Duncan Robinson has barely made any money by NBA standards. After going undrafted in 2018, he spent his first professional season in the G League and didn't even have a fully guaranteed contract for his second. This season, he's making the minimum, but after two strong years as a sharpshooter for the Miami Heat, he's due for a hefty raise. According to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski on a recent appearance on "NBA Countdown," Robinson could get a deal worth $20 million per year in free agency this offseason.
"This could be a $20 million a year player. Remember, teams are going to put out an offer sheet out there that they hope that Miami won't match. It's going to be difficult to pry him from Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra."
Robinson's situation is complicated both by his own circumstances and his team's. He will only be a restricted free agent this offseason, not an unrestricted one, so the Heat can retain the right to match any offer he gets (though they may not, for reasons we will explore shortly). This tends to impact a player's market value in one of two ways. Either teams are scared off of the player because they don't believe they can successfully steal him, which lowers his negotiating leverage, or teams want that player so badly that they intentionally overpay in a transparent attempt to convince their team not to match the offer sheet.
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Now, here's where things get interesting. In order for the Heat to keep their match rights, they must keep Robinson's cap hold on the books. Right now, that cap hold is tiny because of Robinson's modest salary. Even after he hit the starter criteria for a restricted free agent, his cap hold went up to only around $4.7 million. That charge essentially represents how much he will count against Miami's cap until he signs a new contract, and the fact that it is as small as it is will help the Heat open up a significant amount of cap space. Most projections have them between $20 million-$25 million in space this offseason, provided they decline team options on several players and renounce their other free agents.
However, if a team signs Robinson to an offer sheet early enough in free agency, it puts a ticking clock on Miami's cap space. If the Heat match the offer sheet, Robinson's new salary replaces his cap hold, and therefore cuts into Miami's cap space. If they don't match, they lose him for nothing. In a perfect world for the Heat, that isn't a decision that they'll have to make. They would probably like to spend their cap space with Robinson's low cap hold on the books and then re-sign him to a new deal afterward that pays him market value.
But opposing teams know this, and realize that their best chance at stealing Robinson away might be to make him an enormous offer early in free agency in the hopes that they can force Miami into letting him go for the sake of its cap space. Giving Robinson an enormous salary -- say, something in the $20 million per year range -- would only make the decision harder for the Heat.
Fortunately for the Heat, most major unrestricted free-agent deals are done in the first day or two of free agency nowadays. When a restricted free agent signs an offer sheet, the original team is given two days to decide whether or not it wants to match, and that two-day period cannot begin until the moratorium ends (which, this season, will be a few days after free agency begins on Aug. 6). In other words, the Heat would have at least five days to spend their cap space before this becomes a serious threat, but each offseason plays out differently. Sometimes the best players are all gone on the first day. Sometimes, players like LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard hold up the market. Only time will tell how the 2021 offseason will unfold.
There is another way the Heat could avoid this drama. They could choose to operate as an above-the-cap team. Rather than using cap space to sign outside players, they could then pick up their options on Goran Dragic and/or Andre Iguodala (potentially to use as matching salary in a trade) and let Robinson's restricted free agency play out organically knowing that they would face no risk of losing him.
Everything that has been written here about Robinson also applies to Kendrick Nunn, who is restricted and has the same starter criteria cap hold as Robinson. The two of them combine to give the Heat plenty of flexibility this offseason, but could also make them extremely expensive. Wojnarowski's estimate is in line with what elite shooters have gotten in recent years. If Joe Harris can get $72 million from the Brooklyn Nets, Robinson should be able to command a similar figure from either the Heat or a rival.