NBA free agency this summer produced a staggering level of movement among the league’s top players. Only eight of the 25 players chosen for the 2017 NBA All-Star Game remain on the same team today. The reshaping of the league produced a series of clear winners in the Los Angeles Clippers, the Utah Jazz and the Brooklyn Nets.
But behind the scenes, there was another big winner, in NBA super-agent Jeff Schwartz and the agency he founded in 2002, Excel Sports Management. Schwartz negotiated over $1 billion in free-agent contracts and extensions that will begin next season. It is a record haul for an agency and should net the firm tens of millions of dollars (commissions are capped at 4% for NBA agents).
“The speed of the market surprised me the most. On the agent side, an irrational market is a good market. What you would think might be a rational market was in my opinion a paranoid market,” says Schwartz. “You can analogize it to speed chess. You must think through your moves, but you have to move really quickly. Put another way, it is like speed dating.”
Schwartz walks through the case of client Ricky Rubio, a point guard who needed a new home after two years with the Jazz, who had just traded for Mike Conley Jr. The Indiana Pacers were looking to add a pair of high-impact players, and there was mutual interest in Rubio joining his friend Bojan Bogdanovic on the team. But when Bogdanovic agreed to a four-year deal with the Jazz, Rubio questioned if Indiana was the right fit for him.
With Rubio not ready to commit, the Pacers pivoted their focus to point guard Malcolm Brogdon and asked Schwartz if Excel client Jeremy Lamb might be available as well. Schwartz was already talking to Charlotte about Lamb but didn’t want Rubio left stranded if the Pacers moved on. Schwartz contacted Phoenix, which was interested in Rubio and quickly agreed to a three-year, $51 million deal with the Spaniard. With Rubio locked in with Phoenix, Schwartz firmed things up for Lamb, who got $31.5 million from Indy after Brogdon committed. The whole process took less than an hour. Speed dating.
Rubio and Lamb were just two of more than a dozen Excel clients who agreed to deals during the first 12 hours of free agency worth north of $700 million. Khris Middleton signed a five-year, $178 million extension with the Milwaukee Bucks. Third-year player Jamal Murray of the Denver Nuggets inked a five-year, $170 million max contract extension. Harrison Barnes got $85 million guaranteed from Sacramento.
“In the past you would take your time; you would set up a meeting with a team and make a decision,” says Schwartz. “In this case, it was, ‘Let’s spend $3 billion in under 24 hours and hope we all still like each other in a year.’”
Schwartz was the only NBA agent to finish among the top 10 overall last year in Forbes’ annual look at the most powerful agents across all sports. At the time, his $1.7 billion of current contracts under management dwarfed the next best in the NBA ($980 million). The gap has only widened. Excel expanded to baseball and golf in 2011 when fellow uber-agents Casey Close and Mark Steinberg joined as partners and brought along clients like Derek Jeter and Tiger Woods.
Despite the frenzy of player movement this summer, Schwartz says he’d always prefer clients stay on their current teams if the money and situation are right. “Players have put in their time to build equity there, and the team has put time in the players,” he says.
But one high-profile Excel client found those things did not align this summer. Kemba Walker was a three-time All-Star with the Charlotte Hornets and eligible for a $221 million max deal with the team. But he walked away from a reported five-year, $160 million offer from Charlotte to sign for $141 million over four years with the Boston Celtics, who are coming off five straight playoff appearances.
“Charlotte was uncomfortable paying Kemba the number he wanted based on where the team was. They didn’t think they were a significant playoff team, so they were only prepared to go so far. For Kemba, that was not enough for him to stay there,” says Schwartz.
Beyond the $1 billion haul, Excel set a couple of other records for its clients this summer. The Middleton deal was the largest ever given to a second-round draft choice, breaking the record set last year by another Excel client, Nikola Joki?. Murray’s massive contract was the biggest for a Canadian player in the NBA.
The future of NBA free agency is likely to see some tweaks. Commissioner Adam Silver addressed the issues during the media session after the league’s Board of Governors meeting this month. “We knew when we shortened contracts several years ago that the math [meant] you’re going to have more free agency,” said Silver. “It’s always a two-edged sword. On one hand, it creates a sense of renewal in a lot of markets. It gives teams an opportunity to rebuild. But the downside, of course, is for other teams, they potentially lose players.”
NBA players have taken ownership in the direction of their careers more than ever, shifting teams through free agency or trade demands. The movement got jumpstarted in 2010 when LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade made plans to join the Miami Heat together. The shift hit hyperspeed the last two years. “Rather than thinking about the team, players are thinking who their teammates are going to be,” says Schwartz. “It’s hard to put that genie back in the bottle.”