Category Archives: 2013 NBA Free Agency

The Value of Nikola Pekovic

warrior

 

Photo: Flickr/putinas

In news that is related to water being revealed as still wet and the sun once again rising in the east, the Minnesota Timberwolves brought back center Nikola Pekovic after a lengthy restricted free agency. The move fits right in with the rest of a Timberwolves offseason that was not splashy or exciting, but more methodical like the Chase Budinger and Dante Cunningham re-signings preceding this one. For a team like the Timberwolves with playoff aspirations, bringing back Pekovic was of high importance as a top-3 player on the team last season.

Yet, in a world where JaVale McGee makes $11.25 million and Tiago Splitter is set to make $9 million himself, some people have scoffed at the Pekovic contract because of either the years, money, or both. I’m not saying that McGee or Splitter are necessarily bad players, but Pekovic is certainly worth being paid more than each of them.

In fact, few centers around the league produced on the level Pekovic did last season. Last season Pekovic’s averages of 16.3 points per game, 8.8 rebounds per game on .520 percent shooting were not only invaluable to the Timberwolves, but few other centers managed to post similar figures. The two other centers that averaged at least 15 ppg, 8 rpg and .510 percent shooting? Dwight Howard and Al Horford. Pekovic, of course isn’t the defender Horford and Howard are, but he is a better free throw shooter and posted a lower turnover percentage than either player last season while still playing starter’s minutes.

Last season Horford averaged 10.2 rpg while playing 37.2 minutes per game. While Pekovic averaged just 31.6 mpg, he averaged 10 rebounds per game Per 36 Minutes, which is nearly Horford’s total, and the two players will make the same annual salary next season. The Timberwolves weren’t just paying for Pekovic; they were paying for a worthy complement to Kevin Love. As we know, Love has a propensity for shooting the three, which is fine as long as you have another post presence. Next to Pekovic, Love can shoot away since Pekovic led the league in offensive rebounding percentage in both the 2012 and 2013 seasons. Additionally, this works well because Pekovic is an exceptional finisher at the rim, too.

He also provides Ricky Rubio with a legitimate pick ‘n roll partner in addition to Love. In pick ‘n roll scenarios Pekovic posted a 1.26 points per possessions in PnR situations and ranked 16th overall in the league as a whole. With Pekovic, Love, and the added outside shooting, the Timberwolves set themselves up to have a dynamic, inside and outside offense that could make life very difficult for opponents.

Defensively, he isn’t great, mostly because he isn’t very quick. Still, he has the awareness and instincts needed to be a smart defender by cutting off of good angles to the basket, he’s just missing the speed. Pekovic’s brute frame was incredibly useful in post-up situations last season. Per MySynergySports.com, opponents posted a measly 0.72 points per possession and shot just 39.2 percent against him in such situations, good for 50th overall in the league. Opponents chose to post-up Pekovic 32.8 percent of the time last year, the most of any situation, so it’s a legitimate sample size, too.

My point: Nikola Pekovic is a top center that is now being paid like a top center.

The strides that Pekovic has made each year in the league are also encouraging to the team. In each of his three years he has cut down his fouls per game and turnover percentage while simultaneously having his minutes and usage rate increased. And if you watched Pekovic in his rookie year it is truly remarkable that he has progressed to the point that he has. Should he continue to progress further, he will only be more worthy of this contract, which is also what the team is betting on.

Naturally, there is some concern in this area. Pekovic has missed 17, 19, and 20 games in each of his three years in the league and he is just 27 years old. Skipping Eurobasket this summer should spare him some wear and tear for the coming NBA season, but it’s still likely that for all the good he’ll bring, the big man will still be sitting out more than a few contests. You can worry about what shape he’ll be in when he’s 32 and in the last year of his contract, but that’s five years away and injuries can be prevented, so hopefully that’s the case with Pekovic as well.

Besides, what else were they gonna spend this money on? Especially with Gorgui Dieng, Ronny Turiaf and Chris Johnson as the team’s other center-capable players.

As the Timberwolves look to end their decade-long playoff drought, the Timberwolves have brought back a key piece to that puzzle with Pekovic. At $12 million per year they also got a great deal for a top player at his position who also complements the team’s two other best players — Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love. Like all things in life, there is risk involved, but there is also a lot of potential reward in it for those who don’t let that hold them back. Considering the other risks the team has taken in recent years, this is also one of the safer, low-risk moves they’ve made anyway.

Brandon Jennings’ Renewed Freedom Of Imagination

Photo from ~ Marjolein ~ via Flickr

Even a week later, the sign-and-trade bringing Brandon Jennings just feels weird.

Maybe it was how it came about. The NBA has, over the past few years, taught us to expect little-to-nothing from restricted free agency. Most applicants fall into one of three major camps – swift, immediate re-uppings, such as Tiago Splitter this year; matched offer sheets, such as Jeff Teague; or a withdrawn qualifying offer, such as with Tyler Hansbrough.

