How NBA agents prepare for free agency

How NBA agents prepare for free agency

Free Agency

How NBA agents prepare for free agency

When the clock strikes midnight on July 1, the NBA’s free-agency period begins. For basketball fans, this is understandably one of the most exciting days of the year. Big-name players continue to change teams quite often, especially relative to other pro sports, and this summer’s star-studded class will feature LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Paul George, Chris Paul and DeMarcus Cousins among others.

In the social-media era, the world finds out about pitch meetings and interested suitors in real time while also getting glimpses of what happens behind the scenes when a player is making a free-agency decision. However, there is still plenty the public doesn’t know about. To learn more, HoopsHype talked to a bunch of NBA agents to get an inside look at how they prepare for free agency, what happens during pitch meetings, how they come up with their asking price for teams and much more.

Some agents spoke on the record, while others spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the topic.

HOW MUCH GETS DONE BEFORE JULY 1?

Agent 4: “Things absolutely get done before July 1. Absolutely. It honestly starts in Chicago during the NBA Draft Combine. That’s a good opportunity to start talking to teams because everyone is in the same place and you’re talking in person, so there’s no paper trail. That’s where people really start talking free agency, to be honest.”

Agent 6: “If you want to talk about jumping the gun before July 1 and breaking NBA rules, there was one team I won’t name that sent me an early offer in writing over text. This happened in the last few years. Most teams are at least smart enough to only do things by phone so there’s no real record of it. Doing it over text message is just so dumb and risky. I could’ve screenshot it! I obviously wouldn’t, but it’s still stupid! Maybe that’s more common than I think, but that was surprising to me.”

Agent 2: “I think fans would be surprised to learn that everything starts way before free agency. You’re having a lot of conversations with general managers [before July 1]. The talks begin early, especially the conversations about your client possibly re-signing with the team they’re currently on. They’ll sometimes try to make you feel like your guy isn’t really as good as you think they are, so you have to go out and prove that they are that good.”

Agent 6: “Think about how competitive the league is now. If you don’t win, coaches and GMs get fired. A star player can completely change a team’s outlook, so teams do whatever is necessary to land those guys. When a team wins a championship, it significantly improves the value of the franchise. When Joe Lacob bought the Golden State Warriors in 2010, he agreed to pay $450 million. Now, I just read that the Warriors are worth approximately $3 billion. When you’re an owner, GM or coach and there are billions of dollars at stake, the pressure is extraordinarily high for you to land star players. With stakes that high, I can assure you that negotiations start before July 1 all the time. Sometimes, the GM will reach out to the player, but that doesn’t happen very often. Players, on the other hand, talk all the time. If a player delivers the message, teams can sort of circumvent the rules.”

Agent 10: “I think there are a lot of deals that get done before [July 1]. If they aren’t done, I think they’re 80 percent done. Teams are obviously cautious now because of the tampering rules and all that, but players and teams know when there might be some mutual interest.”

Agent 12: “I wouldn’t say that 80 percent of the work is done before July 1. I think that’s an exaggeration. But I would say that about 50 percent of the deal is done for certain players before July 1. I think that’s an accurate assessment.”

Agent 13: “Although free agency officially starts July 1, fluid communication with teams is an ongoing process.”

Agent 1: “I wouldn’t say that deals are getting done, but if you’re setting up meetings for your client, you need to know which teams are interested in your client – especially if you’re planning for the meetings to start on July 1. You aren’t going to get on a plane and go to a meeting just to glad-hand; you want to make sure you’re only meeting with teams that have real interest. Those are conversations that do typically happen, just to find out who has interest and because everyone is sort of angling to get an idea of what the market is like. Then, the real discussions start once free agency begins.”

Agent 7: “I would say most deals are done before July 1. I 100 percent agree with that. Or, if they aren’t done, oftentimes both sides have started working on the deal before July 1.”

Agent 5: “I think before July 1 it’s more about gauging interest from teams, and front offices are discussing things internally. I don’t think, externally, most teams start negotiating before July 1. Oftentimes, they don’t want to reveal their hand until free agency begins. Also, the market usually sets the value for a lot of players, so agreeing to a deal with a non-max player that early doesn’t seem smart. Maybe it depends on the player or the agent’s relationship with the team, but I haven’t seen much of that.”

