The Portland Trail Blazers and New York Knicks handed out similar contracts to two young guards on Thursday.
Restricted free agent Anfernee Simons, 23, scored a four-year, $100 million contract to return to Portland while unrestricted Jalen Brunson, 25, earned a four-year, $104 million deal with New York.
While some might decry the size of the pair’s respective pay packets, there’s nuance to be considered before criticizing the deals. Next year’s cap is projected to reach $133 million. A starting-level player earning $25-$27 million a year will be the equivalent of 20 percent of said cap, which is a perfectly reasonable share for two starting-level players whose contracts end before each turns 30.
Some quick background. Both players were taken on draft night 2018, Simons at No. 24 and Brunson at No. 33. Their respective careers have, however, followed different paths over the past four years.
Brunson, a two-time NCAA Championship-winning point guard at Villanova, has been a regular NBA contributor since day one. Unfortunately for Simons, he’s had to compete with a list of backcourt teammates, including Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Seth Curry, Rodney Hood, Evan Turner, even fellow 2018 draftee Gary Trent Jr, delaying his arrival on the NBA stage.
Fast forward to last Thursday night, and the series of factors that led to Brunson’s free agent candidacy arguably being one of the most discussed topics by national pundits.
Perhaps, one of the biggest reasons was the fact that Brunson was unrestricted and reportedly being courted by two franchises. He’d also just come off a Western Conference Finals run with the Luka Doncic-led Dallas Mavericks, all while his father and former NBA player Rick had been hired to Tom Thibodeau’s Madison Square Garden bench.
The tug-of-war for Brunson’s services only heightened in the days before the draft with New York moving Kemba Walker on NBA Draft night and later Alec Burks and Nerlens Noel to make room for Brunson and his largish contract.
Next season, Brunson lines up alongside RJ Barrett and Julius Randle as the lowly Knickerbockers try to escape the mediocrity they’ve been mired in for more than a decade.
On the other side of the country, Simons returns to a Portland team that cleared both cap space and playing time by dealing CJ McCollum to the New Orleans Pelicans and Norman Powell to the Los Angeles Clippers at February’s trade deadline.
But one has to wonder whether the red carpet would have been rolled out for Simons if his production hadn't have exploded after Lillard succumbed to his abdominal injury after Christmas. A real sliding doors moment with Simons surprising even the staunchest of Blazers fans. Make the most of your opportunities kids.
Let’s look at the two players and how they’ll make their money over the next four years.
Note: this is not an exercise in homerism. It’s an attempt to be as objective as possible.
Simons has the ability to consistently be one of the league’s premier distance shooters, hitting 40 percent and 42 percent of his threes over the past two seasons, boasting a quick release and the ability to get hot quickly. Brunson is no slouch either, recording 37 percent from long range last season.
Both guards can score at all three levels but while Simons has the upper hand from long range, Brunson has a few more tricks closer to the basket, particularly in the midrange. The latter’s 54 percent two-point percentage in 2021-22 was a clear win over Simons’ 46 percent.
As discussed, Brunson is the truer point guard of the two and it shows. Last season, he was able to put up 4.8 assists, a pretty decent feat, considering he played alongside ball-dominant Doncic who who averaged 8.7 a game. Simons isn’t awful though and you saw the improvement as his season progressed finishing with the 3.9 assists. He’s just not there yet.
Brunson owns the tighter handle. I’m not saying he possesses Steph Curry-type ability, but this is one of the areas where Brunson clearly excels. Simons still has work to do, highlighted by his 2 turnovers a game last season. But the former IMG Academy product will have plenty of opportunity to improve that part of his game this coming season with extended minutes.
Athleticism and size
The Portland combo guard is a Slam Dunk champion, capable of leaping, running and navigating traffic at an elite level. He’s by far the better athlete of the two, recording the second highest vertical leap at 41 inches (Brunson was 37 inches) at the 2018 combine. The 6’4 Simons is also one of the few 2021-22 Blazers who can consistently play above the rim, while 6’1 Brunson is more ground bound.
A wash. Neither will be called upon to guard the opposing team’s best perimeter players. But Simons has the physical tools to, at least, stay in front of defenders. This season will be telling for Simons who, if he’s able to improve on the defensive end, gets closer to being the two-way player his predecessor McCollum never was.
Room for growth
Aside from that 2019 Game 82 performance against the Sacramento Kings, Simons didn’t see real NBA minutes until the end of the 2020-21 season. Brunson, on the other hand, has never played fewer than 57 games in a season, twice playing more than 70.
At 25 and with the amount of court time Brunson has already notched up, the newly minted Knick could be as close as he’s going to get to his peak. Don’t get me wrong, he could be helped along by the fact that he’s now out of Doncic’s shadow but it could also be a burden with scouting reports featuring more of Brunson. Simons, on the hand, still has lumps to take and he’ll take them now that he’s playing starters minutes. I just think there’s still more to unlock with Simons.
The Blazers and Knicks ownership groups are nothing to crow about but it’s clear both franchises are looking at a return to the playoffs this season. You’d safely assume that for the money they’re being paid, both Simons and Brunson are going to be starting and playing 28-plus minutes a night.
For Brunson, playing at Madison Square Garden 41 nights a season seems incredibly enticing, but with great power comes great responsibility. And with Barrett and Randle, Brunson will be responsible for returning one of the most famous sporting franchises back to glory after years in the doldrums. He also doesn’t have Doncic luring the attention of opposing defenders. How does he deal with the extra scrutiny? Simons on the other hand, gets to play Robin to a reinvigorated Lillard’s Batman, improving his game at the same level we enjoyed last season, which was still jaw dropping.
For the sake of this exercise, let’s briefly drop Brunson in Portland and Simons in New York. Brunson and Lillard is an interesting but incredibly small proposition, potentially one of the tiniest backcourts in the league with a lot of skill duplication. Lillard might also just be another Doncic for Brunson, returning him to the same role he saw in Texas. In New York, Brunson, will be the one with the ball in his hands and rightfully so, given the Knicks’ need for playmaking.
In New York, Simons would no doubt be sold as the next talented and athletic young hope for the storied franchise. But at this point, he lacks the point guard skills to really be the facilitator the Knicks need. Simons would be an instant fan favorite at Madison Square Garden but you can’t imagine he’s enjoying the success and freedom he’s going to have working off Lillard.
At the end of the day the price was right for both, but not necessarily the noise. Brunson is a fine player. But the only reason his deal was debated at such length was the fact that the 25-year-old was the most likely to change teams in a relatively lackluster free agent class.
Neither really fits in the other’s situation so a one-to-one comparison ultimately isn’t fair but it’ll be interesting to see where their respective careers land if they both hit free agency again in 2026.