The NBA marketplace for free agents is constantly evolving, constantly shifting. One year we might see centers get paid a hefty sum because of how good their counterparts are. Another year we might see perceived 3-and-D wings get the proverbial bag.
But what took place roughly a year ago really was eye-opening. Shooting took center stage. If you were an above-average 3-point marksman, you got handsomely rewarded for it.
Consider that the following contracts were given out between November 2020 and August 2021:
☞ Davis Bertans (Washington Wizards): Re-signed for five years and $80 million on November 20, 2020. The final year is a $16.0 million player option for 2024-25. Bertans was coming off a career-best year where he averaged 15.4 points and shot 42.4% on 3s. This past February, 15 months after re-upping with Washington, the Wizards shipped him to Dallas in a package that netted them Kristaps Porzingis. Since getting the contract, Bertans has averaged 8.5 points while shooting 37.4% on 3s.
☞ Duncan Robinson (Miami Heat): Re-signed for five years and $90 million on August 2, 2021. The final year is a $19.9 million player option in 2025-26. Robinson was coming off a two-year run where he averaged 13.3 points while sinking 42.7% of his 3s. Unfortunately, Robinson, in the first year of his new deal, has somewhat regressed. He averaged 10.9 points and connected on 37.2% of his 3s. After starting 68 games in the regular season, Robinson has been a Did Not Play - Coach Decision (DNP-CD) in three of the last four postseason games, and he’s started none of the seven he’s seen time in.
☞ Joe Harris (Brooklyn Nets): Re-signed for four years and $75 million on November 20, 2020. The deal is fully guaranteed for all four years. It’ll run through 2023-24. News of Bertans and Harris re-signing broke within eight minutes of each other. In the first year of his new deal, Harris led the NBA in 3-point percentage, cashing in 47.5% of his tries in 2020-21 and averaging 14.1 points per game. Sadly, Harris’ 2021-22 campaign was a lost one. He played the first 14 games, averaging 11.3 points on 46.6% 3-point shooting, before being out for the rest of the year due to an ankle injury that he has since had surgery on. When healthy, Harris is arguably the best shooter in the league, making 45% of his 3s over the last five seasons.
☞ Bogdan Bogdanovic (Atlanta Hawks): Signed for four years and $72 million on November 24, 2020. The final year is an $18.0 million player option in 2023-24. Bogdanovic was a restricted free agent at the time, and the Sacramento Kings ultimately declined to match the Atlanta offer sheet. Bogdanovic averaged 16.4 points and made 43.8% of his 3s in the first year of the deal as the Hawks made their way to the Eastern Conference finals. 2021-22 was less kind as his points dipped to 15.1 and his 3-point shooting sunk to 36.8%. Bogdanovic scored 29 in Game 2 against Miami but managed to score 28 points in the other games of that series before missing Game 5 due to knee soreness.
That brings us to Luke Kennard of the L.A. Clippers, a 25-year-old former lottery pick whom the team acquired via trade on draft night in November 2020. Kennard was fresh off his best statistical season in the league as he averaged 15.8 points, 4.1 assists and 3.5 rebounds in 32.9 minutes per game over the course of 28 contests. His season was cut short due to knee tendonitis.
Detroit opted to go a different route and, rather than paying him as he neared his extension date, they dealt him to Los Angeles. One month after acquiring him, the Clippers had to decide if they were going to offer Luke Kennard an extension or risk him hitting restricted free agency that upcoming offseason. They chose the extension route, even before seeing him appear in a game.
Kennard agreed to a four-year, $56 million deal with incentives that could get it up to $64 million. The final year, which comes in 2024-25, is actually a $15.4 million team option. Kennard’s extension didn’t kick in until the 2021-22 season, meaning he played the 2020-21 season under the last year of his rookie deal.
If you’re comparing that deal to the ones up above, it comes in tied with Bogdanovic and Harris in years, meaning it’s one less year than Bertans and Robinson got. It’s also the deal with the least amount of guaranteed money, and even if Kennard hits his incentives, the $64 million he’ll get is roughly $10 million less than the next closest player. On top of that, it’s the only contract in which the team holds an option on the final year. In the Bertans, Bogdanovic and Robinson contracts, the player holds the option.
