The wing is the most sought-after position in the NBA. So, naturally, a solid defenseman with 15.5 points per game and 53% shooting from the field seems like a valuable player.
Those are T.J. Warren’s numbers for the last season, and the Pacers won 75% of the games they played with Warren. But that’s where the positives end – these are not numbers for the 2021-22 season, but for the 2020-21 campaign – Warren missed the entire last NBA season due to foot problems.
And this statistic? They are just from the four games. The NC State product played in the first four games of the 2020–21 season before undergoing surgery. He hasn’t played a game since – Warren last wore gear on December 29, 2020, 538 days ago.
So while Warren was once a force in the league, he hasn’t shown it in 18 months. And that’s what makes his upcoming free agency — his four-year contract expires at the end of this month — so challenging. Will teams be willing to take the risk of spending significant financial resources on a forward who has played in four games since the NBA bubble game ended? Or will they be afraid to make that commitment?
Warren was a full-fledged member of the Pacers’ practice last March, which arguably gives teams confidence that he’s fit enough to play when the 2022-23 season kicks off. “T.J. Warren has worked incredibly hard over the last 14 months to get to this point – fully participating in activities on the court with his teammates – while overcoming the many challenges associated with this type of injury,” Pacers President of Basketball Operations. Kevin Pritchard said at that time. But even if Warren is now ready to play games, it is not easy to predict how effective he will be after such a long recovery period – or he will have to miss some more time while his leg acclimatizes to game action.
So how will teams approach Warren with a contract offer this summer? It’s hard to say, and it will likely depend on the franchise’s team building situation offering Warren a deal.
If he was healthy, Warren could probably land a contract worth about $20 million a year this offseason – perhaps a little more than the one Evan Fournier signed with the New York Knicks last summer (four years). , $73 million). It’s hard to imagine now that he’ll be getting that much guaranteed money for the season, unless his next deal is short – it doesn’t make sense for a team to make that kind of commitment.
What does make sense is that Warren could be a high-paying signing, even with his risks. If he plays close to where he was before the foot disease, he is a starting quality player in an important position.
Teams will be tasked with weighing these factors. Two players who have been out for a long time in recent seasons, Thomas Bryant and Spencer Dinwiddie, serve as examples of how Warren’s game can evolve after injury.
Dinwiddie’s recent campaign will be what decision makers hope can happen to Warren. After tearing his ACL at the end of 2020, Dinwiddie returned last season and has still been a solid player with a similar skill set. After being traded to Dallas, Dinwiddie posted one of the best basketball performances of his career.
Meanwhile, Bryant missed over a year with a knee injury and returned in early 2022. His scoring average has almost halved as his game has declined in many areas of the game. He has never been the same as he used to be in Washington.
If Warren can go the way of Dinwiddie, he’s worth a big deal. If he can’t, and his next season is more like Bryant’s 2021-22, then his next contract could be an overpayment. That’s what makes his free will so difficult.
Several players who have been in a similar situation to Warren have recently signed as free agents. A notable deal last summer is one that center Zach Collins signed with the San Antonio Spurs.
Collins signed a three-year, $22 million contract with San Antonio. But at the signing, Collins was only guaranteed $10.6 million under the deal—$7 million in the first year and $3.6 million for the remainder of the contract. With Collins missing most of the two seasons before agreeing to this deal due to various ankle injuries, the Spurs wanted to make sure they didn’t guarantee the young big man too much money in case he was ineffective or unable to play. But they still had to give him enough money to encourage him to sign the contract.
Warren will find himself in a similar situation, although he is a much more proven player and plays in a more sought-after position. Could the Pacers wing make a similar deal with a higher dollar amount? For example, doubling all those numbers might make sense for a 28-year-old forward.
There are other ways to balance Warren’s contract in a way that is fair to both himself and his new team. Jonathan Isaac signed a contract with Orlando that included promotions based on the games played – if Isaac missed time in the first season of the deal due to certain injuries, money in future seasons of the contract was guaranteed at lower amounts. That’s exactly what happened, Isaac hasn’t played since August 2020 and is now only guaranteed $23.6 million of the $52.2 million left on his contract. Warren’s next contract may contain similar language requiring him to play a certain number of games in order for his contract to become more or completely guaranteed.
The third way that Warren’s next contract could be tricky is through bonuses, and more specifically, unlikely bonuses. Unlikely contract bonuses are bonuses that are paid if a player achieves a certain statistical or team success that was not achieved in the previous season. What makes them a valuable resource for the franchise to consider in T.J. Warren’s next contract is that they don’t count towards the salary cap at the time of signing (although they should fit into the team’s salary cap space).
Kelly Olynyk signed with the Miami Heat in 2017. showed an unlikely bonus for minutes played. The Canadian forward had never played more than 1,538 minutes in the season prior to signing with the Heat, but Miami included a $1 million bonus in Olynyk’s contract that would be paid out if he played 1,700 minutes in a season. Because the power forward had not reached that season’s minutes played threshold prior to signing this contract, this $1 million bonus did not count towards Miami’s salary cap until the bonus was reached. Olynyk reached this milestone in the 2017-18 season.
Warren’s contract may contain similar clauses. 15% of the annual value of any contract could consist of unlikely bonuses, so Warren’s next deal could have significant bonuses that pay out if he plays a certain number of minutes or games – a number likely to be agreed upon with his team. If Warren stays healthy and plays enough, his next team will be happy to give him a bonus since he ended up in good health. If he misses more time, his organization will be able to save cash payments – both in terms of costs and in terms of the salary cap.
Most of the aforementioned bells and whistles — unique guarantee structures, injury insurance, and unlikely bonuses — are unique and unusual in NBA contracts. What they have in common, however, are team options and player options. Team options allow a team to opt out or opt out of a contract after a certain number of seasons. The player option is essentially identical, but the choice is made by the player instead. A player option on Warren’s contract could allow him to return to free rein sooner after demonstrating healthy play, while a team option would allow the team to feel better about Warren’s contract length in case he doesn’t return to his former form. Warren is likely to want a player option, while any front office is likely to want to include a team option in the next NC state product contract. If there is an option, its type may depend on how rich the deal is in terms of guaranteed money.
There are other salary cap complexities, such as hitting a downward cap and signing and trading, that make presenting Warren’s next contract extremely difficult. It’s rare for such a talented player to miss so much action right before becoming a free agent, and the situation makes it nearly impossible to predict how much or in what structure T.J. Warren will get this summer.
Teams with off-season salary caps (like the Pacers) may want to offer Warren a better deal in the first year of his next contract in exchange for easier guarantees and team-friendly options in future seasons. Over-limit teams that can only offer Warren a mid-tier non-taxpayer exemption in 2021-22, a deal that starts at a cap of just over $10 million, may be forced to get creative with what the contract structure looks like. with guaranteed money in future seasons. Warren’s franchise acquisition situation will largely determine what kind of deal he gets.
The free rein situation that TJ Warren finds himself in is unique, and there are many elements involved. Any front office willing to take risks might be willing to sign a forward contract, but negotiating with so many factors at play can be tricky. Most teams in the NBA need a player like Warren – the question is, how many of them would be interested in paying for him after more than 500 days out of the game?