Agent 8: “I’ve never had a deal done before July 1, but every team talks before July 1. Every team talks beforehand. You’re setting up meetings before July 1 since that’s the date you’re starting to meet teams. Everyone talks money and years beforehand. Everyone talks contract terms, but I’ve never completely agreed to a deal before July 1. You almost have to talk to teams before July 1. In the first three-to-five days of free agency, you have the opportunity to get the biggest deal. That’s when your guy could get fair value or even overpaid, if you want to use that term. Then, in days four-to-seven, you’re hoping to get decent value on your deal. Anything after that, you’re just fighting for whatever money is left and you’re likely getting underpaid. That’s when guys start looking at one-year, prove-it deals so they can hit free agency again the following summer. If you don’t strike early, your player is screwed.”

SETTING EXPECTATIONS WITH THE CLIENT

Austin Walton, who has represented Kent Bazemore, Chris Johnson and Andrew Goudelock among others: “The first thing that I always do is talk to my clients to try to figure out what’s more important to them. Is it money? The years on the contract? Winning? The system? The weather? The media market? Their role? There are a bunch of different factors that players consider, so you find out the most important things to your player. Then, you start identifying teams that could be a good fit and evaluate them. Which teams have money? How many guaranteed contracts are on the books? What type of role could they have? You already have a pretty good idea of who likes your player, based on conversations you’ve had over the years, so then you start honing in on the teams that are a good fit. You also want to identify the teams that have a lot of money. Even if this probably isn’t a team your player will choose to join, they can also be a leverage team – a team that gives you a good offer that you can leverage. If the team doesn’t fit the parameters that we discussed and check the different boxes you want, they’re going to have to overpay to land your player.”

Colin Bryant, who has represented Rashard Lewis and Pierre Jackson among others: “Free agency is the most important time in a player’s career. These are life-changing decisions that are being made. By signing the right deal, a player can guarantee they’ll have long-term security. And missing opportunities or signing the wrong deal can have long-term consequences. I believe it is extremely important to educate players and their families on the free-agent process, so they will have a realistic understanding of the market and know what to expect moving forward. When I meet with my client, I break down what the market is like – identifying the unrestricted and restricted free agents who play the same position as well as each teams’ roster needs, cap space, luxury-tax situation and available exceptions. I like for the player to have as much input as possible because the more information I have, the easier it will be for me to prepare a strategy that will help him achieve his goals. Then, I like to break down every possible free-agent scenario with my client.”

Daniel Hazan, who has represented Jamel Artis, Josh Childress and Cleanthony Early among others: “It’s really hard [to set expectations] because you really don’t know for sure what’s going to happen. You’re trying to forecast a lot of things. And if your forecast isn’t accurate, it could come back to bite you. If a player is expecting $10 million per year and then, all of a sudden, he only has $6-million-per-year offers, that’s a really hard conversation to have. It’s really important to keep your client in the loop on what’s going on and what teams are saying. This can be a really stressful time and these are life-changing deals for many players, so every day that goes by is frustrating. Sometimes, they’ll call 10 times a day to ask for updates. That’s where you have to keep them in the loop and stay positive.”

Roger Montgomery, who has represented Jeremy Lin, Rudy Gay and Mo Evans among others: “There are a number of ways you can approach the free-agency process, but I always try to be transparent. That makes it easier to manage expectations and ensure the player is anticipating the right things. There are always surprises in free agency, so I don’t think anybody can offer 100 percent certainty to a client in terms of who’s going where and how teams will spend their money. But it’s our job to understand the marketplace and how things will play out and what that means for your client.”

Jared Karnes, who has represented Michael Beasley and Ramon Sessions among others: “I’d try to keep things pretty general in the week leading up to free agency, but I’d also make sure I was informed so I could communicate to my client what every team’s goals were, what their budget looked like, whether they needed someone at my client’s position and how they viewed my client specifically. I’d try to figure out what every single team in the league was trying to do, because the biggest disservice you can do to your client is to start free agency with a market of 25 teams instead of 30 teams because you didn’t do your homework on every possible landing spot. You have to know all of those factors in order to intelligently advise your client. Thirty teams may seem like a lot, but it goes away pretty quickly when you start taking out teams that don’t have the necessary space, teams that don’t have a need at your client’s position and so on. My goal is to be able to tell my client, ‘Your NBA market is X number of teams.’”

