BOSTON (CBS) — After facing long odds and heavy competition to simply earn a roster spot, most second-round picks in NBA history are happy just to get an opportunity to play in the league after they are selected.
Some of those players sign team-friendly contracts for the league minimum upon being drafted, while others head overseas for additional seasoning (and more money). The latter was the case for Boston’s No. 45 overall pick in Marcus Thornton, who inked a deal to play in Australia this week, knowing his odds of making a roster with a crowded backcourt were slim-to-none.
On the surface, fellow Celtics rookie Jordan Mickey faced a similar crowded predicament in Boston’s frontcourt, which is loaded with veterans David Lee, Amir Johnson, Kelly Olynyk, Tyler Zeller and Jared Sullinger. At the start of NBA Summer League, it was unclear if there would even be room for Mickey on the team’s roster next year.
Still, the No. 33 overall pick changed that narrative quickly after impressing the Celtics’ brass with a superb two weeks in Salt Lake City and Las Vegas. The reward? Mickey signed the richest contract for a rookie second-round pick in NBA history. The deal is worth roughly $5 million over four years, with the first two years of the contract fully guaranteed, according to Basketball Insiders.
Mickey’s starting salary in 2015-16 will be $1.17 million, about the same amount the No. 26 overall pick in this year’s draft could sign for on the rookie scale. So how exactly did Mickey manage to get paid more for next season than six players drafted in front of him (including R.J. Hunter)? Let’s take a closer look at the mindset of both sides in the deal.
Understanding The Negotiations
Unlike the first round of the NBA Draft (in which rookies usually earn 120 percent of the slotted salary for each pick), there is no salary scale for second-round picks. As a result, teams have a bunch of options for handling their second-tier draftees.
One option is simply signing a player to a minimum-salary deal. The longest this type of deal can last is two years, which is not ideal when a team wants to develop a young player. It also means a team does not have Bird Rights (the ability to pay a free agent up to the maximum salary) on these young players when their contract expires.
Lacking Bird Rights is a less than ideal situation for Boston, since it limits the team’s ability to retain a player after those two seasons unless the team has the necessary salary-cap space to offer a player favorable terms. This has hurt some teams around the league in the last 15 years when a second-round pick has a breakout season and gets plucked away by a suitor in free agency (see: Gilbert Arenas to the Wizards in 2003 or Carlos Boozer to the Jazz in 2004).
With minimum contract salary deals backfiring for some teams, the more popular path these days with a top second-round pick is signing a player with cap room or the mid-level exception. That’s the route the Celtics have gone with undrafted rookies, such as Phil Pressey, in recent years, since it allows teams to sign players to four-year deals at the minimum salary with small annual raises, not just two (a pure minimum exception deal).
For an impressive rookie like Mickey, who averaged 12.2 points and 7.9 rebounds in summer league, a four-year contract at the minimum is not ideal, though. It limits earning power in a player’s prime years, especially if a player has a stellar year. One such example is former second-round pick Chandler Parsons, who signed a four- year minimum deal with the Houston Rockets after being drafted.
The agreement cost Parsons millions of dollars of earning power, once he turned into one of the top wings around the league in his first two seasons in the league. He had to wait for his big payday as the Rockets GM Daryl Morey took advantage of a bargain deal that panned out.
If a player thinks he can contribute immediately, he’s better off hitting the free agent market sooner, or at least trying to earn more than the minimum in his initial contract, if he were going to sign a longer deal.
Eventually, in the case of the Celtics and Mickey, both sides gave in. Mickey agreed to a four-year deal, with the first two seasons guaranteed. Boston got the long-term control of Mickey through his age 25 season and also Bird Rights for when he becomes a free agent later this decade.
In return for that longer commitment, the Celtics paid him double the minimum salary in his first two seasons, so he’ll make a $1.17 million and $1.23 million in those years respectively. That’s first-round pick money and enough to keep the power forward content.
Ultimately, the Celtics may have overpaid a little bit here, but with the salary-cap skyrocketing next season, betting on Mickey won’t be a damaging gamble even if he doesn’t pan out. The fact that the team was willing to pay so much for him is a positive sign that Brad Stevens and Ainge believe he can be a difference maker a couple of years down the road.
Brian Robb covers the Celtics for CBS Boston and contributes to NBA.com, among other media outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @CelticsHub.