Neither of these is a major source of drama. Occasionally, members of the second group whose agents have neglected to teach them how restricted free agency works are “insulted” that their initial team hasn’t offered them a contract, let everybody know that they’d rather leave, and are then even more “insulted” when the sheet is matched (this is also known as “The Eric Gordon”, and it’s incredibly annoying). On even rarer occasions, we might get major news that exceeds the realm of gossip and hurt feelings, such as last offseasons’ dual-poison-pilling by the Houston Rockets, or Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic holding out on the 2007 Cavs.

Usually, though, a restricted free agent eventually finds himself back where he started, be it on a fair deal struck early in July, or at a discount a few weeks later. So it was somewhat out of place to see Jennings, a major free agent by name if not by production than by name, make news in a manner so unrepresentative of his restricted status. Which caught me off guard, because, four years in, I’ve stopped expecting surprises out of Brandon Jennings.

It’s an odd thing to say, given how unexpected the start to his career was. From the decision to spend a year in Rome as opposed to donning an NCAA-sanctioned uniform, to showing up late to the NBA draft in which the Bucks picked him 10th, to those damn 55 points, all the way to his Bucks nearly advancing to the second round to end a rookie year of which nothing was initially expected, Jennings had established himself as an out-of-the-blue extraordinaire. His game inherently flashy, swagger oozing from every pore, he was a refresher through and through.

Of course, the problem with Jennings’ entire career has been just how high the standards were set after jos scorching start. That premise was explored in impressive detail and excruciating pain by some very smart Bucks bloggers following his ultimate departure, but even without Bucks rooting interests, the deterioration was depressing. Brandon Jennings, former breath of fresh air, turned into Brandon Jennings, living embodiment of a franchise with stagnation etched upon its flag. There were still flashes of unique happenings – every now and then he would play that game or hit that shot, and every now and then his team would trade for Monta Ellis or draft John Henson – but those were minutiae. The Jennings season recap would always tell the story of a sub-40% shooting, high usage pick and roll initiator, who is technichally a borderline all-star, but is only in consideration because he plays in a guard-bereft East. Similarly, the Bucks season recap would always tell of a team ultimately relegated to yet another narrowly missed playoff berth, or a narrowly hit playoff berth that might as well have been missed.

If nothing else, the move to Detroit offers Jennings, and those who are watching him, a chance to break out of that rut. Yes, it’s looking like a lower Eastern playoff spot (How U), but it’ll be a different lower Eastern playoff spot. One without Scott Skiles running the show (or Jim Boylan, who might as well be Scott Skiles). One without Ersan Ilyasova (bless his soul) as the primary pick-and-pop weapon of choice. One with a different jersey and a different mascot and different League Pass broadcasters. Brandon Jennings might just be who he is, at this point, but if he was ever going to be somebody else, sheer inertia meant that Milwaukee was no longer a fit screen upon which he could project that sequel.

In that sense, Jennings is very much like his new teammate, Josh Smith. Not just because both have maddening shot selection and a seemingly squandered skill set, but because Smith, like Jennings, has been who he is and where he is for so long that he’s become almost imperceptible. Josh Smith, the player has become Josh Smith, The Idea. The versatile freak athlete has been replaced with that familiar #5 Hawks jersey, taking yet another jumper as the half-empty arena screams “NOOOOOOOOOO” all the way to a first round playoff bounce, even if he happens to do something else every now and again.

We might see the same things in Detroit, but just by seeing them in new surroundings, we leave the possibility of something new open. Whether it’s individual success, a surprising team run, or just some fun pick and roll synergy with Andre Drummond – himself a once-future-star whose slip in the draft was offset by a tantalizing rookie season – Brandon Jennings once again offers us some freedom of imagination. Brandon Knight, Khris Middleton and Slava Kravtsov seem like a small price to pay for that.

A Little Bit of Everything

Photo: Flickr/Nicholas Noyes

Life is full of choices. Some small like what to have for lunch and others far more consequential. I mean, when is the last time a turkey sandwich ruined your day? Probably never, I’m guessing. Typically, you would be just as happy with the ham or roast beef as you would with the turkey. It’s nothing on par with signing a lease, changing careers, buying a car or anything else that takes serious consideration. And you also typically have multiple choices to make with big decisions, which is not always easy.

Same goes for NBA teams and the route they choose to take after evaluating their team following a season. If you think you’re missing the few essential pieces to making a championship run or feel you still have another shot at it, you acquire players past their rookie contracts that can help you immediately. On the other hand, if you feel your glory days are behind you and it’s time to look towards the future, you identify your franchise cornerstones, add picks, expend the long-term veteran contracts you need to and add additional vets on short-term deals to maintain your salary cap flexibility.