Agent 1: “You have to be realistic and honest with guys and really break down the business for them, so they don’t get upset or offended if things aren’t really moving on July 1. We try to go over the market in general, discuss teams that have expressed interest and which spots seem like the best fit.”

Chris Patrick, who has represented Robert Covington, Rodney Hood and Eric Moreland among others: “You go over a lot of different things with the player. When you’re in the free market negotiating, you need to look at the full picture. Is this a system my player is going to thrive in? Does it make sense for us to take a $3 million offer from a team where my player is going to be stuck on the bench or should we take the veteran’s minimum from a contender where my player is going to have a role and a shot at winning a championship? You have to consider all the factors. You may get more money elsewhere, but if you aren’t going to fit with that team or play a significant role with them, you may be out of the NBA in a year. We also factor in the market, whether the player ahead of you has an injury history and many other things.”

Agent 6: “Right now, I’m literally traveling to meet with one of my free-agent clients to have a conversation about what he can expect this summer. When I’m setting expectations, outside of my own analysis and comparisons and all that, I like to ask people whom I trust what they think about my client. This allows me to get a variety of opinions and give the player a realistic range based on what people around the league have said. In addition to their range and what teams may be a good fit, I try to set expectations regarding how long my client’s free agency will take. Will they be getting calls right at midnight on July 1 or will it be a more drawn out, protracted process? I like to let players know what to expect from a timing standpoint so there aren’t any surprises.”

Agent 4: “I like to pick my client’s brain before everything starts so I know what they hope to get out of free agency. I always ask, ‘What are the three things that are most important to you?’ Then, I cater my plan toward what my client wants. At the end of the day, we work for them. Some agents forget that and try to force guys to certain teams. For me, I try to keep my clients happy and know what a successful deal looks like to them.”

Agent 5: “I think a lot of comes down to having a good client-player relationship. That’s a really big thing with my agency. We don’t go around overselling guys to land them; we’re realistic. As long as you have a good relationship with the player, they’re going to trust you. From there, you teach them along the way about the market and why things are shifting and how many teams have space. I think you need to explain why there’s no money out there. Most of these guys are really smart – and some even keep track of this stuff themselves because the information is easily accessible these days – so I think you can be really descriptive about what’s going on because they’re going to fully understand it.”

HOW THEY PREPARE FOR FREE AGENCY

Chris Patrick: “Right now, we’re analyzing which teams are the best fit and, now that the draft is over, what each team looks like when it comes to cap space and roster space. Obviously, a lot of my clients are younger guys who are developing. I don’t have [big names like] LeBron James or Paul George, so I can’t speak on that stuff. I’m trying to get my guys into a good situation so that in two or three years, they can hit on that second or third contract. That’s really important to me.”

Agent 6: “We’re focused on two things: the marketplace itself and each player’s individual market. When we’re evaluating the marketplace itself, we’re looking at a number of things. How many teams have cap space? What’s the total amount of available cap space? How do those numbers compare to recent offseasons? What teams have exceptions available? We’re trying to get a feel for how much money is really available out there. This year, it’s not a great year in terms of cap space. Right now, there are roughly eight teams with a decent amount of space. That could change with trades, player and team options, and other things coming up. But that’s the first thing we’re focused on. The second is the player’s value. How have they performed? How do they compare to other players on the market in terms of age, production, upside, size and other factors? You have to figure out your player’s value. Then, you figure out that player’s value in this marketplace. In a year like this one, it may be depressed due to the lack of available cap space or team needs. I try to break down the macro environment and the micro environment for each player.”

Agent 4: “Like NBA teams leading up to the draft, we have a big board of players in our office. It lists all the free agents, where guys may go, team needs and things like that. We’re gathering as much information as possible. We’re trying to find out which teams are interested. They aren’t supposed to flat-out tell you, but they hint that they’re interested.”

Agent 5: “For me, it’s all about gathering information as much information as possible to gauge the market. If you can do that, you’ll know the value of your player in this specific market and you can maximize their earnings.”

Daniel Hazan: “Most of the groundwork is done in the weeks leading up to free agency. You’re seeing what options make sense from a financial and positional standpoint. Then, from there, you’re targeting teams that make the most sense for your client.  Once free agency is underway and you’re talking to teams, you need to be prepared and know where each team stands. If you don’t know a team’s cap situation and roster needs, you’re going to look bad.”

