There never was a time when it made financial sense for a star player to bypass a maximum extension or contract for the qualifying offer and it still doesn’t. In fact, the practice isn’t even common around average players just so they can enter unrestricted free agency and play elsewhere.
Since restricted free agency has been implemented, there have been few cases of players demanding trades from teams that drafted them, namely Steve Francis with the Vancouver Grizzlies and Danny Ferry with the Los Angeles Clippers. However, with the value of qualifying offers increasing significantly, and player empowerment breaking new barriers each season, it’s no surprise that public discourse over the possibility of a premier player utilizing the qualifying offer has gotten louder.
According to a report from The Athletic, Zion Williamson and his family are unhappy with the New Orleans Pelicans and some family members want him on another team. Could Williamson follow through and use the qualifying offer to leave in 2024 or the threat of using it to get traded beforehand? It’s possible, but there are a lot of risks involved and the threat may not be as viable for a player with as much money on the line as him.
The Greg Monroe exception
The one success story of a player who signed his qualifying offer to gain his freedom is Greg Monroe. In 2014, he came off a strong season with the Pistons meeting his previous season’s statistical averages. After four years in Detroit, he wanted a fresh start elsewhere but his restricted free agent status complicated that.
Without much leverage to get out, Monroe signed his one-year qualifying offer. In 2015 he became an unrestricted free agent and signed a three-year maximum deal worth $49.9 million with Milwaukee. His qualifying offer was worth $5.5 million while the first-year salary of a maximum contract he could’ve received in 2014 was roughly $10 million more.
Monroe sacrificed a year of his career and left some money on the table in exchange for the freedom to choose where he wanted to play. That’s the simplest explanation of the idea of a young player in restricted free agency signing his qualifying offer, then leaving for a new team in the following offseason.
While no one talks about Monroe for taking this route, he was the best player to successfully take this path. Most players that accept the qualifying offer are fringe players hoping to improve for next season. Unlike them, Monroe was so productive that he was risking a lot of money at the time by bypassing an extension.
Disadvantages of the qualifying offer and why the threat of it is stronger
There are several disadvantages for teams to avoid having maximum-level players sign their qualifying offers. Aside from facing the risk of losing that player the next season, players who sign their qualifying offers cannot be traded until January 15. This leaves the door open for tension and discomfort between the player and front office that could potentially affect the team. This would also leave teams with a small window of roughly three weeks between the time the player becomes trade-eligible and the trade deadline to trade him. Also, players who sign their qualifying offers have veto power on potential trades. This could give teams fewer trade partners to negotiate with, potentially limiting the return for them.
It’s been rumored that Kristaps Porzingis used the threat of signing his qualifying offer to the Knicks to force his way out. While this may be the highest profiled case, it’s definitely possible many other players have similarly used that threat but it just went unreported. Teams don’t want any part of the headache that comes with having a player on their qualifying offer, which is why it could be a powerful point of leverage if utilized.
For maximum-level players, using the threat of signing the qualifying offer is a better route than actually signing it. Recent turmoil within the Dallas Mavericks front office and doubts about Luka Doncic’s long-term future in Dallas have made rival fans photoshop him onto other jerseys on Twitter. Doncic just became eligible for a designated rookie maximum extension currently projected at $201.5 million over five years, and he’s already indicated that he will sign it. That extension is worth 30 percent of the salary cap as opposed to 25 percent, which he qualified for because he earned All-NBA honors in two of the past three seasons. Keith Smith of Spotrac detailed several different salary structures Doncic can take and how much money he’s losing by not signing the designated rookie maximum extension.
Signing the qualifying offer can be very disadvantageous to players too. Williamson has a strong chance of qualifying for the designated rookie maximum extension over the next two seasons. If he signs his $17.6 million qualifying offer and then decides he wants to re-sign with New Orleans on a long-term deal afterward, he wouldn’t be eligible for the designated rookie maximum extension anymore. His is currently projected at $211.5 million over five years. Eligible players must begin the contract in their fifth season, but he can still sign for the normal 25 percent maximum contract with them. Meanwhile, signing his qualifying offer and signing a maximum contract with a new team would net him $148.3 million over that same five year span.
Also, despite having veto power in trades, if traded, Williamson wouldn’t be able to re-sign with his new team to a maximum contract unless they have maximum cap space. Players traded while on their qualifying offer have their Bird rights reduced to Non Bird. His new team would be limited to signing him to a four-year deal worth $94.6 million. The loss of Bird rights actually negates the leverage he has with veto power over trades, making it even less likely he gets to his preferred team.
If Williamson wanted to leave the Pelicans while maximizing his earnings, effectively threatening to sign the qualifying offer and forcing a trade to a team of his choice before the 2022-23 regular season begins would allow him to have his cake and eat it too. The CBA states that the designated rookie maximum extension qualifies for players entering the fourth year of their rookie contracts. He would still be eligible to sign the $211.5 million extension with his new team should he qualify for it.
Can Williamson effectively succeed if he uses that threat? It’s still a stretch, especially if he qualifies for the designated rookie maximum extension. He would have to convince the Pelicans front office that he is willing to sacrifice as much money as he would, a minimum of $63.2 million.
Which type of player does the qualifying offer route make sense for?
Williamson’s teammate Lonzo Ball, who is set to enter restricted free agency this offseason, is a more viable candidate to effectively threaten use of the qualifying offer. While he may not be a maximum player ($28.1 million starting salary for 2021-22), he could command as much as $20 million annually, potentially even more. Whether or not it’s with New Orleans is still to be decided, but if Ball wants to, he can probably use the threat of accepting his qualifying offer more effectively than a maximum player to drive the Pelicans’ hand. This is because he has much less to lose in this route than a maximum player.
If you're thinking that $14.3M is an unusually high amount for a qualifying offer, that's because it is. The 2017 draft class was the first post 2016 salary spike and of the new CBA.
2015 #2 pick QO: $9.2M
2016 #2 pick QO: $9.5M
2017 #2 pick QO: $14.3M https://t.co/flXY8W0ulr
— Yossi Gozlan (@YossiGozlan) December 21, 2020
As you can see, after the qualifying offer for the second overall pick increased by 3 percent from 2015 to 2016, it increased by a ridiculous 50 percent from 2016 and 2017. This is because the 2017 NBA draft was the first draft class of the new CBA and the first since the salary cap spike of 2016. The higher qualifying offer amounts are a big reason why accepting it seems palatable to non-maximum players. Every type of NBA salary immediately rose dramatically but we had to wait for these rookie-scale contracts to expire to confront the new big qualifying offers.
Ball’s future in New Orleans has been in question with reports of his availability during the trade deadline. According to Will Guillory of The Athletic, his future in New Orleans is 50/50. There’s no reason to believe that New Orleans wouldn’t accommodate Ball if he wanted to be elsewhere, whether via a sign-and-trade or even rescinding his qualifying offer and letting him walk. But if they choose not to accommodate him with his salary demands nor a path to a new team, his $14.3 million qualifying offer doesn’t sound too bad. He just came off a season earning $11 million, making his qualifying offer amount a solid stopgap towards his potential $20 million-plus salary.