The cold hard truth: even if you select either of those routes, there is still no guarantee that you will be successful. You need luck. You need the proper personnel in place. You also need to put the right combinations of players together. And when you do all that you need to get favorable matchups in the playoffs and hope the ligaments in your star player’s knee holds up.

In short, building a good basketball team is hard. It would be so much easier if you could just throw a bunch of money at an assortment of talented players and just skip right ahead to the parade planning, but that’s just not how it works.

Since it’s such a difficult decision, it’s hard to fault a team like the Bucks for the decisions they’ve made this offseason. They won 38 games this past season, good enough for a four game “Thanks for Coming!” sweep at the hands of the Miami Heat in the first round. Sure, they still made the playoffs but they were facing a crossroads with prominent rotation players like Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis expiring with several young players on the roster as well. When you consider general manager John Hammonds’ Bucks teams have won 34-46-35-31-38 games  in his tenure that should have been an indicator that it may be time to focus on player development rather than winning and first round exits.

Aside from the draft, the Bucks appeared to be headed into July looking to finally blow it all up after years as a fringe playoff team. Not only did they select two projects in addition to having John Henson, Ersan Ilyasova, Ekpe Udoh and Larry Sanders on the roster, but they moved JJ Redick in a three-team trade for two 2nd round picks and a trade exception. Shortly after that they dealt for the expiring contract of Luke Ridnour to boost their point guard depth and we thought we had the Bucks all figured out.

Following the Bucks’ trade of Luc Mbah a Moute for a second round pick, it really seemed that the Bucks were collecting assets in the form of draft picks (a form of currency in today’s NBA that is ever-growing in it’s value because of the new CBA) and promising young players. Despite a brief flirtation with Jeff Teague, Milwaukee seemed to be focusing on player development and maintaining cap flexibility for the future.

Then things got interesting. They brought in OJ Mayo  in free agency. A few days later they brought in veterans Carlos Delfino and Zaza Pachulia. Finally, they added San Antonio free agent Gary Neal and the team that once looked like they were rebuilding looked as if they were looking to make another exhilarating run to the 8th seed. At least these players they signed were all veteran guards whose minutes wouldn’t stifle a developing player’s growth because the Bucks don’t have any. The same can’t be said for Pachulia who will be sharing frontcourt minutes in the frontcourt with Henson, Udoh, Ilyasova and Sanders.

Still, this wasn’t the end of the world and a very manageable situation. These moves seemed to make it unlikely that they would bring Jennings back, which is fine because his fit next to Mayo doesn’t seem like a great one on paper. With Pachulia, they have a solid rotation, and even though he may cut into some of the young players’ minutes, having a veteran could help the Bucks through their young frontcourt’s growing pains. Besides, waiving Gustavo Ayon a few days prior made this less of a cluster-you-know-what than it was before.

Alright, so the Bucks had added a few veterans in addition to their blossoming former lottery picks while gaining a few extra picks along the way. They weren’t totally bottoming out despite the strong draft coming next June but they will still likely receive a good pick nonetheless, and the veterans they added are on short-term contracts that will allow that to maintain cap flexibility. They just had to get the Brandon Jennings situation resolved and they’re all set.

Well, unless you sign and trade him to the Pistons for Brandon Knight (another combo guard and recent lottery pick) and 2013 rookies Khris Middleton and Viachevslav Kravstov. Don’t get me wrong — Knight is a great get in exchange for Jennings — but now they have all of these prospects surrounding these established players for a team that would be lucky to win 40 games next season.

You can’t rebuild and win at the same time when you’re a team like the Bucks. This isn’t like the Spurs where they retool on the fly by plugging in different role players next to their stars and win 50 games every year because they already have stars. It’s not just the fact that this is the way it’s always done: it’s done that way because it doesn’t work any other way. And winning 40 games this season does the Bucks very few favors in the near future since, despite their cap space, aren’t a prime free agent destination. Teams like the Bucks need that cap space to use on their own draft picks once their rookie contracts expire.

Now they have the 15th overall pick in last June’s draft, Giannis Antetokounmpo,  and Middleton on the roster for next season. They will have to figure out how to disperse the minutes at power forward and center between Pachulia-Henson-Sanders-Ilyasova-Udoh-Kravstov.

As for the guards, they have Ridnour and Neal at point guard, but where does that leave Knight?  If he can’t hit shots well enough as a shooting guard do they move Ridnour over into the role he played in Minnesota and have Knight take point guard minutes? Will he or should he start? If he starts, do you try to get Mayo to come off of the bench and play Knight as the off-guard?

I know that positions aren’t the most important thing, but the roles of a shooting guard and point guard require different skill sets to help the team, and these are the questions the Bucks will now have to ask after adding several developing players. In fact, having Neal, Ridnour, Delfino and Mayo all on the roster wasn’t a big deal until they brought Knight on board. Furthermore, their unique veteran-backcourt/young-frontcourt dynamic worked before the Jennings trade.

