Before Friday, only two players in NBA history had made $30 million per year — Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. The first day of 2016 free agency brought a third … and he’s never made an All-Star team.
As first reported by Marc Stein of ESPN.com, the Memphis Grizzlies have agreed to terms with point guard Mike Conley on a five-year, $153-million deal that ranks as the richest in NBA history by total value. Conley’s deal is also the first contract over $100 million with an annual salary average of at least $30 million. Kevin Durant can match Conley’s deal this summer if he returns to the Oklahoma City Thunder on a five-year deal, but these terms will hold the record until next offseason barring a shocking move for a 10-year veteran.
Conley’s new contract is yet another sign of the NBA’s new financial reality thanks to the salary cap’s one year jump from $70 million to $94 million. Despite understandable sticker shock from fans, many players are going to sign deals comparable to Conley’s in the next few years. In fact, the likes of Durant and LeBron James could shatter these figures next summer with five-year deals that top the $200 million mark. To put these changes into perspective, the Grizzlies signed center Marc Gasol to a five-year, $110-million maximum contract last summer. While Gasol’s health has made that deal look questionable moving forward, his yearly salary is only $6 million more per year than what the Los Angeles Lakers gave Timofey Mozgov for four seasons to open free agency on Thursday night.
The terms of Conley’s deal are not especially surprising. He was expected to return to the Grizzlies on a contract similar to Gasol’s and likely would have received a four-year max offer from several suitors. Conley served as one of the team’s chief recruiters in its pursuit of Chandler Parsons (who is set to sign for four years at $94 million, his own max salary) and has now committed the rest of his prime and several years of his decline to Memphis. He turns 29 in mid-October and will become a free agent again at an age when many point guards choose to retire.
The deals for Conley and Parsons make this day a good one for the Grizzlies, who have historically struggled to lure and keep sought-after free agents. It’s a good thing the team and its fan base is happy, too, because they’re now locked into a core for at least three seasons. Adding in Gasol’s $21.2 million in 2016-17, the average annual salaries for Conley and Parsons would eat up $75.7 million (or 80.5 percent) of the cap for three players. Future cap bumps and Zach Randolph’s $10.4-million expiring deal will free up more money, but not enough to add another big name unless owner Robert Pera is OK with taking a small-market team into the luxury tax. Their only viable path to bringing in more high-level talent is to get lucky in the draft, which seems very unlikely given that their 2017 and 2019 picks are on their way to other teams (with top-of-the-lottery protections that could push them into future seasons).
The Grizzlies could consider that inflexibility to be an acceptable trade-off, because Conley, Gasol, and Parsons are very good players when healthy. Unfortunately, all have dealt with potentially serious injuries in the last year — Conley had Achilles issues, Gasol broke his foot, and Parsons tore his meniscus a year after having microfracture surgery on the same knee. Those risks could well be worth it considering the other available options, but they’re real.
Context aside, Conley and the Grizzlies just became a part of NBA history. Whether they end celebrated or ridiculed for it remains to be seen.
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