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Brandon Ingram’s Max Contract

Published: January 1, 2020

It’s officially 2020 and by now it is amply clear that Brandon Ingram is in line for a maximum contract in July. The Pelicans and Ingram had an opportunity to agree to an extension earlier this summer, and many of his draft mates did indeed agree to high value deals. However, with Ingram working his way back from injury and not yet having played a single minute for the Pelicans, it made sense for both parties not to pencil in a future that was uncertain. The working understanding between the two seemed to be, “play well and we will take care of you”. So with the max implicitly (well, very likely explicitly) on the line, Brandon Ingram has now made it to 2020 averaging 25.3 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 3.9 apg with dazzling efficiency. 

Every step of the way Ingram has answered concerns about his game, so the Pelicans should feel little hesitation in extending a max based on the merits of his play. Reports indicate there should be equally little hesitation about his health. All that remains to be answered is Ingram’s fit with Zion Williamson. The Pelicans will have plenty of time to discover how to build around these two players for the duration of Zion’s rookie scale contract before things get too dicey from a cap standpoint. So let’s put away the formalities and discuss what this contract will look like and what it means for the future.

The Contract

Maximum contracts in the NBA for player coming off of a rookie scale deal (technically 0-6 years of experience) are specified to be 25% of the salary cap. There are certain criteria (Rose Rule) a player can hit that can allow him to hit the 30% max typically reserved for players with 7-9 years of experience. There is an outside shot that Ingram qualifies for one of the three All-NBA teams at the conclusion of the season (and I suppose an infinitely slim shot he wins MVP or DPOY) that would qualify him for the Rose Rule max. While I think it is unlikely he makes any of these teams, in the off chance he does, I will discuss what that looks like. It is important to remember that the Pelicans and the agent can negotiate salary amounts up to that 30% as long as he meets the qualification. For example, if the Pelicans already had a wink wink understanding with Ingram, they could tell him that he will receive 27% if he makes 3rd team, 28% if he makes 2nd, 29% if he makes 1st, and so on up to 30%. Or they can simply give him the whole 30%. Negotiations can be anything really.

The other important distinguishing factor in max contracts is that the incumbent team is allowed to offer up to 8% raises (on the base) whereas outside teams are limited to only 5%. This makes three main advantages for the home team – length of contract (5 years max vs. 4 years max), size of raises, and the ability to offer the Rose Rule bump for stellar play. It is hard to imagine a scenario where the Pelicans let Ingram walk this summer or sign and trade him. Therefore we will only play by the set of rules provided to the incumbent team. 

The 2020-2021 Salary Cap is projected to come in at $116M. Here is how Ingram’s max contract should look over the next 4-5 years based on this projection.

Firstly, wow. That is a ton of money. Ingram is about to become the highest paid player this franchise has ever seen, and by a fair margin. Secondly, the numbers in red should point out the large differences in the total amount of money he stands to make. Now the first column is only adding 4 years of salary, and it is not unreasonable to assume in perfect health Ingram is still a max player in 2024-2025. His 5 year total in that timeline shouldn’t be drastically different from his 5 year total with the Pelicans under the 25%, 8% raises max. But the 30% max is really special and virtually impossible to match the earning potential of by going elsewhere. 

The Negotiation

Once it has been decided the Ingram is indeed a max player, the structure of the contract will come down to negotiations. Brandon Ingram, being the young talented player he is, will want to both maximize his earnings and maximize his flexibility. He and his agent will ask for all the bells and whistles here – 4 years guaranteed + 5th year player option with a 15% trade kicker. The trade kicker of course providing additional financial security to the player in the event of trade. Such a structure gives Ingram the ability to get out of his deal a year early to capitalize on a higher cap, and potentially a higher % max if his play has been good enough.

The Pelicans naturally will want an option that allows them for the most amount of control. We are not 1 year removed of Anthony Davis leveraging the threat of his player option to seek greener pastures. The Pelicans will lobby for a straight 5 year max, no options. I don’t believe there will be haggling over the trade kicker – the Pelicans will relent. I also don’t believe there will be discussions on a structure that includes a team option. It makes little sense for Ingram to accept such a deal that limits his freedom. No, the fight will be over the 4+1 construction vs. the 5 years straight. History says David Griffin will lose that negotiation. 

You can probably picture it, David Griffin and the Pelicans’s front office sitting at one side of the table, Brandon Ingram and his representation on the other side. Griff will make a hard sell about being committed to what the Pelicans are building long term. “All the way in or all the way out”. But with how weak this year’s free agency class is, Ingram will easily be able to net a 3+1 max from any number of teams that have cap space. The Pelicans can of course match any offer he gets, but the last thing they want is an irritated Ingram who is only under control for 3 years. So the Pelicans will settle on the 4+1 Ingram and his camp will be pushing hard for. The Pelicans’s leverage changes a fair amount if Ingram ends up qualifying for the 30% max. But it’s unlikely we get to that point.

There exist rare circumstances where star players feel particularly generous towards the incumbent team and accept more team friendly deals. Kevin Durant’s original deal with Oklahoma City was 5 years straight with no opt out clause, despite him having no real reason to do so. Giannis Antetokounmpo is another non-traditional example where he accepted a deal slightly below the max. It remains to be seen if there will be any such concessions from Ingram’s camp, but it is way more likely that Ingram will simply seek the more player friendly offer. If the Pelicans pull off any team friendly construction, they deserve heavy praise.

Designated Player Wrinkle

This will be the extra nerdy part of the article and a tip of the hat to the Pelicans’s bookkeeping. As you remember, the Pelicans had the option to give Ingram the maximum extension this summer. In extending his contract before his fourth season, they could have made him what is called a Designated Rookie. Without getting too in the weeds, the Designated Rookie extension allows the player to earn the 30% max if they hit the necessary criteria along the way, just as if they sign a contract after their fourth season. Ben Simmons and Jamal Murray were made Designated Rookies this summer, with Simmons having conditional provisions in his contract that bump his salary based on what All-NBA team he makes.

A team is capped at the number of Designated Rookies they can have on a roster, with two being the maximum amount. The additional restriction is that you can only acquire one of those two Designated Rookie Contracts by trade. Remember how the Celtics had to wait until Kyrie Irving’s contract ended before they could trade for Anthony Davis? Well by not making Ingram a Designated Rookie, the Pelicans have preserved both of their slots. If we are to assume Zion Williamson will be in line for one, the Pelicans have the ability to either offer or acquire another before Ingram’s contract is up. In all likelihood this ends up being inconsequential down the line, but the ability to go after such player cannot be understated. You never know when someone like Karl Anthony Towns may hit the market. You don’t want to paint yourself in a corner based on a sheer technicality. Kudos Pelicans.


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