The NBA suspended Ja Morant for eight games, with eligibility to return Monday against Dallas. Despite missing Morant and injured Steven Adams, the Grizzlies have secured wins, maintaining their Western Conference contender status. This is the first major adversity this young Grizzlies team has experienced and it could break them or harden them ahead of this year’s playoffs.
This incident could also have serious ramifications extending off the court. In particular, Morant’s All-NBA candidacy is on the line, which would have significant financial implications for both him and the Grizzlies.
Should Morant make All-NBA?
Before we dissect Morant’s candidacy, it’s first important to recognize that the games played threshold, which reportedly will become an official requirement for regular season awards starting next season, is already likely in effect. Whether we agree with it or not, we’re already seeing it factor in significantly in the minds of those who vote on awards or select players for certain honors.
Availability and actually being able to produce for your team certainly is value, and there probably should be an agreed upon games played minimum to qualify for certain honors. Whether 58 games, which could be the minimum starting next season, is a number you agree with or not, at least there will be an official cutoff. With that number now out there, it would make sense for voters who care about games played this year to at least go off of that for this season.
This year’s guard crop for the six All-NBA slots is extremely competitive and voters may ultimately use games played as a deciding factor. Lots of guards missed significant amounts of games this year and most of the best ones will likely end up playing somewhere between 60-70 contests. This could end up eliminating players like Stephen Curry and Devin Booker, who at this point can only top out at 56 and 55 games played, respectively.
Assuming they play out most of the rest of the regular season, Luka Doncic, Damian Lillard, Donovan Mitchell, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander are strong candidates to fill four of the six All-NBA slots at guard. The last two slots could go to any of Ja Morant, James Harden, Tyrese Haliburton, De’Aaron Fox, Kyrie Irving, Jalen Brunson, and Jrue Holiday.
Morant can still end up playing a maximum of 64 games for this season, which would give him enough flexibility to miss a couple of games and still end up playing as many games as some of the other competing guards. His play this season is on par with last season when he made All-NBA 2nd Team… although in a less competitive guard season.
He may have been considered a lock to qualify this year by some voters, but the field is too competitive to conclude that now. And even though he will most likely still be in the mix for an All-NBA slot, it’s possible he will lose votes because of his incidents. In a season with so many good choices among guards to select from, voters could use them as a tiebreaker against Morant.
If he doesn’t, what are the ramifications?
Morant needs to earn All-NBA honors this season to qualify for the 30 percent Rose rule criteria. His current five-year, maximum contract is projected to pay out $194.3 million, but that would increase to $233.2 million if he’s in an All-NBA team this season.
Although he was an All-NBA player last season, players on rookie-scale contracts can only qualify for the higher maximum if they meet the criteria in their fourth season, or in both their second and third years. It’s possible that his off-the-court incidents may have cost him $38.9 million in future salaries if he doesn’t qualify this season.
On the flip side, Morant not getting the 30 percent maximum contact could open up some flexibility for the Grizzlies in the short term. Instead of earning a projected $40.2 million starting salary for next season, Morant would earn $33.5 million. That $6.7 million would actually make a huge difference for Memphis’ ability to construct their roster ahead of next year.
If Morant doesn’t earn All-NBA honors this year, the Grizzlies will head into the offseason roughly $21-22 million below the projected $162 million luxury tax threshold for 2023-24. This projection includes the Grizzlies already having a full 15-man roster, including their 2023 first-round pick. Their only free agent this offseason is Dillon Brooks, who is currently eligible to extend for up to four years, $65.2 million, which would give him a $14.5 million starting salary.
Re-signing Brooks will likely be a priority for the Grizzlies this offseason despite their reported attempts at an upgrade at forward with the likes of Kevin Durant, Mikal Bridges, and OG Anunoby. With that additional $6.7 million in tax space, the Grizzlies can comfortably re-sign Brooks to a contract larger than his maximum extension amount while staying below the tax. For example, one structure they could now give him is a starting salary at around $20 million with declining cap hits each subsequent season.
2023-24 could be the last season where Memphis can stay below the luxury tax. Desmond Bane will become extension-eligible this offseason and an annual salary in the $30 million range could make the Grizzlies taxpayers from here on out starting in the 2024-25 season. The team has one of the wealthiest owners in the league and should be able to support deep tax payments for a contending roster. But pragmatically speaking, if a team has an opportunity to avoid the tax, they should in order to delay their repeater tax designation.
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