Anthony Davis is putting the finishing touches on a truly remarkable season for a player his age. If it holds to form, The Brow would have the highest PER for any NBA season of a player age 21 or earlier. In fact, he would hold two of the top four marks there (with last year as his second) with Shaquille O'Neal and LeBron James in between the two. Davis can and should make even more history in 2015 by being the first elite player to decline a full max extension to take his qualifying offer.
In a vast majority of circumstances, I advocate for young players to take the guaranteed money and run. A lucrative extension off a rookie deal can come a full season ahead of time so it mitigates an absolute ton of risk. In fact, in this circumstance Davis would actually take two years of uncertainty because he would secure his big payday in 2017 instead of 2015. In his distinct situation, the benefits outweigh the costs.
Anthony Davis’ main reason to sign the qualifying offer would be control of his own future. Kyrie Irving, another No. 1 overall pick who only played one year of college, will be an Unrestricted Free Agent for the first time in 2019 when he is 27 years old. That means Irving will only get one bite at the apple in his prime to prioritize whatever he wants most. If Davis becomes unrestricted in 2017 at age 24 (!), he can sign a four- or five-year contract with whatever team he likes and still be in line for another huge contract that would cover the end of his prime and likely some early post-prime seasons.
On top of simply having control, the timing of when Davis hits the market also makes taking the qualifying offer more interesting. While people are focusing on 2016 as the summer where the big chips will fall, 2017 could carry a huge bump in the salary cap as well and has an amazing free agent class including Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, all of whom will be unrestricted too. Being able to go where he likes gives Davis the power to choose his teammates in New Orleans or elsewhere.
The specter of unrestricted free agency would also force his current team to think differently about the next few seasons. Since they drafted Davis, New Orleans management mistakenly chose shortsighted moves over building slowly around their budding star. They traded two lottery picks for Jrue Holiday (who would be a UFA the same season as Davis if AD takes the qualifying offer) and one for Omer Asik who could leave after one season with no compensation. Davis by himself can change the direction of his franchise and give them the incentive to keep their books clean so he can bring another great player or two to The Big City.
Waiting until 2017 to get his payout could yield another major benefit for Davis. In all likelihood, the league will be working under a new Collective Bargaining Agreement starting then since both the players and owners have an opt-out of the current one at that time. While the players usually get a smaller piece of the pie on the aggregate due to owners’ ability to better survive stoppages, the NBA currently has a surprisingly low individual player maximum. Additionally, max-level players currently dominate leadership of the Player’s Association. That dynamic could shift CBA negotiations on max contracts and NBPA Executive Director Michele Roberts has already brought up her opposition to the current low maximum salaries for individual players.
Waiting until 2017 could put Davis in the first class able to get a higher share of the cap instead of the last one on the current scale. That chance is merely a possibility at present but still a legitimate and interesting one.
Davis’ Reduced Risk
Over the past few months, I have talked with some writers about what it would it take for Anthony Davis to not get a full max offer when he hits free agency. So far, the general consensus has been something catastrophic on or off the court that affects the rest of his career. Most agreed that even tearing his ACL in the last game of the previous season and missing his entire first year on a new contract would not prevent some team from putting a max deal in front of Davis. That means he carries substantially less risk than most elite young players, probably the least in this spot since Kevin Durant or LeBron James.
In addition to that, as the #1 overall pick Davis will get a substantial qualifying offer of $9.19 million. While a few notches down from what he could get on an extension, Davis would be well compensated during his risk year.
If Davis chooses to become an Unrestricted Free Agent in 2017, the 2016 Summer Olympics turn into a gigantic chance for him to shape his future. Every player there would know that one of the best players in the league could be a potential teammate one year from then. That knowledge would also allow The Brow to evaluate everyone there as guys he could play with in his early prime and work to forge connections like Miami’s Big Three made during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. The exploding cap also makes bringing three stars together more possible than it has been at any point during the new CBA whether AD could bring them to New Orleans or someone convinces him to play with them elsewhere.
Anthony Davis has given himself an incredible and almost unprecedented opportunity to take control of his career at a young age. Electing to play on a qualifying offer instead of a max extension gives him the flexibility to choose where he makes his legacy and plays for his entire prime. Players and General Managers alike would have the time to prepare simply remarkable situations for him. Becoming an Unrestricted Free Agent in his mid-twenties takes all of the perils of team-building off of Davis’ shoulders since the only way he would spend his prime on an inferior team would be in a situation of his choosing and his control.
This unusual tact certainly carries a healthy amount of risk but not as much for Anthony Davis as it would be for someone with a shakier track record. The man is an MVP candidate at age 22, after all.
Having the Olympics to assess possible teammates and the chance of increased max contracts also makes the big decision more palatable. A confluence of circumstances have allowed the NBA’s best young player has a chance to forge his own path and I sincerely hope he gives himself the opportunity to do so.