FIGURING OUT AN ASKING PRICE

Aaron Turner, who has represented Terry Rozier and JaKarr Sampson, among others: “You’re breaking down the analytics that apply to your client. For [a defensive player], some examples include points per possessions when my client is guarding guys, the team’s defensive rating when my client is on the floor and things like that. Then, the eye test also factors in. What kind of energy does the player bring? What are some things that don’t show up in the stat sheet? Are they a winner? It’s a blend of analytics and the eye test. Then, you’re also looking at comparables, seeing what they got and showing how your player has outperformed them.”

Chris Patrick: “When it comes to your asking price, it’s data-based. With [my former client] Robert Covington, for example, we started putting comps together the year before. I actually have the list of guys here. We looked at Kent Bazemore’s deal, Allen Crabbe’s deal, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s deal and some others. We had a lot of comps – 17 different players. Basically, you’re just taking all the numbers and putting them together. With Covington, out of that group of 17 players, his value was [determined to be] $18.43 million per year; I’ll never forget that. He was in the top half of the group in nearly every stat category. Then, we felt we should take off $3 million per year because the Sixers were a bad team when he posted those numbers. When you’re the worst team in the league, numbers are going to be inflated. So that’s how Covington’s deal came to be four years, $62 million. That’s where the number came from.” [Editor’s Note: Covington changed agents before his negotiations with the 76ers began. Leon Rose and Drew Morrison from CAA ultimately negotiated his deal].

Colin Bryant: “I prepare a complete statistical breakdown, which includes advanced analytics as well as how my client performed against other free agents at his position. This helps my client and is valuable to general managers. I send it to GMs prior to negotiations. It can help me validate my client’s potential impact on their team. I also send highlight clips of my client to teams. I believe this will help them visualize my client performing at a high level for them.”

Agent 12: “We’re putting together a statistical breakdown and comps for the player, which can be based on age, years of service, position, a variety of things. You’re looking at how players did in the season right before they signed and comparing it to how your player did. You can break it down with traditional statistics, but as you and I both know, people around the league have become much more intelligent when it comes to evaluating players and using advanced analytics. I won’t get into the specific advanced analytics that we value and use because I believe that’s one of the things that give us a competitive advantage, but we definitely use analytics. From there, we’re looking at what teams have money and what their roster and depth chart looks like. Then, we disseminate our stat breakdown to the teams who have reached out or who we believe are a good fit for our player.”

Agent 6: “It comes down to a handful of variables. You look at the player’s age, size, position and production and then try to find similar players who have been a free agent in recent summers. Now, the summer of 2016 skewed some things since the circumstances were drastically different, so you have to remove those guys or at least factor in the market with them. But I’m looking at the factors I mentioned to be able to say, ‘Players A, B and C signed for $X and I have the stats to prove that my guy is better, so I’m asking for $X + 10%.’ The better your statistical breakdown is and the more realistic your comps are, the more likely you’ll be able to get a contract close to your asking price. It’s important because there are many examples of players who enter free agency asking for too much and then the market passes them by, so they end up signing for the minimum. Had they asked for a realistic number, they may have gotten a deal done. Instead, they sign for the minimum.”

Daniel Hazan: “You’re looking at other players and comparing them to your client based on their production and their salaries. I also like to look at the average salary for a starter at the player’s position and the average salary for a reserve at that position. Based on all of that, you’re trying to determine your player’s value.”

WHAT HAPPENS IN PITCH MEETINGS?

Roger Montgomery: “They’re all very similar, to be honest with you. Some teams will bring multiple people from within the organization while others only bring one or two people. Some teams will bring their owner because it shows they’re serious about getting something done. Anytime you bring the boss, that’s impressive. With that said, I’ve seen some well-intended pitches that just weren’t very good, but that team ended up being the right choice so we went with them. I’ve also seen some pitches where they did a great job, had a lot people, had a lot of passion and moxie, but the player didn’t decide to go there. There are a few teams that are really good; they do their homework and know how to execute the pitch. You need to have the right person in there. Being pitched is cool – everyone wants to feel important and see teams put their best foot forward – but you have to be able to execute the pitch and connect with the player and their representation in these meetings.”

Agent 1: “The structure of the pitch typically differs depending on the level of player we’re talking about. The pitch may just be a phone call for some guys. For others, especially max players, it may be a sit-down meeting where they’ve put together a video presentation, a marketing brochure and a bunch of other promotional pieces to try to sell a guy on being part of the organization. For the players, I think the most important thing to take away from a pitch is what this organization is all about and how you fit into where the team is going. You need to see if you buy into what the coaches and executives are saying and what your role is going to be moving forward.”