This offseason, John Hammond has proven just how hard it is to make the decision to rebuild or continue trying to win in the present. Yet, when you begin a rebuild, you can’t stop halfway through once you realize just how bad you are going to be and abruptly change course. You have to be patient, which is something that is hard to find in today’s NBA culture because teams want results sooner rather than later. At the end of the day you have to ask yourself if another year of 35 wins as a middling team is better for your job security than a 25 win season and a chance at eventual long-term success.

Greg Oden’s Second Chance

Photo Credit: Flickr/Michael King

Perhaps it’s because he’s 25 and I’m just months away from turning 25. Maybe it’s because I’ve dealt with a slew of lower body injuries from ranging from sprained ankles to dislocated knees that have made recreational sports difficult at times. Or it could be that I can’t imagine how terrible it would be to be young and talented, but not have the body to support these gifts. It could even be something as simple as not wanting to see bad things happen to people over and over again that makes me feel like I can relate to him.

Regardless of the actual reason, I’m excited for Greg Oden’s opportunity with the Miami Heat.

Yes, it’s probably unrealistic to expect Oden to be even 80 percent of the player that posted a 23.4 PER in his last season with the Blazers. It’s been said many times, but Miami was the most ideal place for him since he would only be given a diminished role compared to his in Portland. For Oden that could mean salvaging what’s left of a career and a dream by prolonging it beyond what even the most optimistic of believers would estimate.

And having watched Brandon Roy last season in Minnesota I hope that things play out better for him than his ex-teammate. I understand the likelihood of a 7-foot center with lower body issues curbing those issues, because once those start it’s usually the beginning of the end, but I can still hope. After awhile the surgeries and the injuries just don’t affect a player physically, but mentally as well. As strange as it sounds, it’s a matter of having to trust your body again, which is a concept that most weekend warriors can probably grasp. And for Oden that very mental hurdle may wind up being his biggest obstacle to overcome if he is ever to have even a semblance of an NBA career.

To be honest, I don’t know what to expect from Oden this coming season. Others like myself would like to see him complete a full season, even as a bench player who grabs a few rebounds while giving the Heat solid off of the bench defense in about 10 minutes per game. No, it’s not the career anyone envisioned of Oden when he was selected first overall, but if this is the career he gets and he’s happy with (which it sounds like it is), then that’s good enough for me.

In a lot of ways it sounds like this is just hope for a sappy, feel good,  Hollywood ending to Oden’s story. But to me it’s more than that. It’s about being able to mention his name without instantly souring the mood of the conversation or having to hear the same injury jokes that have been circulating for the last five years. Even if Oden won’t end up collecting the accolades many anticipated six years, having him achieve even a modest amount of success would be better than him being a punchline or tragic tale. Even if Oden was supposed to be more than this, he has a second chance at being more than he is now, and that’s what I’m hoping to see. It may take awhile, but as long as he gets there…that’s all that matters.

Non-Expirings Are The New Expirings

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.

What are the Detroit Pistons?

Daniel Y. Go | Flickr

The Detroit Pistons have probably had the most mesmerizing offseason in the NBA this year. And by no means are you to make the mistake of assuming that mesmerizing has a positive connotation in this case. Almost every move that Joe Dumars has made has been met with either “LOL PISTONS” or “What the f*ck are the Pistons doing??” Detroit signed Josh Smith to a huge 4 year, $54 million contract. On Tuesday afternoon, they completed a sign and trade with the Milwaukee Bucks to bring Brandon Jennings to the team on a 3 year, $24 million contract. In a vacuum, both of those moves are pretty sensible. The Pistons got two very talented players on fairly reasonable contracts without giving up much more than Brandon Knight and some cap space. But as components of a larger Detroit Pistons organism, they are head-scratching moves to say the least. Now, I’m not about to write 2500 words about why these moves make perfect sense and why the Pistons are now destined for greatness with Jennings and Smith complementing a young core of Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond. But I will write roughly half that many words to explain why Detroit’s offseason leans more towards “sensible” than “head-scratching.”

The question that immediately comes to mind when we consider Detroit’s offseason move is: how does it all fit? They figure to have young studs at power forward and center in Monroe and Drummond. So why the hell are they spending $54m on Josh Smith to further complicate the situation in the frontcourt? Well, that’s a really good question. And it’s a question that has a couple of potential answers. The easiest solution to the problem of the crowded frontcourt is that the Pistons think Josh Smith can play small forward. Defensively, Smoove can certainly guard most NBA small forwards, but it’s the offensive end that gets messy. How do you possibly play those three players at the same time and have an effective offense? That’s another really good question and I don’t think I have any easy answers to that one. But Josh Smith is a really talented player (yes, even on offense) and when all else fails, adding more talent to your roster is usually a pretty good strategy. Even if you’re losing some value due to Drummond, Monroe, and Smith overlapping offensively, the Pistons still figure to get a net gain from the addition. Whether or not it’s cost effective or the best allocation of their resources are different issues that deal with a host of hypotheticals that I don’t feel the need to get into at the moment. Instead, let’s stay focused on what we do know (or can at least reasonably project).

