NBA players signed to minimum contracts are usually defined into one of three groups:
- Rookies or young players who are hoping to make a team
- Veteran players who are hoping to play a role a title contender
- Veteran players who receive a buyout and catch on late in the season with a contender
The first group regularly sees players play themselves off of a minimum contract. This offseason alone, that group includes Bruce Brown Jr., Devonte’ Graham, Talen Horton-Tucker, Kendrick Nunn, Duncan Robinson and Gary Trent Jr. All of these players are going to get more than the minimum and some are going to get considerably more.
The last group is a matter of circumstance. For all of Andre Drummond’s foibles as a player, he’s not really someone who will play on a minimum contract for very long. After his buyout from the Cleveland Cavaliers, Drummond joined the Lakers for a shot at a ring. This summer, Drummond will make far more than the minimum, even if it means taking a role with a lesser team. Blake Griffin is another good example. If he wants to leave the Nets for more than the minimum, he’s shown he’s still got the game to earn more.
It’s the middle group where players often get stuck, sometimes forever. Around the NBA there is a thought that “Once a minimum player, always a minimum player” when it comes to veterans.
Fair or unfair, that’s how life works in the NBA. The vast majority of successful teams are built around one to three players on max contracts, a handful signed to a mid-tier contract via the Mid-Level Exception, a few Rookie Scale players and then a handful of players that were signed via the Minimum Exception. Or the bench is rounded out with young players who the team used part of an exception to sign to a three or four-year minimum contract (Minimum Exception deals are limited to two seasons in length).
This season several players stuck in that “minimum player” category seem to have played themselves out of that designation. Here’s a list of players who might be looking at a more lucrative contract in 2021-22, based on their play this year.
Reggie Jackson (PG, LAC)
Jackson turned in one of his better seasons while toiling away on the minimum for the Los Angeles Clippers. He averaged 10.7 points per game, while shooting 45% from the field and 43% from behind the arc. In the postseason, Jackson has been even better. He’s averaged 17.6 points on 51% shooting overall and 42% from behind the arc. With several teams looking at point guard openings this summer, Jackson has earned himself at least a large chunk of the Non-Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception from someone.
Nicolas Batum (SF, LAC)
Let’s stick with Clippers vets for a minute. Batum looked finished in 2019-20 with the Charlotte Hornets. He barely played, shot poorly and it looked like his NBA career was over. The Clippers added Batum for the minimum and he became a key rotation player for them. He stayed healthy all season and turned in 8.1 points (on some of the best shooting of his career) and 4.7 rebounds in 27.4 minutes per game. He’s also shown the ability to play some small ball five, which adds to his value. It’s unclear if Batum will leave LA or not. If he stays, he probably stays on the minimum. If he wants to cash in elsewhere, he could get $4 or $5 million from a title contender for a bench role.
Cameron Payne (PG, PHX)
Going head-to-head with the Clippers is Payne, who has finally put it all together in his sixth season. The Phoenix Suns did well to add Payne on a two-year, minimum contract before the bubble last season. He played well at Walt Disney World and that’s carried over to this year. He’s been a solid backup to Chris Paul and stepped up while Paul was out to start the Western Conference Finals. Payne should get a portion of the MLE from a good team to be a high-end backup point guard that can start when necessary.
Torrey Craig (SF, PHX)
Completing our quartet of Western Conference finalists on the minimum is Craig. He’s a defense-first wing who easily fits on any good team. The Milwaukee Bucks probably should have kept him, but the Suns stole him on the cheap when the Bucks needed to clear a roster spot. Craig’s defense alone should earn him a chunk of the MLE from someone, but his offense is probably better than you think too.
Solomon Hill (SF, ATL)
Hill belongs in the same camp as Batum, even if he’s several years younger. If he wants to return to Atlanta, it’s probably for the minimum, as the Hawks payroll is starting to get a little unwieldy. But if Hill wants to cash in on his newfound “defensive stopper” reputation, he could get a nice offer elsewhere.
Austin Rivers (PG, DEN)
Rivers play for the Denver Nuggets was better than most expected. If he’s happy there as a placeholder until Jamal Murray returns, Rivers will re-sign with Denver for the minimum. Otherwise, he could leverage a poor free agent class into a bigger offer from a playoff contender seeking guard depth.
Jeff Green (PF, BKN)
Since his one-year, $15 million contract with the Orlando Magic expired in 2017, Jeff Green has played for the minimum for five different clubs over the last four seasons. If Green wants to stay with a ready-made title contender in Brooklyn, the Nets will happily bring him back on another minimum deal. If Green wants to cash in one last time, he might have a chance to snag part of the MLE from a playoff hopeful looking for a veteran forward for their bench.