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NEXT: Summer of 2023 setting the table for Nic Claxton’s upcoming free agency

Philadelphia 76ers v Brooklyn Nets - Game Four Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

During a ferocious, loud, and often stormy season, Nic Claxton was a beacon for the Brooklyn Nets.

Despite crushing waves and dark clouds and enough drama to fill a mini-series about the dangers of the deep, the four-year big man simply kept revolving, lighting the way. Averaging 12.6 points per game on a league-best 70.4 percent from the field plus 9.6 boards Clax Attack was Brooklyn’s most consistent player over the full course of the entire 2022-23 season, averaging 30 minutes a game over 76 games.

It was at the defensive end where he shined brightest. Utilizing that ‘7”2 wingspan and 36” max vertical which had Nets fans exciting from the jump, Claxton averaged 2.5 blocks per game, trailing only DPOY Jarren Jackson Jr. for the league title. Claxton too found himself in the DPOY conversation, and in the opinion of teammates, executives and fans, should have — and would have — been at least a finalist had the national media’s attention not strayed away from Brooklyn once Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving departed.

Those looking beyond the box score also noticed a surge in Claxton’s versatility at the defensive end. From Joel Embiid to Trae Young, there wasn’t an opponent he wouldn’t switch onto, utilizing his speed and frame to suffocate unwanted visitors when they wandered over to Brooklyn’s side of the floor.

The Nets re-signed Claxton last summer to a two-year, $17.25 million deal plus incentives (which he was able to meet to the tune of $850,000.) With his breakout campaign coming right after, it quickly became one of the league’s top bargains, right alongside eventual teammate Mikal Bridges who’s currently attached to a four-year, $90 million tender.

“The Nets re-signed Nic Claxton to an amazing value deal,” Yossi Gozlan, the Hoopshype capologist, tells NetsDaily. “It may have seemed like a lot for him at the time given his overall lack of playing time and production in his early years but he already exceeded its value.”

So good of a deal, Gozlan notes, that in retrospect, the Nets might be having second thoughts about not extending the contract out another year!

“Unfortunately they’re probably regretting not being able to work in an additional year,” he added. “That’s not just because it would be good to have him at $9 million again, but because they can’t extend him on his current deal. The Nets will have to risk Claxton going into free agency in 2024 and testing the market for a bigger deal.”

Indeed, with any bang-for-your-buck contract, there’s an underlying feeling of dread. What will the player might command when the deal runs out? When a team is getting great production from a player who isn’t making much back, there’s greater incentive on the player’s part to up their next price tag the next time his services are up for review.

This isn’t to call these guys greedy. Any pending free agent should be paid properly for what they’re worth. With the money team’s are still throwing out even with the new CBA going into affect — more than $2 billion so far, you should never blame someone for seeking out a bag. Not with the way team valuations are going.

The Nets don’t have to worry about Bridges for some time. His deal extends until the summer of 2026. With his new deal, Cam Johnson won’t be a free agent again till 2027. Even Ben Simmons, if and when healthy, has two more years under contract. The same cannot be said for Claxton, who becomes an unrestricted free agent this time next year. (And as Gozlan notes, the Nets can’t extend him before then.)

His expiring deal couldn’t have come at a better time for him, as the new CBA would allow him to earn 140% of his prior contract — a 20% increase from the old CBA.

If Claxton and the Nets fail to agree on a new deal before free agency 2024, he’ll enter the unrestricted free agency party. In that mad house, opposing teams can negotiate and sign him whenever they please, unlike last summer where the Nets were given a chance to match any offer for their defensive dynamo.

Again, Claxton walking scot free is not Brooklyn’s most pressing issue at this time but the Nets are, if nothing, big planners. So, expect they have already game planned how his free agency might play out given the free agent signings at the center position over the past couple of weeks. And yes, one big reason they haven’t spent as wildly as some fans have expected this summer, is that they are planning for next summer.

