When an NBA player hits free agency, it’s equal parts exciting and nerve-racking.
When the process goes smoothly and the player signs a lucrative contract, he feels like all of his hard work has finally paid off and his family can be taken care of for generations to come. This is life-changing money that’s often guaranteed, so many players celebrate with their loved ones as soon as they reach an agreement. They suddenly have increased job security and much of the anxiety surrounding their future dissipates.
However, free agency doesn’t always play out that way. Every player hopes to find the right suitor and sign quickly, but everyone’s free-agency process plays out differently. That’s why July can be just as scary as it is exhilarating. For every player who signs a terrific deal and lands in the ideal situation, there is another individual who experiences drama behind-the-scenes and is upset with how the free-agency period is playing out.
Many players have a story that falls into the latter category. Some were burned by their agent, while others had a rough experience with a team. The one thing these stories have in common is that each player learned from his experience. Many of the players who offered to share their stories for this article said they hoped it could help other players when it comes time for them to negotiate a new deal.
HoopsHype talked to several current and former players about their free agency experiences. The players spoke on the condition of anonymity because they shared private stories (including some that involved other people around the league), so speaking publicly on this topic could jeopardize their relationships and career.
YOUR AGENT CAN SCREW YOU OVER
Player 1: “I have one really messed-up story involving my agent. When I was an unrestricted free agent, I was hoping to join this one team that really liked me and my agent seemed optimistic that we could figure out a deal. I really wanted to go there; it seemed great and it checked all the boxes that I wanted. I wasn’t too involved in the talks, my agent just kept updating me every now and then on what was happening. Well, I ended up getting word from someone in the organization that my agent was trying use me to get more money for another one of his clients, who was already on that team. He was telling the team to re-sign his other client at a certain amount and saying they would also be able to sign me at a discount. I was furious when I found out. I fired my agent and, for some time after that incident, I had a really hard time trusting agents who wanted to step in and represent me.”
Player 2: “When I was younger, I was frustrated with the job that my agent was doing. Long story short, I ended up firing my agent. He was upset that he wouldn’t get a percentage of my next deal, so that’s when the craziness started. The agent went nuts, started threatening me. At this time, I was playing for a small-market team. He told me, ‘You better watch your back! I got boys in your city!’ At first, I just laughed. Did he really just say that?! I ended up thanking him because that insane reaction made me realize I was definitely making the right decision. Eventually, he tried to repair the relationship with me and keep me as his client, but the damage was already done (laughs). Shortly after, I hired a real agent who was so much better.”
Player 3: “One time, a friend of mine was approaching free agency and there was a ton of stuff leaking about what he wanted to do. He wasn’t talking to the press, so we had no idea why so much stuff was getting out to the media. We came up with an idea to find out who was leaking the news. We decided that my friend should tell a piece of minor, false information to his agent and see if it leaked out. My friend ended up telling him that he was considering adding a certain team to the short list of franchises that he was interested in joining. Sure enough, the very next day, that info he received was being reported by two different reporters. We found the leak and my friend eventually left the agent.”
Player 4: “I had an agent who was representing me and another player who is pretty similar to me in terms of skill set, age and position. He represented both of us when we were going through the pre-draft process at the same time and some people warned me that it wasn’t a good idea to have an agent who was representing someone who was basically my rival since we were fighting for similar jobs. My agent made it sound like it was a good thing and tried to explain that he’d hear about every team that needed someone at our position, so he could find us both jobs. But I still wasn’t sure if it was the right move. Time went by and I wasn’t too worried about it, but then I eventually became a free agent. Things were moving slower for me than the other guy. I was frustrated because I felt like I had just played well and I expected a lot of buzz. My agent just kept telling me to be patient and trust him. Then, I got word that my agent was prioritizing the other client ahead of me – spending significantly more time working to help the other guy. And if a team needed a player that fit our description, he’d push the other player for the spot instead of me. Your agent can have a big impact on your career, so go with your gut and be careful who you trust.”
