Next Contract Series: Brook Lopez
Around Christmastime of 2013, it was fair to wonder if the now Brooklyn Nets were dealing with some sort of “good, but never good enough” curse from leaving New Jersey or something. In their first season in Brooklyn, the Nets made the 2013 playoffs. They were eliminated in a competitive playoff series against the Chicago Bulls, but the things were looking bright.
In the summer of 2013, the Nets added Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the mix, alongside All-Stars Joe Johnson and Deron Williams. That 2013-14 team squeaked by the Toronto Raptors in seven games, but was bounced in relatively easy fashion by the Miami Heat in the second round. By the 2015 playoffs, the Nets were bowing out again the first round and the supposed super team was broken up and a rebuild was in order.
Most of the criticism for the failure of those “can’t miss” Nets gets lumped at the feet aging stars Garnett, Pierce and Johnson, with plenty saved for Williams. But a forgotten part of that whole letdown was Brook Lopez.
Essentially a decade later, it’s easy to forget how big a part of that team Lopez was supposed to be. After playing in just five games during the 2011-12 season, the Nets last in New Jersey, Lopez became an All-Star in 2013. Johnson and Williams were the stars, but Lopez was the Nets best player when they debuted in Brooklyn.
The next season, in Year 1 of the super team Nets, Lopez was on the shelf by Christmas and the Nets were good, but not good enough. Lopez bounced back with three more solid seasons for Brooklyn, but the now-rebuilding Nets didn’t have a need for him as he approached 30, and shuttled him off to the Los Angeles Lakers.
After one OK season in Hollywood, the Lakers let Lopez walk for nothing. He was 30, coming off a down year and had that history of serious leg and foot injuries. When Lopez signed with the Milwaukee Bucks in 2018 for just the $3.4 million Bi-Annual Exception, it was seen a flyer for the Bucks.
That flyer has turned out to be one of the best signings, and subsequent re-signings, the NBA has seen over the past five years, in terms of contract, production and winning.
Now, Lopez’s second contract with the Bucks, a four-year, $52 million bargain deal, is coming to an end. Somewhat shockingly, at 35 years old, Lopez is poised to cash in again as a free agent, just like he did in 2015. Let’s take a look at Lopez’s options.
The Veteran Extension
Because he’s in the final season of his contract, Lopez will be extension-eligible all the way through June 30. He can sign a veteran extension with the Bucks that would normally look like the following:
- 2023-24: $16,688,371
- 2024-25: $18,023,441
- 2025-26: $19,358,511
- 2026-27: $20,693,581
- Total: four years, $74,763,904
That’s a 120% bump over Lopez’s current salary of $13.9 million with 8% raises. But, there’s a complicating factor at play here for Lopez in any sort of four-year contract, and that’s the Over-38 rule.
Because Lopez would be 38 years old at the start of the 2026-27 season, the Over-38 rule would be triggered in this type of extension. It doesn’t prevent the Bucks from signing Lopez to a Veteran Extension, but in this case, the extension would be functionally a three-year deal, because of the cap of a 120% raise off this season’s salary.
In effect, Lopez would be limited to the following in an extension:
- 2023-24: $16,688,371
- 2024-25: $18,023,441
- 2025-26: $19,358,511
- Total: three years, $54,070,323
That’s still a 120% bump off of this year’s salary of $13.9 million, with 8% raises on the following two seasons.
Because of the way the Over-38 rule handles deferred salary, the Bucks would have to push any salary from Year 4 onto Years 1-3. In this case, Year 1 has a cap of 120% raise or the roughly $16.7 million. So, there’s no further room to push that salary up, which eliminates a fourth year.
Now, there is an additional factor at play here, which involves the way a “zero year” (a year with no cap hit) is handled in an Over-38 contract. The Bucks could get creative and sign Lopez to a four-year extension worth almost the same amount. That deal would look like this:
- 2023-24: $16,688,371 cap hit = $12,233,381 actual salary + $4,454,990 deferred salary
- 2024-25: $17,534,513 cap hit = $12,845,050 actual salary + $4,689,463 deferred salary
- 2025-26: $18,380,655 cap hit = $13,456,719 actual salary + $4,923,936 deferred salary
- 2026-27: $0 cap hit - $14,068,388 actual salary + $0 deferred salary
- Total: four years, $52,603,538
The benefit in this case for the Bucks is that if they were in a position where they ever needed to waive and stretch Lopez, they could do so based on having an extra year in the contract. However, the cap hits would increase each year, while Lopez would be sacrificing about $1.4 million in total money.
