that figure. My educated guess would be between $17m and $20m to fill the remaining four to six spots, barring the Bucks trading out any of next year’s guaranteed players.
In that eventuality, anything approaching eight figures may be a commitment the Bucks don’t want to make for someone who sure didn’t look like a postseason contributor. Carter is definitely someone you want on your team for 82 games and is more than just a depth piece, but he probably isn’t worth more than Milwaukee’s other mid-tier salaries like Bobby Portis ($11.7m), Pat Connaughton ($9.4m) and Grayson Allen ($8.9m). If Horst can sign him for $8m or cheaper, that strikes me as pretty team-friendly.
We’ll likely know much more about the Bucks’ feelings on Carter on Friday evening when free agency kicks off. As always, stay tuned.