SOME EXECUTIVES CAN’T BE TRUSTED
Player 5: “At one point, there was a team I really wanted to join and I was even turning down other attractive offers because I really wanted to go to this team. They were the No. 1 team on my wish list. I thought it made the most sense for me and I was 100 percent sure I’d end up there. After all that, the team ended up calling me to say that they signed someone else who was younger. That’s my worst free agency story.”
Player 6: “I think every player has a story about a deal that seemed like it was going to happen, only to learn shortly after that it fell through or they signed a different player at your position. I went to dinner with a team and I was positive the deal would get done. Afterward, my agent and I walked out of there feeling so confident and happy. We were so excited. That afternoon, out of nowhere, they signed a different player at my position. It’s always a shock, but you try not to take it personally.”
Player 7: “Sometimes, executives and coaches will tell you what you want to hear to get you to sign on the dotted line, but then things may be way different once the season actually starts. There was one summer where I had a handful of teams that wanted to sign me, and this was an important season for me. I was determined to have a big year. Every team wanted to bring me in to provide shooting and scoring, but then when I actually reported to training camp with the team I chose, they had me playing point guard and wanted me in a facilitator role. I didn’t think this was the best use of my skill set and I was frustrated because it’s not at all what we discussed during the negotiations. Now, I stress what role I want to play when I’m meeting with teams and make sure that’s actually how they’re going to use me.”
Player 8: “I’ve heard of younger players who wanted to add something to their contract, but the team has said, ‘Oh, we’ll figure that out later,’ or, ‘We don’t need to include that in the deal.’ Sometimes, their agents would even tell them it isn’t important just because they want to get the deal done. Most young guys don’t think they have any leverage or they’re just so excited to sign an NBA deal, so they roll over and don’t fight for that thing to be included. Sometimes, the team will say something like, ‘We’ll include that in your next contract,’ or, ‘Sounds good, but that doesn’t need to be in writing.’ But it won’t be included in your next deal and they won’t follow through if it isn’t in writing. Young players: If you want something, push for it and get it in your deal!”
Player 9: “I’ve been in situations where the team has called me personally, and I’ve talked to the coach and the GM, and I thought it was a lock that I’d be playing with them. I even booked a flight there. Then, at the last minute, my agent called to say, ‘They signed someone else.’ It’s hard to keep your confidence up when that kind of thing happens. I do whatever I can to keep my mind off of the disappointment because the more you think about it, the more it’s going to eat away at you.”
Player 10: “One thing I hate is when executives talk negatively about a guy once he’s gone. Sometimes it happens after a guy is traded, sometimes it happens after a guy leaves via free agency. I think it says a lot about the front office. If they’re just going to [trash] a player once he’s no longer around, how do they really feel about you? I don’t care if it’s off the record – you know, leaking stuff to reporters – or if it’s on the record. Either way, it’s not cool.”
MAKE SURE EVERYONE IS ON THE SAME PAGE
Player 11: “Sometimes, a general manager will love you and describe this great role that they envision you playing, but then the coach has a completely different plan and won’t use you that way at all. It’s important to know if a team’s GM and coach are on the same page, otherwise you may not be utilized the way you expected when you signed on.”
Player 12: “Here’s a lesson that I had to learn the hard way: Just because a team’s star player is recruiting you doesn’t mean you’re definitely getting signed by that team. The GM, who actually calls the shots, may have a very different plan in mind (laughs).”
