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The Jalen Smith contract issue is all about the money

Phoenix Suns forward Jalen Smith will be a 22-year old unrestricted free agent in 2022.

Phoenix Suns All Access Practice Photo by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

No, the Phoenix Suns did not cut 21-year old Jalen Smith from the roster yesterday, but it sure felt that way.

The Suns declined Jalen Smith’s team option of $4.7 million for the 2022-23 season, making him an unrestricted free agent next summer. He is still under contract with the Suns this season at $4.4 million.

While that number does not seem large, the $4.7 million would have put Smith in the top half of all NBA player contracts next year. Top half of NBA contracts means Smith should be a top-half of an NBA roster (i.e. top-7). Does Smith project to be in any team’s top seven of their rotation any time soon?

Monday was the deadline for NBA teams to decide on their rookie-scale contract options for NEXT season, the 2022-23 season, and the Suns had two decisions to make. One on Cameron Johnson’s fourth year, valued at $5.89 million, and the other on Jalen Smith’s third year, valued at $4.7 million.

Those two contracts would rank right about the middle of the league’s salaries. This year, 210 of the league’s 450 NBA players (46%) will make $4.7 million or more. In context of an NBA roster: seven of an average team’s 15 players would make $4.7+ million or more. Each team’s regular playing rotation is 8-10 players deep.

Last year, rookie Jalen Smith and second-year wing Cameron Johnson were the Suns’ 7th and 8th highest paid players at $4.25 and $4.23 million, respectively. Before you say the Suns were cheap, here’s the facts to use: they had the 18th highest payroll in the league and spent more than six other playoff teams including the Dallas Mavericks, Denver Nuggets, Miami Heat, Boston Celtics, New York Knicks and Atlanta Hawks. This year they are right about the same spot (20th), but next year they are already projected to vault into the top-10 on spending when Deandre Ayton signs a new contract.

Jalen Smith, the 10th overall pick in 2020, was the 7th highest paid player on the Suns last year, and will be the 9th highest paid this year.

You can begin to understand why they did not want to pay rotation-player money to Jalen Smith when he’s not a proven rotation player on a good team.

By now you must be asking: how is Jalen Smith making so much money that the Suns have to cut him?

Look no further than the NBA’s rookie-scale contract schedule. As part of the league’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, every rookie contract is pre-decided based on their draft selection (i.e. top pick makes more than second pick, second pick makes more than third, etc.) and increases by a predetermined amount each year for four years, with the 3rd and 4th years being a team option.

This contract schedule for lottery picks is great if your draft pick becomes a regular rotation player. Cameron Johnson, taken 11th in 2019, is a bargain relative to comparably-skilled veterans who are beyond their rookie-scale deals.

But that contract schedule is not great if your lottery pick cannot make your rotation. Jalen Smith, taken 10th in 2020, is overpaid compared to his contributions.

Last year, when the Suns went to the Finals with what many considered a deeply talented roster, the Suns had 7 players making less than either Jalen Smith ($4.245 million) or Cameron Johnson ($4.235 million):

  • Jevon Carter
  • Cameron Payne
  • Frank Kaminsky
  • Abdel Nader
  • Torrey Craig
  • E’Twaun Moore
  • Langston Galloway

Cameron Johnson was better than all of those players last year, whereas Jalen Smith was... not.

This year, Jalen Smith makes more than:

  • Cameron Johnson
  • Landry Shamet
  • Elfrid Payton
  • Frank Kaminsky
  • Abdel Nader

All of them deserve minutes over Jalen Smith this year, though I can understand your hesitation on Frank and Doolie if you’ve got some. But no matter how you slice it, Smith belongs in the bottom-five of the roster, which as I laid out earlier in this article, is worth somewhere between $1-3 million across the breadth of the NBA (6+ players on every roster make $3 million or less).

And we haven’t even talked about the two-ways yet. Chandler Hutchison and Ish Wainwright will make less than half a million this year from their two-way contracts, even if they each appear in 50 games for the Suns. Last year, Smith appeared in 27 games.

You can call it cheap or you can call it good roster balance.

Based on what I have written so far, you can see that the Suns made a sound financial decision to decline next year’s team option for Jalen Smith because he should not be paid rotation-player money if he hasn’t earned it.

Now Smith becomes an unrestricted free agent next summer, subject to the market for veteran contracts. Which, as I laid out, will be priced according to his proven skills.

He can even re-sign with the Suns! Just look at Frank Kaminsky. Frank just signed his 3rd one-year contract with the Suns, each one being market-corrected. I’m sure Frank wishes he could make more than the league minimum (about $2 million in his case, based on years in the league), but he loves the Suns and has accepted his market value for what it is.

Despite all that logic, something still doesn’t seem right, does it?

It doesn’t seem right that Smith would be the victim here. It’s not his fault that he was taken 10th overall by the Suns, which put him into the ‘overpaid’ bracket. If Smith had been drafted where he was projected to go, which was later in the first round, he might only be making about $2 million this season and next, which suddenly makes him valuable again.

It’s the Suns who over-drafted Smith in the first place, and now it’s the Suns who are cutting him next summer because of it.

But now look at this another way: Smith will have almost $9 million in his pocket from the Suns after two years at the end of the bench, and will be free to sign with any team next year (again, including the Suns!) with at least $5 million more in his pocket than he would have had if he’d been taken late in the first round as projected.

The minimum contract for a third-year player is just over $1 million per year. If Smith makes $1 million next year while proving himself a good rotation player, he can eventually sign a ‘real deal’ contract and still be well ahead of where he would have been financially had been taken late-first in the first place.

What I’m saying is: Jalen Smith is fine, no matter what happens this year. Some team, if not plural, will want to invest a roster spot on a 22-year old with some valuable skills, just in case he becomes a good player under their tutelage. Remember Cheick Diallo? Smith will be in the same kind of boat next summer as Cheick was in 2018.