Without question, the biggest question marks for the New York Knicks heading into the Summer of 2013 were J.R. Smith, Pablo Prigioni, Kenyon Martin and Chris Copeland.
Smith and Prigioni have both agreed to re-sign with the Knicks. Martin, though he still has something to contribute at the NBA level, is not the most coveted of free agents, and the Knicks would do quite well to replace him with Elton Brand—a scenario the team is very much trying to get to come to fruition.
But after teasing Knicks fans with glimpses of potential in his rookie season, 29-year old Chris Copeland is now the center of the Knicks fans' universe. The most persistent inquiry over the past few days has been what his future holds and what the Knicks can and may do with him.
It is possible to sign-and-trade him, as many have asked. But it is quite unlikely.
Copeland COULD return to the Knicks without costing the team the remainder of its taxpayer mid-level exception.
But as always, the devil is in the details.
Here is all you need to know...
- How Much Can the Knicks Offer Copeland?
Option 1 - Copeland can sign the one-year qualifying offer, play the 2013-14 season with the Knicks, and become an unrestricted free agent in the Summer of 2014. Next summer, the Knicks would have Copeland's "early" Bird rights, and he, at the age of 30, would then be eligible to sign the same type of four-year, $25 million deal that J.R. Smith just signed.
Option 2 - Copeland and the Knicks could re-negotiate a new deal without Copeland signing an offer sheet with another NBA team. Since Copeland has only played one season with the Knicks, the Knicks do not have Bird rights or early Bird rights by which they may use a Bird exception to re-sign him. Therefore, the Knicks could only re-sign Copeland using either the minimum salary exception (no chance), the non-Bird exception (possible) or the remainder of their taxpayer mid-level exception (or "mini" mid-level exception). The latter would allow Copeland to re-sign for the most money.
Using the non-Bird exception would allow the Knicks to re-sign Copeland, at most, on a four-year deal worth $4.22 million.
The Knicks could offer Copeland more money using the taxpayer mid-level exception, but it should be noted that the team reportedly used about $1.4 million of the exception to re-sign Prigioni, leaving approximately $1.75 million remaining. Under the terms of the 2011 CBA, the Knicks may offer Copeland $1.75 million in year one of a new deal, and may re-sign for up to three total years.
In other words, using the remainder of the taxpayer mid-level exception, the Knicks could re-sign Copeland, at most, on a three-year deal worth $5.49 million.
- Can the Knicks Sign-and-Trade Copeland?
It should also be noted that a team may not receive a player in a sign-and-trade transaction if the team's payroll is over the luxury tax apron, which is expected to be about $75 million. The Knicks, though they are over the apron, would be permitted to sign-and-trade Copeland to a team whose payroll is NOT over the apron, so long as the Knicks are not receiving a player who himself is being signed-and-traded.
As it currently stands, Copeland has reportedly received interest from the New Orleans Pelicans, Indiana Pacers and Cleveland Cavaliers. Each of those teams are in a position to offer Copeland more than the four years and $4.22 million maximum that the Knicks could sign him to before trading him, so accepting a sign-and-trade to any of those teams would make little financial sense for him, from a business standpoint.
- The Difference Between Restricted Free Agency and Cap Exceptions
At its core, restricted free agency simply means that a free agent coming off of his rookie contract has been extended a qualifying offer by his incumbent team. As a restricted free agent, the free agent may sign an offer sheet with another team. Once he does so, his incumbent team has 72 hours to determine whether or not they would like to match the terms of the offer extended by the other team.
To make it simpler, all "restricted" free agency really means is that the incumbent team will have an opportunity to match the terms of the offer signed by the player with the other team. That is the key difference between being a restricted free agent and an unrestricted free agent. There is no right of first refusal with an unrestricted free agent.
The team must either have cap space, or a cap exception to do so. The reason restricted free agency does not usually warrant a discussion about cap exceptions is because 95 percent of the time when a player becomes a restricted free agent, he has already played at least two seasons with his incumbent team, triggering early Bird rights. In many instances, restricted free agents—such as Tyreke Evans, Jeff Teague and Nikola Pekovic—have played three or more seasons with their incumbent team, triggering full Bird rights.
With Copeland, since he has only played one season with the Knicks, neither of these apply. That is why the Knicks must depend on either the non-Bird or taxpayer mid-level exception to re-sign him for closer to his fair market value.
- Can the Knicks Lose Copeland for Nothing?
Because the Knicks are limited by the exceptions, even though Copeland is a restricted free agent, he can easily sign an offer sheet with another team that the Knicks are powerless to match. Remember, using the non-Bird exception, the Knicks can only match a four-year deal worth $4.22 million (or less).
Using the remainder of their taxpayer mid-level exception, the Knicks can only match a three-year deal worth $5.49 million or less.
So, if a team signs Copeland to a three-year, $6 million offer sheet, the Knicks will be powerless to match it. Similarly, if a team signs Copeland to a four-year deal worth $5 million, the Knicks will be powerless to match it. Again, the Knicks are simply bound by the CBA.
- Is Copeland Definitely a Goner?
After seeing Earl Clark receive a two-year, $9 million offer from the Cleveland Cavaliers, it is easy to imagine Copeland receiving a two-year deal worth $6 million. If he were to sign an offer sheet with those terms, for the previously mentioned reasons, the Knicks would be powerless to match it.
That he has not been reported to have signed such an offer could mean that he is weighing his options.
Again, it is worth pointing out that Copeland could accept the $988,000 one-year qualifying offer with the Knicks and become an unrestricted free agent next summer. Doing so would give the Knicks his early Bird rights in the Summer of 2014 and allow them to re-sign him on a deal for up to four years and up to $26 million.
That course of action for Copeland comes with significant risk, however. He is 29 years old and may not have a higher market value next summer if he does not have a productive season or struggles to find consistent minutes. His time to cash in may be right now.
But the same was said for J.R. Smith. Copeland can get more money elsewhere, but if he wants to remain in New York, he could, in theory, accept a two-year deal with a player option for the second season. Using the taxpayer mid-level exception, Copeland would receive $1.75 million for the 2013-14 season, and have a $1.83 million option for the 2014-15 season. In theory, he could opt out after the 2013-14 season and hit the market again.
And again, like Smith, he can hope to have had a productive enough season to warrant a bigger payday.
Yes, it comes with significant risk, but it is a risk that Smith took, and it paid off.
So, certainly, Copeland has a tough decision ahead of him.