Restricted free agency behind the scenes: ‘It's not really free agency’

Lauri Markkanen, Cleveland Cavaliers

Restricted free agency behind the scenes: ‘It's not really free agency’

Free Agency

Restricted free agency behind the scenes: ‘It's not really free agency’

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Following lucrative deals for Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Michael Porter Jr. and Robert Williams, other players also on rookie-scale salaries hope to sign extensions before the Oct. 18 deadline to avoid an undesirable situation: restricted free agency.

Among those are Suns center Deandre Ayton, Cavs guard Collin Sexton and Grizzlies center Jaren Jackson Jr.

When the sides fail to agree to an extension, negotiations between executives and agents often become heated during restricted free agency.

“I was threatened by the GM,” one NBA agent told HoopsHype. “He was going to tell my client that I was f—— up the deal. I told him, ‘My client is in the other room. Do you think he doesn’t know what our conversation is? We’re going back and forth right now. There’s no way that he’s going to think I’m f—— this up.'”

To get a sense of how restricted free agency works behind the scenes and more anecdotes like the one above, HoopsHype spoke with five total agents and executives.

Restricted free agency favors teams

Lauri Markkanen, Cleveland Cavaliers

A restricted free agent can sign an offer sheet with any team, but the player’s original team can retain him by matching the terms of the sheet.

“It speaks volumes that not one restricted free agent signed an offer sheet this year,” a second NBA agent told HoopsHype. “The system is designed to keep the players in their home market with the team that drafted them. The problem is the teams aren’t trying, or there’s a huge push to sign guys to offer sheets with the way the rules are set up because you get your money tied up, and they can mess with you with the physicals and tie up your money for an extended period. It’s not really free agency.”

When a player hasn’t signed an offer sheet with another team, and the market has dried up, multiple players, including Lauri Markkanen and Devonte’ Graham, switched teams this offseason via a sign-and-trade.

“Some want to show that they take care of their guys, and they want to create that culture where if you do right by us, we’ll do right by you,” the agent said. “Others, they’re not going to do that. They’re going to pressure you to get an offer sheet. It’s a system that’s designed in favor of the teams against the players.”

For example, the Timberwolves took care of their restricted free agent last offseason when they signed Malik Beasley to a four-year, $60 million deal. Minnesota courted him by renting a house on the water, showed highlights of him, messages from Twins star Nelson Cruz, local business owners, customized Vikings jerseys, newspaper cutouts, and more.

“For a smaller market team, it becomes incredibly important,” one NBA general manager told HoopsHype. “We don’t have the ability to extract free agents like other big market teams do. That restricted free agency is really important for us. It doesn’t mean we try to hold a gun to a guy’s head, but you understand that there are only so many times you can keep a player in your market.”

Hurt feelings

Restricted free agency is a litmus test where a player and his agent grasp the team’s perspective on the player. Teams with a marquee player entering his prime can lock in the player long-term, and they usually do. Others that aren’t so sure play hardball and force a player to test the market.

“It definitely hurts the relationship moving forward when there’s distrust and not goodwill built up,” one agent told HoopsHype. “There have been two situations where the team flat-out strategically tried to tell the market they were going to match no matter what, and I was still able to go out and get offer sheets. It forced them to match, and it forced them to pay a premium because they were lowballing our client. That’s a good feeling.”

Negotiations can boil over if there’s a large gap between the agent and executive, which can lead players to ask for trades.

“Guys can try to create leverage like Kristaps Porzingis did in New York when he was unsatisfied and tried to do things to get out,” one general manager noted. “You can try to create a market and get out, but the market isn’t created if the deal isn’t right. A team isn’t going to do a deal to get off a player of that talent.”

When negotiations get heated

If the player isn’t definitively a max player, finding the middle ground gets harder. It starts the year before if both sides can’t come to an extension. Then, it carries momentum into restricted free agency.

According to one general manager, negotiations can become contentious when the team asks a player to get an offer sheet elsewhere.

From the player’s perspective, it’s an issue of pride that his team wasn’t willing to pay him. The player can then sign an offer sheet that’s an undesirable contract for the team that has to match in terms of length, trade provisions, or payment upfront.

“I think the biggest example of that was Joe Johnson when he was a restricted free agent,” one longtime agent recalled. “He was trying to get an extension. He and Robert Sarver (Suns owner) weren’t that far off, and he ended up playing out his contract and ended up leaving for Atlanta. It may have cost the Suns a championship or two.”

“We’re looking to get value, so we can build a team,” one general manager told HoopsHype. “The agents don’t care about building teams.”

When the player and his agent feel the team is “nickel and diming” them, negotiations can drag out as they did with Hawks restricted free agent John Collins or lead to a player moving on entirely.

“If there’s no market, they’re going to completely lowball you,” an agent who’s had several clients in restricted free agency over the past few years told HoopsHype. “That’s when it gets contentious because you get anxiety building with the player and the agent, and you’ve got to get something done.”

Another agent recalled a meeting where he was thrown a curveball by the executive he was negotiating with during a face-to-face meeting. The executive came to the table offering a shorter contract and less money than discussed.

“Why did you fly out here to bulls— me?” the agent told the general manager. “We’ve discussed this, and you’re going to change it? We talked all morning. You could’ve said something before showing up here. I would’ve told you to turn around.”

How the media plays a role

DeAndre Ayton, Phoenix Suns

“If you know a team’s lowballing a guy and you want to get something written out there, (leaking to the media) can be very helpful,” one agent told HoopsHype. “I’d say letting them know whatever offer is out there is unfair, and their unwillingness to do an extension is going to prove to be detrimental.”

Recently, ESPN reported Ayton had not received a max contract extension offer from the Suns. The report also noted how many executives across the league expected that type of deal to be completed long ago and forgo restricted free agency for Ayton. Several media members called out the Suns for their stance on negotiations, including Kendrick Perkins.

Agents can also try to put pressure on a team during negotiations by leaking multiple teams are in pursuit to drive up the market for their players.

“Say four teams are interested, with Team X being one of them,” another agent explained. “These four teams have expressed interest. When you put out false reports that the player is looking for four years, $100 million, and he’s not going to get that, you’re not helping anybody other than your client’s ego.”

Qualifying offer leverage

While Porzingis threatened to sign a qualifying offer with the Knicks if he wasn’t traded, we’ve yet to see a big-name player sign a one-year qualifying offer for the chance to enter unrestricted free agency the following summer.

Multiple executives who spoke with HoopsHype believe it would take a dreadful situation for a player not to take an extension offer near the max. If a player truly wants out, taking the qualifying offer is the only leverage he has.

Does any player have the guts to do it while risking life-changing money in the event of an injury?

“It’s going to happen at some point,” one general manager predicted. “Personally, I could never do it if I was a player. Health is never guaranteed, so to pass up on all that (money) just for a chance to make less? If you sign a qualifying offer, you can’t make as much with another team as you can with your incumbent team.”

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You can follow Michael Scotto on Twitter: @MikeAScotto

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