Another explanation for bringing in Josh Smith when you already have a talented frontcourt is that it’s possible we are all overestimating the short-term impact that Detroit intends for Andre Drummond to have. Drummond has all of the tools to be an elite NBA player in the future. He’s extremely young, has a tremendous physical profile, and has produced phenomenal per-36 minutes numbers in his brief time in the NBA. But that first trait might be the most important: Drummond is extremely young. He’ll turn 20 years old on August 10th and despite his impressive numbers in the NBA thus far, his skill level still leaves a lot to be desired. He’s just a kid; he’s very raw. He played just over 20 minutes per game in his rookie year and missed several weeks due to a lower back stress fracture. For all of those reasons, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Pistons bring Drummond along very slowly. As much as the basketball blogosphere would like to #FreeDrummond, it seems unlikely that the Pistons will suddenly thrust Drummond into the starting role and let him play 35 minutes every night. If you’re only planning on playing Drummond 25ish minute per game, it shouldn’t be that hard to mix and match the lineups with Drummond/Monroe/Smith to minimize the overlap.

I think the move to get Brandon Jennings is easier to make sense of than the Josh Smith signing. First off, the dollar amount on the contract is very reasonable. According to the NBA free agency market, the Pistons seem to be paying roughly the right amount for a player of Josh Smith’s caliber, but they might be getting a relative bargain in Jennings at just $8 million per year. He’s not the most efficient player, but his shot-creating ability (for himself and others) is valuable. He’s still quite young (will turn 24 just before the NBA season starts) and he likely has some remaining upside on both sides of the ball. $8 million seems to be roughly the going rate for an average starting point guard in the NBA and there’s a pretty decent chance that Jennings ends up being better than that.

Of course, the addition of Jennings is viewed as questionable because you have another guy that struggles with efficiency and doesn’t exactly solve the spacing issues that you’ve created with the Drummond/Monroe/Smith combo up front. And these concerns are legitimate – I’m not trying to pretend they aren’t. But the Pistons have started to address the spacing issues by drafting Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — who projects to be a threat from three-point range even if he isn’t an elite shooter right away – and by signing Chauncey Billups. They also signed Italian League MVP, Luigi “Gigi” Datome (his name is Luigi and he shot 42% from three in Italy, your argument is invalid). Maybe this roster will end up being totally dysfunctional and the talent will go to waste. But I’m willing to wait and see it in action before declaring it a disaster (or even really worrying about it, then again I’m not a Pistons fan).

Smoove and Jennings are guys who have developed reputations as shameless chuckers who are at best ambivalent (or perhaps just unaware) about the concept of efficiency. But is that reputation a life sentence? Is it possible for Smith and Jennings to change their ways on their new team? Some people around basketball will say that they are who they are. Personally, I’m more hesitant to write them off. Jennings and Smith are both obviously very talented and have the ability to be far more efficient than they have been recently. Will a simple change of scenery be enough for them to adjust their shot selections and lead to an uptick in efficiency? I have no idea, but I think there’s a non-zero chance that there is a coach, player, or mentor in Detroit that these guys lacked in Milwaukee and Atlanta. Any NBA fan has seen Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith do tremendous things on the basketball court. If somebody is able to harness their overwhelming potential and skills into consistent efficiency, then all of the questions of fit and cost can likely take a backseat.

More often than not, the NBA team with the more talented roster wins out. There are certain cases where scheme, chemistry, and coaching allow a lesser roster to overcome a significant gap in talent, but usually talent reigns supreme. And while you can question all of the specifics regarding the additions of Jennings and Smith, I don’t think you can sincerely question that they increase the overall talent on the Pistons’ roster. Again, I’m not about to simply dismiss any questions about the future direction of the Pistons’ franchise (what’s the endgame here??) or about what how the heck Mo Cheeks is going to make this roster work. But at a certain point you want to start winning games. It could have been pressure from ownership to put more fans in the Palace or the front office may truly believe that a Drummond/Monroe/Jennings/Smith core can be a title contender in the future. But more likely, the Pistons saw an opportunity to improve their roster by adding two very talented players – and they did so without sacrificing much more than some newfound cap space (sorry, Brandon Knight). That seems pretty sensible to me.

Another $80 Million Brick In The Wall

To pay John Wall $80 million for 5 years of his current level of production would be culpable negligence in the assault and battery of a team’s salary cap. To evaluate Wall’s New Deal along said lines, however, is a Kingfish-sized mistake.