From June 30th until the time of writing, NBA teams dished out a collective $236 million to centers, per Spotrac. Not bad for a “dying position.” Ex-net Brook Lopez struck the best deal year over year, inking a $24 million, two-year agreement to stay in Milwaukee. Collectively, Jakob Poeltl cashed in largest, signing a four-year, $80 million deal.

Jock Landale took the bronze agreeing to a four-year, $8 million deal with the Houston Rockets but that deal is filled with options beyond year one. The Orlando Magic will also pay Mo Wagner that figure on a two-year deal.

But none of those guys have Claxton’s combination of youth and resume’. A more enlightening example might be that of his former teammate, Jarrett Allen. Allen signed a five-year, $100 million deal two years ago, becoming a first-time All-Star months later.

That’s where Gozlan puts Claxton.

“Jakob Poeltl is probably the most relevant contractual comparison to him,” Gozlan told ND. “He just signed a four year, $80 million deal and has a similar impact on both ends of the court. $20M per year is also what Clint Capela and Jarrett Allen got recently.”

But Gozlan warned, “If Claxton has another strong season, that might be his floor on his next contract.”

Last year, Claxton averaged 12.6 points, 9.2 rebounds, 1.9 assists, and 2.5 blocks per game. Shooting a league best from the field, he put up 71/00/54 shooting splits. The aforementioned three centers put up the following numbers:

  • Lopez: 15.9 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 1.3 APG, 2.5 BPG (.531/.374/.784)
  • Poeltl: 12.5 PTS, 9.1 RPG, 2.7 APG, 1.3 BPG (.629/.000/.592)
  • Wagner: 10.5 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 1.5 APG, 0.2 BPG (.500/.313/.841)

What should immediately jump out are the similarities between Poeltl and Claxton’s numbers. Their scoring and rebounding figures nearly mirror each other. Their top tier efficiencies inside, nonexistent 3-point shot, and issues from the charity stripe all match as well.

With that said, it’s fair to view Poeltl’s four-year, $20 million deal as a benchmark for Claxton. However, a player’s age and consequential upside also factor into the free agent economy. Claxton, at just 24-years-old, is three years younger than Poeltl and arguably better than him if you want to count his seven DPoY votes compared to Poeltl’s zero as a tiebreaker. He’s also younger than Wagner, and obviously the veteran Lopez.

One also needs to factor in any expected growth Claxton might undergo during the course of the 2023-24 campaign. It should be noted that Claxton has been seen taking a lot of 3-pointers this summer every time there’s a camera in range. An improvement in that area would certainly raise his price.

Then, there’s just the law of supply and demand. Unless the Nets sign another big or Day’Ron Sharpe makes a leap of his own this year, the Nets could begin yet another season without a true backup center — failing to fill a seemingly everlasting hole. But that’s a story for another day.

So with the Nets slim at the center position, expect Claxton to get extensive burn. There will generally be fewer cooks in the Brooklyn kitchen at the offensive end as well amidst a full season without Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Those reasons, on top of his general expected growth simply by still being so young, make another serving of career-high numbers feel probable for Clax.

I’m no economist, but given all these factors, that Claxton will likely command a year-over year figure closer to that of Lopez’s but Claxton won’t be settling for two years like the former Nets center. A multi-year deal is undoubtedly makes more sense for him as well given his age and potential. That brings us to a four-year, $24 million dollar deal paying Claxton a collective $96 million consequentially as a realistic ceiling for next summer.

Of course barring any regression or serious injury, the Nets front office should consider it a win if they strike a deal with him anywhere in the $20-to-$24 million window. Doing so could make Claxton the team’s third highest player on average, behind Simmons and Johnson as well as its highest paid big man since Lopez.

There’s certainly arguments to be made to get that number down, but the market will rule. Shooting seems to be more and more of a requirement for centers these days rather than a bonus attribute. Despite that off-season video, it’s a mountain Claxton has yet to climb.

However, with the Nets marrying themselves to the switch on defense over the past few years and Claxton being by many estimations the best switching big man in the league, his importance to the team cannot be overstated. For that reason above all, expect him to reach that number — and deem it well deserved.