Player 13: “I signed overseas and the team president loved my game. He was talking about my skill set and bringing up some of my best games, so he clearly knew a lot about me. I thought, ‘This is going to be great!’ But then there was the coach of the team. Before this season, he had only coached at the lower levels internationally. When I signed, it seemed like a great fit. The front office explained my role – they wanted me to provide shooting – and they kept stressing that they liked my game a lot. Well, I don’t know if this new coach had never seen me play before or if he just wanted to try something new, but he wanted to change my game entirely. He wanted me to play in a way that I had never played before, doing things that were completely new to me. I’m a scoring guard and that’s what I’ve always been. For whatever reason, he thought I’d be best as a pass-first guard. He even told me he wanted me to play like Ricky Rubio, even though my game couldn’t be further from Rubio’s. The coach would get mad when I wouldn’t pass the ball every time down the court. And, don’t get me wrong, I do pass the ball! But everyone knows my strength is shooting and scoring. Everyone except him, I guess. I actually ended up leaving the team [prematurely] because of that. Now, I never join an overseas team without talking to the coach. You must talk to the coach, not just the president. The coach is the one who determines if you’ll be used correctly and have a good time there.”
Player 14 “When I was a restricted free agent, there was a team that was really interested in me, but they didn’t want to extend an offer sheet because they were convinced that my team would match. They didn’t think there was any chance that my team would let me go. Well, my agent knew the team I was with wouldn’t match the offer sheet, so he was begging this other team to make the offer because it was the best deal I could sign that summer. The team I was with was just waiting for me to get an offer sheet and then they were going to let me go. At the end of the day, they didn’t end up making an offer because they believed they would just tie up their money and not even get me because my team would match. They didn’t believe us when we said there was no way my team would match. I ended up signing for the qualifying offer, so I could hit unrestricted free agency the following summer. Had they just listened and believed us, they could’ve signed me! Restricted free agency is the worst.”
WHEN THE WAIT DRIVES YOU CRAZY
Player 15: “When you’re waiting to be signed, when free agency is taking longer than expected, you start to really doubt yourself. You definitely start to lose confidence. Your agent is telling you, ‘Oh, it’ll happen soon. There’s interest from a few teams. We’re figuring it out.’ But you don’t really know. Is he just saying that to make you feel better? Is your agent actually doing his job to the best of his ability? The agent may just be selling you a dream, you know? You start to question a lot of things at that point.”
Player 16: “One summer, it took me a month to sign and I didn’t see that coming at all. I thought I had played really well the previous season and I was expecting to get a nice deal pretty early. Several teams showed interest early, so I was excited. But then, one by one, they started to make other moves. Next thing I know, it’s a few weeks into free agency and I still don’t have a deal. My agent was saying that there wasn’t much money left and there was no way I was going to get the kind of deal I wanted, so my best bet was either going overseas or signing a one-year deal (so I could hit free agency again the next summer). But, to be honest, I was so frustrated that I told my agent and my friends and my family that I was done with basketball. I wanted to quit. I didn’t want to go overseas, I didn’t want a one-year deal, I didn’t care anymore. I was telling everyone that I just didn’t want to do this anymore; I was that depressed. Finally, I ended up taking a one-year deal once I got over how upset I was, but I briefly thought I was just going to quit because my free-agency experience was that [deflating]. I felt like I had worked extremely hard and it didn’t pay off.”
Player 17: “When I’ve been a free agent, I tried to stay away from the rumors and news as much as possible. I know a lot of fans, and even a lot of players, will constantly look at Twitter to see every signing as they happen, but I can’t do it. I don’t get excited about it and keep track of everything like a fan, I just want my free agency to be over. When I tried following the rumors and signings, I got in my head. I wondered, ‘Why didn’t that team show interest in me?’ or ‘If that player got $6 million per year, how much am I worth?’ I realized it wasn’t doing me any good to keep track of that stuff. Instead, I tune everything out and let my agent handle everything. Of course, once we narrowed down our list to a few teams or if something was close, that’s when I got involved. But until then, I didn’t pay attention. Sometimes people will text me or say something if they see me, and that’s fine. I can’t realistically block out everything. I just don’t want to overwhelm myself with every single rumor and move. Then, after I sign, that’s when I’ll catch up on what happened and who all changed teams.”