The recently signed contracts of Kyle Korver and J.J. Redick underline a shift in player evaluation among front offices. With defenses increasingly intricate and elite offenses ever more reliant on a few, key, efficient spots on the floor, players outside the limits of the Eight Immortals of NBA Taoism find value in the efficacy of their skill sets and the ways in which they dovetail with their teammates. Korver and Redick stand as a priori examples of the 3-and-D wing who provides floor spacing and a systemic, if not cutthroat, defensive presence, with a dash of secondary or tertiary ballhandling tossed into the mix. A healthy Tyson Chandler is the prototype for a monstrously productive pick-and-roll partner on the one end and a behemoth of cordoned movement and corralled bodies on the other.

The Triforce of Courage in this synergy of skill sets is the lightning quick athleticism, Turing-based intelligence, and Hubble Ultra Deep Field 3D-level field of vision combination of an elite point guard. The current ruleset, with its lack of hand-checking, furthers the advantage of a primary ballhandler who can get to the right spots on the floor at the right time, and who can put his teammates in the right situation when they’ve put themselves in the wrong spots at the wrong time. In a neverending cycle that would make Ouroboros blush, the better Wall’s teammates are — particularly on the wing and in the middle — the better and more valuable he will be, and the better and more valuable his teammates will be in turn. Wall, isolated and bereft of context, might not be worth $80 million in the sense that he creates value on his own. Instead, the Wizards are willing to take a gamble on the expected value of the team and Wall rising in lock step. As Bradley Beal and Otto Porter, Jr. come into their own, there’s every chance that the presence of Wall will increase the marginal value they produce over their already undervalued rookie deals, and sooner than they might otherwise have grown. If Jan Vesely can become the big man he has the potential to be, or if Washington looks to acquire a more polished big before the trade deadline, then Wall’s value continues to grow. This is a gamble not just on his growth*, but on the growth of the players around him and the ways in which Wall can influence that maturation.

*Let’s be honest — it’s also about paying someone who is, by all accounts, a good locker room guy to stay somewhere that could really use a facelift when it comes to its image around the league. Paying Wall a premium now, instead of letting him dangle in RFA, sends the right message. The value of such a decision is (currently) impossible to quantify, but it stands to reason that it has at least some value in the eyes of players to whom that kind of thing matters.

And Wall is young, just shy of his 23rd birthday. If he had a jump shot to go with that bevy of basketball ability, he’d be Chris Paul, and this contract would be a no-brainer. But simply because Wall isn’t much of a shooter today doesn’t mean he can’t develop a reasonable jump shot, enough to make defenses think twice on just a few possession per game; those possessions, in turn, give rise to edges that didn’t exist before, and points that were missed in the past. Every increment, every percentage point, is a rise in the value of the player and the franchise. And Wall’s impact as a passer isn’t far off from Paul’s. All the caveats of sample size and lineup data taken into consideration, both players’ teams saw a similar drop (3.9%) in their effective field goal percentage between when their star point guards were off the court. Wall isn’t Chris Paul, but if he can become a reasonable, lesser facsimile of Jason Kidd in his prime, his contract becomes much more palatable, particularly as Washington improves the talent — and system, one would hope — around him.

There might come a day when John Wall is worth much more than he’s being paid, depending on any number of factors within and outside of his and his team’s control. More likely, perhaps, is that Wall will be paid more than his on-court numbers would justify in the eyes of many. And, of course, he might end up as the perfect pot of porridge, with a Goldilocks contract and a home to call his own (minus the bears). It’s a cascade of “what if’s” and unknowables that leads to healthy skepticism and a slight wave of confusion. In the truest sense, Washington has offered this contract based not on the past, but what the future might hold. They know what they expect, and they e put a price on those expectations. It’s a gamble not just on Wall, but on the way they’re building their team. For Wall’s contract to make sense for the team, they’ll need to win a coin flip or two along the way. Fortunately for them, Wall seems capable of stacking the odds in his — and their — favor.

Image by zoomar via Flickr

A Bargain in Brooklyn

Photo: DiGitALGoLD/Flickr
When you’re a veteran former All-Star with an injury history and a player option for an upcoming season you have a lot to consider. Should you choose to exercise your option you know exactly where you will be playing and for how much. However, should you decline in hopes of landing in a better situation or for more money or years, you risk leaving some money on the table. New Brooklyn Nets forward Andrei Kirilenko discovered this as he chose to decline his 2013-’14 option with the Timberwolves and wound up leaving $7 million dollars on the table.

After arguably being Minnesota’s Most Valuable Player last season, Kirilenko was seeking a longer contract with an annual salary around $10 million. Given the team’s cap space situation and the impending free agencies of Nikola Pekovic and Chase Budinger, paying Kirilenko that much was hardly feasible for a team in the Timberwolves’ situation. Instead, Kirilenko opted-out and the Timberwolves moved on, turning the space created by his departure (as well as the Luke Ridnour trade) into Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer, while being able to retain Budinger on top of that. The Timberwolves were able to bolster their perimeter shooting with Martin and Brewer could potentially replace Kirilenko as a defensive energy guy.

