Houston Rockets

A two-way contract is a double-edged sword for players like Danuel House Jr.

Danuel House Jr. is one of the best stories in the NBA, and he should be making more money.

The popular blueprint for defense against the Houston Rockets this season — double-team the ball out of James Harden’s hands, make his teammates beat you — paints a hilarious target. You can’t really stop them from scoring, not in full, but teams would rather anybody else shoot than the guy who got so good at step-back 3s that watching him go one-on-one became a guiding ethos for his team. Double-teaming puts the spotlight on the supporting cast, and the Rockets’ supporting cast, mostly a rotating door of NBA randoms, basically invites the dare. Last year, they rang up everyone from Carmelo Anthony and Michael Carter-Williams to James Ennis and Iman Shumpert; this year, it’s Ben McLemore and Austin Rivers.

So, it counts for a lot that Danuel House Jr. has been really freaking good! He won the starting job to begin the season, and despite a shooting slump in December, he’s one of just two non-Harden rotation players along with P.J. Tucker canning 3-pointers at an above-average rate so far. (Eric Gordon, mostly injured so far, probably gets there at some point.) When teams throw doubles at Harden, House is flashing off-the-bounce game as a 4-on-3 attacker, and he’s beginning to use his athleticism as a defensive playmaker. In broad strokes, guys like House are the guys you want in Harden’s supporting cast.

You could spin this as a tremendous come-up for House, who cut his teeth on a two-way contract last season before signing his first substantial NBA contract in free agency. For a player who has been on the league’s fringes for his first three seasons, being brought back on a three-year, $11.1 million deal is validation and a nice bag. But, because of that two-way contract, there’s also a good chance that House isn’t making as much money as he should.

The two-way contract is ostensibly good for players, in that it adds 60 jobs to the NBA and provides young players on the league’s fringe with a handhold, but let’s be clear: The terms of a two-way contract are in no way favorable. While a two-way contract comes with a hefty raise from the standard G League contract of $35,000, it still falls well short of the NBA’s minimum salary of $898,310; two-way players take season earnings of around $300,000 if their full 45 days in the NBA are used. The two-way contract’s defining trait, though, is that players can only spend a maximum of 45 days in the NBA, and unlike true G Leaguers who can be signed by any of the NBA’s 30 teams, they’re locked under a single team’s control.

Many of House’s 45 days in the NBA last season were used as a fill-in starter when injuries hit the regulars; in that time, his play was impressive and his upside interesting. When he ran out of days, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tried to negotiate House into a three-year contract at the league minimum, initially non-guaranteed. Broadly, this is popular practice around the NBA from teams hoping to strike gold on unproven players without bargaining power. The winning outcome is years of cheap, productive labor. (This is also how the draft works; in general, the salary cap aligns this type of exploitation with winning team-building.) Chris Clemons, initially on a two-way contract with the Rockets this season, signed the same three-year minimum deal in December. It looks like Houston is trying to coax Gary Clark into the same contract. More famously, a young Robert Covington was plucked by the Process-era Philadelphia 76ers in 2014 to play three seasons as one of the league’s premier 3-and-D players for just $1 million per year.

When House rejected the Rockets’ offer, his only alternative was to go back to the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, despite proving himself as an impact NBA player. Only two months later did Houston convert his two-way contract into a standard rest-of-season deal so that he could be eligible for the playoffs. (He was benched two games into their series against the Golden State Warriors for some combination of poor play and nagging toe inflammation.) Because of those two months in G League limbo, House hit restricted free agency with just 39 regular-season games and a few postseason ones to his name, and how can you know someone off 39 games?

It still isn’t too late for House to expose himself as a bust who was productive for just a hot minute in Harden’s periphery, and if that’s your concern, then sure. But, on the flip side — and this matters more — House never got a fair chance to keep playing real NBA games, to prove he’s for real and worth more money than this, and so far, it just happens to turn out that his signing has been overwhelmingly profitable for the Rockets. This is the transactional nature of the two-way contract and the opportunity it promises. Young players can get their foot in the door, but never under circumstances that would be unfriendly to the team; they can be easily controlled at low cost. You can only build so much earning potential in 45 days. Under this structure, House’s example isn’t going to be anomalous.

Ky Bowman and Damion Lee have been productive two-way finds for the injury-ridden Warriors, and Steve Kerr has already said that he wants to keep both players. However, the team has to clear its own hurdles — no open roster spots, being hard-capped — before either can sign proper contracts, and those contracts are sure to not be lavish ones. Lee got his when the Warriors waived Marquese Chriss’ minimum contract on Monday to make room; Bowman, meanwhile, goes to the G League whenever D’Angelo Russell is healthy so that the Warriors can preserve his few remaining NBA days. Another player, Terence Davis, decided to sidestep this headache entirely by passing on all two-way offers and fell out of the 2019 draft as a result. He was able to earn a guaranteed NBA contract with the Toronto Raptors after his first game in the Summer League.

You’ll notice that these are all burdens that fall upon the player, piling up on top of the pressure that already comes with trying to gain footing in the NBA. House, at least, has navigated through the hardest part of proving he belongs; if everything tracks, then bigger paydays will be in his NBA future. That being said, the next time he’s up to get paid in free agency, he’ll be 29. Something about his first opportunity in the league still smells like a scam.

Next: De’Anthony Melton is a diamond in the rough for the Grizzlies bench

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