Player 18: “I try to find different things to pass the time. I work out every day, but I also try to find some TV shows to binge watch. I catch up on movies I haven’t seen. One year, I took a vacation with family and friends so I could just unplug and not worry about it. I’m one of those guys who gets worried about their future and what’s next, rather than get excited about it.”
‘THE NBA IS A BUSINESS’ ISN’T JUST A CLICHE
Player 19: “It’s important for every player to understand that as much as teams talk about their ‘family atmosphere’ and ‘brotherhood’ and all that, this is a business at the end of the day. I watched my best friend worry that he might be traded before the deadline. He went to management and they gave him assurances that he wouldn’t be dealt, and he called his kids to say that they’d be staying in that city and wouldn’t have to change schools. A few hours later, he was traded. He was crying and I felt so bad for him. This is absolutely a business and some of these decisions are brutal. Then, fans have the nerve to get upset at us when we take control of our own career by changing teams in free agency. Maybe if they showed some loyalty…”
Player 20: “Teams tell you that you’re part of their long-term future, but then they will trade you or decide not to re-sign you. And if you get hurt, you’re useless to them. But if a player makes a ‘business decision,’ we’re the enemy.”
Player 21: “When a friend of mine went through free agency, one team put together an amazing presentation for him. When he went to visit them, they took him into the arena and they had pictures of him wearing the team’s jersey on all the different signs. They had a picture of him in their jersey on the JumboTron, followed by video messages and things like that. Then, they had their PA announcer introduce him as if he were the star of that team. Then, they dropped a bunch of confetti. He was there with his family and I know it was a special thing for him; it meant a lot. Everyone wants to feel wanted, so for them to do all that, it was a huge gesture. He was ecstatic about the opportunity and he ended up signing there, hoping to be there long-term. Seven months later, he was traded. Seven. Months.”
Player 22: “Look at what happened to Blake Griffin. He had his whole pitch with the Los Angeles Clippers, where they talked about him staying with the organization for his whole career and having his jersey retired. Then, less than a year later, he’s traded to the Detroit Pistons. He was blindsided by that move. Never forget that this is a business.”
BEWARE OF POACHERS
Player 23 “If nothing is happening for a guy in free agency, sometimes another agent will step in and try to sign that player away from his current agent. [This is called poaching a client in the agent world]. They’ll usually say something like, ‘How come you haven’t gotten a deal yet? What’s your agent doing?’ Or they’ll hear about your specific situation and ask, ‘Your agent is only trying to get you $X million?! I could get you so much more!’ Agents are constantly trying to steal players. They’re everywhere, but it’s just something you have to deal with.”
Player 24: “I feel bad for the players who do fall for what an agent says when they’re at a low point. They’ll hire this new agent, thinking he’ll fix everything. Then, when they enter free agency the following year thinking this new agent will get them way more money, they’re usually disappointed again. Usually, the agent who steals you away is just saying what you want to hear to lure you in. He’ll say he can get you this unrealistic figure. Then, when it doesn’t happen, they have plenty of excuses. Sometimes, the player will then fire that agent too. I always try to warn young guys not to switch agents just because a guy is telling you what you want to hear.”
Player 25: “With some of these young players, there’s a lot of ignorance because they just don’t understand how the process works. I honestly think it’s unfair to the agents. Those players who don’t get how the business works typically end up firing their agents. There are plenty of guys who are on their third or fourth agent, and that just means they have unrealistic expectations. They think they deserve, say, $8 million per year so when their agent works their butt off and gets them $4 million per year, they’re unhappy. But I always tell them, ‘What made you think you’re worth $8 million per year with your skill set? On what planet would someone pay you that?’ And, look, there are certainly ignorant agents too – the guys who don’t do their homework or who don’t work as hard as they should. Those guys put a stain on the business and make it harder for us players to trust other agents after we’ve been burned by one. But it’s usually the young players who are being unrealistic or aren’t appreciative of what they have. They are the ones who go running to the new agent who says he can get them an unrealistic deal.”