This isn’t to say Kirilenko landed in a better situation. He’ll be able to come off the bench behind Paul Pierce, meaning that he won’t need to play as many minutes as he was forced into last season and be able to save his body for what should be a nice playoff run for the Nets. And at just $3.1 million per year, that’s a bargain for what he can bring to a team when healthy. Being back with Deron Williams and surrounded by more offensive weapons than he was last season should also take some of the pressure off of Kirilenko as well.

Still, since we never heard any mention of Kirilenko hoping to latch with a contender in hopes of winning a title before retirement, it’s odd to see him leave nearly $7 million on the table  since that was the reason his camp gave for leaving Minnesota. Perhaps for a player with who has made $101 million dollars in the NBA alone the money no longer matters as much as having the security of a long-term contract. Barring physical breakdowns for many of the Nets’ key parts, the team should also be fairly competitive in that time, too.

The Nets’ bench will now resemble either a utility belt whose versatility will help them mitigate mismatches or wind up looking like something closer to that junk drawer in your kitchen. For instance, the Nets will have Andray Blatche, Reggie Evans, Mirza Teltovic and Tornike Shengelia in addition to Kirilenko  as their frontcourt reserves. That’s not a lot of scoring off of the bench in the frontcourt, potentially creating an imbalance that puts greater pressure on the backcourt to carry the load when the Net’s starting forwards and centers take a rest. That, or the plan is to rely on heavily on the starters, hoping everyone also stays healthy, and then surrounding those guys with niche players like Evans and Kirilenko.

Of course this may workout especially well since Kirilenko is very efficient when trying to score within the flow of the offense, evidenced by his .506 percent shooting from the floor last season. Just as long as he doesn’t have to create or try to freelance, then he should be fine. While Kirilenko can score, he’s not as consistent as others because of his inability to create for himself, which means he’ll go as far as his craftiness will take him.

As of now it seems as if Kirilenko tried to test the market and at least broke even, despite leaving so much money on the table for this season and when you consider the destination in  which he landed. Maybe landing on a sub-contender for less money and more years was the plan all along, making it easier to swallow the fact that he won’t make as much money over the next three years as he would’ve had he stayed in Minnesota. As of now, Kirilenko’s decision to decline his option has paid off for the Timberwolves, Nets and himself.

The Pelicans Reimagine Rebuilding

Swap known commodities for assets, develop those assets into tangible young cornerstones, stay the slow-moving course and eventually reap the benefits.  Or stay barely afloat, compile tradable pieces, attack blood in the water and maintain patience for the ultimate pay-off.

The Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets are the model for team-building in today’s NBA, a league whose incentive structure is under intense scrutiny as more and more teams sacrifice immediate win-loss dividends with a long-term goal in mind.  Or at least they should be.  But interestingly, the vast majority of forward-thinking organizations are taking something closer to just the former’s approach.  Bottoming out and building through the draft is the most popular name of league construction now, even as Daryl Morey and the Rockets just scored the biggest prize of free agency through a wholly different means.

And what’s of increasing note is the overwhelmingly positive reception met with franchises that undertake the Thunder Model of growth and the negative perception of teams that embark on a different journey.  How else to explain the general reaction to the draft day trade that sent Nerlens Noel and a top-five protected 2014 draft pick from New Orleans to Philadelphia in exchange for Jrue Holiday?

New general manager Sam Hinkie – a former Houston executive, it should be noted – and the Sixers were hailed as the winners of that swap, acquiring arguably the top prospect in this year’s class and a likely lottery pick in next season’s draft for the ages.  Surrendering a 23 year-old, newly minted All-Star on the front-end of a reasonable contract became an afterthought, the necessary consequence for the chance to net two players who could eventually develop into a similar or superior caliber.

But that’s all the NBA draft is – an opportunity.  And it’s one wrought with countless outside influences and ancillary factors that could change the trajectory of a team or player’s future.  It’s not up to one entity to determine the fate of a particular draft pick; it takes a confluence of positive developments – individual, franchise and off-court aspects – for a player to reach his ultimate potential or something close to it.  And banking on anything but the LeBrons, Durants and Wigginses of the world for even that is a harrowing assumption.

It’s easy to forget as they rack up the postseason accolades, but the Thunder took a risk by drafting Russell Westbrook and James Harden higher than they were projected.  Only after rollercoaster rookie campaigns did we know those were awesome gambles.  The latitude afforded general manager Sam Presti from those brilliant picks still permeates, too, even as Oklahoma City considers amnestying Kendrick Perkins, the Harden trade looks ever-questionable and his most recent draft picks continue to struggle.  Basically, a front office can be intelligent, cap-conscious and the necessary blend of patient and opportunistic, but that doesn’t make every coal a diamond or draft pick a star.

