Welcome to the NBA’s new normal.
Monday night the Charlotte Hornets came to terms with small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist on a four-season, $52 million contract extension that takes him off next summer’s free-agent market.
There is nothing cheap about guaranteeing a good-but-not great player $13 million a season. But that reflects the sudden spike in national television revenue the NBA is about to experience.
This coming season each team’s salary cap will be roughly $70 million, with some teams paying far beyond that using various cap exceptions. The projected cap for the 2016-17 season will be nearly $90 million, thanks primarily to new national television deals signed with Disney (ABC/ESPN) and Turner Broadcasting. The cap for 2017-18 could hit about $100 million per team.
Plenty happened the past three months in anticipation of that revenue spike. Enes Kanter, a player the Utah Jazz traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder to make room for center Rudy Gobert, received a stunning $70 million offer sheet from the Portland Trail Blazers. The Thunder matched.
That was no isolated example. Small forward DeMarre Carroll, arguably the fourth-best player on the Atlanta Hawks’ roster, got $60 million guaranteed over four seasons from the Toronto Raptors. Danny Green, a player who initially struggled to stick with the San Antonio Spurs, got a four-year, $45 million extension.
Teams are aggressively re-signing their draft picks. Anthony Davis became the NBA’s highest-paid player when the New Orleans Pelicans extended him for $145 million over five seasons. Portland point guard Damian Lillard received $120 million over five seasons.
This is the second consecutive offseason in which the Hornets pre-emptively signed a player approaching restricted free agency. Last October the Hornets gave point guard Kemba Walker a four-year, $48 million extension.
The message is clear: Protect core assets before they hit the open market because retaining them later will only be more costly.
That’s not how this franchise functioned previously. They made Emeka Okafor, first pick in franchise history, wait until he was a restricted free agent. Same with Gerald Wallace through Gerald Henderson.
But Vice Chairman Curtis Polk indicated a change in strategy during an April interview with the Observer, saying “MKG has shown incredible growth as far as making himself more rounded. At some point we have to make a decision on making a commitment to him off his rookie deal next year.
“Because of the TV deal,” Polk added, “your long-range planning is going to have a lot more competitors than it once did.”
The case for and against this decision:
The case for MKG
After a 7-59 season, the worst in NBA history, the Hornets didn’t get rewarded with the top pick, which would have been Kentucky star Davis. Wildcats teammate MKG became the consolation prize at No. 2 in the 2012 draft.
He’s flawed offensively, but he’s among the NBA’s top individual and help defenders, according to Hornets coach Steve Clifford. At 7.6 boards per game, he’s elite among small-forward rebounders.
He isn’t easily satisfied. In an interview last season with the Observer, Kidd-Gilchrist said he aspires to be the greatest defender in NBA history.
“I want to say ever. Not just in the league (now),” Kidd-Gilchrist said. “The best defender this league has seen.”
It’s hard to quantify what Kidd-Gilchrist’s defense does, but here is a statistic that always makes coaches and players take notice:
The last two regular seasons the Bobcats/Hornets were 12-32 when Kidd-Gilchrist didn’t play. They were 70-50 when he did.
The case against MKG
Kidd-Gilchrist has called himself the Hornets’ “middle linebacker,” which is accurate. The problem with that is basketball isn’t a two-unit sport where he can play just defense.
He entered the NBA with such a technically flawed jump shot that former Hornets assistant coach Mark Price said, “He needed all-out, full-blow reconstructive surgery.”
Price, now coaching the Charlotte 49ers, and Kidd-Gilchrist worked hard two summers ago on that shot. Kidd-Gilchrist reached a point where he was somewhat reliable from 18 feet and in, although he never attempted a 3-pointer last season, a rarity among NBA small forwards.
His inability to make 3s impedes one of his major strengths – good enough ball-handling to get to the rim on a regular basis. So his scoring average – 10.9 points per game last season – drops him below many peers at his position.
The bottom line
The Hornets paid a premium to retain what they consider a core asset: $13 million per season might seem a bit pricey now. It could prove to be a bargain in this coming age of NBA funny money.
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; @rick_bonnell