Grading the extension for the San Antonio Spurs
On the surface, $146 million looks like a lot of money for a player like Devin Vassell. In pure financial terms, that deal at its maximum averages out to $29.2 million per season. That's exactly what New York Knicks forward Julius Randle averages on his contract and he was an All-NBA player last season. Jaren Jackson Jr. won Defensive Player of the Year and is making an average of just $26 million on his deal. Jalen Brunson, Draymond Green, Andrew Wiggins and DeMar DeRozan are some of the players averaging less than Vassell on their current deals.
To further spin out the sticker-shock before providing needed context, Mikal Bridges agreed to a four-year, $90 million contract just two years ago. He is the best-case scenario for Vassell, an elite defender and shooter with the upside to add ball skills and become something more. Bridges just barely missed the cut for an All-Defense team in his third season and shot 42.5 percent from 3-point range on a team that went to the NBA Finals; Vassell shot 38.7 percent from deep and didn't sniff an All-Defense team on the worst defense in the league.
So this extension was a massive overpay then? Not so fast; it's time to introduce our friend context to the discussion. The NBA salary cap is increasing by leaps and bounds each and every season, which means that as a percentage of the cap, a contract of $29.2 million is much less than it was even two seasons ago.
Let's break that down in greater detail. Bridges' extension began at $21 million this past season, 2022-23. As a percentage of the cap, that $21 million was 16.98 percent of the cap. If the Spurs start Vassell's deal at its lowest amount of $23.28 million (that's an estimate; they'd probably be wise to start it at a higher number) it will take up just 16.39 percent of the cap in 2024-25 according to current cap estimate.
So right off the bat, the numbers we are dealing with are diluted by the rising cap. While it's expected to grow by a sedate amount this next offseaosn, from there the new television deal is expected to push the cap up by the maximum of 10 percent each season. That means the salary cap, which is $136 million this season, could land as high as $219 million by 2028-29.
That's why the fifth-year matters so much in evaluating this contract. The Spurs are awash in cap space in the short-term; ESPN's Bobby Marks commented that even after the Vassell extension the Spurs project to have $45-60 million in cap space next season. Front-loading the money on the extension would have a marginal impact this season but ensure Vassell is under contract for a pittance by the end of the deal.
If the Spurs were to frontload the deal, the final season of the contract could see Vassell making something like $23 million, which at the current cap estimate would equal around 11 percent of the cap; that's the same as someone making only $14 million this season.
Even if Vassell doesn't become an All-Star type of player, a useful 3-and-D wing in his prime will be worth significantly more than $23 million by the fifth season, and likely more than $30 million. If Vassell is an All-Star two-way wing at 28 years old, he would be in line to make over $50 million easily, with a max contract that year as high as $76 million.
A four-year extension for Vassell would likely have paid him less per season and seen their young wing hit unrestricted free agency a year sooner. The new CBA allows teams to sign players to five-year extensions at less than the maximum amount, with this contract being the first major example; a year ago this would not have been allowed.
This is a great contract and a good player to invest in for the next six seasons. It seems like a lot of money, but in the context of the rising cap, this deal will be a bargain well before it is over.