There’s certainly direction to the suddenly crowded road being traveled by the Sixers, Celtics and others.  Just look at the steady rise of the franchise from which they’re basing that course.  But Morey and the Rockets have shown there’s more than one way to build, and, most importantly, that it’s unnecessary to start the climb towards contention from the basement.

The approach taken by Dell Demps and the Pelicans is still a new one, though.  Past iterations have come in the form of immediate judgment, like the Dwight Howard signing for Houston or Chris Paul trade for the Clippers.  Those teams had a young core in place and sought the biggest fish to lead the school; in that case, there’s no downside to acquiring an established superstar.

With this active offseason, though, New Orleans is assuming they already have that guy in place.  Anthony Davis was the rare draft sure-thing referenced earlier, and he’ll undoubtedly develop into a very good two-way player.  But even after an encouraging rookie season, the jury’s out on whether he’ll be that franchise cornerstone the Pelicans are counting on.  If he isn’t, players like Holiday, Eric Gordon and free agent pickup Tyreke Evans will be stretched beyond their limits.  But if Davis eventually delivers on all of that obvious promise, the Pelicans will have an awesome young structure in place rivaled by almost no other team in the league.

There’s major projection at the center of New Orleans’ new means to title aspirations, but ifs are involved in every NBA rebuilding job.  The likelihood that Evans doubles down on an under-the-radar 2012-2013 season and thrives in his role as something other than first or second banana is at least as realistic as a run-of-the-mill lottery pick becoming a player of that potential caliber.  And that Holiday takes another step forward with a pick-and-roll partner like Davis at his side is as plausible as a recovering Noel and 2014 rookie outside the Wiggins-Randle duo becoming the league’s next great young tandem.

Risk and chance is everywhere in the NBA.  Avoiding those variables is impossible.  The Pelicans are simply taking a simpler and more direct avenue to confronting them than the lot of teams hoping to contend.  They aren’t clinging to barely realistic future draft hopes or signing and trading for superstars, but doing something in between.  At the very least that’s to be commended, if not lauded.

There’s no surefire road to sustained success in this league.  The Thunder were 3-29 at one point four seasons ago, almost title winners last summer and second round prey in May.  Morey’s Rockets were laughed at 18 months ago, the proverbial team on the rise last spring and suddenly have legitimate title hopes.

Winning is a process.  There’s no way right, wrong or forever. And until it’s proven one of the three, the Pelicans’ progressive process deserves a chance for praise.

Follow Jack Winter on Twitter.

Shot Fiction: Chris Copeland Joins The Pacers

Photo from Iguanasan via Flickr

The air in the visitor’s locker room was stale and dejected. Although the New York Knicks had just completed what was objectively their best season in 14 years, the subjective left very little room for comfort.

The Knicks thought – no, they knew they were better than this Indiana Pacers team. It just so happened that the weaker squad punched the stronger squad in the mouth, a bad mixture of happenstance and physicality.

Alas, the 6 game Conference Semifinals became the final act, a harsh, brutal climax where Gotham poets envisioned but more crescendo. As those despicable Pacers celebrated in unity, going so far as to send all five starters together to the post-game interview podium, each Knick stood alone and awaited his fate. Mike Woodson stood in the corner, not nearly as talkative as a coach should be, his mind racing forward, trying to project which of his players he is seeing in the locker room for the last time.

A drenched Frank Vogel walked into the locker room. His eyes were triumphant, his smile clearly visible despite his attempts to conceal it under a cloak of professionalism. Most of the Knicks looked away; while Vogel had earned this visit and the perks to come with it, they were under no obligations to comply emotionally.

Vogel stood amidst defeat like a looter in a burned village, squinting his eyes as he strained himself towards a decision. This was the second year of existence for the NBA’s Ron Artest Provision, a controversial turning point of the 2011 lockout that allowed a winning playoff team to absorb one player off the defeated squad, taxed only with the burden of paying the acquired player.

The ruling caused a major uproar when it was instated – called a “kick to the groin of parity” by Cavs owner Dan Gilbert and a “poorly executed offseason post gimmick” by lesser figures. But it passed nonetheless, and any chance of it being overturned died a painful death after the buzz and excitement caused by Miami snatching Ray Allen from Boston after the 2012 Eastern Finals. Any publicity is good publicity, or so seemed to be the thought process over at the commissioner’s office, and Vogel was now entitled to get his as he saw fit.

“C…”

Carmelo Anthony looked up; he expected to get called all along.

“Copeland.”

Stunned silence.

J.R. Smith stifled a pout. Tyson Chandler’s ice pack dropped. Mike Woodson’s face, always the microcosm for his teams’ moods, looked like he forgot Copeland was even on the team, an expression that had become all too common throughout the actual series. Even James White looked insulted.

Nonetheless, Vogel and Copeland walked out the door. “I won’t let you down, coach”, said the former 29 year-old rookie. “Partners from here on out”, the coach answered, as the Miami Heat loomed in the background.