In the fall of 2017, the Philadelphia 76ers made a massive bet on a player who had shown flashes of brilliance in his first three seasons but could not stay on the court because of lower-body injuries.
Joel Embiid had played in 31 games when he agreed to a five-year, $146.5 million extension with the 76ers. Embiid sat out for his first two seasons because of a broken bone in his right foot. He returned for the start of the 2016-17 season but tore the meniscus in his left knee weeks before the All-Star break.
This offseason, the New Orleans Pelicans will try to negotiate a contract extension with a talented young player under similar circumstances. Zion Williamson has played in 85 games in three seasons. Starting July 1, he is eligible for a five-year extension that could pay him 25% of the NBA salary cap with 8% annual raises.
In April, Williamson said he wouldn’t be able to sign an extension “fast enough.” But the odds are it will not be a simple negotiation because of his health issues. Williamson missed most of his rookie season with a torn meniscus in his right knee, and he was sidelined for all of his third season because of a broken bone in his right foot.
What is a fair deal for an often-injured player who is such a force? Someone whom a championship-winning coach once compared to Shaquille O’Neal with point guard skills?
The Pelicans and Williamson’s representatives will try to answer that question this summer.
“Obviously, that conversation is going to be one that will be a challenge,” executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin said. “When it’s time to have that, we’ll have it. And right now what we’re focused on is him being healthy, and (being in) kind of elite condition to play basketball, and we’ll start there.”
Here are three things to know as the window to negotiate an extension approaches.
The 76ers were protected in case Embiid could not get healthy — somewhat.
The extension Embiid signed in 2017 meant the 76ers were on the hook for the majority of the $146.5 million contract even if Embiid’s sixth, seventh, eighth or ninth seasons played out similarly to his first three.
The contract contained specific language allowing the 76ers to waive Embiid if he failed to hit games played and minutes benchmarks because of specifically agreed upon injuries.
If Embiid missed 25 or more games and played fewer than 1,650 minutes in any of the final four years of the extension due to feet or back injuries, the 76ers could have waived him. But even then, they would have paid him $84.2 million after the 2018-19 season; $98.2 million after the 2019-20 season; $113.3 million after the 2020-21 season; and $129.4 million after the 2021-22 season.
Fortunately, Embiid’s health improved. In the final season of his rookie deal, Embiid averaged 22.0 points, 11.0 rebounds and 1.8 blocks and was named an All-Star for the first time in his career.
In the last half-decade, Embiid has become one of the NBA’s most dominant players. He has finished second in MVP voting in each of the past two years.
It is not hard to imagine Williamson following a similar trajectory if he can get healthy and commit to getting in shape. At 20 years old, Williamson averaged 27.0 points per game on 61.1% shooting — a historically efficient high-volume scoring season. When Williamson plays, he has shown the ability to be one of the most dominant paint scorers in the NBA.
A played games provision is a potential sticking point.
When Williamson had knee surgery prior to his rookie season, the Pelicans estimated it would take six to eight weeks for him to play again. It took Williamson more than 13 weeks to make his NBA debut. Williamson wanted to play. The team did not think he was ready. That caused friction between him and the team’s medical staff.
This spring, upon returning from a two-month hiatus in Portland, Oregon, Williamson felt he was ready to play. Once again, the Pelicans did not agree.
“Do I expect him to play?” Lee Anderson, Williamson’s stepfather, said in April. “I expect him to play. If you were to ask Zion, I’m sure he would probably say the same thing.”
Are you sensing a pattern?
Williamson and the Pelicans have not always been on the same page when determining how soon the young star can return from injury. That is why any provisions in his next contract that tie number of games played to incentives are something to watch out for salary.
Williamson did not play during the stretch run of this season because of concerns that the risk of reinjuring his surgically repaired right foot was high if he returned to the court. The hope is that the young star can use this offseason to get completely healthy.
Williamson was scheduled to undergo another round of medical imaging on his right foot last week, sources told The Times-Picayune. If the latest round of medical imaging goes well, Williamson will be able to train without any restrictions.
Here are other extensions to keep in mind.
The extensions handed out to Jonathan Isaac and Michael Porter Jr. are two examples of deals teams recently negotiated with talented forwards who have health concerns.
In August 2020, Isaac tore the ACL and meniscus in his left knee. Four months later, the Orlando Magic signed him to a four-year, $80 million extension. Isaac has not played in more than two years. Because he has missed so much time, the guaranteed money the Magic owe him in each of the next three seasons decreases.
- 2022-23: $16 million guaranteed
- 2023-24: $7.6 million guaranteed
- 2024-25: $0 guaranteed
If the Magic waive Isaac after the 2023-24 season, they do not owe him any money.
The extension Porter signed in September was much more player-friendly. The Denver Nuggets gave Porter $145.3 million in guaranteed money over five years. Porter’s contract was fully guaranteed for the first four years of the deal. Ahead of the fifth year, the Nuggets have the option to waive him but would still owe him $12 million.
Porter has been plagued by back issues since the start of college. In December, he had his third back surgery since 2017. He played in nine games this season.
The negotiations between the Pelicans and Williamson’s representatives this summer likely will center around the amount of guaranteed money over the life of the deal. The Pelicans will push for protection in case the next few years of Williamson’s career unfold similarly to his first three years in the NBA. Williamson’s representatives will push for as much guaranteed money as possible because when Williamson is healthy, he is worth every cent of a max extension.
Embiid missed 87.4% of the 76ers’ games during his first three seasons. Over the next five seasons, he missed 24.0% of their games.
Is Williamson capable of making a similar leap in availability? It is a difficult question to answer — and one that will be the biggest factor in contract negotiations this summer.