Why Nik Stauskas, Malik Fitts, And Juwan Morgan Are Still On The Indiana Pacers Payroll

A quick glance at the Indiana Pacers salary cap sheet shows three players that have never played in a single game for the franchise: Nik Stauskas, Malik Fitts, and Juwan Morgan. All three have a salary cap hit for the 2023-24 league year as well as the 2024-25 season despite not playing in the NBA since 2022.

The reason for this can be traced back to the 2022 offseason. As the Pacers entered the first summer of a rebuild, they were looking to send away veterans in exchange for assets while also trying to acquire young talent.

That led to a trade — Indiana sent Malcolm Brogdon to the Boston Celtics in exchange for Daniel Theis, Aaron Nesmith, a 2023 first-round draft pick, and the trio of Fitts, Morgan, and Stauskas. Theis and Nesmith were in the Celtics rotation and were viewed as positive-value players at the time of the deal. The other three were simply involved in the trade to make it legal within the NBA’s salary matching rules in trades.

Beyond the Pacers grabbing a young talent in Nesmith and bringing in draft ammo, that trade had the added benefit of freeing up salary cap space. Doing so gave the team more wiggle room below the cap to accomplish another one of their goals, which was adding young talent.

All summer, the blue and gold were interested in Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton. The problem was that they didn’t have quite enough cap space to give him a max contract, the expected deal that would be needed to earn his signature. They needed to clear some cap room.

One creative way to do so was to move on from Morgan, Stuaskas, and Fitts. But their contracts became fully guaranteed when they were traded to the Pacers, so waiving them would not actually free up any cap space on its own.

Instead, what the Pacers did was use the stretch provision on all three players. The stretch provision allows a team to stretch a waived player’s cap hit over two times the number of seasons remaining on his contract plus one. If a player had two years left on his deal when waived and stretched, like Monta Ellis in 2017, then their cap hit would be spread across five seasons and be distributed equally.

In this case, all three of the players Indiana was waiving had one season left on their deal. That meant each of their cap hits were divided over three seasons, running from 2022-23 to 2024-25.

This maneuver reduced Stauskas’ cap hit from $2.1 million down to about $700k. For Morgan and Fitts, their cap hits were reduced from approximately $1.7 million to roughly $560k. Their new number on the Pacers books would be paid out in three seasons instead of one, but their cap hits were reduced.

Those moves freed up about $3.67 million from Indiana’s books. That, combined with the waiver of guard Duane Washington’s non-guaranteed contract, gave the Pacers enough cap space to sign Ayton to a max contract.

They did so soon after. The problem was that Ayton was a restricted free agent, meaning the Suns had the right of first refusal on any offer sheet he signed. Phoenix matched Indiana’s offer, and Ayton returned to the Suns on the contract that he inked with the Pacers.

The blue and gold believed they had a shot at Ayton. There was hope in the front office that Phoenix wouldn’t match the deal.

“We’re willing to use all our opportunities to go get high level talent,” President of Basketball Kevin Pritchard said of the team signing Ayton to an offer sheet in restricted free agency. “When we decided to do that, we handicapped it. And it was a low handicap, we knew it. But there was a chance… we knew it was an outside chance.”

The Pacers cap space returned once Ayton was back with the Suns. They used it slowly over the course of the season — some went to Andrew Nembhard and James Johnson, some went to Myles Turner via a renegotiation-and-extension, and some was used to acquire talent at the trade deadline. Having that space was still an asset for Indiana.

But the Pacers couldn’t undo the waive-and-stretch operation that was done with the intent of adding Deandre Ayton. It still ended up being a benefit for the Pacers, but it means the team will have Nik Stauskas, Malik Fitts, and Juwan Morgan on the books at just over $1.8 million in total for each of the next two seasons.

Indiana loves to have flexibility, and moves like this demonstrate why. They have a creative front office. In this case, their creativity led to three players being paid through 2025 despite never suiting up for the franchise. It hasn’t prevented the team from doing anything that they have wanted to yet, but it’s total impact won’t be known for almost two more years.

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