Bruce Brown might have been the 2022-23 season's most consequential free-agent signing. Eleven months after joining the Denver Nuggets on a team-friendly contract, he made the go-ahead bucket in Game 5 of the NBA Finals on Monday, a putback off the glass with a minute and a half on the clock. Brown closed the last three games of the series against the Miami Heat, making his coach's preseason prediction -- "I have a feeling that Bruce Brown will close a lot of big games for us" -- look smart.
Brown and the Nuggets were a perfect match. He had already proven to be a smart cutter and screener, which are almost prerequisites in Denver's free-flowing offensive system, but he wanted to do guard stuff rather than reprising the he played in Brooklyn. The Nuggets needed another ballhandler, and they wanted guards who could defend bigger players. It didn't hurt that he made 37.4% of his catch-and-shoot 3s in the regular season. The championship run didn't validate his decision to go to Denver or the front office's decision to go after him; it just put the spotlight on him. Now everybody knows that he was a steal.
Good news for Brown: He can cash in this summer. All he has to do is decline his $6.8 million player option and he'll be back on the open market, which should treat him much more kindly this time around. At the podium after Game 5, after Brown said his summer plans were to "learn how to ride a horse, drink a lot of Jameson and gingers, play a lot of golf and then be with my dog," teammate Aaron Gordon helpfully added that he is also going to "get paid."
Separately, Michael Porter Jr. said, "We're excited for him 'cause he's going to get paid."
Naturally, Brown would prefer to get paid in Denver. When players find their basketball nirvana, they typically don't flee the first chance they get.
So: Brown loves the Nuggets, they love him and now the two sides just need to negotiate a deal that pays him what he's worth on the open market and everyone will be happy ... right?
Unfortunately for both parties, it's more complicated than that. Thanks to an annoying document called the collective bargaining agreement, Denver likely cannot offer him more than $7.8 million as a starting salary on a new contract. (People familiar with that annoying document know that this is because they only have his non-Bird rights and they signed him using the mini-MLE last summer.)
In theory, the Nuggets could offer Brown as much as they want by clearing salary-cap space, but that would require them to gut a championship team -- not happening. They could also theoretically try to reduce the payroll to the point that they could offer him the full, non-taxpayer MLE, which is worth about $12.2 million, but even that would require a drastic move, like trading Porter.
If drastic moves are off the table, then Brown's best-case scenario in Denver would be re-signing for $7.8 million -- again with a player option for a second season -- and then re-signing on a long-term deal in 2024, at which point the Nuggets would be able to pay him a starting salary of approximately $13.6 million or 105% of next season's average salary, whichever is higher. (This is because they would have his Early Bird rights by then.)
If no one offers Brown more than the non-taxpayer MLE this summer, then this plan wouldn't necessarily be an enormous financial sacrifice. It would, however, require him to sacrifice certainty. It looked like he was doing the I'll-be-rewarded-next-time thing when he signed the $4.7 million qualifying offer to stay with the Nets in 2021, but they ended up letting him walk the following summer. It's unclear whether that bit of personal history should be seen as evidence that he'd be open to a short-term deal or the kind of experience that might sour him on the idea.
The good news for Denver: In the immediate aftermath of Game 5, Brown told the Denver Post's Mike Singer that he wants to run it back and isn't concerned about the money:
"I want to stay," he told The Denver Post.
"Look at us," he said. "Celebrating the Finals, winning the Finals. This is what you come to the NBA for, to win at the highest level."
"It's a perfect fit," Brown said. "And money is not everything. The money will come. So I'm not worried about that right now."
"This locker room (is special)," he said. "Everybody can get on anybody. We hold each other accountable. Ain't nobody gonna take it personal."
"That's insane," he said of Denver's 16-4 playoff record. "That doesn't happen. … Why not run it back?"
Brown will not be held to the comments he made in a locker room full of champagne and cigar smoke when it comes time to make his decision. If you're a member of the Nuggets' front office, though, this is exactly what you hoped to hear. "Maybe we'll get him when he's drunk off of winning a championship, and get him to agree," general manager Calvin Booth joked to The Athletic on Monday. "Outside of that, I can't tell (what will happen)."
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