Agent 4: “I think they’re very important. It does depend on the situation, though. Sometimes, a guy is already leaning toward a certain situation in the back of their mind. But for some guys, especially the younger players and the first-time free agents, I think the pitch meetings do play a big part in their decision. After each pitch meetings, it’s my job to go through everything they discussed and talk about the pros and cons of joining that team. But I do think they help, especially with a younger guy who hasn’t been through free agency before. That player can definitely be influenced by the pitches.”

Agent 5: “I think what LeBron James is saying right now about not wanting to go through any pitch meetings may change things. Like I said, guys are really intelligent and they monitor situations so they have a very good understanding of which teams have money, what teams are looking to do and which organizations will spend over the cap versus which ones won’t. I don’t think players can be persuaded as easily by pitch meetings because they’re constantly gauging other teams throughout the season. The information isn’t new to them, so I don’t think it’ll sway them one way or the other. I do think pitch meetings can still be valuable for role players or mid-level players. It can sway guys like Trevor Ariza, who will have several similar options but wants to understand how he’ll be used by teams.”

Roger Montgomery: “If the player is a veteran guy who has seen how the league works, those pitches don’t mean as much. If the player is younger and is making a big decision about whether they should stay or go somewhere else for the first time – like Gordon Hayward last year, for example – I think the pitches mean a lot. A lot of times compensation drives the discussion. Sometimes, you need to have pitch meetings so that your team knows that you could go somewhere else. Not only does it give you leverage, you can get information too. Some players are genuinely curious if the grass is greener elsewhere. If they’ve been on an Eastern Conference team their whole career, they may really be wondering what it’d be like to live on the other side of the country and play for a Western Conference team.”

TEAMS BACK OUT OF DEALS QUITE OFTEN

Agent 13: “I had a high-profile player who had a verbal agreement on a long-term contract with a team. We were all set to fly into the city the next morning to do a press conference and tour. Around midnight, reports started to surface that the team agreed to a long-term contract with another free agent at his position! I’m thinking, ‘Oh sh**!’ The player’s family was panicking and, although I was calm with them, I was freaking out and pissed at the lying GM. But because it was 1 a.m. and my player had a 6 a.m. flight, I couldn’t get him on the phone to tell him not to get on the flight! The last thing I needed was for him to show up in the city when they had signed another guy! He finally called me back around 3 a.m. – he’s pissed and confused and I’m thinking, ‘He’s going to fire my a**.’ The only thing that saved me was that they went the extra mile to recruit him. Hell, the GM even went to his hometown to meet with him three days prior, so they had lied to him too. The next time I talked to that GM, I completed cussed him out. I called our second option and we agreed to a deal with them a little after 4 a.m. That was crazy. I’ll never forget it. I almost had a heart attack (laughs).”

Agent 3: “Last year, we had a deal locked in with a team. We passed on other offers for this one and it was locked in. Then, the team backed out and stopped communicating with us. It’s a team that we’ve similar issues with in the past. There are probably five or six teams that I don’t care to deal with. You just can’t trust them. If they draft one of my guys, great. But I’m not going out of my way to get one of my guys on those teams.”

Agent 7: “There was one instance where I reached a verbal agreement with a team and figured out the terms, but then they pulled the deal because the guy didn’t perform as well as they hoped during summer league. That’s tough because you build relationships with these guys and then they just act like your discussion never even happened.”

Agent 8: “I’ve had teams pull offers. It’s all about timing. Teams usually have three guys that they’re focused on and they rank them No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 or sometimes it’s No. 1, No. 2a and No. 2b. If No. 1 takes too long, teams may feel like they’re being used for leverage. They may just move on to the No. 2 guy, even if the first player was a little bit higher up on their board. One time, I had a team tell me that we were taking too long so they were going to go in a different direction. I told them, ‘One second, let me call my client.’ After talking to my client, we told them it was fine because it wasn’t the terms we wanted. Well, two days later, they called me back and asked if we were still interested in doing a deal and offered the terms that we wanted. Teams try to strong-arm you like that a lot. That was just a weird scenario where they walked away and then came back to the table two days later and gave us what we wanted.”

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