Photo from Tim Caynes via Flickr
NBA team-builders have something of a herd mentality. It’s a natural progression – if you’re trying to derive value when negotiating with 29 other parties, and the 29 other parties find value in Mysterious Entity X, then Mysterious Entity X immediately becomes valuable to you as well, whether you have actual use for it or not.
As such, certain assets become more or less valuable as the market ebbs and flows. You always want to have a once-in-a-generation superstar under contract, and you never want to pay the max to a helpless stiff, but somewhere in between you have a lot of different options, the value of each very much dependent on the NBA’s current time period.
For example, in 2013, where Tom Thibodeau defenses rule the land, the agile defensive bigs who can anchor them and the 3-and-D wing players who can crack them have become almost indispensible additions for every team. Meanwhile, years of incoming franchise point guards has created an oversaturation of the position, leaving behind a world where Brandon Jennings can’t get a contract offer and Mo Williams has been left for dead.
Perhaps the most oft-mentioned market fluctuation of the post-lockout NBA is the rise in value of future first round picks. As the new CBA restricts spending among owners who are not Russian oligarchs, teams are doing everything they can for some cheap labor, and no labor comes cheaper than an incoming youngster on a set salary scale. One could say this isn’t a market fluctuation as much as an overdue correction, but in a world where no first round picks switched hands at last year’s trade deadline (unless you count the Memphis-Cleveland Marreese Speights dump, from January), it’s possible that the pendulum had swung too far in the other direction.
So far, in fact, that the rush for first rounders is distorting the entire market. Because teams are putting such a premium on acquiring picks, the sort of deals they’re willing to accept to take on those picks are vastly different than the past.
For an example, look no further than the deals that have been moved this summer alongside first round picks. The Celtics willingly took on a 3 years, $30 million Gerald Wallace tax for the 3 first rounders offered to them by the Nets. The Toronto Raptors took on 3 years, $11 million of Steve Novak in their Andrea Bargnani dump, even though Novak’s deal runs a year longer than Primo Pasta’s 2 years, $22 million, because there was a pick to sweeten the pot. Even the Phoenix Suns willingly taking a modest 2 years, $7 million of Gerald Green can be thrown in here, despite Green hardly being a cap-stringing long term commitment. Utah did manage to get two first rounders from Golden State by only taking on expiring deals – but had to agree to a whopping total of $24 million of them. And if these examples aren’t to your liking, feel free to add the 2012 Dwight Howard deal – in which the Orlando Magic, giving away the league’s best center, felt more than comfortable taking on Arron Afflalo, one year into a 5 year extension, rather than accept a deal with Andrew Bynum or Andre Iguodala’s expiring deals and less draft considerations.
This isn’t to say that long, binding contracts are suddenly valuable. The choice between a 1 year albatross and a 3 year albatross is still pretty clear. Rather, the circumstances under which a team would be willing to take on the longer deal have changed. Since incoming salary usually has to be within range of outgoing salary, taking on non-expiring deals has become an acceptable penalty for a team moving players for picks.
We’ve seen diminishing returns from expiring contracts for quite a while, now – if the mid-2000s saw such luminaries as Raef LaFrentz and Theo Ratliff included in multiple trade rumors, the last few years have seen major expiring deals expire quietly into the night. Whether this is because shorter contracts under the new CBA means more deals expire every summer, or because teams are slowly realizing that acquiring an expiring deal still means they have to pay somebody next year, we’ve seen initial buds of the non-expiring contract featuring more prominently in trades as a result. This could be an interesting market trend to monitor as new GMs and new rules get more comfortable around each other.