By Ben Golliver
Restricted free agency can be a complicated dance, and Brandon Jennings decided to step on the feet of Bucks mismanagement more than three months before the two sides can reach agreement on a new contract.
Jennings told Yahoo Sports on Friday he is considering an unusual possibility: postponing a lucrative, long-term agreement this summer to play on a one-year qualifying offer next season so he can become an unrestricted free agent in July 2014.
"If I take the qualifying offer and become an [unrestricted] free agent there is no way I am coming back," Jennings told Yahoo! Sports on Friday after practice. "There is no way."
He turned down a four-year, $40 million deal prior to this season, a source told Yahoo! Sports. A one-year qualifying offer would be worth about $4.5 million for Jennings.
"It's not unfair to make that statement if he feels there is not a deal fair to him this summer," Bucks general manager John Hammond said of Jennings' stance. "I would be surprised if it happens. But he is operating within the [collective bargaining] rules. I'm not taken aback. It's a natural discussion to have."
Jennings, who is from Los Angeles, has made noise about leaving Milwaukee before. Back in Feb. 2012, Jennings told ESPN.com he was "doing my homework on big-market teams" and he wanted to "keep my options open."
As Hammond notes, what Jennings is suggesting is perfectly legal, although it's a route few players in his position ever seriously consider. As a restricted free agent, Jennings has the following options: negotiate a contract of up to five years with the Bucks, negotiate a contract of up to four years with any other team, which the Bucks can then match, negotiate a sign-and-trade agreement with the Bucks and an outside suitor, or accept a one-year qualifying offer for 2013-14 and become an unrestricted free agent this summer.
Jennings, 23, was a lottery pick in 2009 and has served as the Bucks's starting point guard for his three-plus years in the league. This season, he's averaging 18.4 points, 6.6 assists, 3.3 rebounds and 1.8 steals in 37.4 minutes per game. He's garnered some buzz as an outside candidate for the East All-Star team over the last two seasons and he's headed toward his second appearance in the postseason this year.
Put together, that's a resume that suggests Jennings, while not quite a franchise player, remains clearly at the top of Milwaukee's list of offseason priorities. The Bucks traded away reserve point guard Beno Udrih in a deal to acquire J.J. Redick at the trade deadline, leaving the seldom-used Ish Smith as the only other point guard on the roster. The Bucks' reported offer of four-year, $40 million was in line with rookie extensions given to the likes of Jrue Holiday (four years, $41 million), Stephen Curry (four years, $44 million) and Ty Lawson (four years, $48 million) last fall. That offer wasn't insulting, not by a long-shot, and it demonstrated a reasoned desired to keep him in the fold.
Restricted free agency has a way of boosting a player's value, and nothing that Jennings has done this season has diminished his asking price. He's positioned as one of the 2013 class's most desirable free agents and there should be substantial offers waiting for him. The Bucks understood that possibility entering negotiations last fall and have surely calculated the cost of not extending him into their plans this summer.
Going the qualifying route is essentially a nuclear option for Jennings, as it requires a degree of patience and delayed gratification that few players display. The difference between $40+ million guaranteed and $4+ million guaranteed with the possibility of freedom in a year is gigantic, especially for a player whose career earnings at the end of this season will total roughly $10 million. Jennings has already played this with the uncertainty that comes with no extension hanging over his head; playing a second season under those circumstances is far less preferable than coming to an agreement this summer. There's just no guarantee the right offer from the right team will be waiting for him a full year into the future and there's always the possibility of a career-altering injury that could make a $40+ million payout impossible to come by again. Ultimately these comments are a play for leverage in a restricted free agency environment that strongly favors the incumbent team. To interested suitors, they signal Jennings' willingness to consider a new home. To the Bucks, they read as a veiled threat to pay up big for his patience this season. To Bucks fans, they probably sound like nails on the chalkboard, given the fact that the team is currently in a playoff chase. Like any restricted free agent, Jennings' real leverage will come from his ability to garner an offer from an outside team, which the Bucks, with a desire to keep him and no other quality options available at his position, will almost certainly match. If you're Milwaukee, you brush off this bluff and proceed toward negotiations.