Re-signing with the Bucks as a free agent
It’s hard to envision Brook Lopez leaving Milwaukee at this point. He’s been there for five years now, and five very good years at that. The Bucks can offer him up to his max of $46,900,000 in first-year salary. For a reference point, here’s the max deal Lopez can get from Milwaukee:
- 2023-24: $46,900,000
- 2024-25: $50,652,000
- 2025-26: $54,404,000
- Total: three years, $151,956,000
That’s the full 35% of the projected $134 million cap with 8% raises. As covered above, the Over-38 rule functionally limits Milwaukee to a three-year deal for Lopez, but especially so if they did anything approaching a max deal (however unlikely that may be).
Re-signing with another team as a free agent
Hard is may be to envision, let’s say Lopez leaves Milwaukee this summer. This is the max an opposing team could pay Lopez:
- 2023-24: $46,900,000
- 2024-25: $49,245,000
- 2025-26: $51,590,000
- Total: three years, $147,735,000
That’s the same first-year salary at 35% of the projected $134 million cap, but with 5% raises. Same as an extension with Milwaukee or re-signing with the Bucks, the Over-38 rule would come into play with another team, effectively eliminating a fourth year.
Brook Lopez is in a very interesting place. Sure, he’s about to be 35 years old, and the thought of handing any player at that age a ton of money is a bit scary. But, outside of a back issue last season, Lopez has been very durable for the entirety of his five-year Milwaukee tenure.
Lopez is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate this season. And he’s averaging 15.6 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game. Those are all the highest averages Lopez has had since his final year with the Nets in 2016-17. It’s not a career-year, because Lopez used to be a All-Star, but it’s a late-career rebound of sorts.
A major factor is Lopez’s perfect fit in the Bucks ecosystem. He’s become the preeminent stretch-5, non-Karl-Anthony Towns division, in the NBA. His shooting helps open the floor for Giannis Antetokounmpo. And teams can’t stash a small on Lopez, because he’s still very willing to mash them in the post.
Defensively, Lopez is the key to the Bucks drop defense. He anchors everything for Milwaukee, and you can see and feel the difference when he’s off the floor. Even when Lopez isn’t directly blocking shots, he’s altering them and forcing misses.
If Lopez was 25 years old vs 35 years old, he’d be a no-brainer max player. It wouldn’t even be a question. But he is 35 years old. And Lopez does have some injury history to at least be cognizant of.
We can start by eliminating any kind of four-year extension or four-year new deal this summer. The Over-38 complications make it simply not worth it.
We can also eliminate anything approaching the max. As good as Lopez is, no one is handing a max deal to a center of his age.
The three-year veteran extension feels about right. It would come with an $18 million AAV, and that’s pretty reasonable for Lopez. However, if you’re the Bucks, you might prefer he hits free agency and you can sign him to a slightly bigger deal in terms of first-year salary for next season, but have it descend each of the following two seasons.
That deal could look something like this:
- 2023-24: $19,600,000
- 2024-25: $18,032,000
- 2025-26: $16,464,000
- Total: three years, $54,096,000
That would be the maximum allowable 8% declines per season. It comes in roughly at the same amount as the three-year Veteran Extension, but as Lopez’s play presumably falls off, his impact on the cap sheet would decrease too.
For Milwaukee, they have another factor to consider too. This roster is getting expensive! The Bucks already have $114 million committed to the roster for six players for next season. Khris Middleton is highly likely to opt out of his deal, as he’ll be one of the best free agents available this summer.
That’s a lot of roster spots to fill, and that’s without factoring in new deals for Middleton and Lopez. This season, the Bucks are more than $28 million into the luxury tax. If they re-sign both Middleton and Lopez, and fill out the roster with reasonably projected deals for some other pending free agents, Milwaukee will be deep into the tax again next season. And that will probably carry over for at least a season or two after that.
If keeping the immediate tax bill down is a factor, the Bucks will likely be looking for Brook Lopez to do a deal in the range of what he can get via the Veteran Extension. Ideally, they might be able to even get somewhat of a hometown discount, maybe something in the range of three-years, $45 million?
If the goal is to keep the tax bill down in future years, when the repeater tax will become a factor, Milwaukee would be better off front-loading a new deal for Lopez in free agency. That would be costly this year, but helpful when the 2025 and 2026 tax bills come due. Of course, if Middleton were to leave, the Bucks would have considerably more flexibility with what they could offer Lopez and the structure they could use.
Brook Lopez has found a home in Milwaukee. He’s a perfect fit there and seemingly happy there. That presumably gives the Bucks somewhat of an advantage on keeping their big man home. But coming off a great late-career season, Milwaukee can’t expect too much of a hometown discount. Expect Lopez to land a deal that pays him between $15 and $18 million AAV, with the structure of the deal telling us a lot about both the Bucks immediate and future plans.