The Portland Trail Blazers and New York Knicks handed out similar contracts to two young guards on Thursday.
Restricted free agent Anfernee Simons, 23, signed a four-year, $100 million deal to return to Portland while unrestricted Jalen Brunson, 25, was given a four-year, $104 million deal with New York.
While some might decry the size of the pair’s respective compensation packages, there is a nuance to consider before criticizing the deals. Next year’s cap is expected to be $133 million. An entry-level player earning between $25 million and $27 million per year will equal 20% of said cap, which is a perfectly reasonable share for two entry-level players whose contracts end before they turn 30.
Some quick info. Both players were taken on the night of the 2018 draft, Simons at No. 24 and Brunson at No. 33. Their respective careers, however, have 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 had to compete with a list of backcourt teammates including Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Seth Curry, Rodney Hood, Evan Turner, even fellow 2018 recruit Gary Trent Jr, delaying his arrival on the NBA scene. .
Fast forward to last Thursday night, and the series of factors that led to Brunson’s free agent bid being arguably one of the most talked about topics by national pundits.
Perhaps one of the main reasons was the fact that Brunson was unrestricted and would have been courted by two franchises. He had also just finished a Western Conference final with the Dallas Mavericks managed by Luka Doncic, while his father and former NBA player Rick was hired on the Madison Square Garden bench of Tom Thibodeau.
The tussle for Brunson’s services only intensified in the days leading up to 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 big contract.
Next season Brunson lines up alongside RJ Barrett and Julius Randle as the lowly Knickerbockers try to escape the mediocrity they have been mired in for more than a decade.
Across 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 the February trade deadline.
But it’s debatable whether the red carpet would have been rolled out for Simons if his production hadn’t skyrocketed after Lillard succumbed to his abdominal injury after Christmas. A real sliding door moment with Simons that surprises even the most ardent Blazers fans. Make the most of your opportunities kids.
Let’s take a look at the two players and how they will earn their money over the next four years.
Note: this is not an exercise in homerism. It is an attempt to be as objective as possible.
Three point shot
Simons has the ability to consistently be one of the league’s best ranged shooters, hitting 40% and 42% of his threes over the past two seasons, benefiting from a quick release and the ability to get hot fast . Brunson is no slouch either, recording 37% 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 some extra tricks closer to the basket, especially in the midrange. The latter’s 54% two-point percentage in 2021-22 was a clear win over Simons’ 46%.
As discussed, Brunson is the truer point guard of the two and it shows. Last season, he managed 4.8 assists, a pretty decent feat considering he played alongside ball dominating Doncic, who averaged 8.7 per game. Simons isn’t terrible though and you saw the improvement as his season progressed finishing with 3.9 assists. It’s just not there yet.
Brunson has the tightest grip. I’m not saying he has Steph Curry-like abilities, but it’s one of the areas where Brunson clearly excels. Simons still has work to do, highlighted by his 2 turnovers per game last season. But the former IMG Academy product will have plenty of opportunities to improve that part of his game this coming season with extended minutes.
Athletics and size
Portland’s combo guard is a Slam Dunk champion, able to jump, run and navigate traffic at an elite level. He is by far the better athlete of the two, recording the second highest vertical jump at 41 inches (Brunson was 37 inches tall) during the 2018 combine. The 6’4 Simons is also one of the few Blazers 2021- 22 who can consistently play above the rim, while 6’1 Brunson is more ground bound.
A wash. Neither will be called upon to protect the opposing team’s best perimeter players. But Simons has the physical tools to, at least, stay ahead of defenders. This season will be a telling one for Simons who, if he is able to improve on the defensive end, is one step 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 any real NBA minutes until the end of the 2020-21 season. Brunson, meanwhile, has never played less than 57 games in a season, playing twice as many as 70.
At 25 and with the time Brunson has already racked up, the new Knick could be as close as he gets to his prime. Don’t get me wrong, he might be helped by the fact that he’s now out of Doncic’s shadow, but that could also be a burden with scouting reports featuring more Brunson. Simons, on the hand, still has pieces to take and he will take them now that he plays the starting minutes. I just think there’s even more to unlock with Simons.
The Blazers and Knicks ownership groups are nothing to sneeze at, but it’s clear both franchises are eyeing a return to the playoffs this season. You would safely assume that for the money they are paid, Simons and Brunson are going to start and play more than 28 minutes a night.
For Brunson, playing Madison Square Garden 41 nights a season sounds incredibly appealing, but with great power comes great responsibility. And along with Barrett and Randle, Brunson will be responsible for one of the most famous sports franchises returning to glory after years of slump. He also didn’t have Doncic catching the attention of opposing defenders. How does he handle the extra review? Simons, on the other hand, plays Robin against a reinvigorated Lillard’s Batman, upping his game to the same level we enjoyed last season, which was still jaw-dropping.
For the purposes 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 smallest backcourts in the league with a lot of skill duplication. Lillard could also be another Doncic for Brunson, bringing him back to the same role he saw in Texas. In New York, Brunson will be the one with the ball in his hands, and rightly so, given the Knicks’ need to play.
In New York, Simons would undoubtedly be sold as the next talented and athletic young prospect for the famed franchise. But at this point, he doesn’t have the point guard skills to truly 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 with Lillard.
In the end, the price was right for both, but not necessarily the noise. Brunson is a good player. But the only reason his deal was debated for so long was because the 25-year-old was most likely to switch teams in a relatively lackluster free agent class.
Neither really matches the other’s situation, so an individual comparison isn’t ultimately fair, but it will be interesting to see where their respective careers end up if they both return to free agency in 2026.