Like it or not, these five players are likely to be linked together for a while because of the contracts they signed and the archetypes they are. So, why not see how they’ve performed since their respective deals have kicked in?
Kennard played the fewest games, namely because he was one of the two players who saw their deal kick in this season. The other player whose deal started this year, Duncan Robinson, played in 79 of his team’s 82 games, hence he led everyone in percentage of team games played. Joe Harris, who has played in only 83 of 154 games since re-signing with Brooklyn, brought up the rear of that section.
But specifically for Kennard, there is reason for even greater optimism. Among these five players, he was essentially middle of the road in points, rebounds and assists per 36 minutes, but second in 3-point percentage and catch-and-shoot 3-point percentage, trailing only Harris.
Granted, Kennard didn’t take as many 3s per 36 as his contemporaries, but his production didn’t wane regardless. And, when adjusting for his age, there is some reason to believe that Kennard can improve his overall game in the coming years. Kennard, 25, is three years younger than the next closest player, which happens to be Robinson.
This past season, the Clippers gave Kennard more agency and freedom to operate. He responded by rewarding that confidence with the best full season he’s had in the league. His last year in Detroit, as previously mentioned, was a career-high in points, but he did only log 28 games. This season, he played 70.
The 1919 minutes that Kennard played this season are not only the most he’s ever played in a single season, but it was his most by nearly 500 minutes. In total, Kennard saw the third-most minutes on the Clippers this season. Tack on the added offensive workload he had, the absences of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, and the defensive uptick he displayed, and you can get a better grasp as to the growth of Kennard as a player.
While Kennard missed the team’s two play-in games due to a sore right hamstring, an injury that occured in the regular season finale when Kennard was kneed by Oklahoma City’s Jaylen Howard late in the third quarter as the two went for a rebound, it can’t take away from what he was able to accomplish.
As things stand, Kennard has made 30 more 3s with the Clippers than he did with the Pistons, and he’s done that in 31 fewer games and on exactly as many attempts (647). A lot of credit for that goes to Kennard himself, and some should go to coach Tyronn Lue, as Clippers’ president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank highlighted during his season-ending media availability in mid-April.
“Ty did an unbelievable job of unlocking different parts of Luke’s game,” Frank said. “You saw Luke in more of an off-ball role, and before with Luke, heck, there were a couple years ago when he was in Detroit they were thinking about making him like a backup point guard, and he does have really good decision-making abilities, so to see the progress he’s made I thought was really, really good.”
Kennard, the Clippers’ all-time leader in 3-point percentage among players to attempt at least 500 triples, has shown a steady increase in playmaking ability and a penchant for being a second-side attacker and creator when defenses have to close out hard on him. It allowed Kennard to get into the teeth of the defense and make plays for others, or even for himself as a pull-up shooter in the mid-range.
What lies ahead for Kennard is a very interesting 2022-23 season, assuming, of course, the team elects to not deal him this offseason at the height of his value. After all, Kennard did lead the league in 3-point percentage this season, and teams are always in the market for shooting. But so are the Clippers. The value he brings is likely to be more impactful on the Clippers than any other team.
Accounting for George and Leonard coming back at or near full-strength next season, Kennard should see a nice boon in the quality of looks he’ll get. For a guy who has already been so efficient in his short tenure in Los Angeles, there’s no telling what he can do when given even cleaner looks.
The growth he’s shown under the stewardship of Lue and the player development staff headed by Shaun Fein is something that should give folks confidence in his ability going forward. Kennard is a diligent worker, hoisting up a boatload of shots at shootaround and practice in an effort to hone his craft. That work ethic, paired with this group, should lend itself to good things. That shooting touch, a skill that has grown to be valuable beyond most quantifiable metrics, got him paid just like a host of others.
Yet, unlike some of the others who got massive paydays, it doesn’t seem like the Clippers will come to rue the day they paid so much for shooting. Not when the guy they paid is performing like this and has a lot more left in the tank to give.